I’m learning a new skill – watercolor

July 28, 2010 — 38 Comments

So believe it or not, I don’t know how to watercolor. It’s a little amazing to be quite honest that my bag is soooo full but I don’t have that particular skill. I’ve thought about ‘doing it’ lots of times – ’cause it looks so awesome on architectural sketches. A little splash here and a little wash there and *POW* awesomeness with no effort.


Probably not but I have known some people who were idiots jerks and they could watercolor pretty well so I figure, why not? So I went out to Michaels art store and bought some supplies and I am going to make some capital A R T!

the setting – my library

In the case of this particular post, this is where the magic is going to happen. So while everyone else was sitting in the adjacent room watching the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with the genius of Gene Wilder, I got ready to create….something.

the supplies

So I am starting modestly enough; a pad of watercolor paper, some paint brushes (came in a package of 5 ) and a tray of watercolor paints. I bought those paints from the children’s craft row – they were like $3. High quality? Doubtful and yes, I know I should probably invest a little more money into this but if I suck, I’d rather know without spending the money. Since I have no watercolor (or any other painting) skills, I don’t think the quality of my supplies is going to make a huge difference.

My sketch of a Lily

The subject matter is going to be a lily flower. Hopefully it looks like one to you – I didn’t, you know, like kill myself over drawing this but I don’t think it sucks either. Besides, this is going to be like the 3rd watercolor I have ever attempted, and the first in the last 20 or so years. I really have my new friend Jean Marie Drouet  to thank because his drawings and watercolors look so great and effortless that I just have to be able to throw a little color on the page.. (note to self:  set up online gallery on life of an architect site to sell future magnificent water color paintings).


The first thing I did was add a base layer of color – tone really. It seems reasonable to think that the shadows should go down first – that way if I add a little more color, it will be on top and won’t look muddy. I thought a real watery mix would work best, I wanted a translucent wash. And it turned out…..meh. Clearly there is some skill required but so far, not too bad.

highlights and color

A little bolder, less watery color is hitting the page – yeah baby! Okay, truth is, I wish I knew how to remove color after putting it down – I don’t really like the green stripe; it aligns too closely to the peduncle of the flower above and I can already sense some trouble. I start putting a little brown in my mix – not sure why.

uhmm…more highlights and color?

Here, I am attempting to deal with my green stripe by adding…..a little more green stripe.


That doesn’t make any sense, I think I am starting to panic a little bit. More brown!!


Holy Moley! Bob – you jerk – What are you doing!!

Yes, it looks like I poured squid ink on my diminishing amazing watercolor (note to self: put a pin in that “selling the watercolor paintings” idea). I thought, still do actually, that a dark field around the white lily would set it off nicely. I just realize that my watercolor ‘wash’ skills are non-existent. I think I am going to have to set up some specific exercises to practice getting a decent wash of color.


The Final Product

So here is the finished product – it’s the same as the image before – it’s just dry now. It doesn’t completely suck but for anyone who can actually watercolor, it’s nothing to write home about.

But it can be yours for a very reasonable price.


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  • magicnomola

    In Watercolour one of the most important things to know is “when you must stop” I think that the “shadow” step is way more better than the finish step.

  • Peggy Wong

    Hi Bob, this might be a yr late, but I hope you are still painting (and better by now).  Recently a couple of architects in our local chapter are trying to (re-)establish that we can still draw (not just with CAD).  So, we started a section in our chapter’s newsletter, inspired by http://www.urbansketchers.org/
    This is our newsletter editor, here http://min-linesonpaper.blogspot.com/
    Here’s something I contributed too … (encls img)
    I’m using a Sakura Koi watercolor set (http://www.sakuraofamerica.com/Watercolors-Set).  A good alternative I was told was watercolor from tubes filled into pillbox and just using the Sakura Koi reservoir brush, if you our for some sketchcrawl, for easy carry-around.  😉

    • Not doing much water coloring these days, I seem to spend my free time writing blog posts…

      Thanks for the note and the links though, I will definitely check them out. I am familiar with the Urban Sketchers site – been through there many times, it’s a great site. so much fun to look at.

  • Anonymous

    As I lurk…er…browse through your older posts, I am surprised no one mentioned the fundamental method of ‘layering’. Watercolor is one of the more difficult painting mediums (in my experience), and the best way to achieve the look you want is slow and painful. I prefer starting with the lightest colors and working to the shadows. You can always add pigment to go darker, but you can’t exactly lighten it up very well/easily. Wash layered on top of wash will give you that ‘richness’ that most watercolors have, but you’ll want to let it dry between each one (that’s the slow/painful part). Try using a hairdryer to speed that part up. A final tip would be to create as many of your own colors as possible, rather than using one straight out of the tube – again, a richer painting will come from it.

  • Debra

    Hi Bob,

    I was just looking around some blogs on a web search of learning watercolor.
    I do paint in watercolor, but several of my online friends were interested in learning.

