Introduction to Watercolour Painting
Watercolour is an incredibly interesting and rewarding medium to work in. In this lesson I will introduce you to the medium by teaching you:
1) What papers you get for painting on
2) What types of watercolour paint you get and when to use each
3) What to look out for when shopping for watercolour paint
4) What brushes are available to the watercolour artist
5) We will then also look at other equipment essential for painting successfully in watercolour. Items like masking fluid and water containers are discussed.
Amazing first introductory tutorial on water colors. Dennis has explained things so beautifully and in such great detail and almost as if he can read all the questions that will come up in your head and addresses them beautifully - almost as if you are learning in a classroom in person from him. Amazing tutorial. I enjoyed learning and painting this one.
Ha! The world of watercolour! So intimidating to many of us. This introduction class is the first of a very well crafted sequence of classes on watercolour painting. The instructor, and master painter, Dennis Clark, systematially debulked the myths of watercolour. The lessons are very clearly presented, ea h step is clearly demonstrated, and new techniques explained. The early classes each fo us on a teaching point, yet they all produce a painting that even bevinners are happy to display. In addition each painting can be uploaded to the PB website for positive critics from the instructor himself and fellow PB members. Critics are always paired with most encouraging words of praise. Try to paint the Cosmos flowers along with Dennis\' instruction and you will want to learn more and more about watercolour painting.
People have painted with a version of watercolour since the Palaeolithic age when they made paints by grinding up raw pigments in their environment.
The first time watercolour paint was made available commercially in ready-made form was in 1766 when William Reeves put the first water-soluble, dry, cake watercolours on the market.
About 15 years later it was discovered that if honey was added to the dry cakes, the paint became much more pliable as the honey attracted and held moisture. Thus the first watercolour cakes that could be activated using a wet brush were made, much to the delight of many a Victorian lady.
The first watercolour pans appeared on the market in the early 19th Century (1830) and a decade later the formula was modified to be used in tubes.
Watercolour can be painted in a loose or detailed style and of course you can combine the two. To get started with this fascinating medium you will need the following basics.
There are several decisions to make when choosing a paper:
The paper you paint on is as important to the final product as the paints and brushes you use. Generally, the higher the price, the better the quality of paper. There are many excellent brands of watercolour paper available but as the high quality papers are rather costly, it might be better as a beginner to choose a less costly, but still good quality paper. A good guideline is to buy a medium priced paper of a well-known brand e.g. Strathmore, Canson, Daler Rowney, Hahnemule etc.
There are several decisions to be made when choosing a watercolour paper.
The first choice is to choose the texture of the paper. The rougher the paper, the more bumps or texture it will have. Texture may be less or more desirable depending on what and how you paint. It’s more difficult to get fine detail on rough watercolour paper but easier to get a good even wash of colour than when using a smooth paper.
Rough papers may be labelled as rough or cold press.
In between rough and smooth papers there is a medium textured paper which may also be called “not” paper. It is not too smooth and not too rough. Not papers combine the best of the rough and smooth papers are therefore the choice of many artists.
The most sought after (and costly) watercolour paper is usually 100% cotton. (Also called 100% rag.) Cheaper papers are often made of cellulose wood fibres. There are many brands of cellulose papers that give excellent results.
Watercolour papers come in different shades of white. A “high white” or “bright white” paper is as the name suggests a very bright white. Traditional watercolour papers are off white or creamy in colour. The whiter versions are made lighter with a bleaching process. Colours appear brighter the whiter the background.
Papers come in different weights. The heavier the paper, the thicker it is. One advantage of a thicker paper is that it buckles less when water is added. The weight is either expressed as grams per square metre (gsm) or pounds per ream (imperial). A good weight for a beginner is 140lbs/300gsm. Paper that is lighter will be more inclined to buckle. Even with the 300gsm paper, it’s necessary to stretch the paper before painting to prevent buckling. (More on how to stretch paper below)
The more costly papers often have an embossed identification watermark on one side of the paper. It’s usually printed on the front side of the paper but you can choose to paint on either side.
Once you have decided on the brand, colour, weight and texture of your paper all you have left to decide is in what format you want it.
Watercolour paper can be purchased by the sheet. The large sheets can be cut down to the size you require which is useful but the sheets are more difficult to transport before cutting into smaller pieces and are unprotected therefore more easily damaged. Once the paper is dented or gouged it will show up on your painting.
A very popular choice, even if it’s a bit more costly, is to buy your favourite watercolour paper in the form of a watercolour block. In a block, the paper is fused around the edges except for a small space at the bottom where you can insert a paper knife or palette knife which you then run around the edges to dislodge your painting once you have finished.
