I’ve always loved watercolors, but never felt comfortable using them. Despite the many classes to learn this medium, the results were less than stellar. It was such a challenge figuring out how to control the water! At the beginning of this year, I finally found joy out of my comfort zone.
I was 1 of 12 lucky people who qualified for a free watercolors class, funded by a grant received from Aroha Philanthropies by Naples Botanical Garden! It was called “Nature Journaling: Botany Through Art”. We met on Monday mornings at the Garden for 8 weeks. All supplies were provided to us.
Week 1 – tools and techniques
Mary Helen Reuter, a curator at the Garden, introduced herself and our instructor, Elizabeth Smith. I liked both of them immediately: enthusiastic, friendly, and approachable. We were given the syllabus and a bunch of handouts. Then Mary Helen facilitated some group-building exercises that were simple and entertaining ice-breakers.
From the very beginning, I felt like I was learning a ton. I was presented with new techniques and a fresh approach. Our tools included a beautiful 9×12″ Canson All-Media 90lb. paper, spiral-bound sketchbook (our nature journal); pencil; white eraser; pencil sharpener; Micron .01 black pen; Mondeluz watercolor pencils (set of 12); waterbrush; watercolors palette.
I had tried using watercolor pencils in the past, but didn’t know what to do with them. I had never even seen a waterbrush. So, when Elizabeth showed us how to use them, my excitement was sparked. The pencils are water-soluble. Draw with them on a dry surface, then use the brush to wet the pigment. The barrel of the waterbrush is a cartridge that holds the water. The durable nylon tip holds its shape quite well. Rather than dipping your brush in water, you simply squeeze the cartridge to get the brush wet.
We familiarized ourselves with the tools by painting color swatches. My first set of swatches was very thick and opaque. You could hardly see the paper. I painted a second set with improved results. When we blended some colors, I started to feel more comfortable with the technique.
Week 2 – color, shapes, flowers, orchid garden
We reviewed color theory and Elizabeth gave us lots of information about the nature of watercolors. Smooth paper allows for more detail. Work from light to dark colors. This was a real change for me, since pastels are exactly the opposite approach: you work from dark to light! The more water on the brush, the lighter the paint will be. You can build interesting color with layers (this is called “glazing”). Wait for the paint to dry before adding another layer of color. Most importantly, SAVE THE WHITES! Don’t paint everywhere: leave empty areas, and those will become highlights.
Elizabeth explained the essential structure of an orchid. She suggested breaking things down to their basic shapes. We watched some YouTube tutorials. Thus prepared, we gleefully headed out to the orchid garden for our first en plein air painting experience!
Inspiration was overflowing! At first, it was hard to focus. There was so much beauty, I wanted to paint it all! Gradually, we settled into our chairs and painted in our nature journals.
Sketch with pencil, draw with micro-thin pen, erase the pencil marks, scratch in some color with watercolor pencils, then use the waterbrush.
Somehow, I got 3 paintings done! I lost track of time. The results are here:
At home, I applied what I learned in class. With glazing, the colors got deeper and richer, something I didn’t know could be done with watercolors. I was flabbergasted at the results!
Week 3 – leaves, mixing greens, shapes, relationships
By now, a nice routine had been established: our 3-hour morning began with a group-building exercise and instructional time in the classroom. Then we’d go outside to the an area in the Garden to paint en plein air. Towards the end of the session, we’d gather together to show and talk about our work.
Elizabeth is very organized and thorough. She’d give a brief lecture on the topic of the day, show us a technique or two (or three…), and often present slides and/or videos. She also followed-up each class with an email, summarizing what we had covered and providing links to all videos and handouts.
New tools and techniques were introduced. We squeezed watercolors from small tubes onto our mixing palette. It was mostly primary colors, plus orange and a couple of variations of blue and red. Elizabeth had a range of brushes for us to borrow: small to large, flats, rounds, and liners.
Dipping the brush into the water and mixing the colors was fun. Applying the color to the paper brought me back to my years-old challenge of controlling the water. Only this time, I had a better idea of what to do.
Back in my studio a few days later, and back to struggling with controlling the amount of water (version 1 of lilypads). I finally realized that the problem was my floppy brush, which made it difficult for me to paint with precision. Stiffer brushes work better for me.
Undeterred, I painted the same scene again (version 2 below), with my watercolor pencils and waterbrush. I was much happier with those tools! The waterbrush tip is very firm. You can do pinpoint details AND broad strokes with it.
Imagine you are a 1″ tall creature in the garden. Paint a scene from this new perspective. So, of course, I decided to be a gecko in the lily pond! I used my new preferred tools (watercolor pencils and waterbrush), along with caran d’ache (watercolor crayons).
Week 4 – trees, branches, using line expressively
Trees are beautiful. Trees are also complicated. There is the trunk, the texture, the branches, the branching, the leaves, the buds, the swaying, the sturdiness, the stillness. Elizabeth guided us through it all with a cool chart, an exercise, and a tutorial. You only need to draw the essence of the tree, not every detail.
She shared many wonderful tips. The 2 most memorable ones for me:
(1) How to make the branches move forward vs. backward
• a smile shape moves the branch towards you
• a frown shape moves the branch away from you
(2) How to create dimension – Our mind gets lost in the complexity of the branching. Keep it simple and find the space between the branches.
Leave space for the birds.”~Elizabeth Smith
After our in-class session, off we went to the Enabling Garden. This lovely area is a barrier-free experience filled with plants and flowers that stimulate all of the senses. Smell the leaves, touch the plant and feel its texture, look closely at the delicate flower buds. The garden’s adaptive design enables people of all abilities to learn how to garden.
