To make it easier for you to find my various how-to videos and other how-to information, I’ve collected the videos in this post, and added a “How-to” link to the top menu of my website where you can find how-to articles on topics such as caring for your watercolor brushes, presenting your watercolors without glass or frames, tips for sketching on location, some ideas for learning to “loosen up” and paint more expressively and other watermedia info.
Some watercolor exercises from my Watercolor Jumpstart and Watercolor Skill-Builder classes.
Having recently accepted an invitation to fill a last-minute gap in the show calendar at Hudson Hospital, I’m in the “final countdown” phase of prepping for a show. No matter how diligent and organized I am, I seem to always require a final frenzy of activity to bring everything together in the last 3-4 weeks before a show.
This time, because there are only about 6 weeks from the time I accepted the invitation to when I have to deliver the work, I’m simultaneously in the “start-up and exploration” phase (the few months of a new body of work). It’s a challenge to stay open to where the work is telling me it wants to go with a looming deadline!
For me, one way to keep from being overwhelmed—and to make sure the work hangs together well—is to select a limited collection of pigment combinations that I use throughout the series. Borrowing a term from fiber artists, I call these my “colorways” for the series.
Each color way includes what I think of as my “primary triad” for the colorway and possibly a fourth or (very rarely) a fifth color. The notion of “primary” really gets stretched here. For example, one colorway that I’m working with now consists of quinacridone deep gold as my “yellow”, phthalo turquoise as my “blue” and permanent violet dark as my “red”. Typically, there is enough overlap in the 3 or 4 colorways within a show that I’m using about 7-8 pigments for the entire series.
For me, the process of choosing these colors takes some experimentation—for most of the decisions I have to make about a painting, I just don’t know how I feel about it until I see it on the page! If you saw my earlier post on this series, you know there were a lot of duds in that first week!
Then I got smart and settled down to do some “swatching”. Actually playing with the pigments—wet-in-wet, premixed on the palette, dropping color into partially dry washes—seems to be an essential step for me. You know how I’m always advising you to “deal with one difficulty at a time”. Yeah. I have to give myself that advice, too.
For me, there’s no substitute for messing around with the actual pigments, but it also helps a lot to read about pigments and color theory.
While I’m immersed in show prep, I thought perhaps you’d enjoy checking out a few of the resources on pigments and color that I find myself returning to again and again.
(And, of course, the best resource of all—your brushes and paints! If you haven’t allowed yourself to just play with color for a while, why not haul out your paints and do a little color exploration of your own!)
Absolutely fascinating chronicle of the interaction between art movements, art personalities, commercial uses of color (especially dyestuffs), politics, color chemistry and culture. Hands-down my favorite book about color in art.
Practical Information and Learning Activities for Painters on Using Color Effectively
A great introduction to the most common way of discussing color combinations (complementary/split-complementary/monochrome/analogous). Quiller also markets a palette (and recommended colors for it) arranged in a color wheel (with special wells for primaries) to help students learn to mix and understand colors. If you find yourself struggling to mix your own greys or mute color with complements, this book (and perhaps the palette) can be very helpful.
Online and Interactive Color Tools (Just for Fun!)
Color theory: handprint.com This whole site is a cornucopia of information about color, pigments, color theory, color vision (and much more). The site’s author, Bruce McEvoy says, accurately “Here is the most comprehensive discussion for artists of color perception, color psychology, “color theory” and color mixing available online, and one of the most comprehensive available anywhere in any format.”
If you’re an iPad user, you can buy one of the classic texts on color theory, Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color made interactive as an iPad app. The entire text of the book is embedded in the app (paid version), and the app allows you to explore his color theory ideas by doing the various exercises and experiments on the iPad as you read the book. (There is a “free” version, but it’s really more of a sample version. The full version seems rather pricey for an app until you realize you’re actually buying a book with added interactivity.)
Test out how various Golden acrylic colors will mix without buying them. Since color is represented very differently on a computer monitor than the way actual paint behaves, this is a more sophisticated piece of software than you might realize at first.
