Monday, July 3, 2023

30x30 Direct Watercolor Finale


6/21/23 photo reference

This primary triad, used in the sketch at
left, is my favorite from the Kuretake Gansai
Tambi set. I used it frequently during the challenge.

Thirty consecutive days of watercolor painting without a drawing to guide the brush – whew! Whose big idea was this, anyway?? (The answer is Marc Holmes!)

Despite my month-long whining about how hard it was, I must admit I learned more about using watercolors during the 30x30 Direct Watercolor challenge than I have from any class or book. I can say with full confidence that if you practice anything for 30 consecutive days, you will get better and, with any luck, maybe make a breakthrough in your own creative growth (which is exactly what Marc intended when he first initiated this annual challenge in 2018).

6/22/23 Crown Hill neighborhood (on location)

Personally, I didn’t have any moments that felt quite like “breakthroughs,” but after years of avoiding watercolors (especially on location), it did feel satisfying to push past resistance and use them again. Taking
Kathleen Moore’s Winter Sketchbook+ Watercolor class in February was a good introduction, but direct watercolor – painting without guidelines – is a whole different ball of wax. Nothing like plunging headlong into the deep end without a lifeguard to make me swim fast and hard!

6/23/23 Roosevelt neighborhood (on location)

Shown in this post are sketches from the last 10 days. Some general learnings and insights (notes on specific sketches are in cutlines):

  • One thing I found most intolerable about my past uses of watercolors was wimpy washes when I needed strong washes. Learning to get better at making strong mixes was an important goal for the month, and I feel good that I did improve.
  • While wet-in-wet techniques weren’t part of the challenge, something about not having lines to follow seemed to encourage that technique of painting, which I enjoyed exploring. Thinking back to my early urban sketching days when I was stumbling along with both drawing and painting, I know that having a drawn picture to color in with paint inhibited mixing on the page because my technique was simply to fill in the spaces – the “coloring book” method.
  • Wet-in-wet also supported my goal of avoiding wimpy washes. If I didn’t use a mixing tray, then I was more likely to retain the intensity of hues that came out of the tube as they hit the page. As I discovered during my struggles in Kathleen’s class earlier this year, nothing creates wimpy washes faster than trying to achieve a specific hue in a mixing tray, continually adding more water, then more paint, then more water, then more paint again. Argh.
  • For the past couple years, I’ve been intrigued by color mixing, especially with triads. Using watercolors was a prime opportunity to explore the same principles with a different medium. In all of my direct watercolors, I never used more than four paints, usually no more than three. When working wet-in-wet, there’s so much to think about quickly anyway; I didn’t want too many colors to choose from. Except for a few tube paints I added to my portable Kuretake Gansai Tambi palette, I stayed with the colors that came in that set plus the larger Kuretake Gansai set when I was at my desk. Ultimately, even with those 19 or 24 colors easily accessible, I found I kept using the same six or seven paints repeatedly, and some I never used. All of this is very informative for refining and reducing my palette going forward.

6/25/23 Both of these old cars were sketched from photos I took at the Greenwood Car Show. In each, I played with color compliments -- blue and orange in this one. . . 

. . . red and green in this one.

From a broader perspective, participating in the 30x30 confirmed something I’ve long suspected, at least for myself (and probably many people). The most effective sequence for learning to paint is this:

1. Develop a solid foundation first in rendering – understanding and practicing proportions, form, light logic, etc.

2. At the same time, practice making drawings with a range of values.

3. Practice seeing and studying composition.

4. Study and practice color mixing with a dry medium (optional but very helpful).

5. Finally, learn to paint. With all the other stuff out of the way, learning to apply and mix paint can have one’s full attention.

I think back on how I (and so many other beginning urban sketchers) started out using watercolors from Day 1 of urban sketching. With so many other things to think about (see list above) at the same time, it’s no wonder watercolor painting was so difficult (and still is)! But this several-years-long pause I’ve had since the last time I used watercolors gave me time to focus on drawing and rendering so that now I can focus on painting. If I have any word of basic advice to beginners now, I would point to that sequence above.

6/26/23 photo reference

Overall, I’m happy that I took the plunge and pushed myself to try a challenge I didn’t feel ready for. After all, if I had felt ready, then it would not have been much of a challenge.

6/27/23 photo reference


6/28/23 Green Lake Village (on location). This sketch was done in 
the same location as one I did on 6/12 (shown at right). I did not like
the wimpy washes and weak composition I got the first time.
I think my second attempt is much better, both in value contrast and composition.

6/29/23 Earthsworld reference photo. This triad is my take on the Zorn portrait palette from the Kuretake Gansai Tambi studio set.

6/30/23 After abusing several Earthsworld strangers, I thought it was only fair to give myself the same treatment as my 30x30 finale. Whew -- a direct watercolor selfie! Someone, please give me a medal for bravery!


  1. Bravo!!! I really enjoyed seeing your direct watercolors every day and watching how you improved and made the paint and the colors work for you. I love that for the most part you worked with triads...something I always tell myself to try to do and then don't. You aren't afraid to challenge yourself.

    1. Thanks so much, Joan! I appreciated all your encouragement during the challenge! I did enjoy it, despite my griping! ;-)


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