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The FUN Medium

Lady with Parasol - watercolor - Abby of Montserrat - John Singer Sargent

click on image to enlarge
53 x 40 cm   Watercolor    1900
Abbey of Montserrat
John Singer Sargent

Fun indeed! Watercolor is simple, versatile, and comparatively speaking a favorite to many artists. Whether it be a preliminary sketch or a finished painting, once you understand the basics of this medium and it’s relatively minor safety standards the possibilities with watercolor are almost endless.Early in perfecting your skills with this medium your first experience usually brings up two significant questions.  Why is my paper all curled up and wavy and how did my painting get so muddy looking ?  Your first question is explained thoroughly on my page about cotton paper  preparation. Choice of paper and how it is prepared for your specific painting is an important step to consider before starting.

Your most important judgment should be based on how wet you believe your project will be. If you’re not certain, consider using the “Bromley Paper Stretcher” or the Otto Watercolor Paper Stretcher .  You could use 300lb paper or 100% rag museum board but a well stretched 140 lb. rag paper will hold up to any torture you dish out.

As for your puddle of mud that has left you scratching your head. Fortunately, provided we are not talking about your entire canvas (which you can throw out before anyone sees it)  there is a strong chance that you can get the color out. If you set your project aside for a day or so to allow it to dry (or use a blow drier) you can erase or sand it with 600 Paper. Now that we know how to fix the problem,  what do we do to prevent it from happening again?

Watercolor is manufactured as a suspension of pigment with a binder usually some form of Gum Arabic. The binder ratio is relatively low, only enough to hold the pigment to use as paint. At this point all you have to add is water. Produced as a liquid ,  paste in tubes , in dry cake pans and more recently as pencils for fine detail), in most cases and especially with watercolor a little bit of pigment goes a long way.

The more water you add, the lighter and more transparent the color becomes. Here are the two areas that could get you in trouble.

  • With a dry paper technique watercolor washes built up on the canvas start to mix as the water lifts the color previously put down . This is caused by using too much water with your washes and overworking the canvas. Sometimes with pigments less is more. Try to plan your composition out more,  thinking of how to use your layers of color more effectively.
  • With wet on wet techniques your diluted paint is applied heavy to obtain the deep color you are trying to achieve. To carry that paint you are putting more water on an already wet canvas.

Then all the water puddles up and the colors wick into each other turning everything to brown.

Try dry brushing your pigment or applying a watercolor fixative between layers.. Keep in mind that the drier the wash is the darker the color will be.

Aqua Fix can be mixed with watercolor paint in or water or as a transparent layer applied over a watercolor wash. It waterproofs layers that won’t pull up one another. When applied  it is slightly milky but dries clear. Sometimes it is also used as a final sealant. Wash brushes immediately after use.

Using Gouache for your deeper colors is also an effective way to go. Gouache is a mixture of Gum Arabic and pigment pretty much the same as watercolor except the pigment ratio is higher and with the addition of calcium carbonate (caulk) a heavier more opaque paint is produced. Keep in mind however of it’s working properties where water can dilute or lift it from your canvas are just the same as watercolor. Since watercolor is a dark on light medium Gouache is most effective in the final stages of your painting in areas where coverage is a more important issue. 

Watercolor is most effective and inspiring with light transparencies utilizing the white of the paper and surface texture. The textured appearance in a watercolor painting is created by artistry and optic allusion. For me precise detail can only be effectively achieved on a dry canvas. It is for this reason that I do not use the wet on wet method.

For your initial drawing, you can use a faint out line in graphite that could be erased or painted over. This can be a critical decision since your eraser could remove some of your color after painted if you decide to erase it.

Old  masters used a technique known as “grisaille” which is a term for a painting executed entirely in monochrome, usually in shades of grey, brown or green.

Renaissance masters used  it as the first layer (under painting) of an oil painting to assist with tonal values in their work. An ordinary graphite pencil is best used for this under watercolor since water-soluble graphite pencils will break down with any water it comes in contact with, yielding unsatisfactory results.

In contrast to a B & W painting, when using graphite pencils in under drawings you only place light emphasis on the tonal qualities. Drawing in low contrast should be enough to provide strong outlines for your composition when it is to be colored over.

Watercolor pencils are a tremendous advantage to the artist. When used effectively they can help you to complete immeasurable amounts of intricate detail or assist you with limiting the quantities of pigment you put on canvas. Color is placed exactly where you want it and while controlling the amount of water or medium used on canvas you have more control of your color.  Another advantage is that excess color can be removed or blended with an eraser at any given time on your project. Therefore in areas where you may desire deep color,  water need not be applied unless  you feel the composition merits it.

click on image to enlarge

“The Gap”  23 x 17 ” 1997
Watercolor pencil

on 140 lb paper
Maurice Garson

Some common watercolor techniques are:

 Masking with liquid frisket is a good one to start with. This substance allows you to block out areas preventing the paper from absorbing  color. You simply paint masking in the areas where no color is wanted, allow the material to set and you can paint over it with any water base paint.  Remove the dry frisket by peeling or rubbing it off with a soft eraser. This material can also be used over a previously painted area to avoid pulling up color with  your next layer.

Although it is considered a  mixed medium, colored pencil can also be used in what is know as the wax resist method. Clear wax lightly drawn before or in between washes also acts as a resist or mask, and helps to add texture much like a permanent frisket.

Greg Conley did a great job explaining about  texture techniques with watercolors on his website using salt, alcohol, stamping, splattering, etc.. He covered enough ground that any comments I were to make would be considered redundant.

Not including use of other materials, there are three basic techniques to utilizing watercolor pencils, meaning specifically how to apply them to your paper:

  • The first would be to shade in an area with your desired color. Then dip a clean wet brush in the same area to break down the pigment and create a wash appearance. This stage is great after masking your subject or lighter areas of your painting to create a diffused dry brush background.
  • Draw directly on the paper with your pencil roughly blending your pigment on the paper. Then blend, move and/or dilute your colors more by stroking your damp brush over the area drawn. Care must be taken to consistently wipe your brush clean to prevent color contamination on your paper.
  • As a means for touch up or fine lines, dip your  pencil in clean water to soften the pigment and use this fine tip to draw.

Fredrix Archival Pre-Stretched Watercolor Canvas

Fredrix 100% cotton artist canvas combines the natural woven fabric of canvas with a special gesso designed specifically for  water-based paints. Easy washes and corrections, it’s durable too and won’t buckle or tear like paper. Available in a variety of sizes, pre-stretched in ¾” profile and 1½” gallery profile.

Check out Sizes Here

“The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting”
Vincent Van Gogh

Links on Watercolor


The Palette Magazine

Studio of Watercolorist, Mary Ann Boysen

How to Paint Watercolors by Greg Conley

Transparent Watercolor Society of America

American Watercolor Society

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