5 Watercolor Painting Hacks Perfect for Beginners

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Artist Kathryn Keller Larkins risks everything by embracing gigantic dimensions and a radically limited palette. She’s no longer a novice artist, but she still has some of the best tips for beginners to try.

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Through Security by Kathryn Keller Larkins

Larkins’ work is distinguished by many things. It’s distinguished by her decision to use a highly restricted palette, to start. She uses primarily Winsor & Newton. Her paintings are dominated by grays and blacks, which she then augments sparingly with soft colors. These often serve as accents. They lift the work away from an insistent monochrome and suggest a world of color.

The effect is distancing — perhaps even alienating in some way — as though color has become little more than a memory in some sort of dystopian future. That’s why its use adds to the highly charged atmosphere of her work.

“I like how the eye begins to discern more and more color in a reduced palette over time,” says the artist. “Grays take on purple and yellow and blue casts, or a black can lighten into sepia or buttercup as it’s lifted or thins.”

Finding the Finish

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494 I by Kathryn Keller Larkins

Eventually, Larkins must face the moment when she has to decide when a work is done. 
“I know it’s finished when the surface is developed enough to match the scale of the piece,” she says. “It must have a feeling of energy, which I think derives from contrasts. One of the many lessons I took from Ching-Bor’s class was a notion of areas of density and areas of openness in a composition. Especially in a large work, the ‘body’ or treatment or layers of the surface really has to increase to have a weight and contrast that carries at that scale.”

Larkins’ finished paintings are both spectacular as tours de force of watercolor technique and deeply affecting as evocations of a contemporary landscape dominated by technology and haunted by the ceaseless movement of human beings. Hence, they work with a power and physical authority that’s rare in watercolor.

“One thing I’d love to contribute to is a growing sense that watercolor has possibilities well beyond a sketch medium or delicate translucence,” says the artist.

Below, Larkins shares her five watercolor hacks every beginner artist should know. Enjoy!

5 Crucial Watercolor Hacks for Beginners

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Ground Support by Kathryn Keller Larkins

1. Working on rough-pressed paper, using tools such as stiff-bristled oil paint brushes and a spray bottle of water offers a chance to lift or reconsider marks. And, it results 
in interesting textures. This removes the fear or
 hesitancy that can happen when using watercolor.

2. Tube paint with very little water behaves quite a bit like charcoal or pastel. Add a bit more water, and it will make a textured, rich surface. These contrast beautifully with areas of a light wash.

3. Embrace watercolor’s movement and look for beautiful things that happen within the traveling of the paint.

4. Working on more than one piece at any given time prevents overworking any one piece.

5. A hairdryer moves things along considerably.

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McKenzie Graham