Pondering The Artist Life

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Is Watermedia Inferior to Oil? I say NO!


It's been awhile since I've updated my blog. While writing for Fine Art Views (for 3 years) once a week, it was easy to keep blog ideas fresh in my mind. Lately, I've been spending more time painting and instructing... which are tasks I adore.

Otter Cove Study, Acrylic on Canvas panel 8x10

I'm in Maine on a painting trip... I do some walking, but it's been raining for the most part. So, I've taken time to paint indoors. I'm trying something new - working only with acrylic while here. I have to share with you that I've always felt some sort of guilt while painting with acrylics or watercolor, because the "in crowd" of the art world often conveys to me that they are inferior to oil. Does that make me an inferior artist? Nope!

Don't we have the right to use whatever materials we choose to write our visual story with? I've often said, in an art crowd or to a gallery owner, "I am mostly known for watercolor... but I paint in oil too". Why do I have to feel so sheepish when I admit that I prefer watermedia? Sometimes it feels like I'm a second class citizen like Clarance, the angel in It's a Wonderful Life - who had not yet earned his wings. Even though he could do everything a wing-toting angel could.

Last year, I put on my "rebel" cap... which I wear a lot these days... at Putney Painter sessions, and Iemphatically stated that I was going to bring my watercolors with me and not oils. No one challenged me, and Richard even said, "Have I ever said you can't paint in watercolor?"Well... no ... BUT I do feel left out in some way. Oil is just part of the current culture of artists that I happen to hang around with.

Last year, when I attended Eric Rhoads' Adirondack Invitational, I was one of 4 watercolorists who painted plein air out of 80 artists who attended. I received many compliments, and came home after the week feeling totally validated as an artist. It was great that there were no gatekeepers to tell me that I am less than a top artist because I choose to work in water-media. Because I worked in my niche, my work at least stood out from the crowd. I talked my friend, Charlie Hunter into going. His work is outstanding, but not typical of any painting school or movement. He has a unique approach to painting with oil - water soluble oils in a drippy, tonal fashion. He was practically a celebrity that week - and he sold most of his paintings there to the other artists... even though it wasn't a selling venue. He too said he felt validated as an artist.

Since I've been writing for Watercolor Magazine since 1996 and American Artist has "repurposed" several of my step by step watercolor/watermedia articles for recent ebooks and special issues, I feel validated as a REAL artist. Over the years, I've noticed that many watercolorists and acrylic artists stay with their medium. I usually email them and ask them if they feel it has hurt their sales - even at galleries, and they say no. Then, lo can behold, I see them start to paint in oil.  Where they pressured into changing by their gallery dealers, collectors, or did they choose to paint in oil for their own reasons. I wish I knew, but I'm afraid to ask.

Otter Point, Acadia: 7.5x15 Acrylic on paper

One of my galleries, years ago now, sold an acrylic painting of mine as an oil (mistakenly). I must admit that one could not tell this acrylic on canvas from an oil painting - because I glaze, to desaturate the intensity of color. Since that time, I began painting in oil for galleries, and continued with watercolor for my articles and my patrons. It's interesting to note that many of my collectors prefer my watercolors, but the "gatekeepers" want Oils Only. Less sophisticated collectors (my collectors) don't care about medium, they only care about whether they like the painting and can afford it. I enjoy their trust that even though I paint in watermedia, I'm still a serious artist.

Then there are those artists who flip-flop. They make their name with watercolor. Then when they start working with galleries, they start painting in oil (but the oils never have the same charm as their watercolors), and eventually, after a number of years, they move back to watermedia. I think that these artists ultimately decide that they will follow their passion and not the requests of those who think they can sell oils more easily. Recently, I emailed Mary Whyte to say how much I have enjoyed her books, as well as, her tenacity to stick with the medium that she loves and has mastered. She gets good money for her paintings, and her workshops at Scottsdale Artist School fill quickly. She has no need to work outside of her chosen medium.

Tree study, Acadia NP: Acrylic on canvas panel. 9x12

Now.. I'm not against oil, I love the look of it, but I don't particularly enjoy the process of painting with it. I can handle it technically; however, I rather like fast drying media. I can make changes every half hour and glaze at a whim. I've worked out my unique approach, and don't need to think very hard anymore while painting with watercolor or acrylic.

Last year, Windsor Newton introduced a new line of acrylics that don't darken when dry. They are: Artists Acrylics, and just recently, they developed a line of clear mediums that don't darken. What's really interesting is that these paints seem more transparent, resulting in a look that's closer to oil than any I've used in the past. Yes, I've experimented with new versions of acrylic that dry more slowly - but as I said earlier, I prefer fast drying.

When I work en plein air, I take my transparent watercolors - I don't need an easel... just a board, a lap, and a rock to sit on. Everything fits in my backpack. Sometimes I take a tiny stool, and my paintings dry immediately, and are light. I work on 300lb paper which does not wrinkle or warp. I'll admit that I'm not inclined to finish paintings in the field, but watercolor is perfect for my color studies. I often do larger paintings in the studio from these studies anyway.

