GUEST ARTIST: “Finding Your Own Personal Expression” by Virgil Carter

World Watercolor Month - Watercolor painting by Virgil Carter - landscape - Doodlewash

“No great artist ever sees things as they really are.   If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”
– Oscar Wilde

My name is Virgil Carter, and I’m a watercolor painter, teacher, workshop leader and Internet commentator.  I live in Boerne, Texas and paint in the Texas Hill Country, as well as from my global travels.

World Watercolor Month - Watercolor painting by Virgil Carter - landscape - DoodlewashI paint and teach a variety of watercolor subjects, but especially enjoy painting landscapes and town/urban scapes. I am concerned with telling stories in paint which share a personal and expressive idea, emotion or feeling about my subjects.  Color and light figure strongly in all of my work.

I am fortunate to be a signature member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society, Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the Philadelphia Watercolor Society.  I’m also a member of the Boerne Art League and the Guadalupe Watercolor Group.  I’m a retired architect and past Head of the School of Architecture, Oklahoma State University.As a watercolor painter, teacher and workshop leader, I’m used to hearing students ask, “How can I find my painting style? How can I find my own personal expression?”  It’s an important question for every serious painter.  A quick answer is “Paint 100 paintings and your style will find you! You won’t have to worry about finding it!”  In other words, put mileage on your brushes, and practice, practice, practice!  But there are some ways to approach painting which make it easier and enjoyable to find your own personal expression.

Painting Loosely and Colorfully

I approach painting and teaching watercolor by urging students to strive to paint “loosely and colorfully”.  What does that mean?  For one thing, it means forgetting most of the more conventional watercolor “rules” about painting realistically what one’s eyes see.  Instead, I suggest painting what your heart feels about a subject.  Edgar Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see!”

Painting “loosely” is really just about paintings which appear spontaneous and look like they were fun to create.  Loose paintings never appear labored or overworked, and details are often minimized or ignored.

World Watercolor Month - Watercolor painting by Virgil Carter - landscape - Doodlewash

“Hill Country Morning Breaks, No. 2”, is an original watercolor 15” X 11”, one of a series, on 300-pound Kilimanjaro cold press paper using American Journey and Davinci paints.  The painting is loose and colorful exploration of the transformation of the beautiful Texas Hill Country by the color of the very early morning sun. Painting in a series is an excellent way to explore a wide range of “loose and colorful” ideas in paint!

World Watercolor Month - Watercolor painting by Virgil Carter - landscape - Doodlewash

“Hill country Last Light, No. 1”, is an original watercolor 15” X11”, one of a series, on 300-pound Kilimanjaro cold press paper using American Journey and Davinci paints.  The painting explores the colorful change in emotions and feelings of the subject through the use of last light and a loose, colorful approach.

Strong and memorable paintings often tell stories, suggest ideas, or convey feelings or emotions.  Painting loosely and colorfully opens the doors and frees painters to tell their stories about almost every possible subject.  Approaching a painting loosely and colorfully encourages sharing ideas, feelings and emotions one has for a subject in highly personal and expressive ways, i.e., one’s personal expression.

Figuring Out Your Story

Watercolor painting is both a thinking exercise and a technical exercise of mixing and applying paint.  It’s usually a good idea for a painter to figure out the story they want to tell before picking up a brush!  Sargent said, “Watercolor is making the best of an emergency!”, meaning that the water, paint and gravity frequently have a will of their own, so in most cases painters would do well to have their intent for the painting clearly understood before picking up the brush and applying the first paint passage.

“To paint a successful watercolor it seems one must know what the finished result will look like before the first stroke of a blossoming color is applied to the paper.”
– Dianne Middleton

Fortunately, there’s a secret weapon available for painters which enables exploring their story and deciding the best approach for telling it.  The secret weapon is a sketchbook, aided by a soft pencil!

World Watercolor Month - Virgil Carter sketchbook - Doodlewash

A series of sketchbook studies for “Cypress Creek Sunrise, No. 1 and No. 4”, and other work.

