Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: Urban Watercolor Sketching

Any book with the words “urban sketching” in the title catches my eye, and this one by Felix Scheinberger was no exception: Urban Watercolor Sketching – a Guide to Drawing, Painting and Storytelling in Color. Translated from the German, the book is filled with the author’s watercolor illustrations (such as of suggested art materials) and many colorful examples of his whimsical work. The examples are not strictly about urban sketching (as in the manifesto), though, and the original title, Wasserfarbe für Gestalter, translates to “Watercolor for Designers,” so the English-language title may have been a marketing ploy to glom onto the current popularity of urban sketching.

Still, I think it’s an appropriate title because the author clearly expresses an urban sketcher’s attitude: “Paint what’s around you – things that you can easily reference. Artists ought to be authentic and tell something about their world.” He points out that of all the painting media, watercolor is uniquely suited for sketching on location: “Watercolor can go anywhere. It is an autonomous, free and creative medium. It makes the world our studio.”

If you are looking for a step-by-step, how-to approach to watercolor technique, you will not find it here. Scheinberger’s lively, informative book is more about expression and using the unique features of the watercolor medium to find that expression. An ancient Chinese parable that he relates at the beginning of the book sets the tone for using watercolor: Learn a few techniques that require much time and practice to fine-tune.

I’ve read numerous books on watercolor technique, and I think this is the first I’ve seen that spends several pages on the medium itself – its ancient roots, how it is made, why some pigments are more expensive than others – and provides this potentially dry and technical information with an irreverent, entertaining tone. (Kudos to translator Faith Ann Gibson for capturing the author’s intended voice.) Scheinberger knows his stuff, and he conveys it without sounding like he’s giving us a lecture.

Unlike most watercolor books that assume that the reader has taken for granted the use of color, Scheinberger takes time to tell and show how the addition of color to a line drawing gives it life:

“A drawing – and even more so a sketch done in pen or pencil – conveys something that is hard to grasp, something that seems indefinite. When color is added, in a manner of speaking, we enter the ‘real world.’ . . . Color is demanding and enriches our pictures with a sensual aspect. A drawing of a cake merely describes its shape, but a painting of a cake makes it mouthwatering.”

As far as watercolor technique goes, Scheinberger believes that by combining only two basic techniques – glazing (one or more transparent layers applied after the previous layer is dry) and wash – you can achieve nearly any effect. While glazing offers more control, letting colors mix serendipitously in washes allows the uniquely luminous properties of watercolor to shine. The two together enable you to apply a degree of control to what is a “willful and anarchical” medium. “If we sacrifice the right amount of control in the artistic process, watercolor’s inherent qualities begin to work to our advantage.”

Sketch by Felix Scheinberger in his book, Urban
Watercolor Sketching
While most of the watercolor techniques he describes were familiar to me, one was not! We’ve probably all heard about sprinkling salt onto wet paint to get interesting mottled effects, right? But did you know you can get a similar mottled effect with saliva? (Not quite as easy to apply with accuracy, but certainly more readily available!)

Especially enlightening to me was seeing Scheinberger’s examples of color used to unify a composition and using spots of color judiciously to bring the eye to the focal point – “less is more.” I read a public library copy of this book, but I may decide to buy a copy, if only to enjoy Scheinberger’s expressive, mood-infused sketches again and again.

(This review also appears on

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