Keeping A Watercolor Journal
#10 of 100!!! 1/10 there!
Why keep a watercolor journal
Because you'd rather be painting than writing longhand? It's a thought.
I'd always meant to do one. I've seen them in print. Someone who lives somewhere wonderful and far away, like a little town in the UK, will spend a year or two puttering in their garden and sketching the local landscapes, buildings, people and then sell it to a publisher that culls out their best sketches and adds a little text and makes that artist or hobbyist a lot of money. Of course being published professionally, it gets edited.
The bad pages with scratch-outs and bad drawings or the latest color chart (colour chart in UK) or the blobs of color resulting from testing a mixture before applying it to that tiny area on one leaf of a different plant that shows through behind a flower do not get put in these books. The impression created is of some brilliant artist who never, ever does a bad drawing or even makes a spelling error when writing out the amusing anecdote around seeing that butterfly land on that flower.
They make it look so easy.
They make it look so challenging. They set up the perfectionist dream that someday I will do a watercolor (watercolour) journal and when I happen to visit the UK on holiday (vacation) (UK folks get actual holidays whenever they want them, they don't just pack up and grimly take off on packaged tours for vacations that are more work than pleasure. Or at least describe them as holidays when they do). When I do finally get to visit that blessed land full of lovely wildlife and serene ex-wilderness with centuries of gardening going into parks that aren't quite wild but more set up to look the way the wild should've been... then I can just casually show it to my friends and not feel like an inartistic American who always goofs up.
At least until I sit down with them to draw the next beautiful sights and completely goof up in my inking and make the first scratch-outs in my text and get the shocked looks from all of them and their perfect journals. Or more likely, a big smile and "Don't worry, mine's full of those, they just didn't put it in when they published it. I had to rewrite that part of the page and the compositor put it in so cleverly. You should see the real one."
I have real UK friends so this impression of UK perfection is really just a matter of good editing.
At least I tell myself that and try to Americanize my spelling when writing online or for US publishers. Somewhere in my heart, I love the English language in its native form. I think I watched too much BBC on public television and read too many UK authors not to just find the spelling more aesthetic.
What happened to make this vague fantasy of a watercolor journal turn into a reality, scratch-outs and all, was that in October 2007 my daughter bought me a present for my December birthday and gave it to me early. That is our family tradition. Her birthday's in June and I've been known to give her presents in February for it. We just do things on days not the scheduled days of it. This gives my daughter and her husband several anniversaries throughout the year since they do also celebrate it on the day of. But also whenever they think of it and each other.
My watercolor journal is every bit as classy as any of the ones that I've seen in print books. It's a Moleskine one with a black leather cover and thick, heavy warm white rich paper inside, with a pocket in the back of the binding where I could slip my passport and other vital papers just in case I lost it and got arrested for being in the wrong counry without papers to put a screaming ad in the papers begging someone to find this blank black book bound on the short end with my name in it and please sell those important papers back to me instead of to whoever needs to pretend to be American, I'll pay the going rate.
It's about 5" x 9" in American non-metric reckoning. Let me check the centimeters please. 12.4cm on the short side, 20.4 cm on the long side, and that's the outside cover so the pages are a bit smaller. Each page is perforated for the ultimate publishing cheat. Just rip out the nasty page with the scratch-outs and do it again. Then only the original journal will show that your gorgeous 20-page watercolor journal actually started with 37 usable sheets.
The paper can be used on both sides. I've been using it on both sides because I'm insanely daring and haven't ripped out any pages with scratch-outs or bad paintings. The inside flyleaf, on the same cream colored paper as the endpapers, is printed with a place to put your name and address and a line for how much reward you're willing to offer to get it back with a dollar sign because this one was made for the American market. I used the back of that page for a page of text that amazingly got no scratch-outs, because I was careful.
Then on the very first page, I did something sensible because my daughter has one of those and uses it constantly. She puts her color charts (colour charts) in it whenever she gets new watercolor pencils or other watermedia. So I charted my Winsor & Newton Artists' Field Box, the watercolours that I expected to use most in it even though they don't have Sap Green and do have Ivory Black, don't have Burnt Umber and do have Raw Umber like the Cotman Field Box that was my favorite watercolour set for 30 years till I replaced it and upgraded.
