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The first project I tackled with my women’s craft group is this watercolour painting – isn’t it pretty? After some discussion with the volunteers, we decided this would be a nice, relaxing intro to the group where everyone could learn some new skills, have fun, and take away a nice painting to show off.
I chose the aurora borealis (or aurora australis for my south pole folks) because, well, it’s pretty and pretty easy to paint. As long as you get a mix of the right colours in the background, some white splatters and the lower silhouettes cover a multitude of sins! And remember, nature isn’t perfect. Whether on paper or in the sky, every aurora borealis should be different – that’s what makes it so spectacular.
The project includes two parts:
- A warm up where students learn some practical watercolour techniques to create different effects and textures
- Painting the aurora borealis with stars and silhouettes
Most of the supplies below are things you will already have like scissors and cling wrap. Some specialist things you might need to pick up are watercolour paints, paint brushes of different sizes and watercolour paper. The watercolour paints I bought in bulk for the class were these from Pelikan which come with a little tube of white acrylic paint too which was perfect for our purposes!
Watercolour paper is thicker than ordinary printer or drawing paper – it has to be tough to cope with all the water! The paper I used for this project is 280gsm (grams per square metre) and this is at the lower end of what would be considered the best for watercolour painting. Typically 300gsm or higher is a great starting point.
Skills and Techniques
This project is a great introduction to watercolour painting as well as a nice challenge for those with some experience – the perfect combo!
After completing this lesson, participants will know how to:
- Use tablet-style watercolour paints
- Mix and layer colours to achieve a smooth sky effect
- Utilise various watercolour techniques including wet on wet, working with cling film, lifting paint and others
- Work in silhouette with black paint
- Create a star effect with white acrylic paint
Below (left) is a sample swatch page with different techniques in a grid pattern. This is a nice warm up exercise for the class and a reminder that there are lots of ways to manipulate watercolours and achieve interesting results!
For the warm up, have a look below under ‘Resources’. I have created a great few pages of easy techniques with suggestions on what they might be used for (the possibilities are endless)!
For the watercolour painting itself I followed the following steps!
Step 1: Set up your watercolour paper by outlining the shape you’d like to fill. This can be a circle (I traced a trivet with an HB pencil), an angular shape which you can tape off with washi or masking tape, or anything you fancy – use your imagination! TIP – when using washi or masking tape, make sure to do some un-sticking first by repeatedly sticking the tape to your clothing or skin. This will ensure your tape comes off the watercolour paper without any rips!
Step 2: Use a light green wash around the outer edges of whichever shape you have chosen. The space in the middle should remain lighter than the rest. Don’t worry too much about the bottom as we’ll cover that up later!
Step 3: Do the same thing with a light blue / turquoise colour and then a darker blue / blue-black colour. I mixed the black and blue in my palette to make a nice dark colour for the darkest shade (above right). Try to keep the paper wet so that colours will mix neatly and to avoid sharp lines. If you do want to soften lines, never fear! Just add some more water and use a tissue to blend.
Step 4: Use a light green to add some stripes, softening the edges with a tissue. These could also be bright pink or purple, have a look at some photographs of the aurora and you’ll see an amazing range of coloured stripes to inspire you. Under the ‘Resources’ section you will find a file with some royalty free reference images, but a quick Google search will do wonders too.
Step 5: Add some darker blue or green underneath the lighter stripes you just painted. Use a tissue to blend these out in the same way. This will create some dimension to the stripes and bring them to life.
Step 6: Add some purple into the darker areas, again, for added dimension. Feel free to experiment with different colours as well – there are no rules! Make sure to blend with water and tissue as you go to maintain the smooth effect. I added some much dryer pink and purple paint to my stripes (above, far right) and dabbed them with a tissue to soften the edges.
Step 7: Mix some white acrylic paint with water until it is about the texture of runny cream. Make sure you get a good amount on your paint brush, hold the paint brush over your painting with one hand and tap it gently with the other hand. This will splatter some lovely white stars onto your night sky! Try to stay within the outline you have created for yourself and move the brush to different areas to get an even spread of white dots.
If you get a particularly large splodge or one you don’t like, use your clean finger or some tissue to gently dab the area and blend it away. One of the best things about watercolours is they are very forgiving! Leave your background to dry before moving onto the next step.
Step 8: Moving onto the silhouette portion of the painting, use your black paint to draw an horizon line that appeals to you. I like having a little flat area towards the middle to put an animal but it’s all up to the artist! Continue to paint the slower part of your shape, adding more water to create a gradient keeping in mind it doesn’t have to be perfect. Use a tissue to blend or dry where necessary.
Step 9: Using a fine brush, start painting your trees. Use a straight downwards stroke to create the trunk then, holding the brush loosely, gently paint back and forth horizontally to create the branch strokes. I tried to make my trees skinnier at the top and wider at the bottom but like paintings, trees come in all different shapes and sizes!
If you’re feeling adventurous, try adding an additional gradient to the black land section (above right) by painting a darker black line across the landscape and adding water as you did in the first layer.
