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My Journey through Watercolor

Updated on March 15, 2015

The Journey's Very Beginnings

I felt like the only kid without a costume at a Halloween party. I was surrounded by college Art majors and minors. They were all artists in the making who were prepared for this course. I was a lucky encounter with a kind professor who had a LOT of trust in my artistic ability. My ability meaning I took Drawing & Sketching five years ago and didn't get a C. .

Being in biology means you get very used to nodding and smiling when you have no idea what is happening. If you give it some time, understanding will usually come to you before test day does.So now I nodded and smiled and really hoped I wouldn't create art as stupid as I felt. Luckily, the first day of class was to be entirely devoted to the purchasing of art supplies. I never knew paint brushes could come in so many types, textures, sizes, or costs. One of the artists working there took pity on me and explained which and what brush to use. Not only that but she answered all the questions I felt to stupid to ask in class.

Armed with my supplies and some tentative hope I began my journey into watercolor. A journey which was occasionally very painful. The pain mostly occurring on Art Critique day. Which meant to me more like, the class looks at my terrible art sympathetically and very kindly tries to compliment it. The painful, wonderful, and 'just okay' of my journey are a tale best told through my watercolor paintings.

*Important Side note: The camera created shadows and greyness in some of the painting backgrounds (like my poor geisha).

Choosing Grumbacher Academy Watercolor Paints

Grumbacher Academy Watercolor Paint, 7.5ml/0.25 oz. Tube, 10-Color Set
Grumbacher Academy Watercolor Paint, 7.5ml/0.25 oz. Tube, 10-Color Set

Remember the hard watercolor paints lined up in little wells your mom bought you in grade school? Those can actually be used to create paintings. Some people in my class saved money and simply purchased those. I preferred to get actual paints. Not only did I feel less worried about creating a huge mess inside my paint box (remember those days?), I also wanted a greater color selection to choose from. These paints come as a thick liquid in a tube. Put some on your palette and get some water ready. Don't worry about it drying, get the paints wet again, and get going.

By the way, there are a huge variety of colors you can purchase from Grumbacher Academy Paints. I just got the set to begin with and a few other colors on the side.


The Very Very Beginning

After getting the supplies, I couldn't wait to try out all my paints. This is when I found out I had no idea how to use watercolor. You cannot simply fill up your brush with lots and lots of paint and little water. Your work comes out dark and not pretty at all. My work was downright unfortunate. There was nothing showing it was watercolor and not muddy paint. Every part of it was one color and flat.

I Have No Idea What I Am Doing

Our first real class took place at the botanical gardens where we were set out to do some actual painting. That was when I realized I had no idea what to do with water and paint. My attempt at flower petals seemed to offend even my paint palette. Mixing colors by not actually mixing them? Doing a wash and letting colors blend naturally? Leaving white on the paper?

All those were well and good but my attempts looked like someone spit in multiple colors and let it ooze everywhere. Comparing our works made me want to hide. Not only did their flowers look like flowers, some were downright gorgeous.I was starting to feel definite panic at making it through a semester of this. The only items stopping me were the almost 100 dollar art supply investment and my pride. If I could make it through six hours a week of Organic Chemistry lab for a semester, I could do this.

The first assignment (I lost it), left me in total paranoia. My art major roommate watched me apply and reapply water to my paper. She finally snapped and insisted I needed to start putting actual paint on it. "But what if it looks bad? I need help. Please help me or I will be here forever." With her help, I made the breakthrough of a actually putting paint on my paper. To bad when we had art critique mine looked like a faded pencil sketch in comparison to the other student's paintings.

Assignment Success?

After the disaster of my first assignment, we moved on to something entirely new. Take an object and sketch it three times in different positions making it overlap in certain parts. The overlaps would be painted a different color than the actual frames. I was still afraid but having an actual vision instead of doing a painting in greys was a relief. I could sketch and fill in lines. This was fine. No need to panic. I was still terrified of art critique but this time I didn't have a complete urge to fake being sick on the way in.

So this is what I came up with. Did I understand what I was doing? Not really but I was having fun and that helped a LOT. Plus my art major roommate did not have to force my hand to put paint on the paper. So I was not Monet but it no longer looked like something threw up on the paper. This was progress...maybe.