The advantages are that the block comes with a stiff backing board so you don’t need to have an additional board to paint on. It’s very convenient for painting out in the open (plein air). You also won’t have to stretch your paper before painting although, depending on how liberal you are with water, you may experience a little buckling but the paper will dry flat. The disadvantages are that you can’t access the rest of the paper on the block before your painting is finished and removed and the watercolour blocks are considerably more expensive than other formats.
Watercolour pads are fixed at one edge, either with glue or a wire spiral. Pads are less expensive and can be turned into blocks with a little effort. (See Pro Tip below). You tear off a sheet from the pad as needed. Pads come in a wide variety of sizes, textures and weights from A5 to A3 and larger. They are less costly than blocks and very convenient.
How to Turn a Watercolour Pad into a Block
Turn a watercolour pad into a block by taping the three loose edges (in the case of a spiral bound pad) or by removing the cover page and taping all 4 sides (in the case of pads with one glued edge).
It’s important to use acid free tape which is wide enough to fit around the edge of the pad with enough spare to form a good bond in the front and the back of the pad.
Once taped in this way, the paper sheet you painted on will, once quite dry, return to a flat shape.
This method is cheaper than using bought watercolour blocks, but you will have to repeat the taping with each new sheet of paper you use.
You can also make your own watercolour surface on wood, paper or canvas using a product known as watercolour ground. It’s a paste that you coat the painting surface with. It’s absorbent and the watercolour adheres to it. Watercolour ground is made by several different manufacturers.
Stretching Watercolour Paper
Paper up to 360 gsm (140lb) will need stretching to prevent buckling when water is applied.
Soak or spray the paper until thoroughly wet.
Gently lift up by a corner and let the excess water run off till it stops dripping.
Lay it down on a smooth board which is bigger than the paper. I use masonite or mdf board.
Lower it slowly onto the board so the middle touches first then gradually let the sides down. In this way the any air bubbles are pushed out.
The board you use should be of acid free material or it should be sealed. (Seal by painting the board with slightly diluted PVA glue and allow to dry.)
Tape the damp paper down to the board using brown watercolour tape. (See Pro Tip below).
Overlap the edge of the paper with a generous amount to allow the tape to really grip.
Sometimes tape alone is sufficient to give a good end result but if you really want to be sure, then put closely spaced staples through the tape and into the board.
Once the paper is dry it will be completely flat. When you’ve finished your painting and it’s completely dry cut just inside the tape with a craft knife to release your painting.
How to Flatten Your Painting Before Framing
If your paper is slightly buckled once removed from the board, it's easy enough to flatten it before framing.
Put some clean absorbent paper down on a flat surface on which you can leave your painting undisturbed overnight.
Carefully spray the back of your painting with water until it’s evenly damp (not soaked).
Lay the painting face down on the paper and cover with more clean paper. Place a stiff board over the painting and weight it down with something heavy. (A bucket filled with water will work as will a stack of heavy books).
Leave to dry overnight and your painting should be perfectly flat in the morning.
How to Use Gummed Tape
Mark a border around the edge of your drawing paper that is half the width of the gummed tape using a pencil. (You want the gummed tape to be half on the paper, half on the board.
Cut four lengths of tape for each side of the watercolour paper. Cut the tape longer than the paper so that you have an overlap on each side.
Moisten the tape by running a damp sponge over the sticky/shiny side.
Stick the tape down immediately first onto the paper by aligning it to the pencil border line. Carefully smooth the tape down from the centre outwards.
Next smooth the tape onto the board, also from the centre outwards.
Repeat for the three remaining sides.
Storing Gummed Watercolour Tape
When you have cut the tape you need off the watercolour tape roll, immediately store it in a watertight plastic bag or other container as water splashing accidentally onto the roll will make it stick together and become useless.
Watercolour paints are packaged in many ways making it an incredibly versatile medium. Let's take a look at some of those formats.
Watercolour pans and tubes are the most common and traditional. There are also watercolour sticks, watercolour brush pens and watercolour pencils.
The advantage of pans is that they are easily packed into a travelling palette for painting outdoors. You can choose the colours you need and leave the rest. There is less wastage when using pans as there is very little leftover unused paint.
The disadvantages however are that unless you are careful, it’s easy to contaminate your pans by using a dirty brush and pans are harder on your brush than the soft tube paints.
Tube paints have arguably slightly brighter colours. Because they are squeezed out of the tube before use, the remaining paint remains pure. They are not as convenient to carry along when painting outside and there is more paint wastage.
You will notice that watercolour paint tubes are considerably smaller that oil or acrylic paint tubes. When painting in watercolour, you use a lot less paint so a small tube lasts you even longer than a large paint of oil or acrylic.
On the other hand you will also find that this small tube of watercolour is more expensive than it's larger oil / acrylic counterpart. A tube of watercolour paint is essentially pure pigment whereas a tube of oil / acrylic is a mixture of medium and pigment hence the higher price.
