Anatomy of a new watercolour

I took the opportunity of a free ride up to the Kootenay mountains where my sister lives, high atop Red Mountain. She’s an accomplished watercolourist, and since I”m trying to travel light, she offered to lend me her watercolours to paint with.

We’ve both got this project of painting images from our trip to Fiji last March and I looked through our photos to see what might inspire me. I chose one of the floral arrangements that these tropical hotels often display with fresh flowers brought in in the cool of morning, simply sitting without vase or other container, on the tables in the open entry of the reception area.

The simplicity, when I first saw it, was stunning. Two brilliant hibiscus flowers and a few leaves sitting on low black table.

I paint quite differently than my sister does. She has found a way, more or less, to control the wet on wet technique. I’m more studied. I put more planning into it – a careful drawing to start, either in graphite pencil or in watercolour pencil which will mostly disappear when the first layers of wash are laid on.

I use 300 pound Arches rough watercolour paper almost exclusively. I like the way it handles; its consistency in absorbency over the whole page surface and its lack of buckling once it’s wet. With the 300 pound paper, I don’t even have to stretch it. Yes it bends a little, but your framer should be able to press it back into flat position with little trouble.

I like to use a whole sheet now that my eye sight is less sharp than when I was younger. It takes a bit of nerve to tackle a large sheet since they are so expensive, but it allows a great liberty of movement that a small sheet size does not.

So there I was at the drawing table, sketch generally in place; the outlines of the hibiscus petals defined; the leaves drawn in, all very lightly. I don’t have any of my supplies with me except my brushes. I really believe strongly that ones brushes are very personal and shouldn’t be lent. Besides, good brushes are a must and they are expensive. You wouldn’t want someone to ruin a fifty dollar brush on you. would you? And so, despite her kind offer that I might use anything, I brought my own.

When working large, you need large brushes – ones that will hold a lot of water or a lot of paint load. I use a two inch brush flat for painting broad areas – squirrel hair, I think, though I bought it so long ago I’m not sure. I have two number 8 rounds and two or three fine ones – number ones and twos that come to a fine point for detail. I also have a flat brush a one inch and a three quarter inch which I don’t use often, but when I do need them, I need them. When I get back to home, I’ll illustrate for you what this brush can do and why it’s useful.

To start painting, I take a lightly wet sponge or a wet paper towel and soften the whole surface of the paper. The purpose is to remove the sizing, a water soluble glue that holds the paper together but which, in the drying process collects and hardens the surface. If you don’t soften it or remove it gently, then the water colour will not absorb consistently. and you will get blurples and stains where you don’t want them. Then I take any excess water off the surface so the surface is evenly damp.

When it is just dry to the touch, I use frisket to put in any highlight that I want stark white as finishing details. The only areas for this painting are the long brilliant pistils that I will want to have stand out light against the strong colour of the flower. I let the frisket dry thoroughly, wash that brush out thoroughly or lose it, and then start to paint.

On this one, I’m a bit nervous because I haven’t painted a large watercolour for over three years. Trepidation rules! I might not always do this, but feeling cautious, I want to block in the basic shapes to see that my composition is valid without committing myself with strong colours. I want to be able to correct the shape if necessary. So I decided to block in the lightest highlight colour on what would eventually be a strong vermilion coloured hibiscus.

My sister works with different colours than I do. I normally would have used a Windsor and Newton Cadmium Red Light for this. We both swear by the quality of Windsor and Newton pigments or alternately Holbein. I’ve also used Schminke, but we don’t often see it here in Canada and when we do, it’s far too expensive for my pocket. But I’ve used it in Europe; and Schminke paint is really lovely to work with. So here I was, rummaging through her stash of paints and finally selected two colours I never have worked with before – Scarlet Lake and Quinacridone purple for the shadows.

I like to use small yogurt containers to mix large batches of paint in. Any small washable container will do. I poured 150 cl of water into it and put in a small amount of Scarlet Lake, then mixed it until it was completely dispersed in the water. Then, petal by petal, I coloured in a flat pale pink over the entire flower shape being careful to come just to the edge of each petal so that a finest line of paper white showed through to define where each petal was. This is important for when the tones are going to be laid on. You don’t want to lose your drawing at this stage. I was fortunate. The shape emerged as a very flat, soft salmon pink when it dried. Next I did the same to the second flower in a pale, pale yellow, almost colourless. This second flower is a white one with a coloured centre. And when that was thoroughly dry, I painted in a very soft sap green – very diluted – on the leaves. The drawing looked good but I still wasn’t seeing the composition well because of the white flower against the white background. Nothing for it, I was going to have to fill in the background with a wash so that I could see where that was, also.

At the end, I would like to have a very dark background. The photograph I was using for a memory guide is completely black, but photographs are only source material. I’m not trying to copy it slavishly. I was planning a background with more colour, but a dark background in any case and relatively flat. I want the flowers to be the main focus and the background to support that, or at least, recede in importance.

