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 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
- Remember that some of the best art in the world is art that leaves you asking questions. The artist has left something of a mystery in his style, in his composition, in his subject matter.
- If you stand back and ask yourself, "Who lives there" or "Where does that path go" or "What are they talking about" or "How does that blue take my breath away," that's great art because the viewer has become emotionally involved.
- When you paint, try to leave a little mystery, a little left unsaid, a line or two missing. This is why many experts say there is a point at which the painting has become "overworked." We artist's tend to be perfectionists, but in this one instance restrain yourself. You will love your work more for it.
- The paintings in this article, were developed from either en plein aire, from life or still life, or photographs.
- It is a good practice to keep photographic references for future use. I keep my photos in plastic sleeves in binders so they are easier to locate and they won't get damaged if I should splash paint on them.
- Many times I will find something new in an old photo that didn't inspire me before. But even so my photos are only a starting point for me.
- You should never try to copy a photo exactly, that's what we have cameras and computers for. Let the photo inspire you and then be creative and spontaneous from there.
“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 a 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 it’s 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 mix 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 kink 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 you 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 Hair brushes or Nylon. The cheaper synthetic brushes, usually nylon bristle, don't hold enough water and leave streaky brush stokes 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 are almost as soft as 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
Frosty TreesClick thumbnail to view full-size
- These make the best texture for trees, flowers, rocks.
- They are relatively inexpensive and last a very long time.
- Sea sponges come in many "grades" or textural smoothness. "Silk" grade has very small holes and smooth texture; not very good for our purposes but excellent for work with ceramics. "Natural" is okay but still the holes are too small to be of use for paintings. "Wool" sea sponges have large holes and are best for painting, I found.
- Once you have tried one you will not want to do without it.
- To use a sea sponge, get it wet. I know. This sounds elementary, but you can't imagine how many people get their first dry sponge, dip it in the paint and try to make it work. It's a sponge. It really needs a little water.
- Once you have a nice soft wet sponge, wring out all the water; or at least as much as you can squeeze out. Believe me there will be plenty left.
- Now choose your color and dap the rough texture part of the sponge in the paint.
- If the paint is dry make sure to add a couple drops of water and wait about 5 minutes before applying your sponge.
- Once you have some paint on your sponge, dab it onto the paper.
- Don't drag it or shift it on the paper. You want the texture pattern and not a streaky pattern.
- When you need to reload paint don't add any more water to the sponge (like you would a brush), just dip it in the paint and dab again.
- Practice on a sample paper first.
- Later when you are done, wash the paint out of the sponge before letting it dry completely.
“Art is idea. It is not enough to draw, paint, and sculpt. An artist should be able to think.”
— --Gurdon Woods
Wax Resist PaintingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
White Crayons, Wax, Paraffin, or Candles
- The technique of wax-resist requires wax.
- Crayons are the best since they are already shaped for drawing. However, any wax will work.
- Many artists use a heating device, which will drip or drag hot melted wax in thin lines as directed by the artist.
- The crayons work fine without heating, however, the lines are thicker and the artist has to press very hard to make sure of coverage.
- Light wax lines will not show well once the paint is applied.
Salt EffectsClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Any salt will work: sea salt, rock salt, iodized salt, table salt, even Epson salts.
- The salt must be sprinkled on while the paper is still wet.
- There is a timing involved her because if the paper is too wet the salt completely dissolves and leaves no pattern. But if the paper is too dry the salt merely sits there and does nothing.
- The salt takes 10 to 20 minutes to make its patterns and after it is dry you can brush the excess salt off. Only the pattern remains.
“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.”
— --Alfred North Whitehead
Rubbing Alcohol In A Spray BottleClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Like the salt, rubbing alcohol can only be applied to its best advantage with the paper wet.
- It can be sprayed from a spray bottle, dropped from a dropper, or painted on with a brush.
- The effect is very interesting and has many uses. I like it for backgrounds behind flowers.
- Don't overdo it. After the first couple of sprays, the paper gets over saturated and the effect doesn't work anymore.
- Hold the spray bottle at least 9 to 12 inches from the paper or you won't get a mist but a unattractive "splat".
“It’s like golf. The fewer strokes I can take, the better the picture.”
— --John Marin
Plastic Wrap EffectClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Like the salt and alcohol, the plastic wrap must be applied when the paper is still very wet.
- It only takes a few minutes (3 to 5 depending on the humidity in the air) and when you pull the plastic wrap off, a pattern will remain.
- This effect is good for erosion on mountains, ocean waves, or just interesting texture on rocks or special effect boxes.
- What happens is that the paint soaks into the paper where the plastic is touching it. It almost bruises the paper there and nowhere else.
Splatter Effect Painting SamplesClick thumbnail to view full-size
“Art is the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature.”
— --Edward Hopper
- An old toothbrush, or even a stiff bristle acrylic paintbrush, make for a good splatter brush.
- Load the brush with paint and pull the bristles toward you to make the splatter land on the paper.
- If you pull the bristles toward the paper the splatter goes straight up to your face and clothes.
- Splatter adds some interesting tone and detail to rocks, sandy beaches, backgrounds or even decorative paper. I love the effect for barnyard scenes.
Outlines Work For Some ThingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Actually there are no outlines in real life. But sometimes a black or even purple or blue outline adds some extra dimension and detail that cause a painting to pop.
- Sometimes I add outlines just to see if I like the effect. Other times I leave that out.
- It is all a matter of taste.
“It is better to paint from memory, for thus your work will be your own; your sensation, your intelligence, and your soul will triumph over the eye of the amateur… Do not finish your work too much.”
— --Paul Gauguin