Another option is to buy empty pans and fill the pans using the paint tubes. There is very little difference in paint from pans and tubes - the choice comes down to which you like best.
The colours to choose from are mindboggling.
For a beginner the best would be to buy a warm and a cool blue, yellow and red. In addition yellow ochre, a red brown and a dark brown will complete your limited palette of 9 colours which will be sufficient to mix any colour you could want.Another alternative is to purchase a set of paint pans.
You don’t need to buy white as the colour of the paper is your white.
Black is also not needed as you can mix it from the colours you have on hand. You will find that pure black is simply too dark and powerful so it overpowers any colour you mix it with. Mixing your own black gives you a black which is much less harsh and mixes in better with other colours.
Not all watercolour paints are the same. The differences are not only in the hue (colour) but also in the transparency, the lightfastness, staining power, granulation and quality.
Transparency is a measure of how see through the paint is. When painted over a black line; transparent paint will let the black line show through clearly, opaque or non-transparent paint will cover the black line.
Transparent paint can be painted over opaque paint to slightly modify the colour (called glazing) but not the other way around.
Lightfastness is a measure of how easily the paint would fade if exposed to sunlight. Choosing only lightfast colours will prevent your painting from fading over time. Colours which fade easily are called fugitive colours.
Staining power means how easy it is to take the paint off the paper without leaving a mark. Non staining colours can be removed from the paper without leaving stains.
Granulation is the degree to which some paints tend to settle out on the paper leaving small spots of colour. Sometimes this is a desirable effect but in another painting, or part of a painting, non-granulating paints may be best.
Don’t worry too much about these differences in the beginning - best to just start painting. When you have decided what you like painting and how you like painting (loose or detailed) you can start looking more closely at the finer nuances of the paint.
There are artist’s and student grade paints available. Artist’s grade paints are superior but much more expensive. Unless cost isn’t an issue, while learning it’s cheapest to opt for high quality student grade paint like the widely-available Winsor & Newton Cotman brand. You can achieve excellent results using student grade paints and when you’re more experienced you can upgrade to Artist’s quality.
An optional extra to purchase is gouache (sometimes called Chinese white and pronounced gwash). It’s a watercolour paint that’s opaque and is useful for creating white highlights. (Some artists prefer to leave the paper white to achieve highlights).
Gouache also mixes easily with regular watercolours to intensify certain colours and increase their covering power.
Natural hair brushes and synthetic brushes are available. The synthetic brushes are much cheaper and do a fine job - therefore an excellent choice for beginners.
To start, you will definitely need a few fine round brushes in various sizes.
Make sure the brushes you choose have a fine point. Even with a large brush you can achieve very fine lines if the brush is shaped to a fine point.
You will also need a few flat brushes of varying sizes for laying down large amounts of water quickly.
At times you may want to remove some paint for whatever reason and it’s then that a stiffer brush used for gently scrubbing away the wetted paint will be useful.
A relatively new product which works very well is a microfibre sponge of the type sold under the brand name Mr Clean Magic Eraser or Chux Magic Eraser. It is actually meant for cleaning marks off the wall around the house but it works great for watercolour as well.
Merely rub the paint you want to remove with the corner of a slightly damp sponge. Never press hard when using these sponges, they are different to regular sponges so don't need any pressure applied (no elbow grease required).
Palettes are plentiful and which you choose depends on whether you want to travel with your paints or if you will be working from the studio or both.
Portable paint sets which include a paintbrush, paint pans and an area for mixing are all ingeniously fitted into a metal box which easily fits into a pocket.
If portability is not a problem then a large, flat white ceramic plate makes and excellent palette.
You also get ones that have separate mixing wells like this:
You will also need a few flat brushes of varying sizes for laying down large amounts of water quickly.
Inexpensive plastic palettes come in a myriad of configurations. They are fine for a beginner but will sooner or later become stained and make it difficult to judge the colour of your mix.
They also have the disadvantage of being very light and prone to being accidentally knocked off your work surface.
Activating the Paint
If using watercolour pans or pans created using tube paints, use a plastic pipette, eyedropper, spray bottle or empty syringe to transfer a few drops of water into the pans you plan to use at least 10 minutes before you begin painting. This will give the paint a chance to soften up and will be easier to pick up with the brush.
With tube paints you merely squeeze a small amount of paint out onto your palette and you are ready to paint.
Alternative to Pans
Sometimes with pans it’s difficult to get a larger size brush into them, because they are relatively small, (especially the half pans) and it’s easy to contaminate adjacent pans which could muddy up your colours. A solution is to create your own larger pans by squeezing paint from a tube into a small plastic container Let it settle then while still only slightly damp push your finger into the middle so as to create a slight depression. Mark the lid of the container with a permanent marker with the name of the paint and the make. These tiny containers are easily fixed to your palette with a tiny dot of blue tack when in use and removed once you’re finished with them.
