If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I’ve fallen hard for watercolors. I’m posting pictures several times a week: some I’m proud of and some I’m frustrated by. I dream about watercolors, when I am not having that dream where you go to a party and realize halfway through that no one is wearing masks. My art adventure started in July with basic of learning how to draw, and then in September I tried a watercolor of White Lake. I’m saving the before/after until I’ve been doing this for a year, assuming I’m still interested this summer. But I’ve made a lot of progress.
I’ve been waiting for two weeks breathlessly for a shipment from an art store. (Shockingly Amazon isn’t a good source for the stuff I’m trying to buy.) I’ve been whining a lot about how it’s taken TWO WEEKS to get me these paints. I, unlike most Americans, like STUFF. When I was a kid, the best part of going to school was that sweet, sweet 64 crayon box with all the sharp, unblemished colors. I’m not alone in having learned the names of every crayon Crayola produced for years. But my art education never advanced past the Crayola and Coloring phase, although my love for colors shows in my extensive pen selection.
For years, the closest I’ve come to artistic expression has been stamping cards. This is also a pleasure with color and paper – the sharpness of a crease, the perfect match of pattern, image and words. My favorite was always coloring in the stain glass window stamps with watercolor pencils – a bare step above coloring book and crayola. But with the water colors, all the joy of the 64 box has come flooding back, but with even more complex and multilayered joys.
One of the first books I read advised me to buy about 8 colors of paint. So I went to Michael’s and bought 8 tubes of cheap student’s paint (appropriate, given my skill level). The book had instructions on how to mix the colors to make other colors, but neglected to understand just how inexperienced a student might be. I struggled mightily squeezing out gobs of paint trying to get proportions right and cleaning huge amounts of paint off my little plastic palette after every picture. It felt… wrong and wasteful. Because it was wrong and wasteful.
I’ve been doing a lot of classes from a teacher online, and my new strategy has been to have blick.com up for the materials section of every class and buy everything I don’t already have. NORMALLY they’re here by the next weekend’s painting time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the tools and my preferences. For example, the right brush is absolutely transformational – at least at my skill level. I adore indigo with a deep and enduring passion, but cerulean is just meh. And it’s not just the one color, it’s the colors as you move from pure paint to nearly-water with the same paint. It’s the richness of the paint, and how the paint loves the water. Whether it longs for or disdains the paper. Is it smooth? Is is translucent? Does it haunt your dreams? But it’s hard to guess by paint names. I mean, cerulean is a great color name. Indigo is boringer. But I love indigo so much.
So this last order I got a dot sheet, which allows you to paint from a tiny dot of watercolor all 109 colors that Winsor & Newton make. 109 times you introduce the paint to the water, and share both with the paper. It’s a deeply contemplative activity (how can a person be bad at painting swatches? But yet I am.) It took me almost two quiet hours. And in that time I delved into a world previously unseen to me. Each color is coded with the permanence, series number, staining, granulation, transparency and light-fastness. These are realms I have not considered.
As the time spread like water on the paper, I also started contemplating the color names – so different from their Crayola predecessors. I think of myself as having a pretty good vocabulary, but have never heard of perylene or quinacridone or gamboge or indanthrene. Mysterious patterns lay themselves out: there are cadmiums of every color, and then a non-cadmium option. Why? What makes the cadmiums both so prized and so flawed that they cannot be left out but also need some alternative? What does it mean that there is one Winsor in every color. Does that harken to the manufacturer? Does it mean the base color, like a box of 8 crayons? Then we go a step farther. One of the colors is caput mortuum violet. I know that once they made a paint called mummy brown, made of mummies. Is this … latin for mummy brown? There is a tale to this color, likely over a century old. And every color in this swatch. And then there is also the science to it. Intrigued, I looked it up and caput mortuum is made from hematite and the name stretches further back than the 19th century to the alchemical experiments of the enlightenment and yes. Is related to mummy brown.
I stand on the banks of the river of my ignorance and am only now seeing just how deep and wide those waters run. Truly, I have known nothing and come to this as a babe. It’s been so long since I have approached something so innocently. I mean, this is just paint colors that have my heart running fast with excitement tonight. There are other paint manufacturers, who have other storied colors. There are other kinds of watercolors, like the unpronounceable and unspellable gouache. There are brushes. I know they matter, but I do not know what they MEAN. The papers, sold with so many languages on their covers, hint at sacred mysteries like cold pressing and rough grain. (Are these mutually exclusive? How do they change the dance with the paints and the brush?) There are techniques, and trick and things everyone knows (did Picasso have one shade of blue he used in his blue period?). There’s the difference between pigment and hue. There’s how to see, and how to communicate what you see, and which tools you need to pick for what you’re trying to do. And that’s before we get to acrylics or oils.
In this pandemic time, I feel like all my horizons are room-sized: small and constrained and maybe just a little worn. Watching this world of painting unfold in my own mind is like braving a winter hike to stand on a summit and gaze beyond purpling horizons lined with mountains. When I first started hiking, those mountains were unnamed and undifferentiated too. And now I know them with the intimacy born of sweat and suffering.
There is no telling how long this phase of exploration lasts. Do I quit when progress is no longer immediate? Is my time swallowed by the return of the world? Does it lose its charm? Do I develop a near-fatal allergy to cadmium? Even here I have no path, and simply walk ahead, seeing what vistas may yet await me the next time I pick up a brush.