When I teach a beginner class in watercolor, I like to show students that it’s always best to learn how a new medium behaves before jumping in and trying to paint a formal painting. To do this, I use a series of exercises that allow them to have more control over fewer variables at the beginning working up to using a full palette of color at their own pace.
We start out with a monochromatic study, in this case, a simple wash drawing of a gull done in burnt umber. I emphasize the importance of values and show that you can create a beautiful image using just one color. In this exercise, the group learned how determine the paint to water ratio for creating a range of values, how to move the paint around on the paper and how to use the brush as a drawing tool to get more expression and gesture into the drawing (I don’t draw with pencil first).
From there, we progress to working with 2 colors using the same image of the gull. The two colors used are burnt umber and Prussian blue. Controlling neutrality, temperature and value is where the emphasis was placed in this lesson. Because the students had already worked with the image, they were more comfortable with the drawing of it and could even use their first exercise as a value study reference for the new sketch.
The next exercise consisted of adding in 2 more colors: alizarin crimson and yellow ochre. This created a full limited palette of 4 colors (3 primaries and one dark neutral). This exercise illustrates how you don’t need very many colors to create a full color study. For this one, we used an image of a turkey so they could practice gesture, values, color mixing, and working with contrasts in temperature and values. The feathers also give them an opportunity to work with implying texture and detail.
From there, we moved on to working from life, because I think working from life is the best way to train your eye to see things. I gave each student an apple and told them to paint it using a full color palette of burnt umber, Prussian blue, ultramarine, alizarin crimson, cadmium red light, yellow ochre and cadmium yellow light. They did not have to use all the colors, but I encouraged them to really think about which blues and yellows to mix to create the greens, which reds for the dark and light areas, etc. Often times artists new to painting are not taught the differences between the pigments and how they mix with one another. If you don’t know the color properties of a pigment, it may not be obvious which blue and yellow combination is going to give you the perfect apple green in the right value.
Many students like to work with the landscape as a subject, so I include an exercise that depicts a seascape with a crashing wave. In this exercise, we used Prussian blue, burnt umber, ultramarine and yellow ochre. I put emphasis on painting movement rather than painting specific waves. I encourage anyone who wishes to paint the landscape to get out there and paint it on location, reference photos are ok for learning purposes in a workshop such as this, but if you really want to train your eye, paint from life whenever possible!
Last of all, we wrapped things up with a still life study of some flowers painted from life. I emphasized all the skills we learned in the previous exercises in my demo using it to show how all the pieces fit together. It’s much easier to learn things when they are broken down first and then pulled together in a full color painting. The palette I use is very simple and works for all subject matter. I use this approach in my workshops and beginner classes both online and in person. If you are interested in studying with me, please fill out the contact form.
And if you’re wondering what I do with all those demos, I offer them for sale unframed. I am having a studio sale on Facebook with over 75 demos and studies available in a range of media and subject matter, mostly watercolor and pastel. Check out the album if you are looking for some new original art!