    My suggestion would be to pick up some Prang watercolors. They come in a tray
    and the cost is around $4 or so. You are better investing your money in a couple
    of watercolor paint brushes than actual tubes of watercolor paint.
    Prang can be found in all stores, not only art supply ones.

    When you do a wash, first lay down a small amount of clear water. Have some paper
    towel to draw back some of the water if you use too much.
    I would also suggest a plain plate to stir your paints and watercolor around to
    proper color.

    You might want to try a lighter pencil drawing because watercolor will not hide
    the sketch.

    For a first attempt though, I am very impressed.

    Remember, no one bowls a 300 on their first game. It takes practice. 🙂

    xo xo

    • Great advice Debra. I keep thinking I would like to take a class but I need to figure out what other activity in my life is going to get the ax to accommodate something new.

      I have done a few watercolor paintings since, one of them made this post:


      let me know if you think I’ve made some progress. I need to develop my “eye” and learn techniques that will get what’s in my head onto the paper. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Bobby Parker

    Now that was funny! Thanks for the share. Practice, practice, and practice some more. I would date each piece so you can go back and see your improvements.

  • bobborson

    Thanks Ashley – I think I will look into get some of the watercolor paint that comes in the tubes and see what happens.

  • I love watercolor – I learned from a crusty old polish artist in Warsaw during a study abroad in Architecture school although nothing I ever did could compare with anything someone FROM Poland did in their sleep! One trick I did learn, however, was that although you cannot completely “erase” a mistake, you can lessen its impact. If you clean your brush and use clean water, you can dilute the painted area quite a bit (provided it is still wet itself). Also, enough cannot be said for using high quality paints and brushes. Our Polish instructors advocated the use of brushes sold at asian import stores used for Chinese writing….good luck!

  • bobborson

    I started working on my washes and realized that's why there are tubes of watercolor paints. I'll put a follow up on here before too long.

  • Dreembuild2

    Hey good start keep it up.
    When I started watercolour painting one of the best things that I did was invest in good quality paints, brushes and high quality acid free watercolour paper. Having good materials makes a lot of difference and it makes it a pleasure to paint.

  • I remember taking a graduate (yes he said graduate) course in watercolor, couldn't believe I was getting like 8 credits to play with colors and water! Anyways, I digest.

    Another 'practice technique' to offer, try ink wash. Use the same ink you would for a tech pen and ony use that and water on water color paper. This affords you the opportunity to practice bruch control and the study of shade/shadow without focusing on color….and it gives a cool monochrome look!

    While not a watercolorist, I think it would help if you grow out an afro like Bob Ross.

    If after practice you still think you suck then take a picture and use the watercolor filter in photoshop!

  • Nice work, Bob. Especially considering the discount-bin supplies!

    Seriously, keep at it. Watercolor does make for a great architectural rendering.

    I started a beginners' watercolor blog a while back (as a beginning blogger exercise).
    I should let you take it over!


  • you did a lot better than my method, which is to drink a lot of wine and try to slap some paint on a page. 🙂

  • Give that 1966 light to me, Squid, and no-one gets hurt. Damn your 200 watt bulb and its spawn. You are turning into a bag lady, which is strange, as you are (as far as one can trust the avatar) a man!
    I'm going outside now to wait for the light to arrive!

  • Painting an even, flat wash is one of the best things to learn right off the bat. To practice, maybe the following exercise would help. In school, we called this technique “pulling a bead”:

    1. First, take your watercolor pad & stick something underneath the top of it to prop it up a few inches or so.
    2. Mix a small cup (Dixie cups work well if you have some laying around) of any color
    3. Draw a square or rectangle on the page – note, for drafting purposes, I typically press hard enough to create a tiny groove for the paint to go into & not bleed outside the drawing area. For this, it probably doesn't matter …
    4. Get some watercolor on your brush (I use a rounded brush w/a pointed tip for pretty much everything, though for bigger washes, you'll want a bigger brush)
    5. Make line of paint across the top of the rectangle that you drew previously, making sure that you have a fairly generous amount of paint on the page so that it pools or “beads” a little at the bottom.
    6. Keep dipping your brush in the watercolor paint cup & “pulling” or working your way down the page, making sure to keep a bead of watercolor the whole way.
    7. Once you get to the bottom, you'll probably have a big pool of paint you don't need. To remove it, tap the brush on a paper towel & then dab the excess paint off & you should be great!

    So after writing all that, I reread it & realized how hard it was to understand. Then I searched for it on youtube & found a 2 minute video that explains the EXACT technique!

    I think this interweb thing may catch on ….

  • bobborson

    Thanks Brian,

    I went an flipped through your portfolio and my first question is how you got your washes so even on the very first page (the Progretto Di Riqualificicazione….).

    You can respond directly back to bob@lifeofanarchitect.com if you want. Cheers!

  • Not bad for a first shot, Bob!