Opting for Strathmore Cold Press Watercolor Paper

Strathmore 440-5 STRATH W.COLOR 400 18X2412SHT 130LBS 18"x24" 12 Sheets
Strathmore 440-5 STRATH W.COLOR 400 18X2412SHT 130LBS 18"x24" 12 Sheets

My professor shared the best is to have at least 140 lb paper. I happen to like the cold press and I also really prefer having a lot of paper space. This is what I use and I think it works great!


Fairy Magic

The next assignment happened to be taking and recreating a character from a children's book done in watercolor. (NOTE: I DO NOT REMEMBER THE BOOK BUT WHOEVER YOU ARE, I AM USING THIS FOR A CLASS AND NOT CLAIMING IT AS MY OWN. PLEASE DO NOT SUE ME.) I love fairies so I chose one. Doing something I liked and having a model (thank you for your beautiful picture illustrator) was like getting a lifesaver thrown to me. Color help? check. Easy to Draw? Check. Still terrified to visit art critique? Definite check.

Art critique arrived as dreaded as ever. This time I actual felt something kind of like pride for my work. You could tell it was a fairy. There happened to be actual colors blended together. Well..kind of. I was still unsure of how brush + paint = fantastic watercolor but it was becoming more logical. Facing my paints was no longer a showdown. We were like a recent amicable breakup. The familiarity and fond feelings were there but everything was still incredibly awkward between us.

Short Handle Wash Brush with Synthetic Bristles

Short Handle Synthetic Bristle Wash Brush
Short Handle Synthetic Bristle Wash Brush

One of the most important lessons learned in Watercolor was the importance of a good brush. Remember the watercolor sets with the cheap bristle brush that dropped hairs all over? That is not what I mean. When doing backgrounds or for longer hair pieces, I use this brush. Completely worth the money, it gives wide strokes easy to use for applying bands of color. At 3/4 inch in size, it is neither to large or to small to work with. This is a great brush and I have never ever seen a single hair come off of it (unlike those cheapo free ones).


Looking For Inspiration at Work

I worked at a power plant for eight hours in a cold unheated basement collecting fish. When fish collection was averaging .5 an hour, it became perfect watercolor time. Our painting was supposed to be something painted from real life. What did I have around me? Lots and lots of fish. I wasn't going to paint realistically anymore. I wanted bright colors in my work even if they weren't supposed to be there.

"So...I think I'm going to paint a fish. Not a Round Goby because they are to fat and alewives are just sad. And all we have are yellow perch...yellow perch it is!." My coworker looked at me like I was just the usual slightly insane and went back to her magazine. We were used to our hard hats, earplugs, and steel-toed boots. Thank goodness for homework and beauty magazines because there was no internet and we usually were to tired to yell over the noise after the first five hours. Yes. Painting in the dark and dingy would be an experience.

The actual positioning of the fish took a long time. The fish had died so there was hemorrhaging in the eye and its fins were starting to look a bit stiff. I was proud of the results. He looked like a yellow perch. Actually, how I would envision a yellow perch to look colorwise in non-reality and he appeared dead. Which fit perfectly since he was. I was still terrified at art critique but I no longer had the same panic as before.

The Final

By the time of finals, I had not been to art critique in weeks. My body was very sick and I could not attend classes. I cannot honestly say I missed going to critique but I did miss my freedom of being able to. So I painted my final as a remembrance of my recent ICU visit. I still could not paint well and did not really understand the paint but I needed to just put my life into my work. So I did. My picture wasn't good but it was a reminder to me. And the best part? We had no art critique for the final so nobody had to know how much it sucked. Yes. I was still terrified of art critique after a semester of it. Some things just don't change even if you do.

The First Inkling of Understanding

One winter night I decided to pick up my watercolors again. I wanted to paint a picture done completely in a non-realistic style. Being realistic had never worked for me. I wanted my people to have brilliantly colored hair, unique clothes, and large eyes. The blemishes and imperfections of the real world would never show in my paintings.

For the first time ever in my painting, I began to understand how water creates the shadows and blending of colors. The process is delicate and sometimes requires time between coats. To much water and the colors blurred into a muddy mess, to little and the colors weren't soft. When I finished, I realized something. If you're going to paint, you have to paint what comes naturally for you.

