Published: April 3, 2020

Fact and Fiction About Watercolor

Artist in residence Peggy Macnamara shares her secrets for painting with watercolors.

Last spring, I worked two back-to-back Members’ Nights at the Field Museum. On Members’ Nights, the whole Field Museum is open to the public. It has been postponed for this spring so I thought I’d share some of my work and answer common questions about watercolor.

The Museum’s third and fourth floors, usually closed to the public, are open and full of surprise. The bird lab, where they do taxidermy in private, and the mammal lab, where they dissect skunks without viewers, are mobbed with huge crowds. It is a fabulous exposé about what goes on behind the scenes at a natural history museum. Bird mounts come from somewhere, as do anthropological collections. Scientific research requires specimens, lots of them, packed away in cabinets. Ninety-nine percent of the Museum’s collections are behind the scenes. On Members’ Nights, these treasures are exposed. It’s all out they’re for everyone to see and study.

Now, my studio is also behind the scenes. I have a space up on the Field Museum’s third floor in the Bird Department. And I get hundreds of visitors on Members’ Nights.

Common myths

I have years of work up in my space: paintings of birds, mammals, insects, and collection drawers and cabinets. Last year, I heard the same myths over and over again: "Watercolor is the most difficult medium," and "You can't change your mind." "It is so hard to control." "You must do it quickley to keep it fresh," "My watercolors always get muddy," and on and on. 

I just listened to the myths and said quietly, "Well, that's not exactly true…" But with social distancing being the thing at the present moment (and I usually like being alone), I thought I would step away from constantly painting and write a response. 

All mediums have their strenghts and weaknesses, but most of watercolor's supposed weaknesses are actually false. Let's start with the biggest one: "You can't change, remove, or alter an area of watercolor once it is down." This is false! I continually remove, adjust, and all out change the subject matter. In one painting, I removed the bird and replaced it with plants. Editing is a necessary part of the painting process. It is essential. Ideas develop. They begin as a whisper, and then they must be encouraged and able to grow. 

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If it doesn’t feel right, it goes.

Now a bit on how I change things in my watercolors. First of all, I use good paper, 300 lb. Lana hot press. My paper takes almost anything. I scrubbed out the bird in this example with a brush. I also use Mr. Clean at times. I don’t scrub hard. If there is a bit of an echo of the old image I just leave it. After the area dries completely, I draw in a new image and use relatively strong color.  After layers and layers, and cadmiums added late in the process, I sometimes need to use titanium white with a color to make it opaque.

The longer I paint (now over 40 years), the more I change things. It seems all I’ve gotten is more critical; if it doesn’t feel right, it goes.

The myth of “mud”

Next popular myth: “The medium moves so fast it is hard to control.” The result of this untruth has been the development of watercolor pencils, which actually slow you down and defeat the whole purpose of watercolor! You can work watercolor with control as well as exuberance. If you use gravity and common sense, you can control your washes. Your paper, which is on a board, has to be slightly tilted and not laying flat. It won’t run away from you if you control the tilt and how much water you use. While we are at it, please let each layer dry before adding the next and you will never get mud. Yes, mud is the result of hurry or working too small so the wait time seems endless. You will never get mud no matter what color choices you make if you let each layer dry.

Rules of the game

Sporting events work because we have referees. A neutral, outside set of eyes enforces a few simple rules. When doing a watercolor, you have to be both player and ref. Here are the simple rules:

  1. Use only 300 lb. paper. Your surface will never ripple and images can be removed. Because it takes correction well, you are able to edit, as well as build a good piece.

2.  Let each layer dry completely. Cold to the touch is still wet.

3.  Save the cadmiums until the end. They are like, “I love you and want to marry you,” which is very hard to take back. So use them when you are very sure.

  1. And most importantly, take your time. A watercolor can take days and days. And did you ever see a watercolor on display (or any other painting, for that matter) where they listed the medium and date and how long it took? It is not necessarily an asset to do it quickly.

  2. Now the “fresh” thing. Sargent and Homer were fresh because they were solid draughtsman and painters before they played with watercolor. Fresh comes not from doing it fast, but from knowing what you can leave out. This comes from slow practice. Experience gives you the gift of fresh.

Now, it’s true, I did things in order. I first learnt to draw well, then colored pencils, then watercolor. A strong drawing always helps and the colored pencil experience is like boot camp. Where a colored pencil piece might take a month, you can do the same piece in watercolor, waiting for each layer to dry in a week. So boot camp produced discipline and patience, which is necessary for any art medium.

Now let’s look at what watercolor can do!

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Still wondering why you should use watercolor over acrylic and oil? Watercolor is portable. I set up in the Field Museum 35 years ago and began painting the collections. The classical architecture of a museum solved the figure-ground problem. The usually dead area around the primary subject became a formidable subject in itself. New, fresh subject matter is hard to come by. Landscape, still life, and figure have been the dominant subjects forever.

By being portable, the concept of “studio” opens up to a whole new world. I’ve worked in hundreds of museums. I simplify my supplies; roll up my paper or even fold it. I find an out-of-the-way location and begin. What is on view at a natural history museum, or nature center, or sculpture garden begs to be looked at very slowly, recorded, embellished and brought into the light.