Step 10: Almost there! If you would like to add a little animal silhouette (who wouldn’t?!) then now’s the time. A quick google search should show you a few or there are some royalty-free options in the ‘Resources’ section at the bottom of this post. Try to pick animals that would live in the Arctic or Antarctic, or even go for something mythical – artist’s choice! For this example I chose a deer which I gently sketched out in HB pencil before using an extra fine brush to fill it in with black acrylic paint. I found acrylic gave me the strength of colour and sharp outline I wanted but watercolour could achieve the same effect.
And voila! You have yourself a beautiful watercolour landscape painting! Don’t forget to sign and date it when you are finished, I promise you will love knowing exactly when you painted your masterpiece when you look back in the future.
Extra Step: If your painting is looking a bit wobbly (even watercolour paper can warp), there are some things you can do. While I’m told you can use an iron (please be careful!), my favourite method involves spraying the back of the paper with a little bit of water, covering with a towel and placing some heavy books on top. Make sure you put a blank piece of paper underneath your painting to protect it – normal printer paper is fine – and leave for a few hours or as long as it takes. I find this doesn’t flatten my work completely but definitely makes gets rid of the biggest wobbles.
Preparing for this project was a bit tricky! As it was our first meet-up I had no idea how many people would turn up or what they would be interested in doing. I ended up buying supplies for about 15-20 people as it was unlikely the group would exceed this. We ended up having around 12 people including volunteers, not including some drop ins who were there for the snacks (relatable). I never felt as if I had over-prepared or had too many supplies so if you’re unsure and have the funds, overdoing it is the best option.
The plan, as I said above, was to split the class into two parts – techniques and the main project. To prepare, I had example sheets for both sections which I think were very helpful in getting people organised and intrigued! Other than this, my intention was to go with the flow and see what people responded to which was a semi-success, as discussed below.
Below are my thoughts on how our group meet-up went. Keep in mind this was our first ever meeting so there are some kinks to work out. Also, as we are a working with refugees, one of the main challenges is the language barrier which is something other groups may not face! If you follow this lesson I’m sure you will face your own challenges – I would love to hear about them and what things you did to manage them.
- Turns out everyone quite enjoys watercolour painting! It’s very relaxing and I think people enjoyed zoning out and painting while they could chat or just chill
- The step by step portion for the aurora painting was an 85% success. It was difficult for me to paint a larger version which everyone could see and the desk formation meant I was behind some people. Those who did choose to follow along (some people chose to do their own thing), made really beautiful pieces which has convinced me that the project was a good first choice.
- People seemed to enjoy trying different techniques that they might not have thought about on their own such as the wet on wet method, or adding salt. Using household items also lets people know that you don’t need fancy supplies to be creative!
- Making and sharing examples and inspiration pictures was a great success. I took along my two practice watercolour paintings as well as my laptop with some photographs. Especially in a group where your only means of communication may be visual, having these up for people to look at or copy makes a huge difference.
- The women’s only idea created a lovely safe and comfortable space, particularly for refugee women. We had dancing, music, laughing and chatting that may not have happened in a mixed group.
What I would change next time:
- Time management in class – We could have used a little more time for the main painting. My ‘go with the flow’ approach worked for the most part but I think the 50/50 time split for the warm up and project portions was optimistic. Getting into the main activity earlier would have kept people engaged and everyone would have had time to finish their painting. There is also always time to do more practicing afterwards!
- YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH PAPER. We didn’t run out but we definitely could have! Make sure you have at least 2 pages for each person and 3+ is a bonus, it won’t go to waste.
- Room arrangement – As I have said, the arrangement of the room we were in meant sometimes it was difficult for everyone to see me when I was demonstrating the task. Finding an arrangement that works for you will be trial and error but experiment with different positions and share what you come up with!
- Find your balance – I’m not a teacher by any means so trying to command a room full of women is not something I’m used to and I can definitely use some practice. That said, as we were all there on a voluntary basis (this would change if you have class fees etc.) and the goal is to relax together, there’s a fine line between forcing the group to do an activity and letting everyone fend for themselves. My aim is to find the balance!
- Organisation – Don’t forget to organise the non-craft essentials too. For us this meant tea, coffee, cups, and biscuits which can take time to buy or locate and you don’t want to spend 20 minutes hunting for mugs in a new venue when you could be crafting.
- Time management before and after class – Leave plenty of time for setting up and cleaning up. We all arrived early and were flexible enough to stay late but the last of us left the venue 45 minutes after class finished! Make sure you keep this in mind, especially if someone needs the space you are using before or after your own group.
- Know where the bathrooms are! I am that friend who always needs to go so my first question is usually “where is your bathroom?” It’s also essential to know where you can get to a sink for drinking, for crafting (watercolours – it’s in the name!) and for cleaning up afterwards. I definitely wasted some time finding and grabbing some water for the group.
All in all, the first meeting of the Women’s Craft Cafe was a success! There are of course some things I will tweak and every week will bring it’s own challenges I’m sure, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves which is our main goal after all.
Below are some resources which you can use for yourself or if you choose to run your own group. Feel free to use them as you see fit but please maintain my credit at the bottom of the page. If you do complete this project alone or with a group please let me know how you got on, I would love to see what everyone creates!