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Watercolor's so HARD!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The most oft-repeated and least true thing that gets said about watercolor.

"Oh. You paint in watercolor?? Watercolor's so HARD!"
Always makes me scratch my head. It's this thing that people who've never even tried watercolor say. It's this thing that people who've tried watercolor say. And I think they repeat it because everybody else says it. But...harder than what? Acrylic? Oil? Pastel? A rock? Diamond drill bits?

It may have something to do with the fable that you can't correct anything in watercolor after it's dried. Not so. I'm here to show you how.

As an illustrator, you do a lot of stuff. You get asked to illustrate things about which you may know next to nothing. Before the Age of The Google, you were stuck with what reference in books and magazines that you could get your physical gloms on.  And it was in this Age of Innocence that I painted a big brown bat using echolocation, for a Bird Watcher's Digest booklet by Rob and Kim Mies titled, "Understanding Bats."

I did my best, and my best pretty much sucked. I didn't know anything about bats, and I kind of made up the face. Maybe there's a bat somewhere on the planet that looks like this, but it sure isn't a big brown. Some kind of weird African mastiff bat, maybe. And those teeth? From hunger.

So Bill asked if BWD could re-use this and a couple of other paintings for  a new, revised edition of the "Understanding Bats" booklet. Sure, I said, and miraculously, and after four passes through a 12-drawer oaken flatfile, I finally found the originals. 

And was aghast. I couldn't let THAT fugly face go to print, with all I've learned and all I've loved about bats between 1996 and now! I remember it was 1996 because I was pregnant with Phoebe when I painted it, and Rob and Kim (then of the Organization for Bat Conservation) let me watch them feed their bats in their camper trailer in the parking lot of BWD. And I was all uncharacteristically spooky about contact with the bats and being pregnant and disease and stuff. Being pregnant will do that to you. Fortunately it was a correctible condition.

As was the mastiff-like face of the bat. Eminently correctible, even 17 years later. What you do is

you dip your brush in clear water, pool it on the offending area, and scrub. 

You suck up the pigment and the bad juju in the brush, rinse and repeat. If the ear's bad, you scrub that out, too.

And then when it's all dry, you paint a big brown bat face what am a big brown bat face over the scrubby part. Better. Far from perfect, but not fugly.

And the whole thing looks a lot better for it.

Ryan Amos, Big Brown Bat. Note blunt-tipped tragus. If he were a little brown bat, it'd be pointed and narrower.

Speaking of bat faces, I've been doing some retro-research on the True Identity of Ryan Amos and Drusilla, the two purported big brown bats I took through this past winter. I finally knuckled down and consulted some field guides. Couldn't make hide nor hair of the differences using photos in the Kaufman Focus Guide, because they didn't show the tragus (the little process in the front of the ear); nor did they show the back feet of big brown or little brown bats.

So I consulted Fiona Reid's Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America, which uses her careful watercolor paintings. And then it was clear. Both my kids were big browns, with a wide, blunt (not pointed) tragus, and short hairs (not long hairs) on their hind toes. Yes, these are the distinctions we use to differentiate bats. It's subtle stuff, and I'm always questioning myself. Do I even know what I'm looking at?? They looked like big browns; they acted like big browns (feisty as all get out, and bitey too), but they were small (15 gm for Ryan, and 17 for Dru). And I wondered. Now I know.

Yahoo. Here's to watercolor painting, here's to paintings in field guides, and here's to the search for truth and somewhat improved beauty.

And making your mistakes into birds. Yeah, they're birds now.


Yay and love from a devoted fan who has never picked up a paint brush. Good study! (and of course i have the old BWD book).Xxoom

Posted by Anonymous May 16, 2013 at 4:17 AM

I did watercolor in Jr. High and High School - we went to San Diego Bay to paint boats in the water. That was hard, getting the water to look like water. I've not done any painting since, but knowing the basics of what it takes makes me admire your output even more (kind of like listening to opera - I sing, but not like that!!).

It is always fun to track down a definitive ID - it creates a little tiny bit of order in the chaos of our lives!

Regional variations, gotta love them.

Geeez, I miss Bob Ross and all his 'happy little accidents.' :-) That show was more calming than a half-hour of transcendental meditation. I don't suppose you two ever had occasion to cross paths?

THANK YOU! I've always had people say that watercolors are so hard, and are amazed that I can work with them with no major problems. . .they're not hard, you just have to not be afraid of making mistakes (I expect mistakes, and actually hope that I make them, just so I can fix them)

You made me remember a heretofore successfully buried incident: I once did the scrubby thing to a watercolor to fix something I couldn't live with, and then, with much roughened paper that took the paint all funky, I put in pretty much the exact same thing. I don't know whether it's like starting over in your garden and then putting the Big Tree exactly where the Old Big Tree was, even though another place would have been better, but it seems that way.

I also gave a bat an extra finger in a drawing in my book and had to do that over. Who would know? I would. And you too of course.

I hear this a lot too. Watercolor can be hard, if you don't know how to use it. It requires a whole process of thinking forward since you just can't slap down paint and paint over with lighter colors to get the image you want. I think that's what people are referring to, and the fact that a lot of people only have experienced the medium through the horrible little sets we used in grade school, which give nothing but mud.

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