Techniques IV - Watercolour Painting
When people think of art, watercolour painting is one of the first things that comes to mind. It has unique qualities that can’t be created using any other mediums. Watercolours can convey an atmosphere in just a few well-placed brushstrokes and express the illusion of light glowing from a sheet of paper.
In this 3T Art Blog post, we’re going to have a look at watercolour paint and paper, and we’ll explore a few basic watercolour painting techniques. I’m also going to introduce you to an extremely talented watercolour painter named Nancy Newman. She knows everything there is to know about watercolours and I know you’re going to enjoy seeing her work and finding out about her process.
So, let’s jump into watercolours!
Watercolour Paint and Paper
These two go hand in hand. When you’re creating a watercolour painting, a lot depends on the paint and paper you’ve chosen to use. Your techniques will look and respond differently based on the quality of your paint (low grade, student, or professional) as well that of your paper based on weight, texture and the amount of size on it. We’re going to define all of these terms, but first let’s have a look at the evolution of this versatile medium.
Watercolour paints have been around for a long time. Its origins can be traced back to cave paintings in Europe over 10,000 years ago. It was used by the Egyptians, Romans and during the European Middle Ages to illustrate manuscripts. Watercolour paint during these times was a mixture of pigments such as different types of earth and vegetable fibres. They were ground down to fine powers and mixed with raw eggs or some type of natural binder like sugar or hide glues that the powder could dissolve in. This allowed the paint to adhere to the surface it was being painted on.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance began that this medium really took flight. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a German painter, printmaker and theorist of the German Renaissance, was considered to be one of the earliest advocates of watercolour work. He created numerous studies in watercolour of flora and fauna during his life.
1510-20 Albrecht Dürer, ‘Eight Studies of Wild Flowers’, Watercolour
Watercolours became the preferred medium for artists studying botany, wildlife and landscapes. Over the centuries, artists who illustrated botanicals and wildlife have been considered to be the most precise and skillful watercolour painters.
John James Auduban (1785-1851) was an American naturalist who made his life’s work the documentation of all the bird species in North America. His natural choice for painting birds and foliage was watercolour worked in layers.
John J. Audubon, American Flamingo, Brooklyn Museum
Many of us probably associate watercolour as something very British. Actually, it wasn’t until the 18th century that watercolour painting spread to England. It became the ‘hobby’ of the elite classes and knowledge in the use of it was considered to be part of any good education.
Watercolours were used by mapmakers and military officers to visually describe field geology and terrains, as well as being used by engineers who used it to illustrate projects they were commissioned to build. It was also very common to have an artist in the field during explorations, expeditions and even during wartime, who could document in visual form what was happening. Watercolour was the perfect medium for this.
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Two Soldiers at Arras, 1918.
Watercolor and graphite on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, Promised Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler (L.2017.25.21)
Early watercolour artists originally ground their own colours from natural pigments or purchased liquid colours to use when making their paints. By the late 1700’s, William Reeves had invented a way of making small, hard cakes of watercolour similar to the pans and ½ pans we are familiar with in our watercolour paint boxes today. This made it a lot easier for artists to work with watercolour on-site and in their studios. Things became even easier when, in 1846, Winsor & Newton created moist watercolours sold in metal tubes.
In the 19th century, gum arabic became the preferred binder in watercolour paint and still is today. It enables the finely ground pigments used in watercolour paint to be heavily diluted with water to make thin, transparent layer of wash without it losing its ability to stick to the paper you’re using it on. Glycerin is added to help with the paint’s solubility in water and also to prevent the paint from cracking. A wetting agent such as Ox gall is also part of the mix, helping to ensure that your paint will flow evenly across the surface of the paper.
When considering your watercolour paints, keep in mind that quality paint will give you a better experience. Cheaper paints will have less pigment in them and they will more than likely not have been ground as finely as in a more expensive paint, making your work gritty. And make sure to try different brands of the same colour. It was recommended you try this for acrylic and oil paints (previous blog posts) and I’d suggest it for your watercolour paints too. It’s always good practice to be working with the brands and colours that best suit your style of painting.
There are a lot of paper brands on the market these days like Arches, Fabriano, Strathmore and Winsor & Newton just to name a few. They can be bought as sheets, bound on four sides or in spiral pads, and even as watercolour canvas boards. And let’s not forget the way they’re manufactured and the variety of weights they’re available in. Wow! So, how do you know which one to choose? Ultimately, the choice will come down to your personal preference. It’s all about doing some experimentation and finding the best paper for you. Here’s some info that’ll hopefully make the decision easier for you.
