I’m Nik Rafin and I am a full time professional watercolor artist currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (follow me on Facebook!). I approached watercolor painting when I was 15 years of age…more than 25 years ago! Yes, I’m that old. I had my formal training in fine arts at Milwakee Institute of Art and Design in Wisconsin, USA back in 1995.
Throughout the years, I have been participating in numerous solo and group exhibitions locally and abroad. My works have been collected by individuals, government agencies and corporate sectors in Malaysia and also from all over the world.
Winsor & Newton (the professional grade) is definitely my favorite watercolor brand. I love it for its vibrancy and smooth flowing color. The professional grade has a higher concentration of pigment and permanence ratings. I also invested in a few Daler Rowney and Raphael brushes of various sizes from flat to round squirrel mop. As for the paper, I normally painted on 300gsm Fabriano. At times I’d use 640gsm Arches for a heavy wash type of painting.
Perhaps living in a multi-racial society with lots of cultural things going on in my surroundings inspires me greatly into watercolor painting. So many interesting and colorful objects and subjects made the temptation to paint irresistible. As a regular plein air artist, it made me want to record the moment fast and spontaneous. No other medium can do a better job than watercolor!
I am not that particular when it comes to choosing a subject to paint. I paint anything that grabs my attention and at the same time, to which I can relate very well. I believe being versatile in watercolor painting helps to master the medium tremendously. The capability of watercolor is endless..it would be a ‘waste’ if I just focus on one particular subject over and over again using the same kind of approach.
As the title suggests, painting in watercolor is not rocket science, however, while it’s easy to fail it’s not difficult to master.
Just like any other medium, I believe a good watercolor painting should have a good STORY, a good CONTENT and of course a good COMPOSITION. Furthermore, these 3 elements can overcome a weak technique to a certain degree. They provide an added value in a painting. (I did a mini tutorial on Advanced Composition recently. You can find it in my Facebook page.)
Having a superb technique alone without a story, content and composition is not sufficient in producing an exceptional watercolor painting. I always remind myself…DON’T JUST PAINT A PAINTING…PAINT A MASTERPIECE!
Watercolor is known for its transparency, fluidity, fast drying time, spontaneity, unpredictability and it is full of mysteries. In my opinion, it can be one of the most difficult mediums. Watercolor is ONLY active when wet. Not only are you racing with time, it is a ONE WAY JOURNEY in watercolor..NO TURNING BACK. You’ve got to do it right from the beginning until the end!
Due to these uncompromising factors, I came up with a SIMPLE but POWERFUL ‘Template’ to ensure that I paint with ease and with great confidence. Also, it helps me to visualize how I want my painting to look like when it’s done. It lets the ‘energy’ flow smoothly across the painting.
My simple and yet powerful ‘Template’ is known as:
THE 3 ZONES OF IMPORTANCE
The FIRST ZONE consists of the Focal Point or you can call it the MAIN ACTOR. This is the most important zone. To ensure its dominance and importance, I would paint it big, bold and with bright colors. It should be high in contrast. Everything inside this zone is super sharp. To achieve this, I normally used either dry on dry or wet on dry technique to produce hard edges.
The SECOND ZONE consists of the SUPPORTING ACTOR(S). This is the lesser important zone and normally it is located next to the first zone. The colors are more subdued, soft edges, shapes and not that obvious. I’d normally just state the shape of any particular thing without including the details. The Dry Brush Edges technique (Lots of pigment with less water) would be the right technique to achieve soft edges.
The THIRD ZONE is the least important of all. It is located further away from the focal point, to be exact-next to the second zone. This is the PEOPLE BEHIND THE SCENE zone. They might not share the same importance as the other two but without them the whole painting could be compromised. I would use the wet on wet technique to further soften the shapes but without eliminating too many details that help strengthens the focal point. The colors in this zone are almost monotonous and very light. This zone is also known as the lost and found zone.
Having all these 3 ZONES checked in order would help me visualize the finish product and let me work faster with great confidence.
I strongly believe the success in good watercolor painting also depends on having a good technique and how one is able to handle the brush with great confidence. The lesser the strokes, the better the quality of the watercolor painting. In order to achieve outstanding watercolor paintings, it is crucial to feel comfortable with the brush and watercolor paints. Practice regularly and the good distinctive techniques will come eventually.
I realized that the more I practice, the more mysteries of watercolor get unfolded. Besides, it helps me to increase my level of confidence in handling the brush and improving the brush strokes tremendously. It takes lots of practice to get the technique right. Without enough practice, I would not get better in watercolor. I have my own way of mastering the brush strokes while keeping the story, content and composition intact.
I did a lot of watercolor practice in the past and at present using newspapers as the source for reference pictures. Not only are newspapers cheap, but they contain a lot of good pictures with excellent stories and strong content plus good composition too! (These pictures, of course, were used only for practice purposes)
One way of developing my confidence with the brush is by painting without having initial drawing done with pencil. I would just paint in the shapes that I see from the reference photo or the scene straight away onto the watercolor paper, starting from the lightest to the darkest, leaving the white paper as white. I’d normally group the colors into 3 tones: light, dark and middle gray.
The easiest way to identify light, dark and middle gray tones is by squinting. Squinting will filter various colors into simpler tones. Make sure the eye is almost shut and the 3 tones will be visible. Also, by doing this, I get to identify bigger shapes easily.
I would give myself a time limit to complete the exercise depending on how complicated the reference photo is. I used a large brush for large shapes, medium brush for smaller shapes and small brush for details…not otherwise! By doing so, managing lesser strokes becomes possible.
Lesser strokes means lesser time to complete a painting and far more powerful than an overworked painting. Usually, I would mix colors limiting to only 3 color pigments in order to preserve transparency. This could add ‘glow’ in a painting.
Besides learning to master the brush control, this exercise helps me to determine how much water I mix with the paint to establish intensity of the color and its effect on transparency. Furthermore, this exercise helps me become good in mixing different colors to create different hues.
Watercolor painting is very challenging, but knowing the right techniques and planning ahead of time can be worthwhile.