Painting is a skill you can practise
I teach painting. I have been asked how to paint dogs, how to paint trees, how to paint eyes and noses and hair. I have been asked how to paint water droplets, like it's some trade secret the guild insiders have been keeping from the uninitiated.
Okay, here's the trade secret: We look very closely at our subject, and we paint what we see.
If you didn't think much of that trade secret, you're probably going to hate this one: We practice. We practice both parts, the looking and the painting. Today, let's talk about the painting part.
First, an analogy. Learning to cook is about learning not just recipes but techniques. I learned a great recipe for mushroom risotto from Barbara Kafka's Microwave Gourmet. What's more important, in the long run, is that I learned a technique for preparing risottos in the microwave. I can open the fridge and prepare a risotto with whatever ingredients I have on hand.
A recipe is something you know. A technique is something you do.
An artist who paints a lot of water droplets undoubtedly develops insights and shortcuts. She'll notice where the highlights typically fall, how the droplet works as a lens to distort the surface beneath. She might even tell you what she knows.That's pretty cool of her. She's willing to share her recipe.
I want to share technique, technique you can practice and apply, not just to painting water droplets, but to painting fur and feathers, lettering, lace, and fine meandering lines that don't represent anything at all. There is a technique for painting fiddly detail. I summarize it for my students in five points.
1.You need a tiny brush
Use a small Round brush for fiddly details. A Round has a circular cross-section and the bristles taper to a fine point. I'd recommend you start out with a small Round, maybe a #1 or #0. Brush size is a trade-off between carrying capacity and the size of the point.
There are some specialized brushes, called Script or Liner or Rigger, which are round brushes with longer bristles. They'll hold a bigger load of paint but they're a little harder to control. You might want to start with a conventional Round then apply your new technique to a Liner.
2.You need a creamy consistency of paint
You can't paint fiddly detail with toothpaste. You need to thin your paint to a creamy consistency so that it will flow smoothly off the brush. You're aiming for something soupy, not watery.
HINT: Thin your paint with a fluid medium rather than solvent. Solvent weakens the stickiness of your paint. Medium strengthens it. If you're painting in acrylics, your solvent is water; don't overdo it. If you're painting in oils, your solvent is turpentine, or mineral spirits; don't overdo it.
3. You need to groom the bristles to a point
You can't paint fiddly details if the bristles of the brush are going in seventeen directions at once. After you load your brush with paint, you need to smooth the bristles to a sleek point. Some people pull the tip across the edge of the solvent jar a few times. I use a trick from the old comic book inkers: twirl the bristles to a point by drawing the brush toward you along the palette while spinning the handle.
4. You need a vertical brush stance
Hold the brush upright, not at a slant. The brush is not a pencil. When you're painting fiddly detail, you want the brush tip--just the brush tip--to touch the painting. If you hold the brush the same way you habitually hold a pen or pencil, you're painting with the side of the brush. The side of the brush is a lot bigger than the point! Watch Asian calligraphers. They use a vertical brush.
5. You need to control your brush pressure
The brush is not a ballpoint pen. It responds to pressure. Heavy pressure makes wider brushstrokes. Paint with the bristles, not the metal ferrule. Steady your hand; there are no bonus marks for doing this free-floating. You can rest your little finger on the painting, rest your working hand on your opposite hand, or cobble together a mahl stick or bridge (How to make a mahl stick). Practice painting dots and lines with light, controlled pressure. What's the smallest brushstroke you can reliably produce?
HINT: It's easier to control a line when you're drawing side-to-side than near-and-far. Can you turn your painting to get an optimal working direction?
Make it fun to practise technique
You learn to paint fiddly detail the same way you learned to ride a bike, thread a needle or play Doom. You practise. Become your own coach. Set drills and make it fun to practise technique. Practise writing your name with a brush, or paint measles all over a front page photo of George W. Bush. Doodle snowflakes, dollar signs, and Simpsons cartoons.
Hey, be practical. Don't make the painting any smaller than you can handle. There are people out there painting the Last Supper on a grain of rice. You don't have to. Figure out how small a mark you can paint. Figure out how small a detail you want to record. Make your painting big enough.
Then, if you like, go to Google and search for "How to paint water droplets." Good technique makes it easier to follow a recipe. Welcome to the guild.