Manufacturing of watercolour paper can be done in a few ways:
· It can be a handmade using 100% cotton that is referred to as rag paper. These papers would be the most expensive to purchase for your artwork but they can be worth the price because of their durability, easily standing up to scraping, scrubbing and masking, and they have the added interest of their irregular textures and edges.
Handmade papers by St. Armand
· Papers can be made using molds. Paper fibers are formed into sheets at paper mills using cylinder-mold machines. The fibres in this process are unevenly distributed giving these papers a similar look and feel to those that are handmade. It’s less costly and gives you the benefits of stability, durability and it will hold up to distortion and buckling under heavy washes.
Source: Beston - Cylinder mold paper making machine
· Machine made papers are a good alternative if you are looking for a fair quality at a good price. Often made of a combination of cotton, wood pulp and other cellulose fibres, they’re mass produced making them inexpensive to make and cheaper to buy compared to handmade and mold make papers. They always have an even texture, which is good if you're looking for that in a paper, but they run the risk of not being as durable as the other two options. They can distort when wet so these papers, depending on their weight, need to be stretched before you use them.
The Canson paper-manufacturing machine running at the Canson Paper
Mill, located in Annonay, France.
All watercolour papers are produced with size added to the pulp. Size is basically gelatin added to water that helps keep watercolour pigments from spreading uncontrollably on the paper. It makes for a more robust paper that, when scraped or scuffed by the artist, doesn’t allow colour washes to cross-bleed under the paper’s surface.
Surface sizing is also added to most papers after the manufacturing process. This reduces the absorbency of the paper and keeps the fibres from lifting when you use masking fluid or you need to lift washes of colour from your work.
If your paper has too much size on it (not absorbent enough), you can remove it by using a damp sponge. Don’t rub it, just lightly pass the sponge over the surface of the paper. But before removing too much of it, consider what a heavier sized paper will do for your work. Because it has very little absorbency, it will keep your colours vibrant by not letting them sink into the paper and it will also give your paint more open time so you have a chance to work with it.
If your paper doesn’t have enough size on it (too absorbent), you’ll need to buy gelatin granules and dissolve a tablespoon of them in 500ml of water (or as per the instructions on the package), then apply it to your watercolour paper before painting. The advantages of not enough size are shorter drying times and softer paint effects. It’s more suited for direct and expressive painting methods such as plein air.
The textures of watercolour paper are created by the process used to make them. There will be a difference from manufacturer to manufacturer, but basically there are three different types of surfaces to choose from:
1. Hot-pressed paper – this is a hard paper with a very smooth surface. It’s very good for detailed and precise work. It may be too smooth and slick for many artists as the paint can easily get out of control and run down the surface of the paper.
2. Cold-pressed paper – this is semi-rough paper that can be used for washes and also for some fine detailed work. It is the most versatile of the three surfaces and is by far the most popular choice of paper by watercolour artists. Because it handles washes so well and it has enough texture to hold the paint, it’s also a good choice of paper for beginners.
3. Rough paper – it’s exactly that. Rough. It has more tooth than the other papers and you can easily see all of the tiny peaks and hollows in it. When applying a wash over it, the paint will stay in some of the hollows and miss others. It’s a good choice when you’re using textured techniques or painting subject matter with a defined texture. The paper provides the texture and you won’t need to add as much fine detail as you would if you were using hot or cold pressed papers.
There are many weights of watercolour paper to choose from. What you need will depend on what techniques you’ll be using on it.
The most common weights used by watercolour artists are 90lb, 140lb and 300lb.
90lb – this paper is considered by many to be student grade. It’s light weight when it comes to watercolour paper, rather thin, can buckle easily and won’t hold up to much scrubbing, scraping or any heavy washes. It’s best used for practicing brushstrokes and testing colours.
140lb – this is the choice of most artists. It’s considered a medium weight, versatile paper that'll easily hold up to lighter watercolour work and some scuffing. It’ll hold up to heavier washes but it’s preferable to stretch it first to avoid any kind of buckling when you’re painting. It also has the benefit of being fairly fast drying.
300lb – this weight of paper is very heavy. It’s almost like a thin board. It won't require stretching and will stand up to heavy washes, scraping and any other abuse an artist throws at it. You can use it for watercolour mixed media techniques as well but it'll take much longer to completely dry then lighter weight papers.
Keep in mind that these weights of paper are all available in hot-press, cold-press and rough. What you end up choosing will be up to you.
Watercolour Painting Techniques
Painting with watercolour is very different than how you would handle acrylics or oils. It’s actually the complete opposite. This is why it’s hard to learn to use watercolours if you’re a regular acrylic or oil painter.
