Watercolors are one of the first media we paint with as a child. Remember the rectangular boxes all covered with pigment? Try to open them but many have been sealed shut by the pigment. Once it’s finally open there is one brush that is missing most of the bristles, a blue that is nearly gone, a yellow that has a dried pool of brown in the middle and for the rest of the colors they all have a hint of black added to them. This was my youth with watercolor painting.
Now I am an art teacher. The first day in my new art room, I opened the watercolor drawer, grabbed the first box, and like I traveled through time. There was the same color stains, virtually impossible to open, one broken down brush and a tie die of colors everywhere within. Which leads me to say, I hate watercolors.
Hate is a strong word, let me adjust to sort of kind of dislike. Besides the frustration in youth and as a teacher working with those entry level watercolors, I never really gave the media of watercolor my full attention. As an educator I have discussed and reviewed an array of watercolor works artists such as; Albrecht Durer, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and certainly Charles Burchfield. But as I have viewed and discussed their works I never focused in on their watercolor techniques while my attention was more on the cognitive value of their work. Discussing symbolism, texture, and value but not the process of using watercolors. Maybe, I have some deep seeded distain with the medium? Maybe I feel the paints have done me wrong in some way, I have never real been sure, until recently.
I am currently nearing the end of my graduate studies courses in Art Education at SUNY Buffalo State. I’m taking a course where we meet at the Burchfield Penny Arts Center once a week. The word “watercolor” has been brought up numerous times in class. Immediately all I could visualize was a sealed rectangular box. When I started putting together that the museum was named after Charles E. Burchfield who used watercolors as his medium, there had to be something I was missing. I noticed Burchfield’s details, the layering of his composition, expanding his watercolors, and the way the lines changed weight with subtle tonal changes caught my attention. My creative mind started to race.
I am an artist by night. I dabble in several mediums; wood, charcoal, oil paints, acrylic, screen printing, you name it. I sell my work, I have shown my work, but not one has been with watercolor. After further inspection of Burchfield’s paintings, I decided to purchase my own watercolor set. I expected to find rectangular boxes as far as the eye could see, but I was disillusioned. As I arrived to the watercolor section, I noticed only three or four of the boxed watercolor sets and the rest were all in tubes that looked like oil paint containers. Reaching for a set of eight, I thought since I was new to this why not just buy a small set, I saw the price of 80 dollars! I realized quickly that watercolors have something else going on here, I was not ready for such a financial commitment. I looked through many different options and decided on a mid-tier package that included about 20 different colors. Arriving at home, I began to paint and realized quickly I was wrong.
Watercolors are amazing. Immediately I noticed the control you have. First the ability to apply it thick or thin. I had always seen watercolor paintings with heavy contrast and thought that had taken weeks of layering, little did I know you can apply the medium as thick as acrylic and as light as water. Second I was impressed with the amount of control you have over the lines. As the brush moved across the paper you could see every movement of my hand, heave and light paint strokes, moving from side to side, perfectly matching every gesture I had made. Finally I was amazed by the tonal ranges that can be created. Through a little patience and layering color, I could match an atmosphere or mood.
I owe the world of watercolors an apology, especially Charles Burchfield. I see why he used this diverse medium to communicate with the world. More importantly, I discover watercolors are a great educational tool because of their range. I can teach layering, tonal changes, line weight, expressionism, and so on. I ‘m currently developing multiple lesson plans that focus on using watercolor as the primary medium.
The bottom line is, watercolor painting opens a door to creativity. Remember to keep the mixing trays and color containers clean and the brushes safe.
Matt Daggett is a Middle School Art teacher and Artist who is currently finishing his graduate studies in the Art Education Program at SUNY Buffalo State.