There have been a numerous requests for guidance in using WATERCOLOURS and whilst I am by no means an expert in this, I will pass on what I know and have tried, to offer some guidelines.
Why do I say “Watercolour painting is for patient people”? Well unless you buy heavy 300 gsm paper you have to go through the stretching process, preparing a day in advance. You also need to plan your painting and sketch it in very lightly and accurately in pencil with minimal disturbance to the paper (yes, I mean rubbing out!) The exception to this would be if you were doing wet in wet accidental type paintings with no drawing. Generally you have to wait for each wash to dry before continuing to paint. (You may find it is good to work on 2 or 3 paintings along together to avoid being idle while you are waiting, or use a hairdryer.)
You need to be pristine clean, with 2 water tubs – 1 for adding to the paint (distilled preferably) and another for washing your brushes. If you are concerned about maintaining the acid free quality of your paper, you should only handle it with gloves and wear them while you are working. Adding clean water to a wash can be done with an eyedropper to avoid sullying the water as you might if transferring it with a brush.
Finally, when you have completed your beautiful translucent masterpiece, it will need very special framing. Watercolours need to go behind glass, with a mount so that the painting does not touch the glass. Also a waterproof backing is needed. This is to prevent mildew over the years.
Now I’m not trying to put you off, because there is nothing so beautiful as a well executed watercolour painting - but you need to have the right temperament to handle all this. Personally, I haven’t – although I have tried to give you a few demonstrations below. OK so lets get into it…
Various water based paints have different qualities, such as:
Acrylic – which is no longer water soluble when dry and comes in transparent, opaque and fluorescent varieties.
Gouache – which is opaque water based paint, water soluble when dry – much like the early poster paints.
There is even a range of water soluble “oils” available these days.
Watercolour pencils which give drawn lines or shading, but can form a ‘paint’ when wetted with water via a brush
and lastly, PURE WATERCOLOURS – which will be the subject of this Post.
The term “Watercolour” usually relates to pure finely ground water soluble pigments, used on special Watercolour paper and without the use of white…the transparency of the paint allowing the white of the paper to glow through instead. Occasionally, some artists use a small amount of white (called Chinese white) but the purist approach is not to use any.
Watercolour paints come in tubes and in pans…see illustration. A Palette needs to have dishes for mixing different coloured washes before applying. If I were using the tubes, I would put out the colours needed in the small hollows and mix washes from them in the large ones by taking a little paint across and adding water.
Brushes need to be soft (usually synthetic these days) and hold plenty of paint. The larger the painting, the bigger the brushes needed – although some small ones for detail re always necessary. Large “mop-like” round ferrule brushes are best for big washes – always care for them by pointing them up after washing & blotting dry.
When you buy watercolour brushes, some come pointed up with a soluble glue in the bristles to keep them in shape. You need to thoroughly wash out that glue before use. Should your brushes need it from time to time, a wash in hair shampoo and then conditioner can restore them. Another tip is to dry them flat to avoid water running down and being trapped in the ferrule. This can rot the wooden end of the handle over time.
There are also watercolour pencils available which offer a drawn line to a “paint” when wetted. These are handy for small travelling studies.
The little stack pack of pan colours looks like the picture below when put away and is also very convenient for travelling. Some of these come in a box with a palette inside the lid which is even better. If I think I’ll be using most colours in a block range like the ones below (not in a tube) I spray them with water to begin the softening process – then it is much quicker to work the paint up when I am ready.
Here are the warm and cool layers unscrewed so you can see…
Watercolour papers come in different weights, qualities and textures (rough, medium and smooth). Most are acid free to help avoid mildew in the future. Anything lighter in weight than 300 gsm needs to be stretched so that it will not buckle when washes are applied – so personally, I only buy 300 gsm. However if you do need to stretch your paper, here is the procedure…
1. Soak your paper in water well – many soak it overnight.
2. Take the paper out, holding it up until it stops dripping – then spread it onto a backing board, smoothing from the centre out with a soft rag.
3. You need a special gummed tape to secure it (available from Art shops). Cut 4 lengths to fit your paper.
Take each one at a time and slide through clean water quickly then apply to paper and board.
4. Overlap the paper to form a border and smooth the gum tape out well as you go.
5. When you have finished with the gum tape, be sure to put it away in a plastic bag to store so no moisture will enter and spoil it.
6. Now your paper needs to dry thoroughly before you start painting. As it dries it will pull taught as the water evaporates. It is now stretched.
