Cartoon painter with paint "explosion".

Rules for watercolor?

In the last post, I suggested that one way to increase the odds of success with your watercolor paintings is to choose your subjects and plan your paintings with the natural behavior of the medium in mind. Or, if you’re going to tackle something that is inherently challenging in watercolor, to perhaps consider bringing in other media.

Our series on planning will continue next time with a look at how incorporating a small amount of another medium—gouache, acrylic or even crayons—can help you create a more successful painting without (necessarily) buying a lot of extra “stuff” or sacrificing the overall look of a watercolor. (Or, maybe you’ll discover a mixed-media effect that you like so well that you no longer feel it has to look like a traditional watercolor.)

The suggestion to incorporate other media touched a nerve (in a good way) for a lot of Dragonflies. Several people wrote to thank me for making the suggestion because it mades them realize they were (perhaps not quite consciously) letting themselves be constrained by “rules for watercolor” they’d absorbed somehow, often without really considering whether, or when, those rules might serve them. 

In her comment on the last post, Dragonfly Nancy Longmore said it better than I could: “My mother used to say ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ That works wonderfully well in almost all other situations except in this most creative medium, where suddenly a wretched rules-based little monster steps to the forefront and decrees “Watercolor! ONLY WATERCOLOR! Anything else is CHEATING!” No gouache, no crayons, only pure watercolor. But really – what’s most important – the media, the process, or the finished result? The answer is pretty obvious even to me.”

On one level, it is sort of obvious that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for how you’re allowed make marks on paper with colored water. 

But if it’s so obvious that we can make our own rules, why do most of us have one of those Wretched Rules-Based Little Monsters lurking around our studios? (I am hereby stealing and immortalizing this excellent name, Nancy!) 

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction when my WRBLM pipes up is to say, “Zip it! You’re not in charge of what happens in my studio.” But, there are two problems I run into when I try to manage manifestations of my Inner Critic by trying to banish them or shut my ears:

  • My Inner Critic has more stamina than I do.
  • Sometimes, I really need to listen to her advice.

One of the best things I ever did for myself as an artist was to train my Inner Critic to work with me, instead of against me. 

I think one way to start turning the WRBLM part of your Inner Critic from antagonist to ally is to identify where all these “rules for watercolor” come from in the first place, so you can persuade your WRBLM that you’re making an informed decision to ignore when you choose to break a rule. 

Why do we think there are rules for watercolor, anyway?

Since it’s pretty obvious that there are no Art Police coming to arrest you if you violate one of these rules, why would we even entertain the notion that there are rules for how you’re allowed to paint in watercolor? 

When I was first learning watercolor, one reason I got that notion is that there weresituations where I encountered rules.

For example

  • a list of required supplies for a class or workshop; often including language like “you must” use this specific thing or “please don’t” bring that other thing
  • exhibition guidelines that specify what type of work is and isn’t acceptable
  • advice from teachers and mentors, such as “use a limited palette” or “you should only ever need about four brushes” or “never use student-grade paper” 
  • rules laid out in books about composition, design and color; such as the “rule of thirds”, the principles of design, standard color schemes (complementary, analogous, etc.), or “never put the horizon in the middle”
  • advice from marketing and business gurus (and well-meaning friends and family) about what might or might not sell well
  • rules you make for yourself to limit the scope of a project or to push yourself to be more creative

Pretty much ALL of these rules only apply in a particular context. But as a beginner, I was so overwhelmed with new information, I often wasn’t able to get my head above water enough to see the context. I just fed the rules directly to my own Wretched Little Rules-Based Monster, without any context or qualification. 

The WRBLM needs to be reminded of context

Rules about what kind of media you can or can’t use generally arise from two sources:

  • exhibition guidelines
  • advice about possible deterioration of the work 

Arts organizations often have a focus on a particular medium or artistic practice: watercolor societies, plein air painting groups, experimental art, photography, etc. When an organization hosts an exhibition, they have to decide what kind of work they will display, for practical reasons if nothing else. If you want to enter a piece in their show, it has to follow their exhibition guidelines. That might mean only transparent watercolor on paper, or only paintings, or only work by residents of a particular state, or only sculpture. 

