Watercolor Basics: Why Watercolor?

In our Introduction post, I showed you a little of watercolor work that inspired me, as well as a variety of my own watercolor work.   Over the years, one of the most common questions I'm asked regarding 7" Kara is "why watercolor"?  Although I love the look of watercolor, there are several other excellent reasons why I've opted to use watercolor as my medium of choice for comics.

I've also included a few reasons why watercolor may not work for you.  In both lists, I've tried to be as honest as possible, so you may make an informed decision before investing time, resources, and money to studying watercolor.

Why Watercolor?

A Translucent Media

Watercolor is translucent media with a few magical properties.   Due to its translucent nature, light bounces between the layers of watercolor and the paper, which makes watercolor seem to glow from within, a property not found in opaque media like acrylics or pastels.

Capable of Layering

One common theme throughout all of my color-based work is the use of multiple layers of color to build up tone and contrast.  Some media handle this application better than others- watercolor handles glazing and layering well if the right tools are used.  Of course, this can vary with the weather- very humid weather (like in Louisiana) means even high quality watercolors end up chalky on the paper, and may be prone to flaking off.

Cheaper than Markers
7" Kara Chapter 1 Cover- Copic Marker
Chapter 1 Cover 7" Kara, Watercolor
Variant covers for Chapter 1 of 7" Kara Volume 1.  Initial Post here

The start up costs for watercolor is fairly daunting- a decent set of paints (at least 6, more like 12, and really, the more you have the easier it is to crank out pages), a handful of good brushes (you really want to start with something decent, a squirrel-synthetic mix at least, ideally sable or kolinsky for your rounds), a few different watercolor papers and weights to experiment with, pans, a palette, palette wells, tape, it seems like the list is endless.

And while there ARE many, many accessories for watercolor, once you've got a basic set assembled, you can use those materials for a long time.  You can refill pans.  You can invest in a metal palette that will last you for years.  If you take care of your brushes, you won't need many, and they'll last a long time.

In the long run, watercolor is cheaper than Copic markers and accessories.  One pan of a often used color (yellow ochre, for example) tends to last me at least an entire chapter, whereas I would have to refill E000 every two pages. 

If I want to be even more economical, I can purchase a tube of color and portion it out in pans, really stretching my dollar, although tube colors are not formulated for repeated wetting and drying (I do it anyway)


Waterbased media usually make for easy clean up, and it limits my exposure to toxic chemicals.  Water is my main solvent, used for activating my paints, mixing my paints, cleaning my brushes, making corrections, cleaning my palettes.

This said, watercolor is NOT a non-toxic media- many of the paints utilize heavy metals or carcinogens as pigments.  Do not allow your animals to drink watercolor water, do not consume it yourself.  Please be careful when using watercolors, and do not allow young children to play with artist grade watercolors.

Fairly Forgiving

Watercolor is a comparatively forgiving media- you have many options for correction during and after painting.  While the paint is wet, you can lift it off with a paper towel or sop it off with a brush.  After the paint has dried, you can rewet it with clean water, and lift off some of the color with a paper towel.  Also after the paint has dried, you can scrub it off with a damp, stiff bristled brush.  After you have finished painting you can add details or highlights with watercolor or color pencils, or add pops of color with opaque watercolor or gouache.

Does Not Require Sealing

Many mediums require sealing for permanence or layering- color pencils, chalks, pastels, oils, some acrylics, some resins, all require sealing.  While I have nothing against sealing, I like being able to work for long stretches of time without having to get up and add another layer of sealant to the piece.

Can Be Painted in Batch

A very small batch (just two pages) of 7" Kara, Chapter 6, painted while in Louisiana last month.

I am not a patient person, as everyone who knows me can attest.  And as an impatient person, you might assume watercolors would not be a medium I'd enjoy painting with.  I've found though, that watercolors, especially watercolor comics or sequential pages, can be painted in batch.  Batch painting saves several resources- your time, your paints, your water, your energy.

Batch painting requires additional gatorboard, several pages ready at the same time (I like to paint entire scenes in batch), and the ability to think in batches.  Basically, when I stretch, I stretch all the boards in a batch.  When I apply washes, I apply all washes in a batch.  All skintones in a batch.  Every step is done in batch, until the final details, which are applied individually.

Working in batch allows me to work nearly continuously- as one layer is applied, another layer dries on a prior board.  It also allows me to produce pages fairly quickly, so long as I have large chunks of time I can work with.

