Exploring Watercolor by Elizabeth Groves

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Just about everyone can remember painting with watercolors as a child. Little tin trays with a small rainbow of colors. Just add water, and brush the mixture onto the paper. The simple materials made watercolor a sensible choice for children’s paintings—no dangerous turpentine, no expensive canvases.

The simplicity of watercolor appeals to experienced artists as well. Elizabeth Groves, author of Exploring Watercolor, puts it this way, “What if instead of waiting for the ‘big idea,’ you begin painting by dropping beautiful color onto your paper and seeing where it takes you?” Watercolor is a medium that encourages exploration and experimentation.

Exploring Watercolor is meant to rekindle your interest in watercolor, no matter how many years it’s been since you last picked up a brush. I found the beginning of the book to be somewhat intimidating, because the author works only with traditional and experimental paintings that are well beyond the capabilities of a new painter. In fact, I started to worry that the book was too advanced for me, but my fears were quickly put to rest, when subsequent chapters got back to basics. (I must say, the vivid cover and the nice spiral binding that let me lay the book flat while I followed along, convinced me to keep going.)

Unlike many art books, the initial focus of Exploring Watercolor is design and composition, rather than technique. The early discussions of fundamental concepts, like flow and the focal point, will make even your first few paintings relatively pleasing to the eye.

In later chapters, specific methods are explained. As a beginner, I would have liked a little more information on materials up front. Do I want paint in pans or tubes? What are the colors I should have on hand? Are expensive brushes a worthwhile investment? Art supplies can be quite costly, so I hate to make a purchase only to find out later that I need something else. That said, each chapter dealing with technique ends with an exercise that features a materials list. The lists are brand-specific though, and it’s unclear whether or not substitution is okay.

Traditional techniques, such as washes, glazing, and dry brush, are covered in great detail with examples and exercises that will help you master the methods. Then, it’s on to exploration and experimentation, the true focus of the book. As you try your hand at free-form collage, spattering, and tissue paper painting, you gain insight into topics such as color, value, and depth.

This book, and a little help from a friendly art store employee, will get beginners off to a great start. More experienced artists might find Exploring Watercolor useful as well. The experimental techniques can help get you out of a creative rut, and quick works in watercolor can serve as studies for larger scale oil or mixed media pieces. Exploring Watercolor is packed with information and advice that can help you turn your childhood love of watercolors into a grown-up hobby, and paint some pretty stellar stuff in a short period of time. You’ll be surprised by what watercolor can do, and by what you can do with it.

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