Planning a watercolor, part 5: Am I working with the medium’s natural tendencies?

Working with your medium instead of against it

In a post earlier this summer I suggested replacing the question “How do I paint ____ in watercolor?” with “What kind of marks can I make with watercolor and what can I do with them?”

That’s a small piece of some larger advice: when choosing your subject and designing your painting, it’s wise to consider the behavior, properties, strengths and limitations of your chosen medium. Your odds of creating a satisfying watercolor painting go way up if you’re working with the properties and behavior of watercolor, instead of fighting against them.

Earlier in my watercolor career, if I was struggling with a painting, I’d assume the problem was that I lacked some technical skill or knowledge. YouTube wasn’t around back then, so I’d head to the library to look for a book on “how to paint ___ in watercolor”. I spent a lot of time with books like The Big Book of Painting Nature in Watercolor, a huge compendium of watercolor landscape tricks and techniques, organized by subject: trees, grass, water, clouds, etc. 

I did learn useful things from these books, but often the technique shown often didn’t fit stylistically with the parts of the painting I’d already painted, and worse, many times the particular problem I was facing wasn’t addressed at all. 

It wasn’t until I’d done a lot more experimentation and exploration on my own that it dawned on me that these were all situations where watercolor is not well-suited to the subject. That’s why it wasn’t addressed!

One big reason why experienced painters have a better chance of creating successful paintings is that experienced painters have learned (often from many failed paintings) to carefully choose their subjects and design their paintings to work with their chosen medium. 

Experienced watercolor painters learn to be on the lookout for subjects that will exploit the natural tendencies of the medium. And if they do decide to tackle something that is just inherently difficult in watercolor, at least they can at least do it with their eyes wide open. 

In this post, we’ll look at a common example that has tripped up many a new watercolor painter and try to come up with some potential solutions. In later posts in this series, we’ll try using those solutions and see how it goes. 

The example: Bright yellow aspens against a brilliant blue sky

I’ve lost count of all the times a student has brought me a photo like the ones below, saying “Tell me how to paint this in watercolor.” 

Photo by Meg MacDonald on Unsplash

Not surprising; it’s a compelling subject. And that glowing yellow light seems like a natural subject for watercolor. 

If you’ve tried something like this and not been happy with the outcome—or if you haven’t tried it because you can’t figure out how to tackle it—you have lots of company! A quick scan of the Google Image search results for “watercolor painting of aspens” should make you feel better about not being able to nail this subject with a close rendering of what you see in the photos. (Note: There are a few paintings in other media mixed into these search results.)

Why is this so hard in watercolor?

One of the most appealing aspects of a scene like this is the broken, lacy pattern pattern of bright yellow leaves leaves against the pure blue sky. 

Getting both the bright blue sky and the broken, openwork pattern of sky peeking through the yellow leaves is tough in transparent watercolor precisely because of the prized transparency of the medium. 

If you paint the blue sky first and try to layer the yellow leaves on top, the blue shows through the leaves and you get green instead. If you paint the yellow first and try to add the sky around it? Green again. You could spatter or sponge masking fluid on to preserve the lacy, broken lights for the leaves, but then when you remove it, you’ll have to go in and carefully tint each little speckly leaf. Very carefully, so you don’t get green along the edges!

The real problem here isn’t “how to suggest trees”. It’s how to use watercolor to paint a soft or broken “edge” between two highly saturated regions of colors where neither color is a component of the other. That is, bright yellow does not contain blue and bright blue does not contain yellow. (I’m just going to use the phrase “contrasting colors” for this for the rest of this article so I don’t have to keep writing all that!)

I chose the aspens example because it’s an extreme version of this problem, but the same sort of thing can crop up in many paintings in smaller ways. I invite you to take a moment to reflect on paintings you’ve struggled with. Is part of the problem a spot where there is

  • a soft, complicated or broken edge 
  • between two bright colors that are not close to one another on the color wheel?

Here are a couple other common situations examples:

Problem Skies: sunrises or sunsets with soft-edged pink or orange clouds against blue or turquoise sky
Problem landscape: many small pink or purple flowers against bright green folliage

Notice that not all sunsets with orange and turquoise or pink flowers with green foliage are a problem. 

