In Praise of Watercolor

Wolf Kahn says in his book, Wolf Kahn Pastels, “I believe that every artist has one medium that determines the way he uses every other one.  In Turner’s case, for example, the artist’s oil paintings aspire to the quality of watercolor.  Daumier’s use of line and tone in every medium recalls the marks that a lithographic crayon makes on a stone.  Van Gogh’s brush marks and palette-knife slashes are the colored equivalents of the lines a quill pen makes on paper.  In my work, the determining medium is pastel.” (pg. 15)

If this is true, (and it seems to bear out in these cases and many others), then MY determining medium must be watercolor.  I am not an artist on par with any of those Kahn cites here, nor do I think that I use all other mediums (pastel, acrylic, and charcoal are my other favorites) in exactly the same manner as I do watercolor.  The critical point is that though I make forays into these other mediums…watercolor is what I always come back to and I always have something I’m working on in watercolor while I’m working with the others.

One of the things I adore about watercolor is just how many ways it can be used!  Everything from it’s defining oozles and wazzles, all the way to quite opaque paintings that hint at acrylic or oil.  Watercolor can be layered, spattered, splashed, washed, glopped, palette-knifed, textured, smoothed, bold or delicate.  I’m hard-pressed to say exactly which way is my favorite way to use it…that all depends on the day.  I enjoy it for the big shape paintings with bold, opaque color, AND I love the oozling and unpredictableness of liquid colors.  Greg Betza, one of the artists who contributes to a favorite drawing site, says he likes to spell it “watercoloUr” for the latter reason…its luscious passages from one color wazzling into another.  Here! Here! My sentiments exactly.  Bob Lysiak and Skip Lawrence taught me the more opaque approach with watercolor and all its benefits:  ease of re-working a section, gorgeous color combinations, layers of color that are still seen “through” other layers (unlike acrylic), and the shimmer of light bouncing through the paint to the white paper and back again. To see more of my work in this vein, click here.

To say that watercolor is “my favorite” somehow waters down the truth.  It is not merely my favorite, like chocolate (and oh boy, do I love chocolate!!), but rather it is essential, anchoring, foundational.  Kahn goes on in the next paragraph to say about pastel, “Pastel was the thread that tied me to my past commitments.  And it was with pastels that I reestablished a solid continuity once I had regained my confidence…” (pg. 15)  I would say this is true with watercolor for me…a thread…a solid continuity.  It once even inspired me to write an Ode to it here, should you wish to read.

0 thoughts on “In Praise of Watercolor

  1. Alex Tan says:

    Wow! ^^ That’s really a lot of love, and I could totally see it once you’ve explained it.
    I guess my determining medium for right now is pencils. That’s how I usually start with, regardless of what medium I decide to use later. Pencil helps me to create the foundation I need, erase the ones I don’t need. I do enhance them from time to time, and it might look totally different but somewhere in between those masks and the paper, there’s a trail of pencil there. ^^
    I remember I used to do a lot of water color, it takes a lot of patience to get it dry before applying layers, and usually you don’t work absolutely continuously. You wait for the right time and apply the right colors and water and then watch it grow within another color. I am not sure but I find myself lack of that patience at the moment. I will eventually get back to it I am sure, and this post certainly has reminded me to do so. =) Thank you Jennifer for the expression and reminder.

  2. delph says:

    Every time I come to your blog I learn something! I didn’t know you could do that (second painting) with watercolors. It’s awesome. Your three paintings are fabulous, and I love especially the second one (delight of colors!) and the third one, with the wonderful transparencies and softness.
    Thanks for taking the time to talk about your techniques and thoughts, it’s great!

  3. Jim in Alaska says:

    Great pictures and Post, Jennifer!
    I tend to agree with you and Kahn though for myself I think I’s say any water soluble medium. There’s some special pleasure for me in the uncontrollable spontaneity when you just and water or work on a wet surface.

  4. Raena says:

    Wow, I don’t think I realized watercolor was capable of so many looks! That first one is watercolor? I would never have guess that! Wonderful post–again!

    • jenpedwards says:

      Yes, the first one is watercolor! I learned to use watercolor with a big flat house painting kind of brush from Skip Lawrence…glob it on without hardly any water. Great fun!

  5. Cathy says:

    Your post came just after I had decided that watercolours weren’t ever going to be a medium for me(I have tried honest!) But hearing you describe you colours and process has made me think again and just looking at the lucious colours in your paintings make me want to have ago. I am predominately a coloured pencil person but I have recently started using oils and I find I paint in the same way I use my pencils, layer upon layer.

  6. benedicte delachanal says:

    It is true, we all have a natural affinity with a medium, something we go back to and enjoy. Water medium are also my natural medium and reading you made me realize how it is influencing the way I approach other medium.
    I always find so much in your posts, like the one about seeing in contour or mass.

  7. Timaree (freebird) says:

    Are all the pictures here watercolor? I’d like to know how you did the abstract one. I love the abstract and watercolor! Those goats are so cute. My Mary Muffin might take offense at being a color other than her brown but I like it! To get the opaque look do you use gouache?

    • jenpedwards says:

      All three paintings are with watercolor! I only have one or two colors that are gouache, but I do not find much difference in certain gouache colors and their watercolor counterparts. It’s all a matter of how much or little water you have in your brush. Lots of water = oozles and wazzles. Hardly any water in a flat house painting type of brush = thick creamy paint. So fun!

  8. Dan says:

    This is so interesting! I’m a fan of Wolf Kahn, so was eager to hear the quote, and the point, and the examples blew me away! I love your wild abstract watercolor! Shows I have so much to learn about the medium which is good – very good.

  9. marie singer says:

    Your paintings are so lush and happy—I’m inspired by looking at your work. I’m inspired to keep sketching daily–from a workshop I jusst attended in North Carolina–a great time at the Folk School. Hope to show you some of my work in the future.

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