How watercolor promotes a prototyping mindset

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I used to be intimidated by watercolor. It seemed so unwieldy compared to the acrylic, pencil, ink, and digital media I’d grown accustomed to using during my BFA program. For years I shied away from it, despite the fact that those who could control it made beautiful, airy paintings that were nearly impossible to simulate in Procreate or Photoshop.

As I got immersed in the day-to-day trappings of tech-focused jobs, my fine arts skills got stale. I decided to reinvigorate them with a challenge. In 2011 I took up one of those make-a-thing-everyday-for-a-year projects, choosing watercolor as my tool of choice. By forcing myself to paint watercolor nearly every day, I built up my skills from “sorta bad” to “decently good.” Eventually, I fell in love with it. Today I paint almost exclusively in watercolor.

Something else happened during the course of that year-long project, though. As my watercolor skills improved, so did my efficiency with product prototyping. My newly acquired job, at the time, required me to develop interactive prototypes on a near-daily basis. I’d been having trouble moving myself from a traditional waterfall way of thinking to a rapid prototyping one, but the more I worked with watercolor, the easier prototyping became. I’m by no means a prototyping guru, but I’m much more effective at it than I was before my watercolor-a-day project.

While learning anything new will rewire neurons and inspire creativity, I’m convinced that it was the watercolor medium itself that helped me become a better prototyper. Here are a few ways that I observed watercolor painting facilitating a prototyping mindset.

Watercolor encourages iteration

Acrylic, oil, pastel, pen, pencil, digital — all of these media are relatively easy to rework. They can be erased or opaquely layered. When I used to paint with acrylic, I got into a habit of spending weeks fretting over a single canvas. Many of my early paintings ended up muddy or noisy as I continually reworked the same areas, layering on globs of paint. Any interesting concepts I might have stumbled upon earlier in the process were covered up, lost under all of that acrylic.

But watercolor cannot be easily reworked. New layers can’t cover up prior decisions. Everything is transparent. If you want to change course, you must start on a new sheet of paper. Iteration is a requirement for success. When I started painting in watercolor, I stopped fearing failure; I wasn’t abandoning my art when I needed to move on, but practicing techniques that could be applied to the next version. I built up a library of prior studies I could refer to for future ideas. Good art instructors encourage iteration no matter the media at hand (in Austin’s Butterfly, first grade students are shown how iteration helped perfect an illustration over time), but it is watercolor that truly forces it.

Iterations of watercolor
A few of the early versions of a painting called “Jellyfish hair” (final piece at top of image)

You also can’t be a successful prototyper without iteration. It’s not about perfecting a single piece, but about exploring new ideas and learning along the way. Keeping multiple versions allows you test variations with research participants. You can critique more effectively with your team. And you develop a compilation of earlier versions that might be useful to pull from when you need to build future products.

Image showing many iterations of prototypes
Just some of the many, many prototype versions I’ve made for my projects

Watercolor teaches you to pivot ideas

Watercolor is fickle and prone to mistakes. It’s also serendipitous. Blemishes might appear. One color may bleed into the next more heavily than anticipated. Granulation may occur. Underlying paper defects may show through. Variations in air temperature and humidity can cause unexpected washes. Good watercolor painters develop a knack for recognizing valuable mistakes and changing the focus of a piece to incorporate them.

Painting showing adaptation of blemish into new painting idea
In this example, I was trying to paint a landscape, and I accidentally dropped a splash of red into the blue sky before the paint was dry. The resulting blemish gave me an idea, and the piece was transformed into a painting dubbed “Clamfetti.”

You build prototypes so that you can validate a product direction, and feedback may change that direction. Prototyping gets ideas in front of users quickly, and they may react in unanticipated ways. By keeping an open mind that allows you to treat mistakes as opportunities, you can pivot one prototype idea into a new one.

You learn the value of planning

Because watercolor is fickle, getting a desired result requires planning. For example, if you’ve never painted trees, start by exploring the different ways you might achieve a foliage effect.

Photograph showing watercolor swatch test
One of the swatch sheets I keep to understand different color paint interactions

Prototypes should also be properly scoped. While it may be fun to start hacking away, prototypes are supposed to be a cheap and fast learning mechanisms. Focus only on building what you need to convey an idea. Do you need to validate a detailed UI interaction, or a high-level product concept? I’ve learned to sketch and storyboard prototype ideas with my research partners to determine the minimum scope needed to learn what we want to learn.

Photography of a prototype storyboard
A succint storyboard for a web app prototype

Watercolor encourages a variety of tools

Watercolor’s fickleness also means that it’s responsive. One of the most important things for a painter to learn is to experiment with different tools. Dropping salt on a wet area of paint creates a flowery effect. A toothbrush or atomizer lends a speckled atmosphere. Blowing air through a straw into a damp area creates streaks. You can dribble in tea, dab with a sponge, use frisket to mask off sections, or use plastic wrap. Sticking to brushes alone will put you at a disadvantage.

Photography showing a mascara wand next to a watercolor in which it was used
To make branches of staghorn coral in this painting, I used a mascara brush to apply masking fluid and paint.

When you’re prototyping, you need to leverage as many tools as you can to communicate your idea. This is not the time for purity of frameworks. It’s OK to grab code from 13 different sources or use 5 different prototyping apps over the course of a design cycle. I prefer “kitchen sink” prototyping, using whatever is easiest to start working in, and whatever matches the fidelity of prototype I need (here’s a great, filter-able list of current prototyping tools from the folks at Cooper).

Image of a flow diagram showing multiple prototyping tools
This flow shows how 3 different prototyping tools were used to piece together bits of a flow for a research session.

Interested in watercolor?

For me at least, watercolor painting boosted my prototyping mindset. It’s very likely that other artistic outlets may lead to the same outcome. For example, improvisational musicians might find some similarities between their work and that of a prototyper’s.

If you’d like to explore watercolor as a prototyping facilitator, here are a few supplies and resources I recommend:


Artist blogs and inspiration


Interested in learning more about prototyping?

Here are a few articles and posts that can help you on your way to prototyping goodness.