Fun way to “try before you buy”, but also a way to explore the mixing of a lot more pigments than most of us would want to purchase just to practice with. Although there are some differences between the color lines for watercolor and acrylics, much of what you learn here will transfer to watercolors.
Want to find out how good you are at distinguishing different colors? Try this online color perception challenge.
The quality of the monitor you’re using and the lighting in the room can affect your score somewhat, so don’t be dismayed if you don’t score quite as high as you expect. Try again in a darker room or on a high-quality monitor. I’m betting most of you will score quite high on this challenge!
I don’t know about you, but simply telling her to sit down and shut up doesn’t work for me. Oh, I can get her to leave me alone. It just doesn’t lead to paintings I’m happy with. I need my inner critic.
We all need time to explore, experiment and follow the painting where it leads. But in the end, we do want to know “Is it any good?”
But, how do you know if your painting is any good? Given that just about anything you can imagine has been presented as “art” by somebody, somewhere, how can we hope to answer this question?
It seems that the initial default answer seems to be some variation of “It looks just like a photograph!” And, if you are starting out as a painter, and your primary focus is gaining some facility with color-mixing, brushwork, and so on, just trying to just reproduce what you see is a valuable exercise. But in a very short time, most new painters find this unsatisfying. “I want to loosen up,” has to be one of the most often expressed goals of painters everywhere.
We recognize (and admire) technical skill. We also recognize and value qualities like expressiveness, drama, playfulness, freshness, atmosphere, pithiness. But there’s no universal scheme for deciding how much weight these various qualities should have. And still, we look at the painting we just made, and want to know “Is it any good?”
Another way to answer this question is to compare your work to that of artists you admire. Or to look at which paintings are winning awards, and try to paint like that. This can be a useful exercise, too, but as Peter London points out in his excellent book No More Secondhand Art, even if you succeed in painting like Monet, you (and all of the rest of us) will have missed out on something far more important: painting the paintings only you can paint, sharing your unique vision and insight with the world.
So what to do? How can we decide if this painting is any good?
My answer is to judge each of my paintings against my own reasons for painting, and for painting this particular painting.
1. Ask (ahead of time) “Why am I painting this?”
Push yourself to be specific. “It’s just so beautiful!” isn’t enough of an answer. What, specifically, about this subject grabbed your attention? Narrow it down to ONE main idea! (If you can’t narrow it down, that’s great! It means you have the basis for more than one painting.) It could be “that fabulous orange glow in the sunset” or “the feeling of peace I get from being out on the lake in my canoe at dawn” or “the graceful curve of that dancer’s arms” or “the memory of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother”.
Another way to ask this question is “What effect would I like this painting to have on a viewer?” Sometimes it helps to even imagine where this painting might be displayed.
2. Ask, “What, for me, communicates that idea or feeling visually?”
Bonus! You know how everyone talks about how important it is to edit and simplify your scene or subject to have a strong painting? Now you have a basis for making those decisions. No more putting stuff in because “it was really like that!”
After all, when you tell a friend about the gorgeous orange glow in last night’s sunset, you might mention how it was reflected in the lake (since that enhances your story), but you don’t describe the cooler you were using as a footrest, or the fact that you noticed how you really need to replace those ratty sandals. Maybe you throw out the feet and the cooler and let the foreground begin with the reeds at the edge of the water. (Even if they happen to be in the reference photo you quickly snapped with your phone.)
3. Be prepared to adjust and refine as you work.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever started a painting without doing all your sketches and value plans and color studies beforehand. If your hand is down right now, well . . . Liar, liar, pants on fire! I do it All.The.Time.
I’m always discovering part of the way through a painting that there is some problem I should have figured out beforehand. Well, okay, you can use that as an opportunity to call yourself stupid, or why you never learn! but I’m not keen on beating myself up, so I decided, “That’s not a bug; that’s a feature!” I do rough drafts! Writers do it. Why shouldn’t we?
Instead of slogging ahead on a painting that I know isn’t going to make me happy, I pause. Now is the time to solve that problem. Maybe I can make an adjustment to get back on track. Maybe it will be more successful to begin again on a fresh sheet of paper, with the problem now solved.
(Don’t forget to notice and keep the stuff that’s working!)