On top of all this, I hear from gallerists that collectors don't want works under glass because of reflections. Personally, I think watercolor lost its popularity when giclee prints came on the scene. The reproductions look so much like an original watercolor, that it's difficult to tell the difference. I've resolved this 'so called' issue by fixing and varnishing my watercolors and framing them just like an oil. Paintings I did more than a decade ago have not faded, and they can even be cleaned with a damp cloth. There is no reflection, and many times, viewers mistake my varnished watercolors for oils. Interesting that they recognize watermedia by how it's framed. The last thing I want for my original watercolors is to frame them with a mat. A mat makes it look just like a print, and in my estimation, lowers the perceived value.

Rainy Day, Bass Harbor Marsh: Watercolor with acrylic on paper, 8x10

What about competitions that require matting and glazing for framing? I don't enter those. I varnish my paintings, no matter what the medium, and if I don't qualify for a show because of framing restrictions, so be it. I do enter online shows and shows that are not media specific - they just want to see great artwork.

Whether you're an oil painter or a watermedia painter, I do have to say that traveling with watercolor paints is an option that causes very little trouble - especially on flights. I pack my supplies, labeling it was watercolor paint, the paper lies flat in the bottom of my suitcase, and since I rinse my brushes out in water, I only need one or two. They're short-handled too - easy to pack.

If you've always wanted to paint outdoors (or indoors) with watercolor, by all means, do it. Don't be swayed by some who will say it's not a real artist's medium. It's not more difficult than oil either - just more akin to drawing. Color mixing is easier, and control is easy when you glaze color over color, going from light to dark. If the weather is too dry, just add more water and do multiple glazes. However, if it's raining, that is a problem... I'll admit to that.

I'll be teaching three watercolor workshops next year... one at Scottsdale Artist School for newbies to watercolor - another at Tucson's Desert museum (intermediate), but anyone with ample drawing skills will do well, and a third for the Monadnock Artists Society - again for those who are newbies. If you want more info, please contact me through this website. I'll be happy to get back to you.

Remind me to write a post soon on how I varnish my watercolors - that's something I've probably typed up 100 times in various forums. It would be convenient if I were to write a blog post that I could just link to.

It's time that we honor our chosen medium - even if it's not the one that sells the most. As artists, all we really need is a small crowd of collectors, and I've managed to do just that with watercolor and acrylic. For you who paint in oil and love it - stay with it. Paint with whatever medium you love most - after all, we're artists, not a factory.






14 Responses to Is Watermedia Inferior to Oil? I say NO!

Hi Lori. Your work is beautiful. I was a watercolor painter for 25 years. One day I was at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I didn't see any watercolors being shown in any of their galleries. I asked the information desk, "Where are your watercolors?" She told me they were in flat files where the sunlight couldn't lighten their pigments. I was very sad about this. I know watercolors can fade if hung in an area where the sunlight can shine on them.

A little while later my Golden Retriever, Daisy ate one of my favorite Poppy watercolors.

I decided to switch to oils!

Renee, I use UV retardant spray and brush varnish, and none of my watercolors from 10 years ago have faded. Many of them are in AZ homes.

However, if you enjoy oils, then there's no reason you should paint in watercolor. I own many oils and still paint with them often. It just gets on my nerves, and my clothes ;-)

Still older watercolors do fade. A huge collector of Schmid paintings bought a watercolor from me back in the late 90's at an outdoor art show. The woman said she was an avid art collector. I had no idea! I saw her a couple of weeks ago in Putney, and she confirmed that she did buy a watercolor still life from me, and she remembered everything about that day. I was amazed and happy.

I am so happy to hear about UV retardant spray. I had no idea of such a thing. I will have to check this product out! So happy for you to have a collector of Richard Schmid's. I do really love watercolors too. Thanks for the information!

Lori, I began my art journey with watercolor, choosing an international workshop first by location (Italy), tutor second (Charles Reid). A few years later took up pastels...and a few after that, oil. I LOVE all three, but oil is more convenient for me. However, my watercolors and pastels are better after the hiatus to oil. I think w/c is harder, or at least was for me. I'm more of a controller, I guess. I dream of going back to watercolor. Your varnishing techniques sound interesting...I, too, hate mats...don't use them on my pastels either.

Thanks for your post Lori. I've wondered about switching from watercolor back to oils several times, but although I love oils, the amount of extra work involved and the fumes, keep me painting in watercolor (which I also love). I'm very interested in hearing about your varnishing techinques!
I recently read that one reason watercolors might not receive the admiration and attention they deserve is because there are watercolor-only exhibits. It was commented that there are no exhibits that state only oil paintings are allowed or only acrylic paintings may enter. The fact that watercolors can be used my anyone (although not always to the best effect), weakens their importance in the eyes of the art world.
Everyone has an opinion, this one seems akin to Woody Allen's not wanting to belong to a club that would accept him. :-)
Mahalo, Patrice

Vicky, I am a controller too! I paint tightly with watercolor, and when imwant paint opaquely, use acrylic. Laterly when I paint with oils, I use water soluble (Artisan) oilmand the water soluablemthinner, made for it. No fumes!

