Why watercolor?

“I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”
― Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

“For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather, serving as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, goddess of scales.”
― Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium

A few years ago I had every intention of being an Important Writer, which to me meant being like Italo Calvino or Cesare Pavese. Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium was probably the most influential book I read during that time. With its values of Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity, and the unwritten Consistency, Six Memos provided a set of concepts for me to base my thinking. I was particularly struck by the essays on Lightness, in which the first quote above appears, and Exactitude, in which the second quote appears.

Turning my attention now to watercolor painting, I have been thinking of these two values and their opposites, Weight and Vagueness, again. They seem especially relevant to watercolor more than any other medium. Pastel and oil can get at exactitude through vagueness–pastel is certainly vague and impressionist oil paintings deal with exactitude and vagueness beautifully, but lightness? It seems that the materiality of the mediums would render the lightness aspect difficult, though perhaps fascinating in its own way. I would be interested in hearing further thoughts on this and the connections between artists and their preferred mediums.

For a long time I had been afraid to pursue visual art, but always wished to–the last novel I wrote, All the World Is Green, dealt with an architect and painter, and touched on watercolor as a never-realized pursuit by the architect character. Naturally, when taking it up, I gravitated to watercolor, I think in part because it spoke so clearly to those values. So much is light in weight, and naturally loose that it can be uncontrollable. It can dissolve and disappear. This is where exactitude comes in, or at least the illusion thereof, to add a counter balance to lightness. How can you convey a subject with enough exactitude, without weighing it down in detail, so that it persists at the level of emotional connection for a viewer, measured with feathers, not with lead?

There is much more to unpack in these ideas. I will do so in subsequent posts, and invite thoughts in the comments. For now, I will end on the theme of exactitude with a thank you to another watercolor blogger, David Tripp, whose blog I have been following and taking lessons from. He has recently been painting fishing lures that take up the challenge nicely, especially in the case of flies. I have given a few lures of my own a try with varying degrees of success.

Thanks for reading.