Learning Watercolor Painting With Tom Hoffmann


Tom Hoffmann

It was an old dream for me to master several painting mediums. My first painting medium was oil. I stuck with it for years. For me, oil is the most forgiving painting medium.  I have all the time I need to make mistakes, fix them, edit them, or remove them from the canvas. About eight years ego, I ventured to study and work with soft pastel and last year I got to experience working with acrylic. Knowingly, I left water painting last. I knew watercolor would be the hardest to master. It is not a forgiving medium. Without many fixing options, one mistake on the paper can ruin the whole painting.

Tom Hoffmann

Painting with opaque colors, whether it is oil, acrylic, or pastel, one start with the darks and only by the end adds the highlights.  With watercolor the process is reversed, because of the translucent quality of the color. This medium requires observation, analysis, planning, logistics, and a clear work plan before the brush touches the paper. 

Tom Hoffmann

Last year, walking through the corridor of Gage Art Academy, where I take painting classes, I looked at watercolor paintings by Tom Hoffmann’s students that were hanging on the wall. The simple lines, almost minimalistic features of the paintings, grabbed my attention. I was especially drawn to one painting of a house with a roof that left a lot to the imagination. It reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s house in the country. Looking at this painting made want to study with Tom Hoffmann. I knew he was the right person to teach me watercolor painting.

Tom demonstrates self portrait in class

Last year Tom published his book Watercolor Painting: A Comprehensive Approach to Mastering the Medium. All his classes were booked up almost as soon as they opened. This winter quarter I finally got in to his beginner watercolor class. During the class we did not get to paint much. Tom believes that watercolor painting should not take more than 30 minutes; instead he used the class time to train us to look, analyze a photo or scenery, and plan our painting steps. For a medium that doesn’t give a second chance these skills are very important. 


With Tom I learned to simplify a painting to its bare minimum and to choose only the details that will contribute to the painting. The key is to look at every item as an abstract rather than starting with identifying all its detail. This way a hill with houses and trees is just a block of one color to begin with. “You need to choose what you bring in to the painting and decide what you leave out”, he repeatedly reminded us.  I also loved his belief that the viewer’s brain can complete the rest of the painting with only a few necessary details presented.  “Don’t underestimate people’s intelligence,” he would tell us,  “leave a person some room for imagination.” This reminded me the simple painting of the house I saw last year in the corridor, which triggered my own story.  

The board in Tom's class

Watercolor has its own flow, so before I started the course I prepared myself to give up any desire to control the medium. With Tom I learned how to use the fluidity of the medium to my advantage. There were struggles and frustration along the way, but I learned that it’s part of the process. When Tom told the class that he himself sometimes paints six or eight paintings before he gets the painting result that he likes, we were all relieved. Once I succumbed to the medium and dropped having expectation of the result, then I became curious and excited to see the unknown end result. It was a joyful new experience for me. 

Tom Hoffmann

By the end of the course I told Tom that abstract painting made me a better painter. I am no longer afraid of a complicated setting, because he taught me to strip away all the details and leave only the essence of the subject. I no longer get bored with minimalistic scenery, because now I see an opportunity to add color and texture. From all the lessons I learned in this course, the lesson that still echoes in my head each time I paint is Tom’s statement: “If you don’t enjoy it, you probably don’t do it right.”

Tom Hoffmann

Tom Hoffmann

Tom Hoffmann


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