The Spontaneity of Watercolor

"Average Height" Elizabeth Roush

"Average Height" Elizabeth Roush

Charles Le Clair, in the Art of Watercolor, says

the trick to painting the figure in watercolor is to paint it as you would anything else. If it is naked, think of a breast or arm as an apple or tree trunk; if clothed, study the folds of a dress over a thigh as you would a formation of boulders or driftwood… this is no easy trick. One difficulty is that the complexities of human anatomy get in the way of seeing shapes simply. Another is that we are apt to be more interested in the minor details of a portrait than those of a still life or landscape. It is all very well to observe that the model’s head is egg-shaped, but what about the mole on the upper lip, and how do you put in eyelashes? In oil or acrylic you can struggle with a likeness and still hope to get the general effect right, but this isn’t feasible in watercolor. The medium is attuned to broad rather than miniature effects and to first impressions rather than corrections or adjustments. Thus you must have a clear idea in advance of the compositional appproach and rendering technique you will use in defining the figure…

When the watercolor brush (Exhibit A) pauses before a poised body (Exhibit B), it is perhaps a meeting of (A) difficult and (B) even more difficult. The brush, well aware that it must maintain extreme dexterity to control pooling and eddying, meets the intricate detail of the body, with its varied contours, its rich texture, its capricious variations of light and shadow. There are no vast plains of the human body where the watercolor artist can get lazy with broad brush strokes. The body itself may look carefree in its pose (although the poses are tres difficult to execute — see the excellent perspective of Museworthy for more), but when the artist renders it in watercolor, extreme discipline and obedience to process is necessary. Perhaps the best works are those that underneath have orchestrated this dexterity and control, but on the surface exude spontaneity, freedom, anda vivid sense of expression.

So what about expression? Not only is it difficult to portray form in watercolor, but emotion/expression is another ballgame. Elizabeth Roush’s watercolor “Average Height” accomplishes this well. She imbues a certain casual playfulness in the figure, as if the model is pausing, mid-stride, perhaps to sweep her hair back up in a clip. At first, because of the darker strokes around the edge of the painting, you think that she may be hiding in an enclosed space, a tight space, but look again — on the contrary, she seems to be in a self-imposed personal space, and comfortable and happy in her solitude.

One other unique element of watercolor is that since the artist must work at a relatively fast pace (compared to acrylic or oil), there’s less “overworking” which means that in watercolor the excitement and freshness of spontaneity is inherent. I think this is evident in Roush’s work, as she has taken on a difficult and unforgiving medium and subject matter and mastered their complexities with a free-spirited and boundless sensibility.



  1. Great works by Elizabeth Roush! Amazing. And a great discussion of watercolor and figure painting. I’ve always thought that watercolor was the ideal medium for capturing model gestures for the very reason you described – quick application and fast pace, fluid lines, etc. Although dry media do a fine job representing figure action, I have seen them many times become stilted and stiff. As models, we value the spontaneity of our movement and are quite thrilled when artists represent it in their work. It feels good.

    Wonderful post, Lori. And thanks for the link!


  2. Claudia, it’s great to get your perspective. You bring up the interesting dichotomy of wet vs. dry media, which set me thinking about what subject matter dry media portrays in a more unique or vivid way than other media could.

    It also just occurred to me that many people’s first (and perhaps only) foray into art was in watercolor — via those paint-by-numbers workbooks as children!

    Thank you so much for your kind words and comments!


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