Loose Style Owl In Watercolor

by Wendi OBrien

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For this blog, I will be working in a fairly new medium to me….watercolor.  This is only the second piece I have completed without a tutorial.  Considering that and the fact I used an unfamiliar paper, I think the end result actually turned out quite well.

The last time I touched watercolor was several months ago, so I needed to refamiliarize myself with the workings of the medium.  That was a challenge in itself.  Since watercolor has a mind of its own, I really needed to find a good balance between letting it do what it was going to do in a somewhat controlled manner.

I know those two things don’t usually go hand in hand, but hey, if you know me there has to be some kind of control to avoid any type of melt down.

Wet On Wet

I mostly worked in a wet on wet method meaning I would wet the paper then apply the pigment and let it blend and move.  This allows for a very loose painting.  I soon found that I was really struggling with controlling this and getting the results I wanted.  So I moved into a semi-wet application in which I felt I had more control and was able to move around a bit better.

Changing Techniques Has It’s Benefits

In this application I sometimes lightly dampened the area, sometimes not then apply the pigment then dipped my brush in water to move the pigment around.  This worked really well in the heavily pigmented areas.  I would then pull the pigment from those areas into the others to create the lovely fades and blends.

While this may not be the best way to accomplish this, it is what worked for me and I felt like I had more control over the medium, yet able to create a looser appearance than I normally would. 

If the areas got too dark I was still able to lift off the pigment while it was wet to lighten it a bit.

Fixing the “Rings”

I noticed as the watercolor dried, I would sometimes have rings because I did not have water in that area to fade out.  After it dried I would then take a wet brush to soften those ring edges, as this is not something that I wanted in this artwork.

On the right hand side there came a point where I really lost the side of the owls face, but found it easy to fix by reactivating it with water and lifting and moving the pigment without any problems.

Biggest Challenges

I think one of the most challenging things for me was letting go and allowing the pigment to do its thing.  I love the loose style, but also struggle to achieve it without a fight breaking out in my head between complete tight control realism to a loose semi-realistic dreamy type feel.  Yet one more skill I need to practice.

Another challenge for me in this piece was having the patience to let things dry.  When I art, I like to just keep going until it is finished or I need to stop for the day.  Having to wait for layers to dry, I have to find something else to do, which is not my usual work flow and I find disruptive to the process.

But when working with wet mediums, it is a necessary step in order to achieve the best outcome and less struggle along the way.

Adding Details

After getting most of the larger areas of the owl established, I then went in with a small brush and used a wet on dry technique to start putting in some of the details.  I didn’t want to go to crazy with this and had to get a happy medium of not too much vs not enough and looking sparse.

I then used a comb/rake brush to create some interesting and unexpected textures.  I found I really liked this technique and will use it in future pieces.  It really adds to the overall appearance of the watercolor. 

What type of brushes do you like to use and what unexpected results have you achieved?  Let me know in the comments below.

Using Gouache

I used a bit of white gouache for the whitest areas.  I did this for two reasons.  While some areas I did leave the paper showing for the white areas, which is the usual practice for watercolors, the paper was an off white to start off with and I really wanted the bright white highlights. 

So, essentially, I used the paper as a lighter mid tone and was able to work both darker and lighter.  I think this decision created much more depth since I increased my value range within the piece.  This wide value range is one of the aspects that creates dimension in art.


I did a few splatters here and there that is common in watercolor.  I don’t know why, but I really love the splatter look.  It is easy to get out of control with this so keeping it in check is key. 

I created a few near the beginning and then adding more as I worked.  This seemed to work well and made them appear more of part of the painting than just an afterthought since some of them got worked into the piece.  This is something else I will keep in mind as I do future pieces.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was nice to jump in and create a loose piece like this again and look forward to honing my skills in this medium and doing more looser style artwork. 

Until next time…keep on arting!

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