With opaque paints such as acrylic and oils, it is usual to work from dark to light in establishing your composition…however with watercolours it is the other way around. You need to work from light to dark, preserving the transparent integrity of the washes and avoiding “making mud”…so creeping up on any dark areas is the way to go, leaving them until last. Thinking tonally is important in all paintings. Here is what I mean by tone:
TONE IS THE DEGREE OF LIGHT TO DARK, AS IN THIS PICTURE. IT IS EASIER TO SEE TONE IN BLACK AND WHITE GRADIENTS. TRY TO KEEP THAT OBSERVATION WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE RANGE OF LIGHT TO DARK WHEN COLOUR IS INTRODUCED…
A PERSONAL TIP: WHEN I PLAN A COMPOSITION TO PAINT, I THINK IN TERMS OF 3 TONES ONLY – VERY BROADLY….LIGHT, MEDIUM & DARK. JUST PLANNING WHERE THESE AREAS WILL BE GIVES ME A CLEAR PLAN TO WORK TO. THIS MAY WORK FOR YOU ALSO. IF YOU CHECK OUT POST 18 YOU WILL SEE HOW I USE THIS PLANNING. RIGHT NOW HOWEVER, LET’S GET BACK TO OUR FOCUS ON WATERCOLOUR.
Many people are enchanted with watercolour because of “wet in wet” effects…
In the illustration below there is a combination of wet in wet blurred edges in the leaves, wet on dry for the flower petals and stems and a waterproof pen for black detail. The extra lines around the blossoms are done with watercolour pencils – which are great for detail…
The trick with watercolours is to START WITH THE LIGHTS AND GRADUALLY WORK TOWARDS THE DARKS (The opposite of oils or acrylics as a rule). In this illustration below, please look at the beautiful transparency in the shadow within and on the side of the boat…that is the beautiful simplicity and purity of Watercolour painting…
Below is another example of washes, thinly applied – using warm and cool shadows and leaving the light areas clean.
Sometimes it might be useful to use masking so that you can apply washes right across over (in this case, the house shape) and later peel off the mask to reveal white paper. Mask comes as film frisk in sheet form and masking fluid in a bottle. The house shapes have been cut out and put down from film frisk and the foliage texture applied with masking fluid here. You can see where I have removed some of the foliage mask to show the white paper.
Note: It is important to remove masking fluid as soon as practical – if left too long (overnight for instance), it may damage the paper when rubbed to remove.
Below is an example showing a clean roof line contrasted by the darker foliage behind. The roof has a nice “dry brush” edge created with stronger paint/water ratio and a flat brush dragged horizontally to the paper. Then with a clean brush & water, the colour is softened out away from the roof into the shadowed areas. It’s all about contrast – you can’t show up light against light can you?
Below is an example of Australian Flannel Flowers where I had to realy concentrate on painting the negative spaces between the flowers to show up the flower shapes, leaving the white petals with minimal paint…the idea of cutting one out and letting it escape over the mount was to give the feeling of growth and freedom instead of being contained in the rectangle.
It might be useful here to show you how I went about painting these wildflowers…
First, sketch your flowers lightly in pencil. I would normally sketch much lighter than this, but in order to photograph it I had to go a bit darker…
With a medium round brush and plain clean water wet the areas between and surrounding the flowers, going over the stem areas.
(Many artists used distilled water and wear plastic gloves to keep their work acid free – as most watercolour paper comes acid free. Acid can enter the paper through our fingers, paint and the water used. The benefit of this is that once framed properly with a mount under glass, the finished painting should resist mildew in years to come.)
Next. mix a wash with plenty of clean water. Incidentally, always have 2 tubs of water – 1 clean to add to washes and the other only for washing out your brushes. That will help keep your watercolours clean and pure.
Drop the wash into the wetted areas, tipping the paper to get it to flow into details areas. Please yourself as to what angle you wish to have your paper as you work for different effects.
Keep adding a little more paint until the shapes of the flowers are defined more clearly.
Next, being aware that white flowers are never all white, look for the shadows on the petals and apply these…also some colour to the centre of the main flower.
Flannel Flowers often have darker tips to their petals so my next step was to paint these…
I must apologise for the discrepancy in photo colouring in this exercise. It is a “sunshine and showers” day and the light in my Studio keeps altering, which affects the camera pickup. In this next stage I have finished defining the flowers, gently creeping up on the darks. Knowing when to stop with watercolour is the hardest part! Just try to keep each area as transparent as possible, yet have still have enough definition.
Ah! The sun has come out! Now I photograph the finished example in full sunlight for you to see! I have added the stems and leaves with a fine brush. I think the stems are a bit heavy lookng so I might carefully wet only them and blot gently with a rag to bring back the translucency. Because watercolours are soluble when dry, you can do this with any area where you have been a bit heavy handed.
OK so I hope that was helpful. This process could apply to many subjects and with watercolour more than any other medium, I think you really have to be aware of the negative shapes between the objects and contrasts in tone. Rather than drawn lines, a defining edge is created by different tones meeting. Even though you may need a light pencil sketch to begin with, it’s good to remove it where you can and just let the paint tell the story.
Here is a simple study for you to try – 5 daisies at different angles. Sketch them in lightly, then create a background wash around the drawn shapes. Let happy accidents stay as part of the effect. This is the first stage.
Next, add some soft shadows to the petals and paint in the flower centres. Then a bit more definition to the foliage. That’s it! Don’t overwork it…keep it fresh!