I am still getting used to the new palette, so I thought charting it on page one would give me a chance to start finding out how to get around the two colors I used most in the old set. Burnt Umber mixes beautifully with Ultramarine to get black of any shade you want, including Paynes Grey. The student set includes it so that you have to learn to mix your blacks. Presumably skilled professional artists already know how to mix black, so they cleverly leave out one of its major components and put in actual black for you to do monochrome black or neutral-color sketch washes. Or some such reason.
And then I did a self portrait off a photo she took of me so that I could let people know that if they did return it hoping for a reward, they'd found the right bloke. It worked and is actually the first watercolor portrait larger than my thumbnail that actually worked and has the likeness. I was always able to do them well about the size of my thumbnail if I sketched first in pencil.
The First Perfect Page In My Watercolor Journal
The Catch -- How Do You Follow Up On Perfection?
There it is. The very first page of my very first-ever watercolor (watercolour) journal... and it was beautiful. I was intensely proud. This page could stand up to anything in print, given that colour charts (color charts) are a legitimate bit of content in watercolor journals. They are definitely handy because having them where you know where they are instead of shoved into a folder of old paintings in the bottom of a stack of other things for years before finding them makes them a lot more useful.
I knew from then on that I'd keep those color charts (colour charts) in my watercolor journal and try to consolidate them so that I could always find them. A good decision, so on the back of that page, I continued it. I'd bought some Winsor & Newton tube watercolours (watercolors) and carefully charted them and painted two color wheels based on the colors recommended on <a href="http://www.winsornewton.com/">http://www.winsornewton.com/</a> for the best mixing primaries.
That solved a big problem I had in mixing watercolors.
You'd think that if Winsor & Newton knew that Permanent Rose mixed with French Ultramarine gave the best mixed purples, and Alizarin Crimson made murky grayish purples, that they'd have put Permanent Rose into both the student Cotman sets and the important professional artist grade Artist sets. Nooo. They assume you don't care about purple nearly so much as you do about assorted recipes for mixing black, where Alizarin Crimson with its wide value range is a more important darkener. I found out by testing that the website is right.
If you want to paint with only three tubes of watercolor, get Lemon Yellow, Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine. That trio gives a good mix for bright versions of orange, green and purple. Anything else is a combo that uses all three.
If you want a bit more room to experiment, also get Winsor Yellow or a warm buttery yellow, Scarlet Lake and Winsor (Phthalo) Blue, Green Shade.
So I bought those six and some other colors, charted them, that page still has some space in case I buy some new tubes in other beautiful new colors and I did get Burnt Umber and Hooker's Green in the tubes. Hooker's Green is a bit like Sap Green but goes darker. It's a good color. By then I had also discovered that putting some yellow ochre into the Winsor (Phthalo) Green Blue Shade would bring it down to a nice approximation of Sap Green and that it's actually the formula for Sap Green in some brands.
Winsor & Newton at least chose the right green to leave out if they're going to make you skip one of the two important greens. The one that's mixed from two other colors can be replicated, the one that is a pure pigment will give you fits trying to get it right.
I also bought Opera Rose, the screaming bright hot pink watercolor that isn't quite as supremely lightfast but still pretty good at a B grade for lightfastness, and makes up for it by doing screaming fluorescent color when you do florals or bright plastic doodads that get stuck in little girls' hair or waved in your face by granddaughters who want your attention.
The problem with the First Perfect Page is that I was afraid to do anything but color charting in the book afterward for fear of doing the First Horrible Mistake Proving I'm Not One Of These Great Painters Great Britain Grows Like Weeds.
I let it sit off to the side, looking up colors in it and painting on other things, for months and months. Sometime late in the summer I noticed I hadn't used that wonderful gift, felt guilty about that, the day was nice outside so I grimly picked it up, grabbed the W&N Artists' Field Box determined to master its weird palette and headed into the yard toward a sycamore tree that I'd always been fascinated with.
Sycamore trees have weird bark. It's peeling off like the entire tree has vegetative psoriasis. They have big spiky vaguely roundish leaves and grow to be quite large trees giving lots of shade. I loved this house and the tree and wanted to remember its wonderful shady presence. In winter its bare branches have white patches where it's bald and lost all its bark, in summer the patches stand out stark against the bark which also gets reddish and grayish patches and dappled sunlight and shadow patterns from the leaves. The tree is magnificent and so unique I really wanted to remember it.
So I did the first Less Than Perfect Page Reminding The World I'm Human...
