Once a brush is loaded with pigment and placed on the paper you are in control. Or not!
Water goes where it wants, though it is possible to guide it, and the strength of pigment in the water may not be exactly as you want it. Each pigment, made up of finely ground minerals, each move their own way of interacting with water, paper and other pigments. In addition, there may be accidents that occur on paper as a result of colour mixing or dilution effects that we may not want to happen. Or we may make use of these to our advantage.
I shall deal with these things later but for now will concentrate on the painting process. The most important thing to do, I think, is to prepare yourself to establish a partnership between your mind and the brush. Watch the effect of each stroke and decide, as you go, whether to go with what the paint does or what you want it to do. Easy!
A figure of a person is well known – instantly recognisable. We drawn a stick-person and we recognise what it is intended to represent. Watercolour figures are also representational – too much detail is counter-productive so we strip things down to a minimum of effort. A few simple strokes are sufficient and a few tricks can help strengthen the image, such as white highlights on the head and shoulders, but even without these a simple impression is all that is needed.
Watercolour painting is also about not painting. In a future post I will cover tonal values and colour, but at this point all I need to mention is that the colour of the paper itself is used to portray highlights but sometimes a shape is left unpainted so that the finished painting shows an impression of a thing by the shape of the unpainted area.
Once a few key shapes are in place our minds make up the rest. The face we see in a full moon is an example.
Having an idea of what I want to paint allows me to work with my brushes to set that impression on paper. It may not turn out exactly as I planned but that is part of the fun of painting. The partnership of mind, hand, brush and pigment creates the illusions in a painting.
Next week I will cover perspective. It is a simple topic but sometimes changing perspective can add drama to a painting.
Comments and questions are welcomed, I usually reply within 24 hours.
This is the second of what will be ten or twelve posts about the way I approach my watercolour painting. In the first one, a week ago, I provided an introduction that covered my own background in the march along the road to dealing with this medium, the materials I use and a hint of what to expect in future posts.
This post I will be going a bit deeper into the materials that I use, highlighting some options in respect of the choices available.
In order to get started all we need are the basics: some paint, a brush and watercolour paper, plus a pencil for sketching the subject. If all we want to do is pass time and enjoy the process of painting then the quality of materials is not important. But those who, like me, wanting to reach a higher level (whatever that may be) need to consider the constraints of the materials we use.
The supplies needed will depend on how you want to approach watercolour painting. There is a cost implication. Professional artist quality papers, paints and brushes are not cheap. A sheet of hand-made cotton rag paper can cost £25, brushes can cost £50 each and paints are pretty expensive too. I shall deal with the types of material available in detail but will say now that starting with cheap supplies can yield less than satisfactory results which can be off-putting. That said, working at the outset with top quality products can be a waste of resources though will provide experience on how the materials handle under use.
In this post I shall provide an overview of the supplies I use, starting with the indispensable journal, and will mention supplies that I no longer use.
Prior to buying water colour paper I recommend buying a student grade water colour journal. It’s a good place keep all your notes and sketches in one place. I use mine a lot for making notes, to practice techniques and to prepare studies ahead of painting a piece.
The journal paper quality needs to be good enough to ensure that what you practice in the journal can be readily transferred when painting on quality paper. The journals that I use are made by Canson, Daler-Rowney and a couple of others and are of student grade paper. A good art shop will have a selection to chose from. I prefer A4 sized books though it is also useful to have a pocket-sized book for use when travelling.
The use of a journal is important as it makes good use of the available paper (you can practice or do quick sketches in any available white space). In a journal it doesn’t matter if you paint a tree next to a flower, or a person and a bird at different scales. You can even use available space to test colour mixing techniques.
It is always a good idea to test paints in the journal to see how they mix or to see the effects of doings glazes and washes. Don’t worry about terminology at this stage as I will cover all of the important elements.
