Watercolor – Watermedia

I am a painter’s painter. I don’t really care about watercolor. In fact, years ago I used to not like the medium.
When I did my painting apprenticeship in the early 90’s we painted in gouache and acrylics. Later, I would use gouache and egg tempera before trying to stay more transparent. More and more people who call themselves watercolor painters these days are actually using lots of white paint, mostly gouache, Chinese white or similar.
I find that comical because for me, it was the other way around but many of us seem to end up in the same place!

So the word should actually be watermedia painter, unless you’re painting in a transparent manner. If I see pencil lines, it’s transparent no matter how much white paint you’re using. That’s how I see it. Confusing? Yeah, I agree..

If you layer and layer your lighter values towards the lightest light (the white) with thick paint, well, that’s not watercolor. No matter what you call it. In traditional watercolor painting you work from light to dark. The idea being that the lightest light is the white of the paper.
If you’re from a foreign country, it might be lost in translation. Overall it’s not a deal breaker but worth a blogpost, I think. Especially in light of the fact that there are still a few watercolor societies left where they reject the use of white paint, even Chinese white, part of many watercolor sets you can buy. Do they have still have merit?
The thing is, their shows definitely have more true watercolors than most other shows, because aside from the fact that they don’t allow white paint, there’s also no collages and other works like that permitted.

To me painting is painting, the medium should be secondary. There is no ‘bad’ medium, just bad painters.
Should a watermedia painting be called ‘watercolor’? Some artists put ‘ watercolor and white’ as medium. I think that’s good. Another solution would be to call it ‘transparent watercolor’ if no white paint was used. But what if white paint was used and it’s still transparent? What is it?
You can see how there are no real firm borders. There’s no protected term ‘watercolor’, you could call an acrylic painting a watercolor if it was used with lots of water. It might be hard to spot if it’s not watercolor pigments!
I think overall, there shouldn’t be rules in art. There are already rules everywhere else in life. I think we can do without people with clipboards going around to determine what’s allowed and what isn’t. That’s just me..
Comment welcome!

14 thoughts on “Watercolor – Watermedia

  1. Sherry Schmidt

    Hi Frank, what an interesting discussion! Confusing too with many blurred borders. But that’s OK…I agree with your conclusions in the last few sentences.

  2. Jody

    This topic speaks to me as I just used white gouache to add utility wires in a watercolor landscape. Those rocks painted with some kind of white in streams under the surface by JSS would have been rejected by some WC Societies. I’m in agreement, judge water-media paintings on their merits as art. On the other hand, I do love what only watercolor can do and keep hope alive for my next go at it. Enjoy your posts very much. Looking forward to your demo at Monterey. Jody

    1. frankeber Post author

      I am with you. I do love the medium as well. What I don’t like is that is has very little prestige in the art world and that is very likely not going to change. It hasn’t in the last 200 years, why would it now..thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  3. Elinor

    I agree with you! Although I know nothing of painting, and all its “rules” for how it should be defined.
    Painting is really just the heart of your eye, poured out on paper, no?
    Well, what do I know 🙂
    Also, I find it ironic that you’re not all that into watercolor – while creating very soft and intriguing paintings in that media! Very cool!

    1. frankeber Post author

      Thanks, Elinor! I don’t think you have to actually be a painter to have an opinion. I am glad you said yours. I want to thank you for your nice words about my work. It does come across as though I am not really into watercolor, doesn’t it?
      I have heard many times my work has an oil-esque feel and I really like that. What I don’t like is the typical watercolor look. Not sure I explain myself well here…

      1. Elinor

        It makes sense. While not qualified to accurately define and pinpoint the art styles, or the media, I DO know your watercolor work looks very different. And in a good way!

      2. frankeber Post author

        I think part of the reason may be that I stay away from the traditional approach of using the medium. It’s trial and error. Some things work, some don’t!

  4. Barb Duffy

    I appreciate an artist that is accomplished in composition and use of whatever medium chosen. I love the look of transparent watercolor and having painted using no white I know the challenge it presents. Personally, I paint using white gouache with watercolor or gouache exclusively or high flow acrylics. There is nothing like the way watercolor mixes on the paper creating its soft subtle nuances. Frank you have mastered the medium!

    1. frankeber Post author

      Barb, thank you! I agree with you, except the part of me having mastered the medium 🙂 and my approach is similar. I paint using white sometimes, when I think it needs it. I paint drybrush and with egg tempera also. Highlights? I always try to paint around, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Oh well.

  5. Pope.lisa@ymail.com

    I know one of the appealing features of watercolor is the luminosity that can be created. I have experienced that saving the whites for “bright” areas is more appealing than white paint. White paint is dull and the glow can be lost. However, white can be useful. I don’t use white much but I have seen other artists go back in at the end and use it for highlights on buildings or splash it on for snow flakes etc. So I think Chinese white is a useful paint. This brings me to another tangent. What about opaque watercolors? These layer much differently than transparent colors. I have often asked myself how can yellow ochre, for example, be more accepted than Chinese white when both are very opaque. I think if one wants to enter a transparent watercolor society, they better use transparent paint. But if and artist needs the texture provide by an opaque color, even if Chinese white, then go for it.

    1. frankeber Post author

      All good points! It goes further than that: what about pigments like horizon blue or lilac? They have a ton of white in them. Are we allowed to use them in a transparent watercolor society? Many manufacturers add white to pigments. It makes sense. There are things you can’t really do without opaque pigments, or barely and it won’t look as good as layered. I love hearing the different opinions on it!

  6. Joy Makon

    Interesting conversation with many thoughful points. Ultimately, who cares other than jurors and watercolor societies? I love transparent watercolor and allow my pencil to show, never use white paint in any form. It’s personal. I love exploring the granulating and staining qualities of watercolor and try to use those effects in my work. White, I believe, would dull and muddy the colors. I make use of masking fluid to save white areas, if I miss some, them I need to adjust the image through drawing or tone and values.

    1. frankeber Post author

      Good comment! Of course, while I am mostly transparent like you, I do use white and experiment with everything it can do. Some of it is great, some not.
      White can certainly dull colors (not sure about muddy..) but what if that’s what you’re after? As you can see, it’s different for everyone and that is a good thing. As stated in the blogpost, we certainly don’t need more rules about it…

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