15 tips for transitioning from acrylics to watercolors and 4 reasons why
May 22 2020
Before I started making and using watercolor I painted with acrylics for 10 years. Transitioning to watercolor gave me some challenges and made me insecure at times. That's why I'd like to share some of the insights I gathered, so you don't have to fall into some of the same traps I did. But let me start by giving you 4 reasons why I advocate opting for watercolor instead of acrylics:
1 Acrylic paints emit unhealthy VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds), which generally come from the preservatives added to the paint. Studies show that short term exposure to VOC's can cause nausea, headaches and skin irritation. Long-term exposure can lead to damage to the kidney, liver and nervous system and even cancer.
2 The binder in acrylic paints is a polymer emulsion, produced by the petrochemical industry. 16 billion kilo's (36 billion pounds) of toxic polymer solvents are produced every year and many of these are found in art supplies. (Science Daily, 2001)
3 Acrylic paint is basically liquid plastic (both the synthetic pigments and the binders are plastic based) that you pour through the sink in to the water system when you clean you brushes and throw away paint water. Not all of it can be filtered out and as you probably know microplastics in our planet's waters are an increasing problem that endangeres the health of our precious earth and it's inhabitants.
4 And on a lighter note... A set of watercolors is much smaller and lighter than a set of acrylic paints, so watercolors lend itself to traveling and outdoor painting. Just can easily take it with you to paint landscapes and urban scenes or chuck it in you backpack and take it with you on your travels.
So here's my 15 tips for transitioning to watercolor!
1 Give it time. Remember learning how to drive a car? Or learning how to read? It didn't happen overnight, right? You're aquiring a whole new skill set and these things take time, so patience is key.
2 Let go of control. Watercolor has a will of it's own and that's part of the magic. You can't control the flow of it as much as you can control acrylic paints. So go with the flow and let the paint surprise you!
3 Leaving the white behind. If you're used to the big jug of white acrylic paint sitting on you desk, it can feel quite awkward to suddenly be without white paint. Some people use white paint in watercolor, but it is very opaque and take away of the luminescence of a watercolor. Traditionally white is obtained by leaving the white of the painting open. This means you have to plan your painting. Before you start you need to have an idea of where the whites have to be so you can leave these places open. If you want to lighten a color, you just add more water. That's how you get pink out of a pan of red paint, for example.
4 Watercolor is a transparent medium. People who are used to acrylics can tend to use too much paint. It can help to do some excersizes with the whole range of tints you can get from one color. Monochromatic painting (with only one color) is a good excercise in practicing getting different values from one pan of paint. This is also a good way of trying out watercolors before you get a whole set of paints; you just have to buy one color!
5 A general rule is that with acrylic paints you paint dark to light, with watercolors you paint light to dark.
6 Since watercolor in a transparent medium, you can build layers of colour. Let the first layer dry and than paint over it to intensify the color, to make a gradient or to add shadows for example. This gives a more beautiful result than applying thick paint in the first layer. Painter Richard McDaniel said it better than I ever could: "Color that has been built up in stages has a different character than a solitary layer of color. Plying in several layers of pigment, weaving each color on top of the last, creates a richness of hue that is otherwise unobtainable."
7 If your style or subject requires you to paint very precisely (if you paint realistic portraits or buildings for example), do some free flowing doodling on another piece of paper in between. It helps you to get aquainted with the paint and can keep you from cramping up. Keeping an element of play is important: after all painting is supposed to be fun!
8 Dont kill you painting. We've all been there right? Overworking your piece is a risk with every medium and an even bigger risk with watercolors. If you work too long on a piece it can get muddled and loose it's vibrancy. If you're not sure if your painting is done or not, leave it alone for a while and come back to it when you have a fresh eye.
9 Good to keep in mind: Acrylics usually dry a bit darker wherease watercolors dry a little lighter.
10 Wait for the layers to dry before you paint over them or right next to them (unless you're using the wet-in-wet technique of course). Sometimes the paint seems dry but the paper is still a bit damp. This will give muddier results, can result in bleeding where you don't want it to and the paper could get damaged.
11 Good quality supplies are key! It can feel a bit uncomfortable to spend good money on supplies when you're just starting out with your painting, but it can spare you a lot of frustration. A painting will never really sing when it's painted with low quality paint on cheap paper. Cheap watercolor paints have fillers in them that make them dry duller and lighter and will have a less beautiful granulation. And paint on a poor quality paper or paper that isn't meant for watercolor, never gives great results, however great the paint. If you want to use synthetic brushes, I recommend Raphael Soft Aqua brushes. These brushes have little 'grooves' in the hair that retain water, so they mimic brushes made of animal hair. (More information on animal hair in brushes and other animal derived products in paint, brushes, paper and gesso, you can find in my blog on this subject.)
12 Looking at video's (often time lapses) of other people painting has given me a lot of insight into the process (and can be quite soothing at times). You can find my favourite watercolor video's here.
13 Don't compare. Research shows that comparing our accomplishments to other's, makes us unhappy. So someone else can paint a perfect puppy (after practising for 15 years). Maybe you can paint radiant abstracts. Or moody landscapes. Or your paintings look like a dogs dinner. Who cares? Learn, grow and have fun!
14 Ask for feedback. If you want to develop you watercolor skills it can be really helpful to get some good feedback. Chances are the people closest to you will think all your paintings are amazing, so you might wanna look elsewhere for some good critique. One place you can ask for such feedback is in a watercolor facebook group, such as 'Watercolor sketchers'. People in this group often ask for feedback on their paintings and get quick and valuable replies. If you don't have facebook, maybe you know someone who paints and likes to be your sparring partner?
15 Practice practice practice. Better to paint for 10 minutes every day than to do a large sitting once a month. Routine always makes things easier and can help you maintain a fresh eye. It can help to have a specific place in your home set up for your watercolor practice, even if it's just a little nook. I even put down fresh water for my next painting spree right after I thow away my paint water, so the next time I want to paint I can simply sit down and paint away. (I use a glass jar with a lid, so I can safely leave the water there.) If you don't have space for a permanent 'studio nook', you could also have trayto keep all you painting stuff on, that you can simple shove in cupboard so you your painting and paints have a safe place to dry without taking up space.
So that's my 15 tips! I hope they are helpfull to you! If you want to stay updated on my new blogs, please subscribe to my newsletter and I will keep you in the know!