SPECIAL FEATURE: “How My Tools Help Create Watercolor Breakthroughs!” by Angela Fehr

At the heart of watercolor painting there are really only a few techniques you are tasked with learning. Working wet in wet, wet on dry, dry brush, just master these…and then expand on these techniques! Of course, every watercolor artist will tell you that within those few techniques are unlimited variances, and adding value, design, color and color theory into the mix expands the repertoire even further. 

If you’re just getting started with watercolor painting, just mastering those early techniques feels overwhelming. It’s showing up physically — actively painting and observing — that builds the muscle memory that takes watercolor from unexpected and frustrated to spontaneous and delightful, and as your ability to anticipate what will happen grows with practice and one day you find yourself in a rhythm of trust that allows you to play responsively with what is happening on the paper. I think this is one reason why artists often start out with a desire for a lot of control and a realistic approach, and then over time shift toward intuitive, semi- or fully-abstracted painting styles. We want to play with the fluidity and spontaneity of watercolor!

Because I’ve been painting for nearly 30 years – longer than any other relationship in my life! – I often feel that what I have to contribute to the painting can become limited and predictable. I only know so many tricks, and after this long, they are starting to feel a little tired. How do I keep zest and energy in my art when my hand knows the movements my brush should make, my color choices are established, and I have used the same painting strategies over and over?

One way I fight to keep from being too predictable is to allow for expansion in technique. I do this by inviting a lot of fluidity into my painting practice. I really want the paint to do more; to surprise me so I can move in new directions. I will often react to my first brush strokes by releasing them with my spray bottle so that they move beyond where I have placed them. I make the techniques more unpredictable so that I can react in unpredictable ways!

I also like to expand on my supplies, bringing in new materials or tools to work with. A new color of paint will surprise me with the colors it creates as it mixes with old favorites. I’ll often get obsessed with a single color for a time, really pushing it to perform and mix with other hues, letting it inform my paintings. Because paint behavior can get a little predictable, I’ve been playing a lot with water-soluble crayons (Neocolor II are my favorites) or watercolor sticks from Daniel Smith. I can make strong marks with these tools, and then spray with water to create some flow, or smudge with my finger. A new, different-shaped brush, a handmade brush with a lot of flex (or even a scruffy old brush) will create unexpected marks that my hand didn’t orchestrate as deftly, bringing movement and energy to my shapes. 

When I visit art supply stores, I don’t spend a lot of time in the watercolor section. I like to wander into other areas of the shop and look for tools or materials I can adapt into my watercolor practice. Palette knives for scraping paint, graphite powder or putty for value studies or interesting mark-making. The soft tools used for PanPastels; could they work as watercolor brushes? Can I try using a printmaking plate or stencil for creating stamped effects on my paper? What would that surface feel like for watercolor? Could I sprinkle that powder into a wash? Everything becomes a potential experiment to wake up a tired painting practice and remind me that in art, I get to do whatever I want. 

I don’t think my art practice will ever get tired if I am willing to allow surprise to play a dominant role in my creative practice. 

The #worldwatercolormonth prompt for July 8th, MECHANISM, reminded me that everything that I do in watercolor requires tools and strategies, but the tools and strategies are the intermediary between my artistic voice and the art that is created. If I lose sight of my own desire to communicate through my art and simply focus on mastering technique, I might be able to create an accurate, technically accomplished painting, but is that the best result I could hope for? Wouldn’t it be better to show up wholeheartedly in my art, saying what I want to be free to say, letting myself feel safe to connect personally with the shapes and colors emerging on the page? As I work with the intermediaries of my brushes, paint and paper to express my imagination on paper, my imagination uses the mechanism of watercolor to see ideas come to life. I’ve chosen watercolor as my medium, and I’ve filled my toolbox with strategies that serve as mechanisms for my art to emerge from the paper. Whatever the tools I use, and however random it sometimes might feel, what shows up on the paper is mine; it came from me, it shows something of my heart and what is in me to be expressed in that moment. 

I follow the artistic team of Lolo & Sosaku (their Instagram account is here) for this very purpose; the art they make includes sculpture, sound and kinetic art and sometimes, people are offended by the little machines they create, twitching and vibrating on paper, smearing paint, making marks, seemingly random. And yet, these little machines have been built by artists and are the chosen expression of those artists’ voice, and there’s something really open and trusting about the fact that these artists are willing to trust their vision to the robotic movement of these mechanisms. Their work reminds me that I can be playful, and trusting, open-ended and expansive, and art is just one vehicle that I am using to show who I am and be present in the world. 

I’m sharing a video on YouTube today where I spend very little time painting with a brush; instead, I’m grabbing some different tools for applying paint to paper and it’s pretty much the most fun I’ve had all summer! Take a look here:

What’s the craziest tool you’ve ever used in your watercolor painting? I’d love to hear if it inspired a breakthrough or a panic attack! Leave a comment below and share…

Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials, World Watercolor Month

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