What you always need to do is think ahead when planning your watercolour painting so the white spaces on your paper stay white. Did you know adding white paint to lighten up areas of your painting afterward is actually frowned upon when it comes to watercolor work? That’s right, it is!
Let’s have a quick look at some basic watercolour painting techniques. You’re understanding of them will help you create awesome paintings without using white paint to lighten up areas at the end.
Watercolour washes can be considered the foundation of watercolour painting. There are basically two types of washes: flat and graded.
A flat wash will be one that is even toned and is used to cover the entire area of your paper. It creates a unified background colour for your work and is a great start for areas in landscapes such as sky or large bodies of water.
A graded wash will be one that has less colour at one end and more colour at the other. It moves from light to dark, dark to light or from one colour to another evenly across your paper. They can be used for any part of your painting that requires a graded effect like a sky, where the colour may fade out at the horizon line.
This is a technique that is used across all paint mediums. In the case of watercolours, it can be a very expressive and attractive technique. When watercolour paint is applied to a dampened sheet of watercolour paper, or just to an area, the colour expands out across the surface of it creating very soft patterns and giving the painted area hazy edges. It’s a perfect technique to paint water effects that require a progressions of tone to create the illusion of light changing across a surface. Wet-in-wet can be considered somewhat of a spontaneous effect, but it takes a lot of training and skill to get it right.
This technique creates bright, vivid layers of watercolour. Colours in various tones are applied in transparent layered washes, one over the other. Each layer is allowed to dry before the next one is added. These transparent layers allow light to pass through to the white paper underneath. It reflects the light back with a glowing brilliance, giving your work a luminous quality. To keep your colours from becoming muddy, make sure you always have an ample supply of clean water on hand.
The last technique we’re going to look at is creating highlights. When it comes to watercolour painting, highlights need to be planned ahead of time. Figure out your design and know where the lightest areas will be.
One way to create highlights it to paint around them. You can create crisp edges or soft ones by dampening the paper slightly and blending into the white space.
Another way to preserve the white surface in areas of your watercolour painting is to use masking fluid. It’s a rubbery solution that can be applied with a brush and easily removed when you’re ready by peeling, rubbing it off with your finger or a using a soft rubber cement eraser. You can actually use masking fluid at later stages of your watercolour painting as well to preserve areas of colour you don’t want changed.
You can also get highlights into your watercolour painting is by lifting off areas of your colour washes. This can be done successfully while your paper is still wet using an absorbent cloth, a sponge or a soft brush, creating lovely diffused highlights. It’s a good technique to consider for painting clouds. You can also lift off area of paint once your paper is dry, but it’s a bit more difficult and the paint will more than likely have stained your paper so you won’t have those bright white areas you had planned on having in your work.
All of the techniques we’ve looked at take time and patience to master. Experiment with watercolour paints, papers and techniques. See what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s the only way you’re going to end up creating your best work.
3T Art Blog Guest Artist
Nancy Newman – Watercolourist
We’ve discussed a lot about watercolour paints, papers and techniques so far. Now, I’d like to introduce you to Nancy Newman. She’s an expert in everything and anything to do with watercolour painting. I can’t wait for you to meet her and see the world through her unique work.
Dingle Harbour I
Nancy, a native of Toronto, Ontario, grew up in a family of educators who instilled in her a love of learning. She attended McMaster and York University, then Toronto Teacher’s College and became an educator herself. And, as an educator who loved art, it was only natural that Nancy should teach it. For this, she needed to learn the basics of drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture, which she did, and earned her Visual Arts Specialist Certificate.
“It was painting in watercolour that provided the spark…that “Aha” moment.”
Since then, Nancy has taken many watercolour courses and workshops. They’ve helped her to hone her skills and master the processes and techniques involved in this versatile and challenging medium.
Nancy has always been an advocate for arts education. During her years as a teacher in the province of Ontario, she taught professional workshops and wrote art curriculum at school board and provincial levels of education, and she spent several years training other teachers to be Visual Arts Specialists for Nipissing University.
While still teaching in the classroom, Nancy found time to teach watercolour classes for adults at night and during her summer holidays.
A Walk in Ireland
Over the years, Nancy has been an active member of many art societies as well as being the President of both the Society of York Region Artists (SOYRA) and the Toronto Watercolour Society (TWS). She currently holds a Director seat on the board of the TWS and is also a Signature Member (Bronze Level). She’s exhibited her watercolour work in solo, juried and non-juried shows and has won more first-place, honourable mention and people’s choice awards than I can mention. She’s even been featured in Leisure Painter Magazine in the UK.
Nancy at a show with her awards!
Nancy’s subject matter is centered on the connections we all experience in our lives.