Left: The dark clouds separate the orange and turquoise. Right: The edges between pink and green areas are a bit convoluted, but not soft, ragged or broken. 

It’s not just having adjacent contrasting colors; it’s only a problem if they also have a soft, broken or complicated edge between them. 

So, what can you do when you encounter this type of problem?

First, some things not to do: 

  1. assume you’re an inept painter, just because you struggle to pull it off
  2. waste hours searching books or YouTube for a magically effortless way to pull this off in watercolor
  3. completely forget to check for this complication in your references or painting plan, leading to 1 and 2 above, and much misery

(Maybe you don’t need that pep talk, but I catch myself falling into these traps more often than I’d like to admit.) 

So, suppose you do discover a situation with contrasting colors separated by a soft or broken edge in your planned painting, what can you do?

Potential solution 1: Be extremely meticulous (or meditative, depending on your personality). 

Is it impossible to paint situations like this in watercolor? Nope. You can closely copy the aspen photo above in watercolor, provided you have the patience to build the image up slowly from a careful drawing using many small brushmarks. 

Many people find this kind of process soothing and meditative, and it wouldn’t take any longer than rendering the scene in say, needlepoint, or colored pencil. So sure, it’s possible.

This approach actually does not require a high level of watercolor skill; it just requires patience (and a couple easy-to-acquire skills we’ll discuss later in the series). It’s worth making a distinction between difficult and tedious. Many of us are fine with something taking a while, as long as we expect to complete it successfully.

The biggest technical challenge is probably finding ways to handle areas like the upper left corner of the photo. (Stay tuned for some tips about that in the next article in this series.)

Okay, but what if you don’t find this sort of thing meditative?

Potential solution 2: Pick one color to emphasize and leave the other out entirely.

These are actually poplars, but same problem. 

The sky in the painting above is actually pale yellow. The brown of the distant trees and the greens in the middle- and foreground areas also contain a lot of yellow, so this painting can be done by layering/glazing. 

Potential solution 3: Separate the two colors with some other picture element(s).

This little postcard uses the grey-green of the mountainside to separate the yellow aspens and the blue in the sky. 

Potential solution 4: Change the edge so that it is still fairly varied in shape, but not as soft or broken. 

The little postcard above uses this solution as well. It’s really too small to paint a lot of little holes in the tree tops, but the convoluted top edge of the trees gives some of the character of the more complex edge in the photos. 

Potential solution 5: Consider using other media.

Some possibilities:

  • paint a solid blue sky and use opaque yellow paint (yellow gouache or acrylic, or yellow watercolor mixed with white) to add the yellow leaves on top
  • paint the yellow of the trees first and use an opaque blue paint and negative painting to reveal the tree shapes
  • use yellow wax-based crayons or colored pencils to lay down the yellow leaves and then paint a blue wash on top; the wax resists the watercolor and leaves those areas yellow

Even if you’re not normally a mixed-media painter, options like these can be great if you want a particular look more than you want to be a transparent watercolor purist. Especially for postcards, greeting cards and field sketching. (Many people who only use watercolor in their studio paintings use opaque paints or wax resists when field sketching or traveling.)

Potential solution 6: Consider simplification or abstraction. 

Depending on the purpose of your painting, you may be able to express what you wanted to communicate with a simpler design or a more abstract painting. During Inktober, as I was thinking about writing this series, I did a little aspens sketch, which was just as unsatisfying as every other time I’ve tried painting a scene like this.

But then a few days later, I encountered a few bright yellow leaves catching the sun on some wet pavement, right after a rainstorm. I realized that seeing brilliant fall leaves like sunshine on a stormy day makes my heart leap even more than the usual blue-sky-and-yellow-leaves images (which have become a bit of a cliché). 

I was much happier with this little sketch:

If I wanted to paint something on the theme of bright yellow fall leaves, I think I’d start from here. I meant for them to be on wet pavement, but they came out looking like maybe they’re falling in a shaft of sunlight in a little break in a stormy sky. This gives me ideas for a painting that would capture the joyful, hopeful yellow, but with my own unique take on it, instead of looking like countless calendar photos and hotel art. 

Do you have another solution you like for this kind of watercolor challenge? Join the conversation on Substack and share your strategies with other Dragonflies.

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