The sketchbook is the perfect place to explore one’s ideas for a subject using small, quick thumbnail sketches.  These sketches allow the exploration of design, composition and value structures quickly and easily.  A series of thumbnail sketches also serves to familiarize the painter with the subject, and eliminate the hesitancy for a subject when painting is underway.  Said differently, a sketchbook is a painter’s GPS and gets the painter past the first ten minutes of a painting.

Secrets for Painting Loosely and Colorfully

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things I had no words for.”
– Georgia O’Keeffe

I paint and teach using three “secrets” to make it easy and fun to paint loosely and colorfully.  Here are the secrets:

1. Learn to see, design and paint using simple, but visually interesting shapes

World Watercolor Month - Watercolor painting by Virgil Carter - landscape - Doodlewash

“North Woods, No. 6” is an original watercolor, 30” X 11” on 300-pound Kilimanjaro cold press paper using American Journey and Davinci paints.  The painting uses a combination of large and interconnected shapes to tell the story of the beauty of the southeast coast of Maine. Without the large shapes, there would be no story!

Design your painting, and tell your story, using several large dominant, interconnected and interesting shapes.  Don’t worry about visual realism or local accuracy. Let your imagination run free with personal and expressive shapes. Viewers of your work are intelligent and they will quickly identify what you are painting.  Importantly, if your paintings aren’t composed of large and visually interesting shapes, no amount of small detail will save the painting.

2. Energize your painting through the use of a wide variety of edges

Shapes are defined by their edges.  A variety of edges throughout a painting will create visual movement, hold the viewer’s attention longer and make clear to viewers what is truly important in the painting, and what is secondary.  Not everything in a painting can be equally important!  There are at least three types of edges which every “loose and colorful” painter should use:

Hard edges

Hard edges are created by wet applications of paint on dry paper.  These edges always attract and hold the viewer’s eye.  They tend to be best reserved for the truly important elements in a painting—the focal point or area of interest, for example. Be very cautious about making every shape in your painting a hard-edged shape.

Soft edges

Soft edges can be created in a variety of ways:  wet into wet; wet on dry, followed by gently lifting to create a soft edge; etc.  The eye is attracted briefly to these edges, but moves on after a brief gaze.  Soft edges are complementary and supportive of hard edges, and best used for secondary and intermediate passages in a painting.

Lost edges

Lost edges are a bit more challenging to create and usually require adjacent passages of similar hue and/or similar value, or both. The viewer’s eye is not attracted to lost edges and does not pause, but keeps moving to other parts of the painting.  Thus, lost edges are wonderful for encouraging movement to the more important parts of a painting.  In addition, soft edges are wonderful for suggesting distance , depth and space in a painting.

3. Be bold and imaginative with color

For a painting to be “colorful”, one simply must use rich, bold color in energetic and personal ways.  Paint-water ratios must be paint rich, and each brush application must be made with a fully loaded brush.  Here’s another secret for colorful paintings:  change the color every two inches!  Sound childish, but it works!

Rather than be locked into local color, there are many other, more creative approaches to make one’s work personally expressive.  For example, consider colors which suggest strong emotions; exaggerated colors; “what if” color approaches; climatic/environmental/lighting colors such as sunrise and sunset; and outrageous/outside-the-box colors.  The range of approaches for color, beyond local color, is so broad and expansive that it’s almost impossible to describe them all!

For best watercolor effect, the colors may be introduced directly into the painting and allowed to mix together on the paper and left alone.  Mixing colors on one’s palette often “homogenizes” the mixture and doesn’t allow the marvelous blending of colors on the paper which is the hallmark of watercolors.  Never, ever, overwork or be fussy about paint and color applications.  Get in and get out—here’s where minimal strokes are important!

Why Paint Loosely and Colorfully?

Thinking about and painting loosely and colorfully is a “freeing” exercise in paint!  It frees one from attempting to realistically render a subject, and frees one from the worry of local design, composition and colors.  It frees one to be personally expressive and tell one’s story in a unique manner.

Painting loosely and colorfully can lead to highly expressive works which, over time and with experience, become truly recognizable as unique personal expressions by individual artists.

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  – Jackson Pollock

Watercolor artist Virgil Carter - DoodlewashRemember, finding one’s direction—one’s own, unique personal expression in painting—is the goal of serious painting.  I wish you a happy journey as you seek to find your own personal direction and expression.  Comments and critique welcome!

