Watercolor Techniques for Everyone
Yes, watercolor is different than oils, but not harder. If you started painting with oils and acrylics you know that the basic rule of thumb is to start with the dark colors and finish by adding the highlights. Well, watercolor has to be treated the opposite. Because watercolor has no real “white”, you must consider the paper to be the white and plan ahead of time where you will NOT PAINT to leave the highlights or white of the paper. So then you are laying down progressively darker and darker colors until the darkest shadows are added last. This isn’t harder, but it is the opposite of the way oil painters are taught to think. The following are a few tips that may help.
“Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together”
— --John Ruskin
“A man throws himself out of the fourth-floor window; if you can’t make a sketch of him before he gets to the ground, you will never do anything big.”
— --Eugene Delacroix
Facts about paints
Do you like watercolor paintings in your home?
- Burnt Umber is iron oxide fired at a high temperature or “burnt”. Basically a burnt orange.
- Burnt Sienna is also calcined earth or earth fired at a high temperature.
- Cadmium is an artificial mineral color.
- Carmine red is made from female cochineal beetles from Peru and the Canary Islands, dried and crushed.
- Greens are made from ground malachite mixed with gum Arabic.
- Indigo (blue) is from a plant that yields a dark grayish blue.
- Lakes signify colors made from synthetic dyes.
- Lamp Black is made of burnt carbon or soot from lamps.
- Madder Red is a transparent ruby-red color from the root of the madder plant; mostly replaced today by Alizarin Crimson.
- Purple is usually made of ground mollusk shells.
- Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone) mainly from Persia and China; today it is made artificially.
- Yellow is made from saffron (a type of crocus).
- Zinc Oxide (Chinese White) is a by-product of brass production and is used to replace lead white
More On Colors
“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is00unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”
— --Alice Neel
More On Watercolor Paint
- The Hooker Green is good in both light and dark. It mixes well with yellow or blue and I like them both.
- The Lamp Black, however, is a dull lifeless color with only a few uses such as outlining or the pupils of eyes. I prefer Indigo, which is not black but a blue-black. When thinned it makes a cool grey and for hair, it adds great blue highlights. It mixes well with other colors and has a life of its own. If you were choosing between Indigo and Lamp Black, I would say go with Indigo.
- Chinese White is not what most people think. Many new watercolorists have tried oils and acrylic before diving into watercolor. If you have you know that in oils or acrylics, the dark colors are applied first and the whites and highlights are last. Because oils and acrylics are mostly opaque, white covers the dark colors easily. This is not so in watercolor. These colors are transparent (for the most part) and white is blocked out first on the paper and not painted at all. White is the color of the paper. So why do they sell “Chinese White”? Chinese White is used to mixing with other colors and make them slightly opaque and pastel looking. But it cannot be used to cover a “mistake” because when it dries you can still see through it to the mistake underneath. What happens is it simply muddies-up the mistake. Also, it is not pure white. It never matches the color of the paper. You will be very unhappy using it as a “white-out”. Painting over with white acrylic would look better (though I don’t suggest that because acrylic is shiny). It is always best to try to wet the area and blot off the offending spot with paper towels than to try any kind of cover-up.
All these colors come in tubes of varying sizes depending upon the manufacturer and the brand. My advice is to squeeze out only a little at a time onto your pallet. I had a man in my class once who did not want to be bothered with tubes, so he bought a large pallet and immediately squeezed the entire tube of each color into the wells. This seems like a great idea except for one important factor. Several of the colors do not age well outside of the tube. Burnt Umber, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue and Purple Lake all tend to crumble after a month or so. Once this starts the only thing you can do is throw the dry lump away and replace it with fresh paint from the tube. These tubes last a long time and I doubt that my student painted enough pictures in one month to have used up the entire tube worth of paint on his pallet before having to replace it. I paint every day and it takes me many months to use up a full tube of paint.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
— --Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso
A Word On Brushes
- I have several favorite brushes listed here. Of course, the best are sable brushes but even I can't afford to have all sable brushes, and I have been painting for decades. The rule of thumb with buying brushes for watercolor is to see if they are Natural Hairbrushes or Nylon. The cheaper synthetic brushes, usually nylon bristle, don't hold enough water and leave streaky brush strokes with watercolor. These brushes are good for acrylic but not watercolors. While this is not a bad thing for things like tree trunks, you will hate it on flowers and faces. Natural hair such as squirrel hair, goat, mongoose, badger, hog, ox, pony, sable (not necessarily from sable, but from any member of the weasel family), or camel hair, hold the water better, spread the paint smoother and longer. There are a few synthetic labels today that is almost as soft as the real hair and are worth the extra price.
- Camel hair labels, interestingly enough, have no hair from camels at all. This is the label for any and all other leftover hair blended together. This is why camel hair brushes are usually cheaper than any others. Even so, I find them to be very useful and I have many in my set. The cheaper ones sometimes shed, which is annoying, so it is worth paying for good brushes.
- Bamboo brushes are usually made of hog hair bristles with a bamboo handle and used for calligraphy, oriental-style painting, and watercolor. They are different to use but usually affordable and versatile. I have many bamboo brushes on hand for painting and I keep small ones in my travel kit. When traveling you only want one or two brushes and the bamboo is best because you can use them for large washes and small details too.
- These days they make a high-priced synthetic hair brush that has the same soft smooth texture and characteristics of sable without the same high cost. Taklon brushes are made of man-made filaments dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent. These are higher priced than the camel hair brushes but are well worth the money. Winsor and Newton Cotman make a set of synthetic hair brushes that are reasonable and versatile. If you can't afford a lot of brushes I suggest you get a #10 or #12 round. It will do almost everything you will need to do for one price.
“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”
— --Paul Gardner