Saturday Studio: World of Watercolor

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

It’s still July, so we’re celebrating World Watercolor Month in the Studio one more time! Today, we’ll build on last week’s technique, and if you’re unfamiliar with watercolor or don’t think you like it, it’s best to start with that more experimental, abstract approach to test the waters (pun intended). We’re moving away from abstraction today and trying our hands at a landscape, and luckily the FWMoA permanent collection includes numerous works for inspiration, many of them by Louis Bonsib.

Hoosier artist Louis Bonsib was originally from Vincennes and grew up in Indianapolis, but he really made his mark in Fort Wayne as an advertising executive. He also served as president of the Fort Wayne Art School for a year! Bonsib was a prolific landscape painter, creating hundreds of works in both impressionistic and realistic styles, and in oils and watercolors. Many works depict the rolling hills of Brown County, Indiana, and he often worked en plein air, on-location outdoors. Watercolor lends itself especially well to plein air painting as it’s easy to travel with, dries quickly, and only requires water as a mixing medium and for clean up.

Take a look at the watercolors by Bonsib below. Notice the range of techniques he used! Last Saturday, we focused on one watercolor technique, called, aptly, wet-in-wet, because the paint is applied to paper that is already damp. We can see this in the softer areas of the paintings, where there is little definition between the colors. Notice, too, that Bonsib isn’t trying to paint every single branch or leaf on each and every tree, but when he does include more details, they’re concentrated in the foreground, the area closest to us. This helps create a sense of depth and perspective.

A watercolor landscape of mountains in the background, with houses lining a creek on one side and trees on the other.
Louis Bonsib, American, 1892-1979. Fog in the Mountains. Watercolor on paper. Gift of the Evening Art League, 1943.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
A watercolor landscape illustrates a blue sky with mountains in the background. In the foreground, a large tree stands in front of a smaller copse of trees leading to a large, blue lake or river.
Louis Bonsib, American, 1892-1979. Untitled (Lake and Mountains, Colorado). Watercolor on board. Gift of John and Patricia Bonsib, 2009.50.
An autumnal watercolor landscape, a  dirt road cuts through a thin forest of trees, whose leaves are beginning to fall. The yellows, oranges, and browns add to the feeling of autumn.
Louis Bonsib, American, 1892-1979. Bright Autumn. Watercolor on paper. Gift of John and Patricia Bonsib. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

What would the weather be like in each of these scenes? Which seasons do they depict? Although far from photographic in their detail, Bonsib’s focus on the lighting conditions and the feeling of each location give us a clear sense of what it might be like to step into the painting. These techniques are hallmarks of the impressionistic style Bonsib often employed, and they’re also practical for plein air painting when the artist must work quickly before the conditions shift.

Today, take your studio outdoors, or at least take a walk to gather some inspiration (and reference photos) for your own landscape watercolor! It’s up to you whether you’ll go for the full plein air experience, or a faux-plein air painting from the comfort of your desk.

You’ll need:

  • Watercolor paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Watercolor paper (if you’re using loose-leaf paper, use painter’s or artist’s tape to secure it to a board)
  • Paper towels
  • Pencil (optional)
A photograph of the River Greenway in Fort Wayne, Indiana, shows the setting sun against trees and the walk trail above the river.
A photograph of the River Greenway in Fort Wayne, Indiana, shows the setting sun against trees and the walk trail above the river. The author's dog, Richie, sits in the foreground.

First, choose your image, or find a comfy place to sit outside (even better!). I usually go on a walk right around sunset each evening with my dogs, and I took these photos a couple weeks ago. To make it easier on yourself, look for a relatively simple view that can be broken into large blocks of color.

We’ll start with a wet-in-wet wash as an underpainting, or the base layer for our final painting. You may wish to lightly sketch your design with pencil first; I did not because I tend to get bogged down in details or accuracy, and those are not our goals here.

Before we start painting, there are a couple principles that are important to keep in mind when working with watercolor. First is that the only white you have is the white of the paper, so take care to keep any areas that should be white dry–this will stop any unwanted bleeding. Second, it’s best to work light to dark and large to small, focusing first on the overall composition and bigger shapes before adding any details.

Take a look at your scene and break it into zones that you can focus on one at a time. If you’re really fast, you can do the whole page at once, but I’m not. I chose to start with all of the green areas of my image first–the trees and the grass (but it would have been better to start with the sky since it’s a lighter color). Fill in the area with plain water first, leaving any white highlights dry, then add the color. Notice all the different shades of green I used. I almost never use green straight from the pan, but usually add a little bit of red (and often some yellow). Why red? Red and green, called complements, opposite each other on the color wheel, when mixed make each other more dull. Adding just a bit of red to the green tones it down a bit, making it more true to life. Adding more really mutes it and works well for darker shadows (plus a bit of blue).

If you don’t mind your “zones” running together a bit, you can move right on to the next section, or wait for each to dry before painting in the area next to it. I let mine dry, then moved on to the sky and water, then the rocks since those areas don’t touch. 

Notice how the sky is darker at the top of the image? This is achieved by a gradient wash. It’s easiest to get a smooth gradient using the wet-in-wet technique: fill in the whole area with water, then load your brush with color and paint a stripe along the top, then another below it. If you need to reload your brush, be sure to dilute the color with more water as you near the bottom of the section so the color is lighter. The damp surface will help the gradient blend together smoothly.

If you make an area darker than intended, you can blot or scrub (gently) while it’s still damp! Use a clean brush or a bit of paper towel to soak up the paint in that area. Above you can see where I used my brush to lift some of the blue from the clouds.

Below is my first layer before (left) and after the sky, water, and rocks dried.

Now, for the details! You could stop painting here and switch to pen if you prefer, but here are some techniques for finishing with watercolor. I didn’t want to cover up my original wash too much, but I did want certain areas to be more defined and darker. I began by adding brighter colors to the clouds. 

Next, I added some definition to the trees, especially right at the waterline where the shadows are darkest. I used a dry brush technique to suggest the texture of the trees’ leaves. Dry your brush with paper towels, pick up some color, and dry it off some more. I use the side of my brush to lightly paint, letting the texture of the paper (the “tooth”) help create a mottled appearance. This also works great for grass and rocks!

Focus most of your details on the foreground, the area closest to you. This helps add depth to your painting. Notice how I defined a few, larger rocks up close, but just let the dry brush technique suggest them as they get further away?

I did the same with the grass and the weeds that are right along the water, and decided to quit while I was ahead! Sometimes the most difficult part of any art project is knowing when to stop, and I find that watercolor in particular is easy to overwork.

As always, share your work with us here on the blog or on our social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Leave a Reply