The Less Than Perfect Page
The Less Than Perfect Painting
It's not as bad as all that. The branch itself came out very accurate, with all the peeling bits coming off in the real curving strange shapes that they do, the leaves are placed well, and the mixed green created with Winsor Lemon and French Ultramarine got the colors of the leaves pretty well -- as well as I could've done them with Sap Green. I discovered that mixed green worked pretty well and Winsor & Newton's site was right to say you could paint just using those two and Permanent Rose, which isn't in the kit.
Where this rather nice looking painting falls short is that it's not the absolute botanical realism I set out to do. The vein patterns are accurate but they're dark lines of Ultramarine where really I should've done a thin wash of mixed green, put a line of masking fluid over it and then painted over with more mixed-green washes to make them pop out as light against dark. I know how I could do that in the studio.
I know that if I sat down at my table and used this to paint from for the shapes, I could create the careful little botanically accurate perfect painting I wanted in the first place. But instead I gave up on it outside and just described it rather than showing it, put lines where the veins went in the leaves in hope I'd someday develop it into a more accurate painting and remembered where I went off.
I'm a long, long way from scientific botanical accuracy and I had not actually thought of the obvious solution. That came much later, after two more color charts pages and nearly a year of procrastination. The beautiful watercolor journal that should've been filled with paintings of my grandchildren and daughter and son in law and cats and dogs, everyone in the family I love and sketches of the house and yard wound up neglected again except for charting my Yarka Professional set of 24 watercolors and all the Daniel Smith tube watercolors I started to accumulate, including the iridescent and duochrome and interference colors that are so handy for weird special effectsl.
Jump to April 2009.
I Lightened Up On Topics
Maybe I Went About It Wrong...
First off, some of the procrastination wasn't psychological. My watercolor journal joined the sedimentary formation of art supplies and sketchbooks in reach. I'd change medium and stack a pad of pastel paper on top of it. Get out a different set of something else and stack that on top. Stack a watercolor block on top of that. Stack the graphite pencils tin on that. Move the stack to make room for some colored pencils tins. Move that stack... it did get buried because it's small and thin and I kept doing other things.
Most of all I got horribly disorganized and couldn't find anything. It resurfaced in April 2009 because I was fed up with not finding anything and actually reorganized my art supplies so that I could find things -- and remembered I had this beautiful journal dedicated to chronicling my life visually withouht any 5,000 word essays on chronic pain interspersed.
I thought maybe if I didn't try to stick entirely to life paintings of real things but also included things from my online social life, I'd use it again and enjoy it. I also realized belatedly that much as I love it, if I actually used it and finished it I could get another one. Heck, if I used it and finished it, Kitten (my daughter) would see how much I liked it and some future birthday she'd get me one again -- that my staying out of it because it was too good to use and ruin might have given her exactly the opposite idea of what I thought of the gift.
So I used it the next time I wanted to paint anything and did a couple of watercolors for an all-media Weekend Drawing Event challenge on WetCanvas, dated them and listed whose photos I used. WetCanvas member Elainepsq hosted the Weekend Drawing Event that week, and I enjoyed it immensely. This also broke the block against doing things that weren't from life and I relaxed, kept it out handy on top of everything and shuffled it to the top when it threatened to get buried, so it's actually growing again faster than before.
A day later I painted the view out my window from the bed, getting a weird tree branch before all its leaves came in. I'd looked at that particular odd branch all through the seasons for three years running and loved it, so started doing this seasonal view -- winter view because it didn't even have leaf buds at the time. Then did some seasonal trees from imagination on the next page. I started just having fun with it.
After all, maybe the Perfect Painters From The UK didn't publish their very first watercolor journals. Maybe if someone kept one every year for some years, they would start to be that spectacular with realism on every page and no scratch-outs in the text. I'd also succeeded in avoiding scratch-outs by doing text in careful block lettering in the style of map legends from my dad's science illustrations, a knack I picked up as a little kid but really should underline in pencil and erase if I want them to stay mechanically on a line. My texts were legible and my journal was looking good if not perfect.
Then I got the book by Claudia Nice that I'd been drooling at on Amazon and wish listed too many times: Painting with Watercolor and Pen & Ink.