    I actually did a lot of hand-drafting and watercolor in college – no computers until year 4 out of 5! (graduated in May 2008, so no, I'm not 104 years old!). It was really fun & rewarding.

    Toward the end of my college days, I would draft everything in CAD or SketchUp, print it out on watercolor paper, & then paint it. It was a really quick & easy way to get a good, artistic rendering of a project.

    If you're interested in seeing some of the work, you can check it out here under the “Portfolio” link – http://lunchtimesketchbook.wordpress.com/about-

    I'd be happy to answer any questions (though I'm certainly not an expert!) about how to do certain techniques or washes.

  • Not bad for a first shot, Bob.

    I actually watercolored & hand drafted most of my projects in college – no computers until year 4 out of 5! (graduated from ND in May 2008). It's a lot of fun & really rewarding.

    Toward the end of my academic years, I actually started doing most of the drafting & 3D modeling in CAD or SketchUp & then printing it on watercolor paper & rendering it. It's a great way to get a quick, artistic rendering of a project.

    You can check some of the paintings out here (http://lunchtimesketchbook.wordpress.com/about-…) if you're interested. I'd be happy to explain different techniques or help in any way.

    Good luck & stick with it!

  • That's an important step. Great library by the way.

  • la Femme Architct

    you may also want to look at watercolor pencils – i love them!

  • bobborson

    Thanks Brian – I thought you would like this one (the trying, not necessarily the end product). In this case, the journey IS actually the point of doing this

  • bobborson

    Thanks for the tip – I am definitely going to try that. I think I am going to amend the piece after I try painting another – just to see the difference between #1 and #2

  • bobborson

    Thanks Lori, I expect to get better (if I practice that is – which I will).

    Do you mean the light quality of the the actual light? The light fixture is an original 1958 Louis Poulsen PH 5 that I have be moving with me from house to house. I love the way it looks and it is rated for a 200 watt light bulb (which if you don't use, barely any light at all comes out, it isn't very eco-friendly). I also have a 1966 Louis Poulsen PH 4/3 that is sitting in a bag in the carport storage room because I don't have anywhere to put it. Sadly, it has been living in that bag for 5 years now…

  • Keep trying! 🙂

  • bobborson

    wow – a compliment and a criticism at the same time. Too bad that isn't a marketable skill (not unlike being funny, or not quite funny enough – Zing!)

  • bobborson

    I almost stuck the paintbrush in my eye at one point – would that count?

  • Hi Mike,
    The Mystery of Picasso. Got it on DVD and watch it every coupple months for inspiration. http://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Picasso-Pablo/dp/

  • Amy Good

    You should see my fingerpainting skills 🙂

    No, seriously, isn't there a program on the computer that watercolors for you?

  • Bob, this is very inspirational. Thanks for proving it is never too late to up one's artistic game and learn new stuff. The light in your library is also pretty groovy!

  • First up, Wow, can I have your library please? You can probably have a caption contest via unhappy hipsters for the first photo.

    Great job on getting into watercolors after so long. I remember using water to “erase” my mistakes (not that I was any good, but it worked if I caught the mistake early enough).

    I actually like the wet background pic. The ily appears to be in certain danger from rocks and mud or something.

  • la Femme Architct

    that was a nice attempt until you got tot he background, which you already knew. I would have down a warm brown (not too dark) or a dark blue wash. it's been years since i've watercolored. if you want a wash for the background, try wetting the areas first and then add color. i would practice this method first. Good luck!

  • cyraduquella

    You have no painting skills? HA! I don't believe it.

    A little off subject….that's your library? If you wake up some morning & those cupboard doors are missing, don't look for them at my house. Just saying……

  • Oh wow! Way to go, Bob… my artistic talent has its limits so I love to see when others excel. Very cool!

  • Great work on the lily and deciding to broaden your design perspective with a this new skill. It's one of those things we always talk about doing but never sit down and dedicate the required time and attention.

    It reminds me of a film we watched in studio back in my first year of school. It was this film about Picasso and his creative process. The main takeaway from it was the need to push your creative limits (even at the scale of a single painting or sketch) – and that sometimes it means completely destroying what you set out to make originally (i.e. the “Holey Moley”). For the life of me I can't remember the name of the film, I'd surely watch it again if I could. Keep on creating.

    P.S. your library looks like a kickass space.

  • I love learning new things, almost as much as I enjoyed reading about your experience. I found the squid comment to be especially entertaining. I think it looks just fine, for a 3rd attempt, over a 20 year stretch.

  • You need to invest in some supplies. I know you know that but I'm just saying it one more time. Be one with the brush Bob, be one with the brush.

  • Dear Squid:
    You probably suck, but I can't even draw, so what do I know? Maybe you can quit architecture and do watercolors. Maybe not. Here's what really matters – THAT is your library? Can I have that? I promise to decorate it with sucky art, er I mean, your masterpieces. Give me the library and I'll keep your art skills secret.