The best paper is cotton rag though cellulose-based papers can be used too. The paper comes in a variety of weights – the heaviest (eg 300 gms per m2 / 140 lbs) are better – and are either hot-pressed or cold-pressed. The surface of the paper can be smooth (hot pressed), rough (cold pressed) or somewhere in between (NOT). I have used a rough paper and found it great to paint on but it doesn’t suit all subjects in view of the texture. Hot-pressed is a bit more difficult to work on so I would recommend starting out with cold-pressed smooth (NOT) paper.
Paper can be bought in loose sheets or in pads. Some pads, or blocks, are glued on all four edges which allows you to paint without having to stretch the paper. Single sheets can buckle when water is applied so, if not using pads or blocks of paper it may be necessary to tape the paper to a board before painting. More about stretching paper later.
Brushes, for watercolour, are either synthetic or made of animal hair eg sable, squirrel etc. Modern synthetic brushes are usually of a quality comparable to natural hair – the things to look for are their ability to hold water and to maintain a good point. There are a variety of brushes to deal with a range of brush strokes eg fine lines or broad expanse. The important thing to check, when buying brushes, is to see if the hair forms a good point. The best way to check this is to wet the brush.
The most expensive brush that I own cost about £40 and is made of a mix of sable and synthetic hair. It is a Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II brush No 10 size. It is quite a large brush but despite its size it is quite light, maintains an excellent point and holds quite a lot of water which saves the need of going back to the palette to get more.
My favourite brushes, to date, are a couple of ProArte Rennaisance Squirrel mop brushes that are quite versatile, being able to cover paper in washes quite well while also being able to paint small details.
Good quality synthetic brushes are becoming more popular as they are relatively cheaper than real hair but avoid the necessity of using animal hair – so good for vegans. I have to admit that I prefer sable to synthetic, because of their ability to hold water, but the majority of my brushes are synthetic.
A huge range of brushes is unnecessary. Depending on subject matter (I use one set for bird paintings and another for landscapes) just 4 brushes are enough: a 3/4inch flat brush, a number 6 or 8 round brush, a number 4 rigger and perhaps a 1 1/2 inch flat brush for larger scale washes. I often use a mop brush instead of the flat brush.
Paints are powdered minerals, eg cobalt, that are mixed with a binder, usually honey, to enable them to be picked up and applied with a brush. Some manufacturers use dyes in place of pigment in order to reduce cost. Student grade paints use a mix of pigment and dye to produce reasonable quality results – in some cases excellent results. The advantage of pro-grade paint is its permanence ie it will not fade over time.
Paints come in tubes or in little pans of solid pigment. I prefer the tubes as the paint is richer in my opinion.
When it comes to buying paints it should be noted that, while you can buy in tube or pan (or half pan) form, the price can vary by colour since some minerals are more costly than others. For example, cadmium or cobalt based paints are more expensive than chrome based paints. The key, when selecting, is the quality of permanence which will be indicated in all student/pro grade paints. If you want to see your painting in a gallery in 100 years – buy the best!
There are several manufacturers that produce professional quality paints. I tend to use Winsor & Newton but have other brands in my stock. A simple palette of a dozen student grade pan paints, ideal for travel, cost me £10 on offer at an art shop in Edinburgh. Great for travel sketches.
In my next post I shall describe my process of starting a painting.
Comments and questions are welcomed, I usually reply within 24 hours.
Iris, watercolour. Canson “Moulin du Roy” 100% cotton paper. 24 cm x 16 cm
This was a painting that I did to develop my technique and I think I did ok. No other comments to make other than to say that the paper is, although rough and thus not really suited to floral painting, one of the best that I have used. Worth spending the money on this paper though perhaps not for experimenting on! It can be found on Amazon, which is good since my local supplier in Edinburgh doesn’t stock it (I bought this pad of 12 sheets in Sicily). Sadly I used the last sheet for the Iris (half sheet) and a Heron painting on the other half.
The fine lines were painted with a Winsor and Newton “Cotman” round brush size 00.
I sat under the shade of a beautifully fragrant oleander tree. Around me were both pink and white varieties. In front of me was the Fontana del Tritone, under tall palms, with the gentle splash of water on water adding a pleasing sound to the perfumed air.
