Emma Mitchell, author of Making Winter, writes about how mark making with watercolours can create stunning botanical art – and benefit your mental health.
“When I was quite small, I had a watercolour set, and until I was about thirteen I painted fairly regularly – simple landscapes, patterns and studies of birds from photographs in books, ” Emma says.
“As I began to study for my school exams, art disappeared from my school timetable and it seems that I stopped painting at home, too. I have no paintings made during my teens.
“I revived my watercolour painting for a brief period at college but other than that I had hardly picked up a paintbrush until last year. When I did, I remembered the sensation of being entirely immersed in the mixing of colours and the making of marks on paper.”
The mental health benefits of painting
It has been shown that when mammals make repetitive movements their serotonin levels increase. It is likely that this applies to humans and may explain some human behaviours, such as parents rocking their children to sleep.
Small tracking movements made by the eyes and the hands during creative activities seem to have beneficial and soothing psychological effects, which may also be linked to the release of feel-good neurotransmitters.
One creative way of triggering this soothing effect is by painting. There is a repetitiveness to the actions required while painting with watercolours in particular – dip paint in water, brush it onto paint, touch the brush on to the palette to deposit the paint, rinse brush, repeat and mix in the palette until the desired colour is created.
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Making the paint marks on the paper also requires the hands and eyes to move gently backwards and forwards as the paint is transferred from the brush to the paper’s surface.
“As with drawing, it is easy to feel that the paintings we may make won’t be worth seeing, that there’s no value in even beginning because they will never end up in a gallery,” says Emma. “But that’s missing the point. The ability to be creative was crucial to our survival as hunter-gatherers, and then as Stone Age and Bronze Age humans, and was selected for over many generations.
“Making marks on rocks or the walls of caves, or in the soil or sand to communicate to another human being was essential for our ancestors. Picking up a brush, mixing a paint colour and using that brush to make even the simplest marks on paper taps into something ancient. That something may have become very quiet indeed over the course of many generations but can be awoken.
“The process of making brushstrokes can help to drown out life’s noisy treadmill and dial down stress levels. The feeling is similar to that experienced during meditation or yoga.”
How to use mark making to create botanical watercolour paintings
Rows or clusters of brush marks or very simple shapes are a great place to start with watercolours. Choose a single colour and change the intensity of it as you make more marks.
Think of the colour gradation in a rainbow or colour wheel, choose your favourite two or three colours and remix your paint colour every few strokes so that your watercolour pattern develops a pleasing subtle ombré appearance.
Next, make a fine line or two in whatever colour you choose. Using a different colour, add a very simple circular or leaf shape. Several of these super simple sprigs make a very satisfying and attractive pattern. Alternatively, you can embellish them a little more.
From a point a third of the way along the line from the leaf or round mark you have made, make several more lines towards that end point. Add the same simple leaf or round berry-like shape to the end of those lines too. This echoes rosehips or hawthorn berries, winter seed heads and clusters of leaves.
Another way to make a simple and beautiful botanical motif is to simply add more leaf or berry shapes on either side of the single stem you have painted. This will resemble winter buds, beech nuts or evergreen species such as cotoneaster.
Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell is out now in hardback, priced £14.99 (LOM Art).