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Thinking About Tools: Watercolor

by Taylor Slattery | March 26, 2021

In recent years, digital tools have quickly become the favorites of both students and professionals alike. Digital tools are portable, allow artists to save money on materials, and their ease of use comes in handy in situations with time constraints. It’s really no wonder that they’ve come to replace traditional mediums in many an artist’s workflow. However, I think that despite all of their advantages, digital tools can also allow some bad habits to form. Having the ability to undo brushstrokes or manipulate them to fit even if we miss the mark can make us not only less precise but less thoughtful as well. Especially for those who are still in the early stages of learning, working in exclusively digital workspaces can cause you to miss out on some lessons that can only be learned the hard way.

Watercolor is a medium that stands in stark contrast to digital art and as such can provide a substantial challenge for those coming from that environment. Unlike digital art, watercolor is unforgiving. In fact, even more so than other traditional mediums. Unlike oil or acrylic paints, where the first step is often to employ an underpainting to remove the white of the canvas, watercolor requires artists to think in the reverse. In watercolor, once the white of the canvas is gone, there is no bringing it back. With oil and acrylics, you can stack colors to move in both directions, into the light and into the dark. Watercolor works in only one direction. By adding additional colors, the canvas can only be darkened.

Careful planning is required to execute watercolor paintings. Digital tools allow for experimentation and carelessness. With the ability to undo, we can make strokes first and decide how we feel about them after. In watercolor, every decision will be visible in the final product. We can’t make a mark unless we are certain we want it there. In addition, starting over won’t be as simple as opening a new document or deleting a layer, and watercolor paper can be expensive. With the dry times, pricey tools and paper, and the hassle of set up, why even bother?

Well, because it’s fun. As a medium, watercolor offers a look and feel that can’t be achieved any other way. Its fluidity and ability to blend seamlessly between colors allows for some unique opportunities and lots of happy accidents. Regardless of how much planning you put into a piece, you’ll still be surprised by the outcome. You only have so much control over the medium. Water has a mind of its own and the element of unpredictability is what makes watercolor so exciting. Unintentional blends and textures will pop up and keep the piece feeling organic and spontaneous. Different textures can be achieved using tools like sponges or sticks and saran wrap and salt can also yield some interesting effects.

Due to its popularity amongst the retired population and children, you may have some reservations about watercolor, but at the end of the day, it’s just a medium. What really matters is what you do with it. Just take a look at the work by artists like Benjamin Bjorklund, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Nick Runge, whose work is featured above. I think the work speaks for itself.

If you’re looking to switch things up and try something new, consider giving watercolor a try, you’ll sharpen your mind in the process.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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