Back in August, I got to spend a day up in the mountains with my nature journal. Inspired by the beautiful scenery, my excitement quickly turned to frustration. I didn’t have the skills I needed to capture the landscapes around me with watercolor paints. My disappointment nearly ruined the trip for me. I had to remind myself that I’m a beginner and do not understand how watercolors work. Yet.

This 2 x 3 landscape is an example of my watercolor struggles.

I know the way to get better at watercolors is to practice, but to get better faster, I need to practice between my nature journaling sessions. Here are the seven things I’m doing to improve my watercolor skills.

This took a very long time and left me totally frustrated. Adding some colored pencil helped a little.

Maintain a practice mindset. Whenever I sit down to nature journal, whether inside or out, I remind myself I am practicing. I need to do the same thing with my watercolor painting. That will free me up to learn from my mistakes and reduce my frustration.

Study. I own several books about watercolors and reading them has started me on the path to a better understanding of what I need to pay attention to. It’s not the same as painting myself, but definitely better than diving in without any guidance at all. This video on watercolor struggles taught me some important facts that have changed my experience with watercolor already.

Play around. I’ve taken the time to make charts and mix colors and compare the paints I have from different manufacturers. This is helping me to better understand how the paints work, as well as supplying me with references I can look at as I experiment with mixing.

Practice with guidance. The most helpful instructional videos are those you can work along with. John Muir Laws has especially meaty ones that cover basic watercolor techniques and how to work with a waterbrush. I’m also planning on attending all the sessions about watercolors at Wild Wonder 2020.

Practice pages, including some follow-along exercises I did watching the John Muir Laws’ videos.

Paint with just one color. I’ve done this before and want to do more of it. Taking the color mixing out makes it easier to focus on water control and building up values. (Note: it’s easier to do with a paint that can achieve a dark dark so that you have a full range of values to play with.)

Practice some more. Though I am not great at doing things every day, I keep thinking I should be painting a landscape a day, possibly the same landscape. I’m sure this would be a great way to get better at watercolor and landscapes, as well as building up a record of how the landscape changes over time.

Paint anyway. In the end, I have to allow some time to just have some fun. I need to take a deep breath and paint even though I don’t know what I’m doing. A lot of the fun of painting is instant color. I like watching the paint spread and mix on the paper.

Do you struggle with watercolor? What do you do to improve?

4 thoughts on “What To Do When Your Watercolor Sucks”

  1. Watercolor’s tough. I like oils! (Then again, I’ve worked a lot more with oils, and just a little with watercolors.) And good pencils. Pastels are somewhere in between. In my opinion. I love the look and portability of watercolors. But yeah, they’re tricky.

    1. After my nature journaling experiment back in July, I’ve decided I like being able to add color to my pages. But it means something portable and (I hope some day) fast. I used colored pencils, but it’s hard to match colors, so I’m hoping to get a handle on the whole watercolor thing. Practice practice practice should do it. I’ve painted with acrylics, but never oils. I should pick your brain on it some time because the character I’m writing in my current novel is an oil painter!

  2. Your paintings on your practice pages don’t even look like they’re done by a beginner. They’re pretty! I also love the idea of journaling and painting on the same page. As for me, I can’t draw past stick figures!

    1. Thanks. I know a lot of the time, it’s our expectations that determine whether or not our art is “good” or not. I can see how they are pretty pictures, but they don’t capture what I was after. The notes are part of my nature journaling. And stick figures can be very expressive! Some of my favorite comic artists use stick figures to say a lot.

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