A Traditional Medium

So many of my peers have taken their comic work to the digital realm, and while digital comics have much to offer, I still prefer holding the finished page in my hands.  Watercolor is very much a traditional media, with quirks and qualities that people work hard to emulate digitally. Although watercolor is intensely time consuming, I've learned a lot through my years of painting, and some lessons can't be taught digitally.  I've learned how and when to correct mistakes whether mistakes are even worth correcting and how to deal with mistakes that cannot be fixed.  I've learned how to scan my pages so that they still LOOK like watercolor, rather than mush, and I've learned that there are three distinctions in watercolor- watercolor (fine art), watercolor (illustration), watercolor (what I do), and that sometimes those distinctions are completely arbitrary.

Of course, watercolor does have a few negative traits that I should point out before I completely sell you on the virtues of watercolor.

Very Satisfying when Things Go Well

With all the things that can go wrong with watercolors, or all the disappointments a watercolor artist can face, when things do go well, there's something very satisfying about watercolors.  I love seeing a page transform from stark white with pencils to full rendered- it's almost hard to believe the page was ever white to begin with.  There's a lot of magic in how the pigments look on the paper, how light makes colors seem to glow, but it takes a lot of practice to summon this magic on command. 

Why Not Watercolor?

Requires A LOT of patience

I mentioned above that batch painting is my solution to the patience issue, but it isn't a perfect solution.  If you're the sort of person who likes to fidget or nitpick pieces, watercolor may be a poor medium for you.  Nitpicking quickly turns watercolor to mud.  Overworking due to impatience quickly turns watercolor to mud.  Sometimes watercolors just turn themselves to mud.

Results are often out of your hands

Weather plays a huge role in how your watercolors handle.  Too humid, and your paints never dry.  Too dry and your paints dry immediately, leaving streaking.  Quality papers help mitigate that, but for students using student grade to practice, this can be very frustrating.

I have flirted with the idea of purchasing a dehumidifier to regain some of that control, but I have yet to see definitive reviews from other muggy weather watercolorists to push me towards a decision.

Some mistakes cannot be fixed (at least, traditionally)

Although watercolor can be very forgiving, there is always a point where you need to put your brush/gouache/color pencils down and just step away, because you won't make the piece any better.

At this point, it's a great idea to step away for a few days, and consider revisiting the piece digitally, if you absolutely have to make corrections.  Often you'll find that you no longer feel the need to bend the piece to your will, and you're willing to learn from the mistakes you made and move on to the next piece.



People assume its digital until they see it in person

The plague of my life.  Because digital faux watercolors are very popular right now, people assume my traditional watercolor pages are digital.   Mentioning that my pages are traditional watercolor doesn't help- quite a few digital watercolorists claim traditional without the paint on paper to prove it.  This has proved annoying and difficult when applying to conventions- sometimes it takes a few follow up emails to express that I'm not selling prints, I'm selling originals, and yes, they are all actual pigments on paper. 

Not for everyone

Although there are a lot of positives to watercolor, it is definitely not for everyone.  Many of the people I've met who struggle with it are excellent at opaque media like acrylics, oils, and gouache, and have trouble thinking transparently.  I have difficulty thinking in opaque layers, and I'm terrible at acrylics and gouache.  If you really want to master watercolor, nothing I say will stop you (and I'm not trying to), I just want you to be aware that you may have more trouble learning watercolor than you had with other media.

Watercolor can be finicky- if you work in the wrong climate (hot, humid, very cold, dry), you may spend more energy forcing the media to your will, rather than working together to create something beautiful.

Extremely time consuming

Watercolors take a lot of time- time spent waiting on stretched pages to dry, time spent waiting for washes to dry, time spent waiting for shading to dry, time spent actively painting.   My method of painting is pretty time consuming- many many thin layers, allowed to dry before a new layer is added. 

When painting for the day, I usually work on a couple other tasks to stay sane- writing video descriptions, writing blog posts, promoting my blog or channel. 

Requires a lot of open space

Especially when painted in batch, I need a lot of room to paint.  I can't paint large (11"x14", or comic page size) pieces at my drafting table- there just isn't enough room for the piece, the gatorboard, my water cups, my palettes, and my paints to all comfortably fit.  I usually resort to painting on the floor, which opens me up to new issues- marauding cats, cat fur, the carpet eating into my legs, back problems- the whole gamut.  I've purchased an anti-fatigue mat to help with the pressure sitting on the floor put on my hips, and that helps a bit, and my cat is slowly learning that walking across fresh watercolors is no bueno.  Where you work, and how you set up, is up to you, and it may take a lot of experimentation to find a setup that suits you best.   While you learn, I highly recommend starting small.

