Book review: Urban Watercolor Sketching by Felix Scheinberger

By Róisín Curé

In the eighties, I attended a very prestigious art college for a year. On the instructions of our tutors, I learned how to scour rubbish dumps for objets trouvés, how to gather dead leaves and mossy branches for an installation and how to make a xylophone from scrap metal.

I certainly didn’t learn anything at all about using watercolour. The very idea! Fast forward thirty years or so, and I used watercolour all the time…to colour in my drawings. I was very conscious that I never used watercolour for any pretty effects, or to summon atmosphere in a painting. I knew how to make a sketch look “real”, and to that end, sure, I knew what I was doing. Turns out I had no idea what I was missing.

I found Felix’s book by chance, browsing for something else. Someone had posted one of those flick-throughs as part of a review, I was immediately excited and bought it without hesitation. I also bought one for my sister, who is an accomplished oil painter, but a relative beginner in watercolour.

I don’t know when I’ve looked forward to a book as much.

I wasn’t disappointed. The book is absolutely stunning, as vibrant as the best kids’ book you’ve ever seen; the format is great, a double-page spread for each topic, peppered with madcap illustrations full of life.

I’ve chosen a few pages to show just how impressive and vibrant the illustrations are. The first is from the section near the beginning which gives a little history of the origin of colours. It’s like the opening act of a symphony…

I apologise to Felix for cutting off the edges of the pages, I think I’d be most unimpressed if my carefully-designed page was unceremoniously chopped, but my scanner isn’t big enough I’m afraid. But doesn’t the page give you a rush? It’s so loose, so fluid, so…dramatic.

As I read through Felix’s book I realised I’d had another of those epiphanies. I wrote a review of another book not too long ago, and I had said in response to a comment that there would never be a book that would make such an impact on me again, because you can’t die twice: a bit of a smart-alec remark, to be sure, but now I can top it. Having read Felix’s book, I’ve died and gone to heaven.

It’s not only a delight to look at, but is extremely practical and useful. There’s lots of stuff on putting colours together harmoniously, and the theory behind this. There’s a section on which colours to put in your travel sketchbox (which I have now followed slavishly). There’s fascinating information on using complimentary colours, being bold, and interpreting a scene just how you want to, like leaving lots of areas unpainted, forgetting measuring or counting (something  of which I had always been a keen practioner). Then there’s loads of really useful techniques on different ways to use watercolour, all of which were new to me, and I’ve had a great time playing around with them.

Felix generously opens his bag for us to poke around in –

…which is a lovely thing to do because people always think that if only they had the tools someone else had, they’d crack the secret (well, I did anyway, before I learned that it the answer lay elsewhere i.e. non-stop practice).

Since I have absorbed this wonderful book, my eyes have been opened to the myriad possibilities of watercolour. My natural control-freakery still wants to measure, count and weigh, but I’m trying.

Here’s another page, included just because it’s beautiful:

I just love Felix’s style and while it will probably be many years before I can be loose and sketchy in the way that I want to be, I’ve definitely learned loads and my work is very much the better for it.

It’s also reminded me of something that can sometimes be forgotten –  the sheer, naked joy to be had with a pen and box of watercolours.

More of my work here.


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