Some members of an organization may choose to take the exhibition guidelines as more general rules about what kind of work they will or won’t do because 

  • they don’t want to have to keep track of what they used in each piece when choosing something to enter in a show, or 
  • they belong to the organization because that’s the type of work they most want to create. 

You don’t have to make the same all-in choice as the most enthusiastic members, or persuade the organization to change their exhibition guidelines. It’s okay to have only a partial overlap in your interests and the focus of an organization. 

As far as rules that are actually advice about possible deterioration of the work, they’re usually coming from someone who is selling their work, or advising people who might want to sell their work. In that context, those rules might be good advice. (More on that below.)

The WRBLM may be giving good general advice

Many watercolor (or art) “rules” are actually 

  • “rules of thumb” that many artists have found useful in designing their paintings
  • advice about practices that might affect the durability of the work
  • advice from teachers about best practices for learning at certain stages
Artists’ rules of thumb

Rules like this give us solutions that work in many situations to solve common problems. The “rule of thirds” is a great example. It’s a quick way to come up with a composition that will usually work. 

One reason these rules of thumb have been written down, passed along and harped on by teachers is that many of them help us counteract some natural tendencies we all have from the way our vision and attention works, that don’t always result in the most interesting paintings. 

For example, one reason artists use the rule of thirds is to counteract an unconscious tendency to put the main subject in the center of the painting. We naturally have a tendency to spend more of time looking at whatever is going to become the main subject of the painting. And whenever you’re studying that main subject, it’s in the center of your visual field, just because of how our eyes work. So where do you unconsciously place it in your painting? Right were you were seeing it: smack in the center. 

But this often leads to a painting that doesn’t hold a viewer’s interest. Once they’ve taken in the main subject, there’s nothing nudging them to explore any other part of the painting. There’s the subject, right in the center of their visual field, too, like a big magnet for the eyes. Placing your main subject somewhat off center creates a little tension that encourages the eye to move around. That nudge to look around gives you opportunities to take the viewer on a little journey through the painting, letting them discover other things that might deepen the meaning or add an interesting counterpoint to the main subject. 

You definitely can break these artists’ rules of thumb to good effect. You just want to do it on purpose, rather than because of something like an unconscious echo of how our eyes work. 

Usually, the WRBLM will quiet down if you can explain to yourself why you want to break this rule. Even if it’s only to say, “I have a hunch breaking this rule might work well here, so I’m going to try it out and see what happens.” 

Rules about durability

The One Rule to Rule Them All here seems to be “your work must be archival”. Once you accept this rule, then a lot of other rules follow: don’t use colors that fade quickly, be sure to use acid-free mats, don’t collage plant materials onto your work, etc. 

But does all your work have to be archival? Some artists specifically design artworks that will change over time, with the ephemeral nature of the work being a part of the artistic statement. 

If you’re selling work that is more ephemeral than usual for a watercolor, it’s probably a wise business practice to make sure collectors understand that this is a creative choice and not a defect. But it is a creative choice that many artists make. You can, too. 

If you’re working in your sketchbook, where images won’t be exposed to light very often, you might choose to use materials that fade more quickly. If you’re sending a holiday card, you might not be worried about whether the paper is archival. 

Archival is all relative, anyway. I’m not particularly concerned whether any of my paintings is going to be around in 500 years. You might be in a different situation where using the best possible archival practices matters a lot to you. But you don’t have to “be archival” just because it matters to some other artist, and you don’t have to make the same choice all the time. You get to choose when and where it matters to you. 

Rules about best practices for learning

Should you follow them? It depends, of course, on whether the rule was intended for students learning whatever you’re trying to learn, with the same kind of background you have, and also on your personality and tolerance for frustration. If it’s coming from one of your own teachers, you can simply ask for help deciding whether it’s a good rule for you to follow right now. 

If you can’t ask the person who gave that advice, you might have to do a bit of experimenting to see if it seems helpful to you to follow or ignore that advice. Just keep in mind that many of these rules made by teachers are intended to save you from getting discouraged by a problem that is actually to do with challenging materials or situations and not your lack of skill. So if things aren’t going well, look for clues that perhaps this is a particularly tricky technique for everyone, or perhaps not well-suited to the particular situation where you’re trying to use it. 

