Sunday, April 17, 2011

Watercolor: The Right And The Wrong Way Of Painting With It.

Of all the mediums, watercolor generates the hottest debates on how it should be used.  In all of the painting community sites I have joined or visited online, the topic inevitably comes up.  On one side, you have the realists and detailist who are after the most accurate renderings and gaining the most control over the medium.  On the opposite side are the impressionists and the artists who are advocating the paint fast and loose method.  To a beginning watercolor painter, choosing the right style can be very confusing and very stressful too.  To learn a skill is both an investment in time and money (two resources one can not afford to squander so easily in these trying times). Which style to choose to ensure that you are painting in watercolor the right way?

It is very interesting to read and consider all the points that come up in such an argument.  You can learn a lot if you would just try to keep a level head and not get too emotionally involved, specially for artists who are already favoring a certain method when they work with watercolors.  I've often wondered how it all started. Over the years, I've read a lot, asked a lot and have somehow come up with this attempt at explaining it. Please bear in mind though that the following are just my musings and that I am sharing in the hope of encouraging tolerance for each school of thought.

Before the advent of photography, the only way you can immortalize a scene or event with pictures is by painting it.  Artists paint either on site (plein air) or in their studios using their memories or perhaps aided by references that they drew on the scene.  For on-the-site drawing or sketching, the tools of the trade were paper, pencil and ink.  Later, when the very portable and easy to use watercolors were made available, they also became regular materials for the on-the-go painter and as study tools for the studio painter.  Watercolor paintings back then were still not considered proper paintings but were just temporary things.  Good only for the purpose of aiding the artist as he or she strives to come up with a more acceptable rendering in oil paints.  Part of the reason it also was not taken seriously was the short life span of watercolor renderings.  The early watercolors were not as lightfast and the papers were not as durable and as readily available hence its lesser popularity than oils.  Watercolor was also considered a hard medium to master then .  Oil painters who were used to working with opaque oil paint probably found the transparency of the medium to be unforgiving.  You can cover mistakes made in oil by dabbing them off with a rag and painting on top of it but not so with watercolor.  The transparency of watercolor and some pigments' tendency to stain paper made mistakes obvious and permanent.  The fluidity and solubility of the dissolved watercolor in water may also have been difficult to manage.  Hence, to be able to paint as realistically as in oil paintings, one had to master the control of watercolors.  I'm surmising that this is the same difficulties that today's painter of realism in watercolor finds so challenging.  We all  have different drives for painting and maybe being challenged by something is one of them. It took a long time, a lot of improvements material-wise and several great artists to demonstrate how paintings in watercolor can be beautiful and complete in their own right.  The issue of whether watercolors can be as good as oil has been resolved and at the same time it may have left behind the thinking that control of the medium is the thing to strive for.

If there is anything constant in this earth, it is change.  Traditional painting has lain unchallenged until the advent of the Impressionists.  At the time, the proponents of Impressionism were laughed at but history would show they emerged triumphant in the end with Impressionistic paintings not only influencing the changes and opening the gate for the other styles to emerge but also because later on they were among the most sought after by collectors and thus ensured that they would be fashionable for all time.  Perhaps we owe it to watercolor’s versatility as a medium that it also was perfect for painting in the manner of the Impressionists.  While realism can be achieved by total control, the medium also has qualities that make them perfect for the fast and loose style.  Depending on how much you dilute it, you can control how fast or how slow it would dry.  Instead of avoiding "accidents", the practitioners realized the quality of the paint itself lends a certain beauty and produces beautiful surprises and they saw the vast potential in it.  Watercolor became less rigid and freer.  It was a perfect tool for catching impressions.  When photography also entered the picture, many said the days of painting in realism was over, a belief still held by many today.  Well, that's just one reason of many why some think watercolors should be used with less abandon.  It is about using watercolor to its full potential and about capturing something other than just the exact likeness of the subject which the camera can do better.

So which is the right or the wrong way?  The best answer is probably NA.  The parameters are Not Applicable as you cannot say one is right or better over the other.  Choosing a style is a matter of personal choice.  Finding the right style requires a lot of introspection.  You have to know yourself, know what you want, and have your own vision.  Once you have considered all these, choose the method of painting that would help you show others what you see... your version of the world.  Choose your teachers and acquire the learning materials guided by the same considerations. Let your own judgement dictate your choice. There is no one "in" style.  If history has taught us anything, it is that styles evolve constantly and that fashion comes in cycles.  What may be fashionable now may not be the in thing later and what may be considered passé may become a favorite once again.  There is also no rule that states you can not combine both styles nor is there one that says you can only paint in the style you started out with.  You are the only one who can limit yourself.  I think it also fortunate that artists in our lifetime enjoy the most freedom. Perhaps we also owe it to the sophistication of today's collectors.  Most rely on their own judgement and collect art that reflect their own sense of aesthetic values. They do not let a single entity or art authority dictate what they should collect or not collect so why should you.  Paint your bliss.

And oh yeah, there is a wrong way to use watercolor.  That is, if you mix it with oil.  

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