Why I love watercolor.

I’ve tried various types of art, but there’s something special about watercolor: it feels like all the skills I’ve honed in various other art forms – photography, pen and ink, colored pencil – are coming together into one perfect mega-medium. Why does it appeal to me so much? 

The real answer is that it’s totally subjective personal preference. I like looking at watercolor art. It wasn’t too long ago that I started noticing it. When I’m drawn to a piece of art (in a book, on a postcard, on Pinterest, whatever), it’s usually watercolor. About a year ago, I bought a pair of watercolor prints by a local artist: Sunset Power Lines by Kal Rhea Anderson. The initial reason for the purchase was to support the artist, an acquaintance of mine, but the prints quickly became my favorite piece of art. I looked at them all the time. Eventually I thought, “I wonder if I could ever do something like that.” 

If you’re wondering whether you should take up a certain art form, I think the first question to ask yourself is, “Is this the art I love?” The rest is just rationalization. You will find a way to do the art you love, however impractical. And you won’t really want to make art you don’t love, however well it fits into your life in other ways. Ask your heart, not your head.

But if your heart is sold and your head needs convincing, here are some airtight reasons watercolor is so great.

Watercolor is convenient

This is the worst reason to take up an art form, because, as I mentioned above, it’s irrelevant how convenient a particular art form is if you don’t actually want to do it. You get -100000 convenience points for not liking it. But, since I love watercolor anyway, I have to admit I love that it’s extremely convenient! It’s clean, packs up small, and involves no stinky chemicals (except for masking fluid, which is optional and which I opt out of).  

Sure, my desk is a mess, but only because I’m the kind of person who can trash a hotel room in five minutes flat by strewing the entire contents of a small suitcase on every available surface. If I made an effort, my entire kit would fit in a couple of shoeboxes.

Watercolor is hands-on

When I drew comics as a teen and young adult, I always got really excited to put them online, but lost interest as soon as they were scanned in and I got the stage of editing the photos. I never made it from “comics artist who lives on the web” to “webcomic artist” because I had no interest in digital art. I’m a software developer and I spend enough time sitting in front of my computer. I don’t need another hobby in front of my screen (he writes, blogging). I’m just not thrilled and excited by moving a mouse.

Put some physical art supplies in my hands, though, and that’s enough story. I like working with my hands, with real physical things. Watercolor is inherently physical, because it is directly tied to the properties of water. There is no way to digitize it. It’s all about the way the pigment flows in and around the water and the unique effects that come from it. 

Which brings me to…

Watercolor is unpredictable

Water never flows in exactly the same way twice. You can paint the same thing with the same paint and the same physical gestures and it’ll come out different each time. That’s scary but it’s also exciting. You cannot “master” watercolor really. It will not obey you. You can only learn to work with it, a co-conspirator, and sometimes it’ll just go off and do its own thing anyway. I relate. 

And I want the help, to be honest. I’m a lazy bastard. Yes, water, please do some of the work. 

Watercolor is random

This is similar to unpredictable, but I mean it in a very mathematical way: water generates randomness, a quality that is really hard to create from the human brain. And you need  a randomness engine to paint nature. (I mean, water’s part of nature so that makes sense.) The placement of stars or blades of grass, the way clouds flow, the light and shadows lapping on water itself – I don’t want to, and can’t, decide where to place each individual speck of paint, and if I did it wouldn’t come out looking right. It would be too fussy, too designed. It’s really hard to intentionally create a feeling of randomness in a precise medium. An imprecise medium is better. 

Watercolor is fast

I could never excel doing an art form that rewards meticulous, precise, detail-oriented work, or an ongoing level of patience. Knitting didn’t work for me. Calligraphy is not my scene. I’m too excitable and impatient for fiddly little details. I’m more of a “big picture” kind of guy, by which I mean I’m a half-asser. Watercolor is perfect for half-assers. You have to work fast. I’m going to work fast anyway, so it might as well be a benefit. The best results come from brush strokes that are fresh, bold, not overworked or overthought. Just dash some water and paint on the page and then stop. If you don’t like how it came out, eh, easy come easy go. If you do like how it came out, wow. There’s nothing like the feeling that you just slipped and an amazing image came out. It feels like cheating.

Watercolor is colorful

While I’ve dabbled in various monochrome art forms, like pen and ink, I’ve always been a color queen at heart. I especially love interesting color combinations and gradients. How can a person who loves gradients not do watercolor? It’s what watercolor is! 

Until recently, I feel like I was always satisfying that urge in a commercial way. Buying shit because it came in cute colors. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I buy shit, I still look for cute colors. But I don’t need to buy shit just to scratch my color itch. I can explore colors and color combinations with paint! 

Watercolor is luminous

It’s hard to believe that watercolor paintings don’t actually cast light. They look like they glow! The reason for that is the paint’s transparent quality. By building up layers, leaving some gaps where the white of the page can shine through, watercolor artists create glowing effects that capture light and shadow like no other medium can. 

It’s no coincidence that my favorite subjects to photograph, and my favorite photographs to look at, are light-filled: rays of light filtering through trees, sunsets, golden hour. These are the exact subjects that watercolor is made for. 

Everything you see is light, really. Shadow is light. Color is light. Whenever you photograph/draw/paint anything, your real subject is light. But watercolor brings that out in a more direct and awe-filled way than any other medium I know.

Is your head sold yet? Grab a brush!