Dipping into the Challenging World of Watercolors
December 10, 2008
With pencil and paint brush in hand, students in Margaret Chapman's watercolor class at the June M. Hughes Arts & Crafts Center quietly bend over their work, focusing on how to create their interpretation of the shapes and shadows of their subject matter.
In one area of the class, students are drawing and painting a grouping of three angels with trumpets. In another area, some students are working on recreating a wooden toy truck in watercolors while another group focuses on drawing a still life of fruit, cheese and a wine bottle.
It's exacting work, requiring a lot of concentration to transfer the shapes, shadows and colors from the mind's eye of the artist onto their paper.
But the challenge is worth it.
"It's relaxing to try to draw something and then to paint it with watercolors," said student Carl Oliver, a retired civil servant. "I was told that watercolors were one of the hardest mediums to paint in. But the colors are beautiful."
"I love everything about watercolors," said student Julie Valentin, whose husband is retired military and who has taken several art classes over the years at the Arts & Crafts Center. "I visit a store and see a beautiful watercolor painting, and I want to do my own. Playing around with watercolors is very relaxing for me."
Even for their beauty, most artists understand why watercolors can be difficult. Watercolor painting is unique from oil or acrylic painting because the water used in the painting can change the absorbency and shape of the paper when it is wet, and the outlines and appearance of the paint when it is dry. Watercolor artists must be able to anticipate and plan for the changes water can cause in their work.
Watercolor paints also do not hide mistakes and the paper used in watercolor painting is delicate. Watercolor paints can't be painted over or scraped off, as with oil or acrylic paints on canvas. Successful watercolor artists minimize mistakes by making a precise outline drawing of their subject before painting, and then using small brushes, painting small areas and allowing paint to dry before proceeding to other adjacent areas.
"Watercolors are not forgiving," said Chapman, a fine arts instructor at the Arts & Crafts Center.
"An opaque medium like oils or acrylics allows you to paint over mistakes or make changes. With watercolor, once it's down on the paper it's there. It's a wonderful thing if you let the paint do its own thing. But if you have an idea that you want to create, then it's you against the watercolor."
And, yet, artists love the challenge of watercolors because, Chapman said, the end result can be quite exceptional.
"Watercolors are translucent. They create beautiful color. And the paper you work with is wonderful," she said. "As you face the still life you are trying to create and consider how to go about it, you are really immersed in your situation."
The watercolor class offered this year at the Arts & Crafts Center (building 3615 on Gray Road) by Family and Morale, Recreation and Welfare has been popular with students as have been a number of other art classes, including basic drawing, stained glass, photography, and matting and framing.
The students in Chapman's watercolor class are experienced in the realm of art. They were required to either take the center's basic drawing class or submit a portfolio of work before advancing to the watercolor class. Many have taken art classes at the center for several years.
"They are good artists to start with and they love what they are doing. Drawing is nothing new to this group," Chapman said. "But transferring of the knowledge of modeling basic shapes and values in watercolors is something they are all learning about."
The eight-week class has taught students how to use watercolors with curved surfaces and flat surfaces, and how to create basic shapes, tones and values in a painting. They've learned the five techniques of watercolor painting -- wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, graded wash, flat wash and dry brush.
"They've learned to use one color of wash on basic shapes," she said. "They've learned the wet-on-wet technique, which is a traditional watercolor technique we used to create shadows on cubes and cherries (subject matter in the early lessons of the class). We experimented with flat surfaces and curved surfaces, and we mixed tones to get them just right. Now we're ready to learn the color wheel."
Chapman has taught the students about basic color theory, showing them how to use the primary colors of red, yellow and blue to mix all the colors of the color wheel. She's also taught them how to mix shades by using opposites on the color wheel, and how to use warm and cool colors for shadows.
"Color mixing is one of the biggest problems for students, and that is a challenge that you learn by doing," Chapman said. "We talk color a lot."
The lessons on color can be used for more than watercolor painting.
"I have really learned a lot about mixing colors. This has really been good for me and what I've learned about color can be used in any medium," said Lindy Kewatt, a retired sergeant who now works as a contractor for the Space and Missile Defense Command.
Working with watercolors is a lesson in patience for student Aleta Graham.
"You start with a little paint and build up. But while you are doing that you can't build up too fast because the paper gets wet," she said. "That's hard for me because I want to get it done."
While they may be a challenge to work with on paper, watercolors also give artists a sense of mobility, an opportunity to work easily out in the field not offered by messy and smelly oils and acrylics.
"A watercolor doesn't require smelly turpentine. It's just water and a little paint," Chapman said. "So, it's easy to take with you wherever you go."
For student Renee West, an AMCOM contractor, watercolors were an appealing choice over the problems associated with oils and acrylics.
"I started out with watercolors because I'm allergic to some of the oils and acrylics, and the chemical smells," she said.
Chapman has studied art since she was a child. She is an art major graduate from Auburn University, and has taught art at the high school level. She joined the staff of the Arts & Crafts Center in June, and has taught a series of basic drawing classes and is now expanding into charcoal, and oil and acrylic classes.
"Art is just something that I love, and being with people and helping them with their art is something I enjoy," she said, adding that she will be offering several art classes next year.
Editor's note: Art students interested in taking an art class at the Arts & Crafts Center can contact Laura Metzger, email@example.com or 876-7951. New evening classes in basic drawing, sketching and painting, watercolor painting and landscape painting will be offered in early 2009. The Arts & Crafts Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Do-It-Yourself sessions are offered on Wednesdays from 2 to 6:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.