Just a personal hint re watercolour paper, if you buy heavy weight 300 gsm I can honestly say from experience that is is worth every cent. Not only can you use one side, but if that doesn’t work out – you can use the other as well and there is no need to stretch it. Then if your second attempt on the side doesn’t work out, you can undercoat the paper with acrylic and use it for an acrylic painting (or if rough texture, even pastels).
The painting below was a demonstration in using a plain candle to rub on textured watercolour paper where I wanted the paint to resist – so in putting a wash over the water and rocks, there remains a broken sparkly efect. In this painting I used acrylics instead, which can be used as thinly as watercolour or as opaque as you wish.
Next here is a step by step process in creating a simple landscape that I prepared to try to impart some method to you. This example was done on 185 gsm watercolour paper, properly stretched..
One lady emailed asking for a seascape demonstration in watercolour – so here is my effort. Now I am making this a combination of what to do and what NOT to do in that I am using 185 gsm paper in a pad and not stretching it! Let’s see what problems it brings and see if I can find a way out…
Wet the sky area with plain clear water ready to apply a wash. If you don’t do this you may end up with hard edges you don’t want.
I decide to apply a warm wash first to make sure I keep a sunny look…
It looks bright in the pan, but it is so diluted that when I apply it the colour is very soft.
While I have this colour handy, I apply it to the sand area as well, a bit stronger because it is in the foreground and colours are always stronger closer to you.
Oh oh – the paper is buckling somewhat so I put a minimal amount of the wash on the water and rocks to marry up the sky and beach and try to even out the wet and dry areas on the paper.
Next I mix a purply wash for the sky and apply it gently over the soft orange. The first wash needs to be thoroughly dry before you do this.
Once again, while I have this colour in the pan, I deepen it a bit (I am mixing red and blue together to make the purple) and apply to the headland + define shadows along the water edge. I have to apologise for photo colour discrepancies once again – the light in my studio is varying on this “sunshine and showers” day. Where possible I photograph in strong sunlight.
Next I add some blue to the water. You can see here how the unstretched paper is responding to the varying areas of moisture – not good, but I will keep going and see what I can do to fix it later.
I continue defining, trying to keep the overall transparent. It’s not easy! The colours tend to dry paler than they look when applied wet so allowances have to be made for this.
I am nearly there, but the painting lacks life. With a small brush I add 2 seagulls to add interest. There is a nice airiness in the sky around them – I am pleased with that.
Here is the finished result…probably a bit heavier than it should be in the darks, but that’s my nature – I like drama!
When it was completely dry, I ironed it on the wrong side with a warm iron which reduced the buckling to practically nil. It’s probably not “proper” procedure of course, but this blog is about sharing experiences and helping each other.
Next I tried a wet in wet approach to try to establish the atmosphere of the Australian bush early morning…
When the above was dry, I then removed some of the wash with a wet sponge & blotter where I wanted tree trunks to be. After painting in the gum trees in the foreground and loosely suggesting some grasses, I decided to create the focal point of a magpie perched on a stump and another flying away. I was pleased with the overall atmosphere achieved in this painting. The pale branches in the soft background were achieved by wetting the paint with a thin stiff brush and then blotting straight away.
Tony also painted a loose watercolour impression of the Australian bush near where we live. He began by sketching in the main tree trunks and applying masking fluid to them. When the rubber mask was dry, he was then free to paint the background in washes and spatters with a toothbrush. After that background had dried, he rubbed away the mask and painted the trunks, choosing to contrast most of the cool background colouring with warm colours. This is an excellent approach for handling a difficult somewhat chaotic and complex subject.
Below is Tony’s next study – a Central Australian scene using strong colours…
Next, here is an arrangment of POPPIES for you to use as reference if you would like to…
Tony and I each had a go at painting this study in watercolours the same day. We didn’t peek at each other’s work until we finished and were surprised to find we had both ignored the vase and focussed on the flowers only (not because it was gold – we could have painted it any colour we wished, but because we felt the flowers were such free shapes we wanted to keep that free feeling and not put anything with a solid structure in).
We both sketched in the shapes of the flowers with pencil first, then painted the background in washes, avoiding the sketched areas. Here is Tony’s painting. He didn’t use any masking fluid to retain the white areas and carefully avoided them.
Next, here is my effort. I approached it the same way as Tony except that I used masking fluid on the white bits, removing it later with a rubber. I also put masking fluid on the stems so that I could continue my background right across them without cutting in. The rubber mask is rubbed away with an eraser when the painting is dry. I wanted to keep the lightness in the flowers and so made the white blooms into yellow ones rather than put darker shadows. I like the effect Tony got but it didn’toccur to me to put green/grey shadows. I feel happy that I am getting better at handling watercolours. It takes practise and a different way of thinking to using opaque paint. You have to be able to draw well or it shows (unless you do abstract I guess) and I love the freshness of the transparent colour don’t you?
All for now then and once again “Happy Painting”!