Maybe a dark blue, generally; maybe a dark green although I’ve often had difficulty in achieving a flat wash with green. I think it is because green is more of a stain than a pigment. A French Ultramarine settles beautifully, evenly. My black background will be a mixed black. You can do this with opposites – red and green or orange and blue. If I’m working with my own pigments, I use Aliziron Crimson and Windsor Green or Hooker’s green. On the blue scale, I use French Ultramarine mixed with Burnt Sienna.

But for now, I want only a neutral grey that will indicate the dark ground and I know that the green/red mix will commit me to a green is undertone while the blue/sienna can be mixed almost to neutral grey, so that I will be able to modify by another layer when I get closer to finishing the painting.

This next step is harrowing for me. I have to work fast.

I have large areas of grey to fill in with an even colour. I use the two inch brush. I have at least a half cup of the prepared grey. I use the large two inch flat brush to re-dampen the whole lower background and pat off excess water so that the pigment, when applied, will not soak in too fast leaving brush marks. I keep the watercolour board slightly tilted. I put on my first large brush stroke of pigment up close to the flower edge, being careful to let the water pool at the bottom of the mark as the pigment empties from the brush. This pooling ensures that the next stroke does not have an overlap line between it and the first brush full. I take my largish round brush and paint right up to the edge of the flower, filling in where there are notches in the drawing, taking care to get these precisely. You have to do this quickly.

When that’s done, I paint another brush-load with the big flat brush, catching up the pool that has formed, extending this both downwards and to the left as I fill in the page; continuing to define the flower and leaf edge in the middle as I go; continuing on with big flat brush-loads until the whole bottom part is covered with this pale grey.

Now paint and water is collecting at the bottom of the painting. Do not pick this up with a paper towel . It will suck the water rapidly out of the area you touch to and suck pigment with it. Then you get a lighter area. Also do not touch up somewhere you have missed, because it is going to add more water to the spot and make a flower of watercolour with little fine darker edges where it stops spreading.

For the water collecting at the bottom, just let your dry paint brush pick it up , or put a paper towel under the painting where it’s not touching the paper, This water-settling process is what makes a good flat wash on your painting but it’s good to try it out, smaller size before you tackle a big one.

Now, watercolour is a great medium to work in. There is a lot of technique to learn and no one method is better than another, but each one you learn to work with well gives you better freedom for the next painting you do. One of my wonderful mentors, Paul Kuzma, underscored the importance of letting things dry thoroughly. The relative dryness or dampness of the painting surface is critical to many different effects you can get when you work and only trial and error will give you the experience you need to work with this.

His recipe was – Paint in the area you are working on, then have a glass of wine, a few crackers, enjoy yourself, have a bit of conversation. When that comes to a lovely hiatus, your painting is probably ready for another go. So I did just that, although painting under the influence for me impairs my judgment and my hand, so I went off to get a cup of coffee and sit with a book.

When the paint was sufficiently dry to run no longer, I simply turned the thing around and tackled the top part of the painting in the same way. It’s important not to do a large wash otherwise (right side up) because you want the wash to run ever so slightly, but you don’t want that running into your imagery uncontrollably.

Next, once that was dry, I was able to tackle the large red flower. I continued on with the same red but used more concentrated pigment to define the darker areas. Now I use the photograph as a memory guide as to where the lights and darks are. With the large round brush, I painted in petal after petal in large free strokes, leaving that pale peach underlay as my light tones. This stage is where I begin to wonder why I ever do watercolour. I get in a panic. I have to work fast because I don’t want strokes to dry and then overlay them with another stroke. If that happens, the painting looks overworked, and the overlaps may place marks in the painting that you don’t want and can’t get rid of. If paint starts to run into each other, you must prevent yourself from trying to make it perfect. Let it run, within reason. Some of that free stuff makes your painting look lively.

The panic comes from realizing that my drawing is not anatomically correct, so as to speak. I drew the flowers in freehand – no copying, no magic lantern/overhead projector. And of course, now I could see that I hadn’t gotten it right. But I’m in the middle of painting it and now I have to fake it. The painterly decisions have to be split second. I have to understand what the flower is doing, how it curves, how it flows, so that I can make the flower I’m painting believable. All the petals must come out of the centre. Where a petal overlaps, the under part is in shadow. The veins on the petals must also come out of the centre.

Then comes a moment when you know that you have to stop. You can come back into it later. It’s time for a glass of wine. Enough for today. Tomorrow, the frustration and panic of that last spurt of painting will be gone and I can look at the image more dispassionately and see what needs to be done.

Tune in tomorrow (or maybe the next day for the sequel.


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One Response to “Anatomy of a new watercolour”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    This is the anatomy of process in watercolour. You explain so clearly and outline the principles which govern laying down washes, keeping highlights and edges, rotating the image to help control the wet medium and for the need to work with thought, deliberation and good awareness of time and the fluid nature of the paint layers and the impact of air on drying them.
    You are a hell of a teacher, and cut thru the crap nicely and directly – no false moves or promises. You really know your stuff old girl – and naturally this is so evident in all the work you do with the various media you are expert in using. Looking forward to seeing this painting on your return home. You described it’s progression so well that I am sure it will be like meeting an old friend. G

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