Impression of Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (watercolor on paper, 15x22) by Jansen Chow 

ART TECHNIQUES Articles 3 min read

How Can I Make this Painting Better? 5 Lessons for Making Watercolor Magic 

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What is it that takes a painting from mediocre to magical? There is, of course, no one single answer. In fact, there are probably as many ways to strengthen the power of a painting as there are ways to ruin it! Here’s one thing we do know: You won’t get there if you don’t keep pushing. As a work is progressing, ask yourself: What can I do to make this painting even better? For the following five artists—all of whom have been repeat finalists in the Splash/Best of Watercolor Art Competition—asking that question was a habit, and doing so has stretched their creativity to higher and higher heights. Discover below five lessons that their Splash-winning watercolors can teach us. And then, don’t forget to enter your latest and greatest works of watermedia in Splash 25 (deadline December 12)! 

Lesson 1: Use Light and Shadow to Enhance Your Concept 

To create her portrait of an old Tibetan woman praying, Zhou Tianya says she used more than 20 layers of transparent watercolor as a way to signify Tibetans’ devotion to faith. “I emphasized two points to form the features of the painting,” she says. “The first was enhancing the tonal unity by reducing the contrast of color, thus creating a solemn, noble, and classic beauty. The second was creating a religious, mystical atmosphere by designing the painting with half light and half shade, creating more imaginative space.” 

Praying (watercolor on paper, 22×15) by Zhou Tianya

Lesson 2: Make Compositional Choices That Impact Mood 

When artist Denny Bond (1953–2023) designed a painting, mood was always an important consideration. In his still life, Aroma, for instance, the mid-century coffee pot demanded a high-contrast design to “complement its reflective capabilities,” he says. “The accompanying pieces were not only placed to reflect onto the coffee pot but also to balance the composition. The spoon on top of the coffee pot emphasizes a sense of urgency for the forthcoming caffeine.” 

“When I design a still life painting, I want it to relay a message. The chosen items need to relate to one another and be coherent to the viewer.”

— Denny Bond 

Aroma (watercolor on paper, 17×28) by Denny Bond

Lesson 3: Work in Ways That Foster Creative Freedom 

For Jansen Chow, music—loud music—is an important component of his painting process. For his Splash-winning cityscape, he started by moistening his sheet of paper with water and then immediately applying paint with a large brush. “I went with the rhythm of the music, letting the paint and water mix freely to form,” he says. “After that, I used flat brushes of different sizes to loosely depict the general details of the scenery. I used reference photos when painting the main building in the center, but the sky, river, and background buildings were created from imagination. I hope this kind of painting method not only allows the audience to feel my sense of freedom of artistic creation but to also hear the music coming through the work.” 

Impression of Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Jansen Chow 

Lesson 4: Try an Approach That Encourages Spontaneity 

Tim Saternow says he tends to get bored if he lets a painting become too exact or too precious. “To force my creative spark, I throw caution away and explore serendipity,” he says. “I break down my carefully drawn perspective sketch, with its perfect range of light and shadow, by putting a layer of mess on top.” Saternow lays the painting on the floor and then begins to throw water and paint, making puddles, and causing runs and blooms. “I then go back and restore by adding more of the darkest value or by lightening up other areas,” he says. “I continue back and forth, throwing and lifting, until I get that right sense of mystery, obscurity, and a perfect rush of light.” 

“Don’t settle for ‘just OK.’ Throw some paint! Light that spark and see what happens.”

— Tim Saternow 

West 15th Street Bridges (watercolor on paper, 40×26) by Tim Saternow

Lesson 5: Be Ready to Make Changes 

Suzy Schultz was part of a group of artists that staged a photo shoot with a model in a large industrial building. The reference from the session has inspired several paintings, including her portrait, Falling Leaves. “I started the piece a couple times on smaller paper but was disappointed with the size of the figure,” Schultz explains. “I wanted to include space around the figure and also to have the face large enough to include detail, so I decided to work on much larger paper. After painting the figure and a light background, I felt that it needed some sort of metaphorical element, so I decided to add leaves. Collecting leaves from around my studio, I dropped them onto the painting and re-created them with masking tape shapes. I then painted the background over them, going back and forth with the rest of the background until it had the effect I wanted.” 

Falling Leaves (watercolor on paper, 40×30) by Suzy Schultz 

Inspired? Enter your works of watermedia in Splash 25 (deadline December 12). We can’t wait to see them!

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