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Part 1: The Basics of
Knowing how watercolor paints are classified and
how the colors appear on paper and differ among
manufacturers is the critical first step for any
watercolor artist. Here’s what you need to know.
ome arrive at class with a set of prepackaged
watercolors provided by a paint manufacturer,” she
observes. “Others may hold a list provided by an
instructor, but they have no idea why certain colors are
included.” Still others, some teachers report, ask for the
names of the reddest red, the bluest blue, and the yellowest yellow, with the goal of buying the fewest paints
possible. These newcomers to watercolor assume that
by adding black to three good primaries they can obtain
a full range of color—just like their color printers. Although
in theory this may make sense, in reality it can only lead
to disappointment and frustration. Here, Dressel explains
what every artist should know about watercolor paints.
O pa q u e , T r a n s pa r e n t, G r a n u l at i n g
Watercolor paints vary widely in their formulations, so it’s
important to experiment with different brands to find the
paints you prefer. Manufacturers generally classify the
paints as either transparent or opaque. Transparent paints
are created by mixing pigment with a transparent binder
and a wetting agent. When applied to paper, much of the
reflective white surface shines through. Opaque paints, on
the other hand, dry to various degrees of opacity because
of the addition of chalk. Some pigments, such as certain
earth colors, leave particles behind on the painting surface and are therefore referred to as granulating pigments.
Although most of Dressel’s palette consists of transparent
paints, she notes the importance of having a few opaque
earth tones on the palette: “I sometimes play translucent
Four Steps to a
Following a four-step application of color washes, I
capture the glow of light, the richness of color, and
the realistic detail of my subjects.
paint watercolors very realistically, with an emphasis
on color and contrast, almost to an extreme. In fact,
many of my paintings are more about color and light
than they are about specific subjects. I arrived at this system of painting after years of observation, reading, and
painting, and now I want to share my system with others.
A Q u i c k Loo k a t t h e St e p s
The four steps of my process can be summarized as follows:
Opposite (detail) and above:
Five Macs in a Row, 2004, watercolor, 6 x 18.
Collection the artist.
Step 1. Glow. I lightly draw the major outlines of my subject
on watercolor paper with graphite and apply a light wetin-wet wash of warm and cool colors over the entire stark
white sheet so it has a flow of light pigment.
Step 2. Base. After the glow is dry, I lay in flat, graded, and
wet-in-wet washes of color to establish a general description of the image.
A homemade gray scale created by painting successively
darker squares and punching holes in the middle of each
square. I hold this up to a painting so that I can see the
painted color through the hole and am able to judge the
relative value. That’s especially helpful when gauging the
contrast between light and shadow.
Step 3. Contrast. I build up from two to five layers of a more
extensive palette of colors to create a sense of depth in the
values, and gradually build up contrast until the painting is
Subjects will be more interesting to paint if they
are familiar places, prized possessions, or close friends.
The Constant Challenge
M. Stephen Doherty
Sheila Stilin maintains an enthusiasm for watercolor by
exploring different techniques and subjects with each
he joy Sheila Stilin experiences in creating watercolors can be easily understood by anyone who
has given serious, hands-on time to the medium.
There is something exciting about using simple yet potent
materials to respond to what we see and feel, compose a
two-dimensional representation of the world, or explore a
set of ideas and expressions. Stilin has spent years exploring the medium that demands only a brush, a few tubes
of paint, and a sheet of paper, yet presents continual challenges to the artist.
Glass Apple 1, 2001, watercolor, 14 x 17.
Collection the artist.
It is that constant exploration of new opportunities that
keeps Stilin excited about watercolor. While she is in the
midst of painting a picture, she tries new materials and
techniques, searches for innovative ways of handling a
familiar subject, or simply works toward a higher standard of
excellence. And once one painting is completed, she feels
a rush of new ideas that suggest a direction for her next
“At first, I thought I just didn’t have enough experience to
feel completely confident about everything I did in watercolor,” Stilin states. “Then I talked to other artists and discovered that everyone is trying to learn and grow beyond their
current level of skill and understanding. Indeed, that sense
of wanting to get better and to explore new styles and subjects is what keeps most watercolorists
Collectibles, 2003, watercolor, 11 x 16.
Collection the artist.
Brush up on your
• The Basics of Watercolor Paints
hree Key Elements of a
Successful Painting: Focal Point,
Composition & Depth
• Four Steps to a Glowing
• 10 Tools for Better Watercolors
• The New Face of Watercolor
• The Constant Challenge of
• Methods & Materials: Innovative
Watercolor Additives &
• The Watercolor Page
Subject Matter Techniques:
• Experience with Experimentation
ainting the Impressionist
• Mature Models
merican Artist Guide to Watercolors offers you a diverse group
of masters sharing techniques, tips, and tricks for composing
beautiful watercolor paintings.
You’ll discover the fundamentals of watercolors, including choosing paints,
colors, and paper, as well as detailed information on the application of
color theory in the medium. American Artist Guide to Watercolor Painting
also explores the techniques for good composition, capturing the glow
of light, and choosing the right surface. Top artists-instructors, such
as Christopher Williard, Chatherine Hillis, and Nancy Collins, guide you
through the process of envisioning and creating a painting from beginning
to end to achieve the desired effect.
American Artist magazine has been a widely read and well-respected
resource for over 70 years; an essential tool for artists, both professional
and beginner. Every issue is filled with step-by-step demonstrations,
technical Q&A, in-depth artist profiles, and more.
• How to Create Your Best
• Achieving Optimal Effects
• Using Gum Arabic for Additional
Paperback, 8½ x 10¼, 128 pages
ISBN 978-1-59668-269-6, $24.95
Available October 2010