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  • Jennifer Gillen

The Systematic Nature of Watercolor


It's important to save the white or light areas of a watercolor painting because white paint is not used. This photo shows how I paint around light areas of the painting. This process requires planning.

I like order and systems. It’s not what first comes to mind when people think about art. The popular idea about creating art is that it relies on spontaneity and intuition. The caricature of an artist is usually a person in paint splattered clothes working in a wild swirl of inspiration. Working systematically is more often attributed to scientists and people in the business world. However, watercolor requires a comprehensive plan and a vision of the end goal before a painting begins.


Unlike other types of painting, watercolor demands commitment. Once the pigment is applied to the paper, there is very little turning back. It is difficult to correct mistakes or change your mind midcourse. A careful plan has to be devised before the painting begins. The very lightest parts of the painting, the whites and highlights, rely on paper that is not covered in paint. These areas have to be planned for and protected.


This photo shows a painting in progress. The drawing serves a guide and a foundation for the painting. I erase it as I move through the painting.

I enjoy thinking about the order in which each color will be layered. Some paint will lift right off the page if you try to paint over it with another color. It’s important to consider when to use colors that lift off and colors that stain the paper and refuse to lift. Some watercolorists work in an impressionistic style. They use a rough sketch and allow the movement of the paint in the water to steer the course of the painting. These artists must also consider how to save the light areas and how to layer the paint.


Watercolorists must be patient. They need to know when to let the painting rest to dry and when it’s safe to layer on more paint. In botanical painting, it helps to slow down and use precision when working around the small parts of a plant. The smallest details may take the most time. Botanical artists often draw a detailed outline of the plant before painting. This is important because the plant can change after just a few hours of painting due to wilting, losing petals or blooming. Sometimes it helps to paint the part that will change first and refer to a drawing and photos for the rest.


For each of my paintings, the order is similar but never the same. I enjoy knowing exactly where each piece is going before I begin. I start with a clear mental plan, a certain palette of paints and a precise drawing of the subject. It takes away the suspense of whether the painting will turn out okay or completely bomb. This makes the process smooth, systematic and stress-free. Some artists might find that boring but I like it. Watercolor fits my working style perfectly.



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