Many publishers aren't open to full color publishing, or publishing watercolor

Watercolor can be tricky to print, requiring a lot of work on the artist's end to make sure the pages are digitized correctly.  You need to scan in a large format (600DPI), be knowledgeable in digital graphics programs to make corrections, and accept that even if you have these skills, some publishers just aren't willing to take the financial risk on an unknown.  Self publishing, at least for awhile, may be your only real option.

While I was at SCAD and just starting 7" Kara, I had handful of editors from a few comics publishers inform me that while they enjoyed my work, watercolor was just not feasible, as it didn't reproduce well.  I've seen a number of published watercolor comics published since then, so this may have changed.

Can be very discouraging

Because watercolors take up a LOT of time, and can take a long time to finish, naturally you want people to react to them when you share them.  Receiving no reaction at all can really sting.  Or sometimes you've spent a long time on something, only to have it turned pear shape and irreparable at the very end.  Either way, watercolors can be VERY discouraging.  If you take disappointment poorly, or can't handle failure, watercolors are not the media for you.

People tend to be strongly opinionated about watercolor comics

I get a lot of unsolicited commentary and critique on my watercolor pages, usually from people who should know better than to offer their opinion unasked in the manner that they're offering it.

Years ago, while at an Editor's Day event at SCAD, I received a scathing critique from an editor with whom I had previously had positive experiences.  He absolutely hated my watercolor, and spent the entire group review tearing me apart in front of the other students.  I left that review wrecked, walking straight into my next, where the editor loved it, and felt like watercolors were my selling point.

I've found that watercolor combined with my method of illustration tends to be an excellent gateway for parents who see comics as inferior to traditional childrens books.  My comics have many of the traits that are found in beloved children's books, which invites hesitant parents to flip through the portfolio, ask me questions, and sometimes even given 7" Kara Volume 1 a try in their households.

Cat ownership is a detriment

Cat hair in your paints.  Cats drinking poisonous watercolor water.  Cats knocking things over, cats walking over your pages.  If you work on the floor like I do, and have a studio cat, you're in for a world of annoyance.

You have a few options.  No cat in the studio (good luck with that).  Cat in the studio who gets yelled at all the time.  Cat in the studio who owns the studio, and you work around the cat  Mix and match to your preference and cat.

A lot of poor quality products touted as high quality supplies

Field test from my Angora watercolors review
Sometimes the only way you can find out if a paper or paint is right for YOU is through using it.  Although I have reviewed several products on this blog over the years, I don't generally review watercolors, because preference plays a huge rule.  HOW you watercolor will effect what watercolors you like.  Some people paint with the Artist's Loft set, I personally think that set is garbage.  Some people think painting with Winsor and Newton half pans is a waste of money, I've used them for years.  In the course of this series, I'll recommend some of my favorite products, but it's up to you to find things that really work for your art.

Requires a LOT of practice

Watercolor studies done over the course of a week, while I figure out how to best handle Strathmore's Visual Journal watercolor paper.

Watercolor can take weeks to learn, and even longer to master.   You have to be open to failure, open to experimentation, and open to spending a LOT Of time practicing.   You need to get over the fear of 'wasting' supplies with failed art, and many people can't do that.

My Chapter 1 pages look significantly different from my Chapter 6 pages because I've had years of practice, study, and improvement between the two.  Some artists and writers have balked at this inconsistency, but I welcome it.  These changes show growth, the capacity for change, and a desire for improvement.  Of course, this change has required a lot of work- there are almost 100 pages between Chapter 1 and Chapter 6, dozens of stand alone Kara illustrations, and many, many watercolor studies.

Want to see more of my watercolor work, and help support this blog?  Then please checkout 7" Kara, Volume 1, available through my online store and through GumRoad.  And after you've read it, please leave a review on GoodReads and Amazon- your good word really means a lot!  While you're at it, why not share this post (or maybe even a plug for7" Kara) on your tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter?  The social buttons are just below this post! Sharing means caring, and you would help this little blog out in a BIG way.  Not everyone learns through text, so if you'd like some multi with your media, please check out my YouTube channel for reviews, demonstrations, and tutorials.  And if you liked it all, and want todo more please visit my Patreon for information on how to financially support my art educational endeavors, insuring that I'm able to keep up the good work!


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