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Although I’ve always loved art—painting in particular—I didn’t really pursue it with intention until my oldest daughter was a preschooler. She and I would sit at our dining table and use the plastic brushes that came in our Crayola watercolor set to swirl paint around the page. We made puddles of color that turned into jellyfish, flowers, or cotton-candy clouds. (If you feel intimidated by watercolor, recruit a preschooler to explore with you!) As we painted, the noise of the world fell away, and God stirred something within me.

From the beginning, God our Creator has called His people—made in His image—to join in His rhythm of creation, order, and rest. I don’t know about you, but all too often I find myself stuck in the ‘order’ track: laundry, dishes, homework, email, calendar, cleaning, repeat. Too overwhelmed to create, and certainly too busy to rest, I chase down order as if I expect to catch up. As humans tend to do, I take something good and expand it beyond its proper place, allowing the pursuit of order to overtake my need for creativity and rest. God invites us into something better.

It may not sound particularly dreamy to acknowledge the futility of chasing after a to-do list that will never end. But trust me, there is romance in running away and coming alive in the arms of the One who has overcome the world and makes all things new—even me. You see, watercolor isn’t simply watercolor. It is an act of surrender. Art requires me to lay down whatever I am holding, trusting that God is Lord over all. As I do, I am free to lift up my eyes, discover the beauty around me, and submit to the risk of recreation. As I join our Creator in delighting in the work of His hands, I am recreated too.

I am learning that the significance of art isn’t in the art itself. It is in giving glory back to the source of inspiration, moving the artist and the beholder through the art into a new and truer perspective of the world and its Maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, NIV). Creating is an act of worship. In my own life, pigment and paper have become outward evidence of the invisible work God is doing within me. May it also be so with you.

Prepare your supplies and space

Find a well-lit area to set up. Gather your inspiration, watercolor paint, paper, brushes, palette, and a cup or jar of water. Squeeze a pea-size amount of each paint color into respective wells of your palette. (Don’t worry if the paint dries. You can simply re-wet it whenever you are ready to paint!)

Materials:

Paint: Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colour Paint

Paper: Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Paper (Coldpress 140lb)

Brush: Master’s Touch (Hobby Lobby brand) watercolor / acrylic round brushes—size 8-12

Palette: Any palette with separate wells and a mixing area

Cup / Jar of Water

Inspiration: Flowers from your garden, grocery store, or even a photo

Before you begin

As the name implies, watercolor is simply water mixed with pigment. With the direction of your brush, water carries color around the paper, and the pigments settle and soak into the paper as the water dries. Watercolor sets quickly, so I encourage you to read through the steps of each exercise before getting started. You’ll find that you can go back into any wet area of your paper while it is still wet to add or even remove color, but it is difficult to alter once dry. The nature of watercolor is transparent (unlike acrylic or oil paints, which are opaque), allowing you to see the brightness of the paper shine through layers of color. That is what makes watercolor seem a bit challenging, but it’s also what makes it so beautiful!

Exercise 1: Create a Wash

The first thing to do is get a feel for the movement of watercolor by creating a ‘wash’ (a large area of paint, usually used in backgrounds or initial layers).

1. Swish your biggest brush in your water jar and get it thoroughly soaked. The brush should be almost dripping wet.

2. Gently stroke your wet brush into any color of paint. If your paint is dry, the wet brush will help soften the paint, allowing the brush to pick up the color. If your paint is fresh out of the tube, remember that the white of the paper should shine through the color, so you do not want a thick glob of paint.

3. Paint a single stroke across the top of your paper. If there is enough water and color, there should be a little bead of watery paint along the bottom of your line. (If not, that’s okay: While your paper is still wet, quickly add more water and paint to your brush and repeat the single stroke over the same line.)

4. Get more water on your brush, but do not get more paint this time. Your brush still has a bit of color in it, and in this exercise, we are creating a wash that moves from dark to light.

5. Go back to the bottom of your line where the bead is and paint another single-stroke line just below. The lines should touch, expanding the area you already painted. Because your paper is still wet, the water will pull some of the pigment from the line above to blend the lines together.

6. Repeat steps 4-5 as many times as you’d like. By doing so, you should see a gradual transition from dark to light across your paper! Not only are you getting a feel for that push and pull of water and pigment on the paper, but you are also learning about ‘value.’ Concentrated pigment results in a darker value; diluted pigment results in a lighter value.

