Watercolor painting relies on a variety of principles relating to brushwork, control and the physics of water. While at first glance it seems very simple, but watercolor can be quite complex. Making use of a range of application techniques will raise the image from a simple painting exercise to a serious watercolor work. High-school students will advance in their steps to become artists as they learn about the ways to create paintings with watercolors in this fun, but meaningful approach.
Whenever introducing or experimenting with a new medium, you should always allow time for experimenting. Students need to interact with the medium, the brushes and the techniques. In this case, have plenty of brushes (good ones), salt, sponges, facial tissues, spray bottles—and any other tool that deals with water and can also create interesting effects. Key tools that will support watercolor art and help students explore this new world are listed in a sidebar on this issue’s A&A Online Web page.
A great project to do as a first try at watercolor painting involves working with recognizable shapes. And, what is more recognizable to teenagers than themselves?
To begin, photograph each student with a digital camera, in front of a plain background and under a single light source. Using one light source on the subject is the easiest way to create the illusion of a form.
The student photos are then opened in Photoshop and converted, using the “Threshold” command in the “Image > Adjustments” drop-down menu. The Thresh
old function turns the image black and white, leaving a recognizable abstract shape of a student’s face, which can be adjusted to one’s liking using the scrubber/slider beneath the image. The overall shape/contour is the key to recognizing the identity of the portrait. The converted photos are then printed out.
The image shape is then transferred to the watercolor paper by tracing, the grid technique or by using a projector. Students then apply clean water to the shadow shapes of their faces on the watercolor paper. The brush loaded with water follows the edge of the shadow shapes. This not only prepares the surface to accept pigment, it also allows the students to take a practice run-through with the brush.
Once the shape section of the paper has been dampened, students mix the paints in their palettes and apply color by simply touching the loaded brush to the surface of the wet paper. The color from the brush leaches out, onto the paper. Minimal brushstrokes are required for working with this technique.
Students then fill in the shape with similar colors, so they mingle on the paper without blending. (Students are advised to stick with a simple color scheme, such as warm or cool.) It is important they rinse the brush before mixing and applying a new color. Part of the skill when using watercolor is to make clean, natural color changes without any muddiness. Muddiness is caused by over mixing color, creating a brownish-gray appearance that overpowers the intended color.
The beauty of watercolor art and the ability to apply watercolor techniques are meaningful to a student’s art education. The thrill of taking an image of yourself—or someone you admire—and changing it into a work of art is exciting and motivating. This watercolor project teaches students a new way to create using color and shape, and another way for them to become artists.
High-school students will …
• experiment with watercolor techniques and interact with the medium and brushes.
• learn new ways to create using color and shape.
• create a watercolor self-portrait.
• Digital camera, printer, access to computer with Photoshop®
• Graphite pencils
• Watercolors, palettes, paintbrushes,
• Watercolor paper, watercolor board
• Salt, sponges, facial tissues, spray bottles
• Stapler and staples
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Steve Lappe is an art instructor at West Leyden High School in Northlake, Illinois.
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