Art during COVID: Watercolor
This piece is part of a series on “Art during COVID,” an exploration of art forms to keep our idle minds creative during this pandemic. With many of us at home, our minds have ample time to wander, wonder and create. This series highlights accessible and immersive art forms to both produce and consume during the pandemic months and beyond.
How do we show our gratitude for the world around us?
It’s a question that’s been on my mind recently. As spring reaches its full force, the world begs for my attention. I can admire the deep pink eastern rosebuds, the velvety white crabapples, the comforting pale lilacs, but how do I give back?
For most of my life, this exchange with the world has felt one-dimensional: The Earth provides food, shelter, air, water, beauty, and all I can do is admire in response. I do plenty to advocate for the Earth on a macro scale — recycling, composting, repurposing. I believe this is easier to do: With some effort, anyone can do their part to reduce their carbon footprint. But what about showing gratitude for the Earth on a micro scale? How often do we thank a tree we pass for giving us clean air and water, or think of the life behind a flower before planting it in our garden? These small-scale interactions make up the bigger whole — ecosystems and biomes — that we tend to focus more on. We can’t truly love our planet without paying attention to the little things.
Watercolor is one of my humble attempts to show my appreciation for these small wonders. Painting a tree, a leaf, even a blade of grass, shows the world that I’m thinking about it and listening to its calls. Of all wet and dry art forms, the effortless contours and gradients of watercolor makes it my favorite for representing the natural world. It’s fast, fills up a space quickly with color and begs us not to overthink our strokes. It’s raw. It’s natural.
As quarantine leaves us with large pockets of empty time, watercolor is an undemanding way to fill that space with color and life. Representing a living form that’s not your own reminds us that we’re not truly isolated when life beckons us from all directions. Yet, for all its benefits, watercolor can be one of the most intimidating art mediums for beginners. I remember agonizing over where to place colors, confused by how much water was too much and how much was too little. It would be insulting to reduce watercolor to a science, as there’s no correct method, but the steps below can be helpful to get started.
Gather some materials
Watercolor doesn’t demand much. The paints come in two forms — in tubes or in a pan. If you’re painting on the go, portable palettes offer a generous array of colors, complete with a water brush and mixing compartments. My Reeves watercolor set has served me well over the years, but any set is fine, coupled with watercolor paper and a brush.
Pick a subject
But not just anything. Pick something with meaning to you, a form that you could spend at least a paragraph describing. I inevitably draw my inspiration from the environment, oftentimes while sitting on my driveway. Yesterday, I painted the maple tree in my yard whose branches gently touch the roof of my car. Maple trees weave together my relationship with Michigan and my infatuation with the fall colors of our deciduous landscape. Pick something that feels like home.
Paint your first stroke
The first streak of color feels glorious. I like to wet my brush, dab on a little color and glide it across the page. Watercolor fills up space easily and doesn’t give you much time to think. I focus on the bigger picture instead of worrying about each individual brush stroke. I liken this to zooming out my perspective, trying to represent a general shape first before painting fine details. I lose myself in the immediate satisfaction of color breathing my image to life. I let the excess water spill over slightly, which gives me a base to continue building color.
I let my first layer of paint dry before piling more on top, making each layer progressively darker than the last. Shading adds depth to your work; pools of black and slashes of white make an image seem real. I find it helpful to pick a direction of light — the upper right corner of the page, for example — and paint everything closer to this point lighter, as if the light was hitting the object. Everything farther away should be darker, in shadow.
Once I start adding other colors to the mix, it’s aimless to try and describe a methodology. There are no rules.
When I succumb to the power of watercolor, I feel connected to the Earth, grounded to my colors, clear in my mind. It’s my way of acknowledging the small lives around us — the beetle climbing over mounds of earth, the peonies in full bloom, the branches shimmering in the light. I paint from a place of intangible gratitude, giving thanks and remembrance to our Earth. If your paintings come from a place of love, you’ve succeeded.