It wouldn't be cheating if I did some penwork on the paintings in order to get realism. It wouldn't even be cheating to use colored fine point pens to get really interesting penwork into it. That was another style of realistic journal-keeping that'd help me get the kind of thing I always wanted -- and while I'd still do some as pure transparent watercolor, no one was standing over me saying I couldn't use a spot of Chinese white here and there either. In fact, all my Asian watercolor and Sumi-E sources were saying "Yes, use the white when it's needed."
The following page was a stunning success:
There Is No Cheating! No One's Going To Grade It!
There really is no cheating! Put in everything you love!
If your watercolor journal includes things from your head space like a fascination with nature and waterbirds that don't live in your part of the country, or you're housebound and can't go out to observe them in nature -- then use photo references and enjoy them. The two waterbirds on my Glass And Birds Page are both from Artist's Photo Reference: Water & Skies by Bart Rulon, North Light Books.
I'd love to be strong enough to go out to the shore, to travel to places that have those pelicans and sit there sketching them in my watercolor journal. I'm disabled and can't do that. I might in future years if I get a power chair and really work on building my health. So this represents a dream of things I may do someday -- because I have traveled much farther than many nondisabled people I know and seen things this beautiful in person back when I couldn't draw well enough or fast enough to render them in person from life.
The glass paperweight is from life. It's a gift a friend gave me that she bought in Czechoslovakia when she visited a famous glass factory. It has a dark spot inside that looks like an eye -- turn it a certain way and it looks as if it's looking at you through a haze of orange gas swirling around. Something like an alien from Jupiter or a Guild Navigator from Dune. It has become a meditation object for thinking of science fiction story ideas and a reminder there are beautiful places in the world that I've never been and still want to see in person.
I did the penwork first and then enhanced it with the watercolor, shifting values and in a couple of areas completely obliterating some careful penwork in orange ink because the color was stronger. I added a little more penwork after it dried. It worked and I succeeded in getting that kind of realism.
I did another sketch of the tree outside my window as it was leafing out, this time doing a pen sketch on my back laying in bed and coloring it later. I put in a color chart of another birthday present from my daughter, a 48 color Lukas 1862 watercolor pan set that is absolutely splendid and not Too Good To Use -- something else that I shuffled to the top of the stacks to use and enjoy more often. It's a lot easier to use it now that I can see what some of those black-looking pans look like on the paper.
Artist grade watercolors don't always look like the color they are when they're washed. A good many medium and dark colors just look black until dissolved, usually they are the more transparent ones. It's a good sign if the pan looks black because that means the color has a strong value range and can get very dark with strong applications or multiple layers. It won't always go to black though because the color in the pan is 1/4" or more thick and you can't always put THAT much on your painting.
But it's kind of important to tell if that chip is blue, red, brown or green when you want to just dab at it and put a wash of it somewhere -- you need the blue-black wash of Payne's Grey but putting in Burnt Umber or green would just not be right. So color charting is absolutely vital on the black chips in any pan watercolor set. Tubes, you can look at the marker on the label unless the label came off, and then you really need to chart them!
Anything can go in your watercolor journal.
It doesn't need to be nature paintings. It can be stuff on your desk like my glass paperweight or the page after the color chart - another ink and watercolor page featuring my new Acer Aspire One netbook, where I spend a good deal of time every day going online to wirte Hubs, or a red catseye marble I posed on the silvery matte lid of my old laptop and did very carefully for realism.
Netbook and Marble Page
Don't Take It Too Seriously And Perfection Will Come
I finally learned the lesson of my watercolor journal. If I don't take it too seriously and approach it with joy, use whatever watermedia or wet media come to hand, keep on color charting anything I'm going to use in it so that I can tell what I've done when I look back to figure out how to get that metallic-blue effect again, then it's perfect as it is.
It does not need to be pulbishable and in fact it is.
There's nothing stopping me from leaving out pages that didn't work or using them as an example of different, looser styles and serendipity and how to fix mistakes. The captions do not always need to be in block lettering, my handwriting is reasonably legible as long as I use a pen width thin enough for the size I'm writing so the letters don't blur together.
The page layouts are a variation on learning composition and will get better the more journals I do over the years. Using both sides of each page was and is a very good idea -- the paper on a good watercolor journal is thick enough that I can do that. An elastic band holds it shut, so even if a page dries a little bit warped, time will flatten it out again as long as I close it with that band whenever it's dry.
I've started enjoying it for exactly as it is and treating it more like a sketchbook for watermedia. I'm sure I'll do some cool things in it with watercolor pencils and Derwent Inktense too, in fact it wouldn't be a bad idea to chart my Inktense set in it and use those once I get going on a trip.