A Pigeon Plum tree caught my eye and I painted it en plein air during class time. I studied its branching and the space between the leaves. It was perfect for practicing the smiling and frowning technique.
Using my photos for reference, I painted a couple of individual trees and one landscape of Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. While preparing my workspace, I happened to find a set of Derwent watercolor pencils! No wonder I had a vague memory of using them many years ago. I promptly made a set of swatches with them. Comparing them to the set given to our class, they are a bit brighter and more transparent.
Week 5 – foliage, bark, seedpods, textures, patterns
There was quite a range of skill and experience among my classmates. Many were artists and had abilities in watercolors and other mediums. Several were very new to art and knew little about drawing, painting, tools, and techniques. Regardless of their skill level, each student came with with an open mind and an open heart. It was wonderful to witness everyone’s process and growth.
I continued to begin each painting with a pencil drawing. Sometimes, as with this Iris, I skipped the pen step and went directly to painting. It seems to be an instinctual thing, related to how much fluidity I want to evoke.
TOP: I went to Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and painted en plein air with watercolors on my own for the first time. I’ve painted here many times with my pastels, and trekked to a favorite spot overlooking Lettuce Lake. It was a bit jarring to use the watercolors, having to mix my colors. Once I stopped comparing the two approaches, I was able to focus. After I got home, I realized my trees had no foliage!
BOTTOM: Using my photo reference of this particular palm tree at Naples Botanical Garden, I painted it in my studio. I loved its trunk and could see how the fallen branches formed the horizontal lines at the bottom. Moreover, the leaves gently swayed in the breeze and lent a feeling of calm. Watercolors were a good choice for this type of subject.
Week 6 – rocks, water, values, value chart
We studied values (lights and darks), with rocks and water as our main subjects, during our morning session. Identifying the light source is an important component in rendering the highlights and shadows sensibly. There are additional challenges to painting water, since it has reflections and translucence.
In the water garden, I couldn’t find rocks, so I painted this Canna lily on the border of the lily pond. Bees were buzzing all around us, but they were far more interested in the flower than in me. I was so enamored with the salmon color and delicate pistil (stigma, style, and ovary) that I hardly noticed the bees.
Do what brings you joy.”~Elizabeth Smith
Eventually, I had to move out of the direct sun, as it started to get very hot. I relocated to the shade underneath a nearby palm tree. The distinct curve at the base of the trunk was more difficult to draw than I initially thought. It’s good to sketch unfamiliar shapes with a pencil: you can erase the lines and redraw until you get it right!
Saving the whites definitely comes into play when painting a white object! Sketching the orchid and its elongated petals went smoothly (see version 1 below). During the next phase, drawing with the pen, I lost track of which petals overlapped the others. Oops! I tried to fix the mistake by using white-out on the incorrect lines. Noooo! That barely obliterated the black ink and was impossible to paint over.
What to do? Finish, move on and paint it again (see version 2). Learn from your mistakes.
The next day, I painted a more colorful collection of orange orchids. It’s good for me to alternate between painting individual and several subjects. Multiple items become groups and placing those groups mindfully becomes a composition.
Week 7 – landscapes, composition, perspective
Elizabeth shared her 6 ways to create the illusion of depth:
(1) Overlapping – objects in front are closer to the viewer; (2) Placement – objects placed higher appear to be further away; (3) Size – large objects are closer to the viewer, while small objects tend to recede; (4) Detail – close objects should have clearer details than those farther away; (5) Color – warm colors (reds) are stronger, move forward, and capture the viewer’s attention; cool colors (blues) recede; (6) Value – dark objects appear to be closer, while light objects seem to be further away.
For our final en plein air session, we went to the Florida garden. I painted one of the delightful ponds. Starting with the farthest reaches of the water and its bordering plants, I consciously kept white areas for the vertical trees and the clouds. If I obscured the white clouds accidentally, I dabbed the paint away with a paper towel.
Our homework was to write an artist statement and work on our final project! Each of us would show a painting in a special, one-day exhibit. Mary Helen offered ideas for artist statements, and we did our research, too. Each student was given a mat and frame.
Week 8 – mixed media and special effects
This was a really fun class. Elizabeth showed us all kinds of mixed media, techniques, and special effects. The options are endless! We played with some of the ideas presented:
Media – paint (watercolors, acrylic, gouache, pastel); paper (plain, toned, textured); pencil (graphite, colored, charcoal, water-soluble); ink (fine point, black, felt-tip, dip); other materials (wax, coffee, tea, mud, thread, yarn, fabric)
Texture – rubbings (leaf, bark, stone); prints (leaves, petals, branches); other (sponge, salt, spills, drips, plastic wrap, alcohol).
Ephemera – photos, maps, sketches, feathers, dried pressed flowers, reused paper.
Application – different brushes, wet-on-dry, wet-on-wet, dry-on-wet, masking, resist, Q-tips, straws, twigs, sponging, spattering, dripping, fingers.
Our Art Exhibit!
Our watercolor class had its art show on Feb. 29! It was such a sweet way to begin the day. We had the chance to look through each other’s nature journals and share our journey with family and friends.
We had plans to continue painting together weekly at the Garden on Monday mornings. Mary Helen made arrangements for us to meet informally through March. Unfortunately, after 2 weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of many establishments, including Naples Botanical Garden.
This class was a huge surprise to me. Heading into it with loads of trepidation, I emerged with a love for a medium I used to fear. Our teacher, Elizabeth, introduced me to what I think was the missing piece to the puzzle: watercolor pencils and waterbrush. These tools provided me with a bridge from drawing to painting. I can now continue to explore watercolors with excitement and joy.
Heart-felt thanks to Elizabeth, Mary Helen, Naples Botanical Garden, and all of my classmates!