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Zoltan working on mural collaboration with children from his church

Simple Lessons
We have all heard of KISS as in “Keep it simple, stupid”. This is applied to
many subjects including painting in watercolor. Let’s modify that slogan to
“Keep it simple, scholar.” With a bit of study you can learn the simple
lessons to help you succeed in watercolor. The information contained herein is
simple. The lessons most easily overlooked are probably the ones that seem the most
basic, i.e., the simplest. These few points can help you come to terms with
the wiles of watercolor.

MAP     VIP     COW     LAP     SLAPP     KIN
How can these six little words help you simplify your paintings?

Make a Plan       
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Not a new lesson to be sure, but an important one. Plan your work and then
work according to the plan that you have made. For most painters, this may mean
working out a value study, simplifying your composition, and choosing colors
to convey your message. In other words, making a plan. Just as a road map will
help you find your way, MAP can do the same thing with your painting. Most
artists will to do this on paper with a thumb nail sketch. After years of
practice, you may be able to visualize and make a plan in your head.

Value is Prime       
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Organize your values into a system. Then keep your choice of systems in mind
as you execute your painting. Paintings generally are expressed in three
values (dark, middle and light) and into three planes (foreground, middle ground
and back ground.) As you plan your painting, keep in mind that each plane
should be dominated by a single value. The other two values will be evident in
smaller amounts. Each plane should be dominated by a different value. In
planning your painting, value is second only to shape and ahead of color and
texture. Value makes the painting read. As you choose your colors, make test swatches
to see the range of values offered by your choices.

Control of Water       
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Control the amount of water in your brush. Have a moisture control device and
use it. Zoltan’s choice was a roll of toilet paper, core removed, crushed and
wrapped in wet strength paper towels. His every stroke touches the paper pad
in route to his painting. Watch for this as he demonstrates. You can still
see some of this in his videos.

If oozles and backruns are an unhappy part of your painting, get control of
the water in your brush. Oozles occur when there is more water in your brush
than on your paper. The idea of judging how much water is in the brush versus
how much is on your paper may be a difficult concept to grasp. If the water
flows from the brush to the paper, there is more water in the brush than on the
paper. This will generally insure a backrun. If that is what you are trying to
get, you are in luck. If not, you want to be sure that there is less water in
the brush than on the paper.

In general, water should move from the paper to the brush when painting on
wet or damp paper. The pigment should move from the brush to the paper. Use the
moisture control device to help keep you on track. Zoltan touches the pad to
eliminate extra water before he touches the paper with his brush.

Limit a Palette       
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This simple concept can help you easily attain color unity in every painting.
There are many fine brands of watercolor paint. Which brand or even which
pigment you choose is not too important if you have made a compatible selection.
You will want a high quality professional grade of paint in an assortment of
colors that allows a full range of primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, and
neutrals and is able to achieve all values varying from very light to very dark.

Zoltan generally had 16 pigments on his palette. His choice of colors varied
from year to year but always met the standards suggested above. By limiting
your working palette to 16 or 20 colors, you will be able to learn the
characteristics of each. If you have 100 different pigments at hand, you will be
less likely to understand the individual characteristics and properties.
Watercolor is an active medium. Unlike oil, acrylics, pastels, pencil, etc.,
watercolor responds to the strokes that went before and will follow. Watercolor

From time to time, with a limited palette you will likely feel the pull of a
new color. With this pull there may be the realization that some colors on
your current palette are being ignored. Move the old out and the new in. As you
have intimate knowledge of the colors on your palette, you can quickly learn
the characteristics of the new additions.

Severely Limit a Painting Palette       
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In most cases 6 or fewer colors will do the job. Choose carefully. As you
only have 16 or so colors on your working palette, you will know the
characteristics of each and know how they all interact. Make color swatches to remind
yourself of the available ranges of the colors chosen for each painting. Notice
how often Zoltan uses only three pigments. Be aware of the exciting range he
gets from his severely limited palette.

Knowledge is Necessary       
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Know your colors. Also have some general knowledge and expectation of pigment
behavior. For example, expect any phthalocyanine pigment of any hue or brand
to stain. Know that cadmiums are generally opaque in heavy consistency. If you
have this knowledge and expectation, you will more easily make informed
decisions when you choose pigments for your own working palette. And when you
encounter a pigment that goes against your expectation, it is easily noted as an

MAP     Make a Plan
VIP       Value is Prime
COW     Control of Water
LAP      Limit a Palette
SLAPP   Severely Limit a Painting Palette
KIN       Knowledge is Necessary

©Willa McNeill and the Estate of Zoltan Szabo   

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