“As an artist, I create work that celebrates the connections in life, through common experiences, or our shared history. We connect to places, life events and to natural elements. Subject matter appeals to me when those connections exist.”
For example, she associates the unique colour and play of light on particular flowers with the experience of being in a specific place: irises in Van Gogh’s garden at St. Remy, roses at the Pitti Palace in Florence or a peony in Marie Antoinette’s Garden at Versailles.
Breath of Spring
Landscape paintings, both in expansive and in closer, focused views, reflect the connections Nancy has made during her travels to many place through its people, culture and history. Her Irish watercolour landscapes provide strong ties to her ancestral roots, so she includes iconic symbols such as green grasses, sheep, rock walls and traditional houses to those artworks.
“This emotional connection makes the creative process effective, providing the energy and motivation to complete the work.”
Irish Curiosity (the little sheep)
Nancy’s artistic talent, in combination with skills as an educator, have made her a sought-after watercolour painting instructor. She teaches classes and workshops locally as well as at prestigious locations like the Haliburton School of the Arts. Covid-19 has not stopped Nancy from teaching, it’s only moved Nancy to new platforms. She’s learned to use Zoom and Google Meet for her workshops.
“It has been a challenge to learn new technology and adapt my teaching, but I am grateful for the chance to be in contact with other artists and encourage them to pick up a brush and remain creative.”
Whether online or in-person, Nancy teaches her students traditional watercolour painting techniques but often explores more experimental approaches like negative painting, watercolour pours, sketching with rubber cement and water.
Her process varies according to the outcome she desires in a particular piece of work.
When painting en plein air, she first likes to take some time to enjoy the location she has selected by absorbing the atmosphere; its sights and sounds. Once she’s settled on a viewpoint, she’ll set up her outdoor workstation. Essential equipment includes a sunhat, water, and her favorite folding chair complete with table and pockets.
Nancy at Blue Mountain teaching en plein air painting
Nancy uses a Mijello palette well stocked with colours. It has food-sized paint wells and the removable insert provides her with lots of mixing room. One of its best features is the rubber gasket that prevents unfortunate accidents. She also has a full set of brushes, drawing tools and pigment pens with her when travelling.
Plein air equipment
Both in and out of the studio, she prefers to work on Arches 140 lb cold press watercolour paper.
Nancy’s largest size and most common work surface when in her studio is 15x22” (a ½ sheet of watercolour paper), while out of the studio working en plein air, she uses smaller sizes such as 11x15”, 10x14” or smaller square blocks of paper. Recently, she’s been working on larger sheets of 300lb Arches paper.
In her studio, Nancy doesn’t rush her work. She considers herself a slow painter as she likes to enjoy the problem solving process for each of her paintings. She often refers back to photos she’s taken of a location or a flower when she’s working. A painting takes at least four or five sittings to complete.
“While I usually have a plan or a drawing in advance, things always change. Different desired outcomes change my approach.”
She likes to use a porcelain palette to mix her paints when working in her studio. Favourite brands of watercolour paint are Da Vinci, Winsor Newton and Daniel Smith. She also has a full range of brushes to work with but prefers the Robert Simmons Sapphire series which are a mix of real and synthetic bristles.
Nancy’s colour palette consists of mainly transparent warm and cool primary colours made up of: Indian yellow, Quinacridone gold, raw sienna, permanent red, alizarin crimson, cerulean blue, transparent turquoise, ultramarine blue, Winsor Dioxazine violet, burnt sienna, sap green, Perylene green and Quinacridone burnt orange. The three colours she always has in her palette are Aureolin, Cobalt blue, and permanent rose.
Palette and brushes
When planning a new piece, Nancy must always plan ahead. She needs to think about the white spaces she’ll have to reserve on her paper well in advance of applying any paint to paper.
“It is hard to reclaim pure white at the end, and adding white is often considered undesirable.”
Nancy starts a new work with a drawing, loose underpainting or large washes. She then begins building up transparent layers of pigment using either wet-in-wet or wet-on-dry. This increases values and details, then she adds fixes by lifting or adding colour. She pays particular attention to the transitions in her work, using lost and found edges and changes in value to add dimension to her forms. Her pigments are applied to her work from warm to cool, light to dark and bright to less intense, then fine details are added last using small brushes.
“Water is the boss and it takes great skill to allow the water to be in charge, while controlling it at the same time.”
One of the methods Nancy is best known for is painting negatively. She paints around the contours of a shape in order to create the illusion of depth. She says this method is well suited for watercolour work because it aligns with the general watercolour guidelines and is a very popular topic for workshops because it opens up a new way of thinking.