An example of this is my advice to students in Watercolor Jumpstart not to substitute phthalo blue for the cobalt blue in the supply list. This isn’t because I have something against phthalo blue (just look a the paintings in the background of any of my videos). It’s because phthalo blue is such a powerful paint that it’s very easy to accidentally add too much to a mixture. This makes it hard for new students to arrive at the colors they intend to mix. This makes it hard to become confident with color-mixing. And it means that even if students carefully mimic what I’m doing in the demonstrations, they’ll have a hard time arriving at a painting that looks anything like the demonstration painting. (I would, too!) 

I don’t want students to get frustrated and think they’re doing something wrong, when the real issue is just the paint they’re using. As soon as they have a little experience and some confidence with color-mixing, they can safely add phthalo blue and simply keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Having just a bit of experience and confidence with color-mixing allows them to correctly identify the difficulty as being about the material, rather than their technique. 

My favorite kind of rules

My favorite rules are the ones I make for myself. Artists often choose to adopt a rule to simplify creative decision-making (e.g., using a limited palette or exploring a particular subject in depth with a series), to streamline the business side of art-making (e.g. working at fixed size), or to push themselves to really be creative (e.g. choosing to work only in transparent watercolor without the use of resists). 

If you’ve never tried setting up some constraints like this and forcing yourself to paint a series using those rules, I recommend giving it a try. It can be hard to get going on a series like this, but if you persevere, it often leads to a spurt of creativity. 

On the flip side, sometimes I have one of those facepalm moments when I realize that one of my own little rules from some situation has unconsciously hardened into a general rule that I’m not allowing myself to reconsider. If I’m feeling completely stuck, I watch for anyplace where I’m telling myself, “Well, this won’t work because I can’t [whatever]”. I’ve caught myself more than once adhering to some rule that I set up long ago, that’s just turned into a habit I could choose to change. 

When in doubt, break the rule to understand the rule

What if you can’t figure out where the rule came from or what might go wrong if you ignore it?

Try breaking it!

One of the joys of learning watercolor is that you can safely try whatever comes to mind, and the worst thing that happens is you might invest a little time, paper and paint on something that doesn’t work out. Nothing explodes. No noxious fumes. No trips to the ER. 

Even if you don’t get the result you were hoping for, you’ve learned something useful. Perhaps you’ll decide you don’t want to break that rule again, or perhaps you’ll learn that breaking it didn’t work for this painting, but there’s interesting potential for another situation. Or perhaps breaking it and failing will give you clues about how to break it and succeed. 

Consider the consequences of NOT breaking the rules

If you always play it safe and follow the “rules” in your art-making, you’ll probably create fewer truly awful paintings. You’ll probably reach a point where you can crank out a lot of nice paintings with not too many duds. Depending on your goals and personality, you may feel you need to at least convince yourself you can consistently create nice paintings without too many duds before you go off experimenting. You know best what will be right for you. 

But I encourage you to at least try a bit of experimenting early on, instead of waiting until some future day when you feel you’ve got a good command of watercolor. I’ve never met anyone who ever arrived at the point where they felt like they had a good command of watercolor, including the people winning top awards and judging international shows. And the longer you develop the habit of following all the rules, the more attached you may become to the idea that all your paintings should turn out pretty nice. 

But what’s worse, a few duds—or even a lot of duds—or never really finding out what you could do if you dared to try? 

I’m happy to risk some hilariously bad paintings in the pursuit of a few really exciting ones. 

I tell all forms of my Inner Critic that I’m painting with watercolor because it feeds my spirit and gives me a way to explore my relationship to the wider world. My curiosity and hunger to create something that makes my heart leap is far stronger than my worries about a painting that doesn’t turn out well. For me, the consequences of notbreaking the rules are potentially much worse than the consequences of breaking them.

cartoon fairy with drippy paintbrush "wand"
The Art Fairy is coming to your studio to bless your creative explorations with drips from her Magic Brush of Creativity.

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