7. For additional practice, try again with a different color.

Exercise 2: Mixing Color

Part of the beauty of watercolor is seeing how colors interact with each other. If you aren’t familiar with the color wheel, it might be helpful to reference one. As a general rule, colors that are near one another on the color wheel (‘analogous colors’) enhance one another, and colors opposite from one another on the wheel (‘complementary colors’) dull each other. There are two ways to mix color: one is on your palette, and the other is on paper. First we will mix color on the palette:

1. Swish your biggest brush in your water jar, getting it thoroughly soaked.

2. Gently stroke your wet brush into any color paint.

3. Instead of going to your paper, take the brush to the mixing area of your palette and deposit the watercolor there by stroking your brush as you would on paper. (You may repeat steps 1-3 with the same color until you have a very small puddle in the mixing area.)

4. Rinse your brush in your water jar until it’s nearly dripping.

5. Choose an analogous color and gently stroke your wet brush into it.

6. Take your brush to the mixing area and swirl the colors together.

7. Now take your brush to paper, and discover the color you’ve created.

To mix color on paper:

1. Swish your biggest brush in your water jar, soaking it.

2. Gently stroke your wet brush into any color paint.

3. Paint a single stroke across the top of your paper.

4. Quickly rinse your brush in your jar of water, getting it very wet.

5. Choose an analogous color and gently stroke your wet brush into it.

6. Paint a stroke across your paper, touching your first stroke. Because your paper is still wet, the colors will mix together. This is a great technique to use when you would like to create variation in natural objects like leaves and flowers.

Exercise 3: Lines and Leaves

Now that you have a feel for the movement of watercolor, you are ready to refine your brush technique. Leaves are one of my favorite things to paint. I almost always warm up with leaves, no matter what subject I am working on, partly because they are so simple. The secret to leaves is that they are made up of just two different types of lines, thin and thick.

1. Wet your brush and choose a color.

2. Hold your brush almost completely vertical.

3. Apply very light pressure—barely touching your paper—to make a thin line across your page.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 to practice.

5. Wet your brush and choose a color.

6. Hold your brush at an angle.

7. Press down as you make a thick line across your page.

8. Repeat steps 5-7 for practice.

Ready for a full leaf?

1. Wet your brush, choose a color, and make a thin line across your page. This is your stem.

2. Hold your brush at an angle and press down, making a thick line at the base of your stem. This is one half of your leaf.

3. Return to the base of the stem and press down to make a thick line along the first half of your leaf. As you reach the end of your leaf, curve and release the pressure on your brush to make a point.

4. Practice more leaves. Try leaving white space between the two halves of a leaf to represent the vein. Try out different leaf types, shapes, and colors.

Exercise 4: Flowers

Believe it or not, you’re ready for flowers! Flowers are made up of petals, and petals are painted just like leaves. As you observe your inspiration, look for general shapes such as circles, bowls, or bells. In this exercise, we are using a loose style, so don’t worry about the finer details. Leaving white space to form breaks between some petals will be enough to create a lovely impression.

1. Observe your inspiration and decide which shape your flower will be.

2. Wet your brush and choose a color for your flower.

3. Keep in mind that all the petals in a flower start from the same base. Hold your brush at an angle and press down to make a thick line going outward from the base.

4. Continue adding petals from the base to create the general shape of your flower. To add definition, leave white spaces between some of the petals.

5. Rinse your brush, choose a color, and add a thin stem.

6. Repeat steps 1-3 to practice many different types and variations of flowers. Even the same flower will create different shapes when viewed from different angles.

Exercise 5: Spring Floral Spray

Before you put paint to paper, focus on your inspiration and make a general plan. However, don’t get lost in the details. Instead, attend to major shapes and areas of interest or contrast—the lightest and darkest values, as well as complementary and analogous colors. If you focus on these elements (shape, value, color), you will be off to a very strong start.

1. Study your inspiration, arrange your flowers, and make a loose plan.

2. Start with the biggest flower(s).

3. Add small flowers, stems, and leaves.

4. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look exactly as you imagined. Remember that watercolor is not an activity of order, but a response to God’s invitation to join Him in creativity.

5. Add any finishing touches, and reflect on which aspect of watercolor you most enjoyed. Was it observing and arranging flowers? Watching colors swirl together? Or the peace of surrender? (That’s my favorite part. Thanks be to God.)

3 comments
  1. Thank you for this very detailed tutorial! I’ve always wanted to try watercolors but have been intimidated, you’ve inspired me to order the supplies and give it a go.

  2. Thank you! Just wonderful instructions with doable steps…is that even a phrase haha. I love how you simply but beautifully wrote your introduction of create, order, rest. So enjoy our writing

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