We're moving to Arkansas at the end of this month. I won't see that sycamore again, or the tree outside this bedroom window. So I'll finish with my latest page, the one that does finally have a good botanical drawing of the sycamore leaves and a twig from the tree I can see from the bed.
It also became the first page with a scratchout in the text -- over to the right under a leaf, you can see a place where I misspelled a word and just scratched it out without thinking.
Let yourself make mistakes and just keep painting and drawing. Perfection happens when it does and if you try but don't flip out when it doesn't happen you'll get it much more often. You can never get perfection by not doing it in the first place.
Botanical Accuracy and the First Scratch-Out Text
Try keeping a watercolor journal
You can see above that I finally did show the veins on the sycamore leaves as lighter than the color around them. Their patterns are reasonably accurate -- I brought in twigs from outside and worked at my table instead of trying to sit under it in the wind doing them while staring up.
The twig to the right is from the tree I can see through my window from bed. If anyone knows what this tree is, what it's called, I'm very curious! No one's ever successfully identified it yet, but that's the more accurate painting of the two and the leaves do turn reddish before turning green. They look soggy and limp when they first grow in, dangling down like autumn leaves before flattening and lifting to catch the light as they turn green. I added a small sketch of how they're arranged on the branch to help any botanists or tree fanciers identify it.
I don't know what it is now, but maybe in time someone will tell me.
You can see the first scratch-out in the text next to it too. Don't worry about those. If perchance some publisher loves your watercolor journal or you decide to publish it using Lulu or something, all you need to do is write out the text again nicely, scan the text separately and cut it out in GIMP or Photoshop, then paste it over the scratch-out and fool people like me into thinking good painters never do scratch-outs in text.
Do mention which watercolors you used. Do jot down what pens you used if you try the Claudia Nice style. That helps for future reference if years down the road you want to get that effect again -- or notice that a particular color or brand wasn't lightfast and faded to look ugly.
If it's at all possible, get and use artist grade watercolors with good lightfastness and archival pens that have good lightfastness. Getting a good mixing triad of artist grade watercolor is more effective than a big set of student watercolors because if you happen to luck and get something perfect it will last without fading and your grandkids can show it to their grandkids when they're old.
You don't have to be a famous painter for your watercolor journal to be meaningful. In 2109, this journal will be valuable even if no one ever heard of Robert A. Sloan and no one saved off anything I ever posted on the Internet, because if my family keeps it that'll reach museum levels of antique quality and people will ooh and ahh over how the 21st century painters and hobbyists were so accurate working by hand when they did.
You don't know that your great-grandkids won't find it and think "Whoa, this is awesome, I wish I could draw like that..." and take it up to continue your legacy.
And of course if you do one and reach the last page, that's an excuse to go out and buy a new one and start over! This Moleskine journal was under $20 on sale -- she mentioned that quite some time before she bought one for me because she got hers for herself and it's the same one.
If you must get student watercolors, I seriously recommend Winsor & Newton Cotman student watercolors because they are very high quality student paint -- they use less expensive pigments but still grind them very fine and for most of the time I had that Cotman field box, I thought it was artist grade. I didn't know there was something that far beyond it as the Artist field box. Also, keep an eye out for Clearance sales and out of season gift sets.
Very often artist grade supplies come bundled in gift sets that change every year. They come out for the holidays and then the following year the companies make new gift sets and the old model gets dumped on Clearance to make space for inventory. Sometimes the older gift sets are actually a bit more generous than the new ones but get marked down to a third or a quarter the retail price when they're new. Then add up all the supplies in them bought separately and even the bundle price when new looks good compared to retail on the components -- it's a good way to get lots of good stuff to get set up fast.
If you like painting and drawing at all, a watercolor journal can be immensely rewarding. So give it a go and see what you get -- most of all paint what matters to you, whatever that is. It doesn't need to be the obvious -- that orange glass paperweight has a wealth of personal meaning about the friend who gave it to me and so does the red catseye marble about another friend. The netbook represents all my online friends. You can explain that in text or keep it to yourself and smile, because your watercolor journal is entirely your own -- it is a place to express yourself rather than what other people expect watercolor journals to be.
Have fun with it. My cat Ari sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration on you for painting, drawing, writing or whatever you love doing most.