Princeton Sable Watercolor Brush for In-between

Princeton Heritage, Golden Taklon Brush for Watercolor & Acrylic, Series 4050 Round Synthetic Sable, Size 6
Princeton Heritage, Golden Taklon Brush for Watercolor & Acrylic, Series 4050 Round Synthetic Sable, Size 6

Before you can begin, you require a brush besides the wash and detailing ones. This does the in-between work. After loading up my paper with water and a little paint with my wash brush, I go over it to create a beautiful blend of color. You need this one because many times, a wash brush is to big to use on a particular part of a painting and a detailing one would take you a very very long time. This is the one I use (they all are) and love.


Keeping it Simple

I decided to try a simpler type of non-realistic art. In this painting, I used only shades of black, white, and blue. The lines were purposely done to sharply outline the figures. There is not the same softness found in the first painting. I only made use of blending in the girl's hair. Giving volume and life to my figures hair is something I enjoy. In real life hair typically does not sit flat on people's heads. So why should it in paintings? Neither is hair all one color and I wanted to show that in my work.

Princeton Series Sable Watercolor Brush for Detailing

Princeton Heritage, Golden Taklon Brush for Watercolor & Acrylic, Series 4050 Round Synthetic Sable, Size 2
Princeton Heritage, Golden Taklon Brush for Watercolor & Acrylic, Series 4050 Round Synthetic Sable, Size 2

I use this brush for all my tiny detailing. When painting eyes, it is very important to leave spaces of white so I have to painstakingly avoid mixing up my colors. I can dip it into the paint tube and have a tiny amount of very thick paint to apply. The brush also works wonders when outlining certain areas of the figure's face or clothing.


My First Requested Work

The reaction to my work has always been very mixed. My father's reaction to one of my paintings (not shown) was something along the lines of..."she has bluish skin..." which was repeated several times. The art my parents prefer are original nature or landscape paintings. This means no girls with blue hair and very large green eyes.

Surprisingly, many of my friends do genuinely like my work. My one friend grew up loving Sailor Moon* (see my lense: How to Look Fabulous for Halloween Without Going Broke to get an idea) and asked me to paint her a picture of her childhood hero. I was so excited someone actually wanted my work that I promised to do it. I looked at pages and pages of Sailor Moon poses to find the one I felt best suited what my friend wanted. My blending on the figure's hair has greatly improved in this painting compared to my previous ones. I also like the flow of the hair. Anyway, she loved it. The painting is framed in her room so she can look at it everyday.

*Disclaimer: The character of Sailor Moon was not created by me. I do not own the show, manga, or anything else. Except for my painting..that is owned by me.

A Watercolor To Be Proud Of

I have found a favorite for my paintings. She is Yuuko from XXXholic. Her character has a unique beauty. The proportions of her body have an unnatural grace which allows me a certain freedom. I adore her outfits which feature beautiful headdresses, gorgeous dresses, and a style all her own. She is my muse and I never grow tired of painting her.

To The Future

My journey will continue in watercolor but has gotten a LOT easier since I now understand what style is mine. I still have days where I would love to paint the view from kitchen window (the setting sun reflected in the blue waters of the lake amidst the reflections of the trees). Perhaps one day I will be able to.

As for right now, here is my latest painting. I have seen a great deal of improvement in my understanding of how layers of watercolor, and lots of patience, create the shades necessary to show movement. Her dress is a testament to how much I have grown and continue to grow. Instead of hard lines I try to give a soft look worthy of watercolor.

I hope you have enjoyed my journey through watercolor. If you are interested in starting your own, you will need some quality materials. Below are my chosen picks. And by this I mean, the experts helped me choose and I 100% recommend them to you. They are behind every one of my paintings and I could not do without them.

Painting. Anime Style - Not My Favorite Work but Twas Fun

I love Yuuko from XXXholic. Her clothing, hair styles, and clothing are always inspiring but I found this painting ended up very meh.
I love Yuuko from XXXholic. Her clothing, hair styles, and clothing are always inspiring but I found this painting ended up very meh.

Thoughts on my Journey - Questions? Comments? Well Wishes? Flames?

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