Virgil Carter
Fine Art America
Doodlewash Gallery



Recommended8 recommendationsPublished in Featured Artists, Tutorials
  1. Jessica Seacrest 6 years ago

    Happy to see your guest feature Virgil! As I’ve said many times in World Watercolor Group- I love your work and your wonderful palette. It’s nice to read a bit about you and your process.

  2. Laura 6 years ago

    Beautiful art! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jill Gustavis 6 years ago

    Lovely read! I was really interested in your perspective on how you approach the structure of a painting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Shannon 6 years ago

    Great blog! Loaded with good information for a newbie! Thanks😊

  5. Tom Fagan 6 years ago

    Cool Beans, Virgil. Great read and much to consider.

    • Virgil Carter 6 years ago

      Thanks, Tom–when the weather cools down we’re going to have to go painting again!

  6. Catnip Blog 6 years ago

    love the free flowing color!!

  7. Virgil Carter 6 years ago

    Charlie, many thanks for the opportunity to share some ideas about watercolor!

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 6 years ago

      Thrilled to have you as a guest artist, Virgil! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge in such an informative and wonderful post!! 😃

  8. Virgil, I really enjoyed your article and your painting, in particular the last two paintings!

    Love this quote from you; Painting loosely and colorfully can lead to highly expressive works which, over time and with experience, become truly recognizable as unique personal expressions by individual artists.

  9. Susan Cuss 6 years ago

    I enjoyed your article and drooled over your paintings! Thank you for sharing your work and your ideas.

  10. a.filmer 6 years ago

    Your paintings are beautiful. The bold, loose colors are fabulous.

  11. Nancy Sapp 6 years ago

    Virgil – Your article was very informative & your paintings are flowing & gorgeous. I need to practice, practice, & practice some more! Just wish there was MORE time to practice.

  12. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 6 years ago

    Virgil, your art is gorgeous and expresses what only watercolor can. Thank you for generously sharing such great information about watercolor painting. This one post is an entire course.

    • Virgil Carter 6 years ago

      Thank you, Sharon. I hope it’s helpful for your painting!

  13. nkvorka 6 years ago

    Beautiful work Virgil, thank you for the tips, especially about the use of color.

  14. Thoughts Explored 6 years ago

    These are stunning!

  15. dianegklock 6 years ago

    Excellent informative piece , thanks for sharing it with us. I for one will be giving some of these ideas a go .

    • Virgil Carter 6 years ago

      Hi Diane! Thanks for the kind words, especially from a painter of your caliber! 🙂

  16. Kaye Boggs 6 years ago

    I can only repeat what everyone else has posted about your beautiful free spirit art.

  17. Martha Keim 6 years ago

    Here you are again, Virgil

  18. Tammy Midkiff 6 years ago

    Virgil, Great article! I love your work and style of Watercolor. I have taken your workshop and you are a fabulous instructor.

  19. EK O'Connor 6 years ago

    What a fantastic portfolio and article! Made my day coming in tonight and enjoying reading this.

  20. Martha Keim 6 years ago

    Virgil, it was Nita Leland and I had a blast.

  21. indigojomuses 6 years ago

    Great article!

  22. roseelaineblog 5 years ago

    Great paintings, such vibrant colours and great advice, I started out with watercolours then moved to acrylics and oils, I might just have to get my watercolours out again. Thanks very much for the inspiration…… Elaine 🌹

  23. Teri Casper 5 years ago

    I’m happy I looked back and found this. Wonderful words of wisdom. Thank you so much.

  24. Sharon Nolfi 5 years ago

    Your paintings are beautiful. Thanks for the tips.

  25. Elizabeth Metz 5 years ago

    Your paintings make me feel like I’m in a magical world somewhere. <3

  26. Jennifer McLean 5 years ago

    such a beautiful and unique use of color. Thanks so much for sharing.

  27. Mary L Hockett Thoma 5 years ago

    RE: Edges, really sank in. I had not given edges the emphasis they deserve. Thank you for your insights.

  28. Gaeyle Gerrie-Boss 4 years ago

    wonderful insights!

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