As it was Sunday I had expected to see people in the vicinity but I presume the residents and tourists were instead at the beach. Good for me as I had never done plein air painting before so had been a bit nervous about doing so.
What is plein air? It is a French term “en plein air” that refers to painting outdoors, or in the open air.
I had bundled my painting gear into a plastic bag before walking down to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. It took me about 20 minutes – no buses on Sundays.
Not wishing to launch straight into my subject, a watercolour painting of the fountain, I bought some other subjects to get me into the swing of painting. I have a selection of bird drawings that are ready to paint and selected three of these: a Magpie, a Eurasian Jay and a (South American) Rufous-collared Sparrow that, in Brazil, is known as a Tico-tico.
I also had an unfinished painting of the Arch de Triumph in Paris that I thought might give me some help in doing the fountain.
In total I spent about 3 hours painting. I took water from the fountain itself. The heat of the morning added a bit of challenge to the process as the paint dried faster than normal. The warm-up helped me gauge the speed of evaporation.
I did the bird paintings first, then lightly sketched the fountain before painting the Parisian scene. Then finally the fountain.
I quite like the Jay. The black of the Magpie isn’t quite how I wanted it (one of the difficulties of mixing colours in bright sunlight. The Tico-tico didn’t work out quite how I’d planned but I can use it for reference on another occasion.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Not much to say about the Arc, ok as a sketch. I may, at the risk of overworking it, try to do something about the contrast and colour but otherwise will use it for reference only. I had started this painting a year ago, based on a photo that I had taken on one of my visits to Paris.
Fontana di Tritone, Trapani
Winsor and Newton watercolours, Canson “Moulin du Roy” 300 gm cotton rag 24cm x 32cm
Unfinished … I need to finish/work on some details and remove the halo that I managed to place over Triton’s head!
Working en plein air is fun and allows you to focus more easily on painting as you see the subject rather than trying to interpret reference images.
Will do more when I can.
I tried to finish the Triton picture and, as suspected, I overworked it. With watercolours I think the benefit that spontaneity brings to the medium are lost if you don’t finish the work in one sitting. Speed is good, interruptions and rushing are bad!
Tools of the trade … in order to create something artistic it is necessary* to have a few brushes.
* necessary but not essential … how paint gets onto a surface is not critical. Think about those cave paintings from aeons ago, or acrylic pouring techniques.
The funny thing is that when I began painting it was with just a few brushes, building up slowly as saw other brushes I might want to try out till I had spent a lot of money on what I thought I needed before finally sticking to just a few favourites that I feel comfortable with.
For my watercolour work, I have about 40 brushes including 2 decorating brushes (1 1/2″ and 2″), a toothbrush (for splattering, and a couple of ladies’ makeup brushes. I have a lot more brushes for oil and acrylic work.
Brushes for fine detail
For specialist work, I have a set of sable brushes are for painting fine detail. The sizes are 3, 1, 2/0, 3/0 and 5/0 – the “/0” denoting sizes smaller than 1 where 2/0 is 00, 3/0 is 000 etc. where more 000s implies a smaller brush. I use these only when doing special projects using my best watercolour paints and papers.
Brushes that get used most
My favourite brushes, the ones I use most, are a synthetic angle shader which is great for controlled painting into square areas, a small (3/0) squirrel mop brush which holds water nicely (though too small for doing large washes) and a small round (1) that I use for detail work in loose paintings. I use these in conjunction with any of the larger brushes for landscapes or with a 10 round brush for bird and flower paintings.
Getting decent brushes is a bit difficult for me unless I pay excessive delivery costs on mail-order items since there are not many fine art painters or stores where I live. My shopping list includes a couple of larger mop brushes and not much else other than paints and paper.
There is a lot to be said for getting good natural hair brushes eg sable, but I have been disappointed with one “pro” level sable brush while being very pleased with several synthetic brushes. It pays to go in person to a decent art store to try and buy what suits the artist.