I'll be speaking at OPA this June. On art marketing, and I'll be participating in Plein air event there in CO, I'll paint Plein air watercolor. Th e Event doesn't require oil, but most will paint in oil.

Dear Lori...

Your watercolors are beautiful.
Enjoyed reading your article very much and can so relate to it about the various art mediums.

When I started out decades ago (gosh, that makes me sound old) I worked in oils, pastels and watercolors. Which do I prefer? I love all three, but in 2004 I got back into pastels in a more serious way What does that mean? Not that I was not serious about the oils and the watercolors. (I was fortunate to have won awards in both those mediums.)

When I returned more fully to the pastels in 2004, it was like finding a lost love again.
I did not know what my clients would think of my pastels since most of them had been purchasing my watercolors and my oils. As far as they knew, the pastels were new to me. They were not. I just did not show them or do enough of them to put them out there to the public.
Some clients were upset that I was not showing the watercolors or oils.
BUT, my artist friends all told me to please continue with the pastels because they liked them. That confirmation from the other artists meant a lot to me. .. (and I began to win awards, etc...with the pastels, thankfully so; and be accepted into juried shows with them.)

Like you, I dislike the mess of oils. Plus there was something that I had used with the oil paints causing an allergic reaction. Since then, I know what it was and will not use it.

I know there is talk about the mess and dust of pastels. So, I wear a mask and have air filters running and also wear gloves...as is a good idea to do with all painting mediums anyway. And of course, it goes behind glass.

Anyway, I visited a popular art gallery over the weekend and they represent only oil painters. (Gorgeous oils)
No pastels,no watercolors, nothing under glass...and I thought to myself, what a loss. For her clients not to also be able to see and appreciate the other beautiful mediums of art.
I do think art galleries should be more broad minded for the sake of art and the artists. Although they have that right to represent who or whatever medium they so choose.
If they are concerned about glass, there is museum glass to use.
It is up to the galleries to educate their clients about the various art mediums.
How can they do that if they do not represent other mediums?

Thank you for a very interesting article.

Best to you.

Just me again...

I just re-read what I wrote about being allergic to soemthing I used with the oils. When I wrote
"I know what it was and will not use it." I did not mean that I will no longer work in oils. My sentence came out sounding like that. I won't use the mixing medium I had used with the oils which I have not been able to find on shelves anyway.
I really want to do some more oils.

It is funny how at times the Pastel medium is forgotten about or not mentioned. It is a stunning, lasting and beautiful medium to use.


I loved reading your blog, Lori, because you hit on so many of the issues I have been struggling with as a 30 year watercolor artist. When I joined a plein air group I was frustrated in the competitions with the need to stamp the back of the work and how to frame it for the jury. It was a hassle to bring mats, glass, etc., and figure out a way to show the date stamp. It also seems that jurors (and even other artists) in plein air events take the oil painters more seriously. After about 7 mos. painting in oils I can say I'm enjoying learning a new process and am having fun with it, but there are things about watercolor I miss that can't be achieved in any other medium (not to mention the big issue with getting paint on every piece of clothing that I own!). I am happy to be able to work in both.

I love your comments about using fixative on your watercolors and framing them like oils...I'll probably try that, as well as the newer acrylics. Hmmm....I've been thinking lately that pastels are kind of kewl, too......! :-)

Thanks for the great thoughts...enjoyed seeing your beautiful work!

So glad you posted this. I was in a gallery all of last year with only one sale (full sheet watercolor) and a few small pieces which, in my opinion, don't count. I was the only watercolorist in the gallery. They loved my work but thought perhaps the lackluster sales were because the paintings needed a mat and made the 'look like posters'. At their request, I tried all ways to present the paintings so I pulled out after a year. The funny thing is that lately I am getting calls from the gallery telling me that collectors who saw my work last year want to see specific watercolors to purchase. Frankly, I do better selling on my own but, of course, do welcome the additional sales.
This article is encouraging. I will try varnishing a few paintings and bring them to the gallery framed as oils are. Whatever happens, I am committed to watercolors and will not change mediums. It is a lovely medium and needs to be honored. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and the varnishing methods as well.

Susan, I'm glad that your watercolors are getting attention. Not having to mat or glaze my watercolors saves me time and money. The darks look deeper with varnish. There is a blog on my website that describes how I mount the paper to a panel and varnish them. Robert McFarland sprays his with KMar. I've used that too. Stay away from matte varnishes, both in then spray can and liquid... They make the painting look cloudy because whitish particles make it look Matte. Gloss looks the best and has the hardest surface. If you use spray, use several thin coats. I got a drip on one of my watercolors because my cost was too thick, and it ruined the painting. I kept it for myself tho.

That's my 'coat' was too thick...

I agree that print technology makes it difficult to tell an original from a print. However that is good news for the watercolor painter. The print and poster niche has become so huge... who is better positioned to fully take advantage of this than a watercolorist? Consider how many paintings you can do at any one time. Usually I'm working on 3 at a time. Within a day or two... I can pick and choose the paintings that really work... off to the printer they go. If you have a hot selling print... who really benefits from retaining the original? You do.

That's a great point Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing that.

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