A Brief Introduction to Watercolor

Why is watercolor so different from the forms of paint?

Oil painting on the left, watercolor on the right

I have heard anecdotal stories from the a number of people who experiment with creating art in multiple mediums that aside from physical vs digital, the most difficult switch to make is between watercolor, and other paints. Accomplished oil and acrylic painters initially have a hard time using watercolor, and vice-versa. On the surface these two mediums don’t seem so different, so let’s take a quick look at how these mediums are different.

Windsor & Newton oil pain set

There are 5 types of paints generally used in art. Oil, acrylic, encaustic, gouache, and watercolor. Of these 5 paint types, 4 share a common physical property; they are all opaque. This means that the colors that you see when looking at a painting done with those four are created because those paints will absorb the entire spectrum of light the color that you see, which gets reflected back to your eyes. You can mix the paints themselves to come up with different colors to apply directly to the canvas.

Because of this opacity, paintings typically start with dark colors, and lighter colors are applied as the painting gets closer to completion. This makes opaque paints more forgiving, since, you can generally paint over mistakes. In particular, oil paints also dry incredibly slowly. We’re talking about 6 months to a year before completely dry. This can make oil very forgiving because you can work on a project for months without losing the capacity to make subtle changes to the paint that’s already been applied. Contrary to what many people may intuitively think, this makes them a good medium to use while learning.

Windsor & Newton watercolor set

Watercolor paint, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. Watercolor is translucent, meaning that the color you see when viewing a watercolor painting, is the light reflected from the surface the watercolor after its been refracted through the pigment of the paint. This means that the surface the paint is applied to is going to be an influence in what the finished piece looks like so selection of paper, and paper color, has an impact. This also means that darker colors are created by applying layers of paint until the desired color is reached. This also means that blending paint colors is typically done directly on the painting. If you blend the wrong colors, recovery can be difficult because each additional application of paint darkens the color, while simply applying more water to wash the paint runs the risk of saturating the paper and making it difficult to reapply paint in that area. This also means that the lighter colors need to be considered first and gotten correct the first time because each new layer of paint applied will darken the final product.

Ironically, this means that watercolor can be much less forgiving than the other paints. I personally think that the reason most peoples intuitive reaction is that watercolor is “easy”, “childish”, or “not real art”, is based on the fact that watercolor is what people have the most exposure. They get that exposure in art class when they’re just starting school. Schools choose that medium not because it’s easy to teach but because watercolor is the cheapest of the 5 types of paint, by definition it’s water soluble meaning it’s easy to clean up any mess, and lastly the kids typically aren’t going to get frustrated that their art isn’t exactly the way they want it. Children are much less concerned with “getting it right” than adults are. They’re just enjoying the act of creative expression.

So we can see that there is definitely a reason for the rumors that watercolor is a difficult medium to learn. I also mentioned briefly what I’ve personally observed as the mainstream reaction to watercolor as an art medium. I’d like to take one last moment to point out that watercolor is the oldest paint that we know of. Natural pigments were mixed with water, or even saliva, to create large cave murals by prehistoric man. The Lascaux Cave paintings date between 15,000 to 9,000 BCE.

Just because something is simple in concept, doesn’t mean that you should think it’s irrelevant.

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Clay Ratliff

I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. An all-around neophile, currently disguised as a Solution Architect.