If you need to mix up a large amount of one colour e.g. for the sky of a large painting, a small ceramic container is very useful.
The stackable kind is even better as you can stack another one on top to slow down water evaporation.
For painting in your studio something as simple as a large yoghurt container works great for your water.
When painting away from the studio a collapsible water bucket like you see above is ideal.
Alternatively, if you are really travelling light, the new water brushes hold a lot of water and don’t take up much space.
Ideally you need two but occasionally 3 water containers. The one used for the initial rinsing of your brush should be large as the more water it holds, the slower the water becomes dirty.
The second container is used to rinse the brush ensuring that the hairs are clean. Your rinse container can be smaller and the third container even smaller. This third container is your painting water and is especially useful for adding painting mediums.
Be very careful not to leave your brush standing in the rinse water as you will ruin the tip. Rather lay it flat after rinsing before you use it again.
Once you are done painting for the day, clean your brushes with soap. Pink soap and brush cleaning soap are both good but if you’re on a budget any mild household soap will do.
Masking Tape / Fluid
When you want to preserve the white of the paper you obviously have to keep it free of paint.
The easiest way of doing this is with masking fluid - a latex fluid which dries to a rubbery consistency and is impermeable to water.
Apply the fluid to all the parts of the paper which you need to keep white. To apply the masking fluid I first use a bar of hand soap and work up a lather using the brush I will use for applying the masking fluid.
This coating of soap protects the hairs of the brush. With the brush saturated in soap, dip it brush into the masking fluid and paint the fluid on.
If you are masking many areas, wash the brush every now and again. Re-saturate with soap before continuing to apply the masking fluid.
Once the masking fluid has been applied you can leave it to air dry, or you can speed up the drying process using a hair dryer.
When the painting is complete and dry, rub off the masking fluid using your finger or an eraser and you’re left with the white of the paper.
I will also often take a piece of masking tape folded over the length of my outstretched index finger with the sticky side outwards. You can then use the masking tape the rub off the masking fluid.
You can also use masking fluid on top of a colour already painted onto the paper to isolate it as long as the paint is completely dry. An example of this would be to mask off the red, amber and green on a traffic light before painting the black body of the light.
A clever innovation is masking fluid sold in a bottle with a very narrow screw off cap for drawing very fine lines. Just be sure to thoroughly clean the nozzle after use or it will clog.
There is of course nothing stopping you from decanting some bottled masking fluid into a similar applicator bottle. Add enough masking fluid for the job at hand. When you have completed the masking, put the remainder back into the bottle. Thoroughly clean the applicator bottle ready for next use.
Lines in the width of your choosing can be drawn using a ruling pen dipped in masking fluid
Before applying masking fluid to your paper, make sure the masking fluid is well mixed. Don’t however shake the bottle of masking fluid or you’ll create unwanted bubbles. Use a thin stirring stick instead.
Pebeo is one brand of masking fluid which has a blue tint to it. This is very useful as it’s easy to see once applied to your artwork.
Whatever the brand, don’t leave masking fluid on your painting longer than absolutely necessary and never apply to damp paper. If you do then you may pick up problems removing it again.
If you want to paint outdoors, a light field easel is a very useful piece of equipment. There are many to choose from. Weight and ease of adjustment are very important considerations when choosing an easel to use for painting away from the studio (plein air).
If you’ll be working at a table in the studio you can get by without an easel. Usually watercolour paper is tilted at a slight angle when painting to allow the paint to flow downwards and create the wonderful effects that it does. The angle you choose can be achieved by stacking books under the board you paint on.
Other Useful Supplies
Paper towels are very useful for adjusting the amount of water on your brush. A useful tool for wiping your brush is easily made at home by wrapping a toilet roll in a folded sheet of paper towel and placing it in a recycled plastic container.
The toilet roll absorbs the moisture very effectively and the kitchen towel pieces can be changed as they get too damp or dirty with paint.
Watercolour pencils. You will need to transfer your drawing to the paper before you start painting. Using a pencil to do this could result in unwanted pencil lines appearing in your final painting. Instead use a watercolour pencil in a colour that matches your painting. As you apply the paint, the watercolour pencil will dissolve leaving no traces behind.
A hairdryer is very useful aid to speed up the drying process. Just make sure you don’t hold it close enough to disturb the wet paint as you dry it.
Bits of sponge. Brushes are not the only way to get the paint onto the paper Small pieces of sea sponge or even synthetic sponges from which you have pinched out small holes are especially useful for painting leaves on trees etc. Simply dampen the sponge, dip in the paint, and apply to your paper in a dabbing motion to create leaves and similar textures. It’s best to practice on a small piece of scrap paper first to ensure you have the right amount of paint on your sponge to get the effect you want.
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