Maybe (oh, happy day!) something better than I could have planned has happened, and it’s time to set aside my original intentions and capitalize on the “happy accident”.
4. Evaluate your painting according to your intentions for it. (But accept that you will fall short of the ideal.)
If you’ve been clear and specific about your reasons for painting this painting, and the effect you want it to have on the viewer, you now have a way to answer “Is it any good?”
Does it capture what you wanted to capture? Does it express the feeling you wanted to convey? Will it have the desired effect on a viewer?
One caveat: It’s common for everyone else to think the painting is more successful than you do. They’re not just being nice. And you’re not just being too hard on yourself.
Creating a painting that makes your heart sing is a LOT harder than creating a painting that makes someone else’s heart sing. You know the extraordinary, elusive, powerful emotion that motivated you to paint it. And that’s what you’re comparing it to. Everyone else is experiencing the painting for itself, from their own perspective. For all you know, it may evoke something even more poignant and powerful for someone else. (Or it might not speak to them at all. That’s going to happen, too.)
Don’t insist that a painting has to perfectly capture the feeling that motivated you to paint it in order to be a good painting. That’s not likely to happen. (But, if you’re lucky, it might sometimes capture something even better, even more powerful. It might teach you something new!)
Art is hard! Saying something meaningful, powerful or original is hard! We only succeed in bits and pieces, here and there, now and then. But it’s important work.
So take your inner critic by the hand and tackle it again together.
Looking for a way to motivate yourself to get out and sketch more this summer? Want an low-stakes, easy way to get over being nervous about showing your work in public?
The Wet Paint Postcard Show is for you!
It’s so simple! Just create a postcard and drop it in the mail to Wet Paint, 1684 Grand Ave, St. Paul, MN 55015. Wet Paint requests that the work be original images only, and asks that words and images be suitable for viewers of all ages. And you have to mail them! Don’t try to drop the off at the store; it spoils the fun of mail art! Send as many as you like. There is plenty of window space!
Postcards postmarked by August 21 will be included in the show and their Grand Re-Opening on August 29.
This lovely mini-show hangs in their windows all summer long, for the pleasure of patrons and passers-by. There is already art by artists of all ages and experience levels—you can do this, too, no matter who you are! (And be sure to check it out when you go to Wet Paint for supplies.)
Wet Paint asks that you please sign your card and include a way to reach you, so you can be notified about of the Postcard Show “Opening” as part of the Grand Re-Opening on August 29.
First of all, a big THANK YOU to the 17 (!) of you who came out for the June 26 demo on presenting your watercolors without glass! (As usual, I got wrapped up in the demo and totally forgot to take pictures, dang it!)
I’ve been presenting my watercolors without glass for quite some time, but I’m new to teaching it, so I learned a LOT from all the excellent questions.
So, for those who couldn’t make it, and for reference, here’s everything you need to know about presenting your watercolors without glass.
In the video, I demonstrate one way to do this, using the method (and products) I use myself. Below the video is a description of other options, info about the pros and cons of other methods and products, and some info on where to find the products you need.
A mat, frame and glass provide works on paper with some sort of rigid support, and protection from damage from water, airborne contaminants, and light. To present a watercolor (or other work on paper) without a glass and frame, we need some other way to provide this support and protection.
To present your watercolor with glass, mat or frame, you’ll need to:
choose the type of support you will use
apply a fixative to your watercolor to prevent colors from smearing when isolation coat or topcoat is applied
apply a topcoat (which may serve as the isolation coat, if you add a removable varnish)
mount (using acrylic medium as glue) your work on your chosen support
apply an additional topcoat (isolation coat) to seal the work and the support
(optional) apply a removable varnish
Options for Supports
Pretty much anything that will provide the work with support and a way to attach hanging hardware to the back will work. I glue my work to Ampersand Gessobord, but you could glue your watercolor to primed (and painted, if you like) canvas, Gatorboard, foamcore, hardwood painting panels, hardboard, MDF.
You can tear your paper so that it is somewhat smaller than the support and mount it so that the board or canvas extends beyond the paper. (Recommended method for mounting on canvas, because it’s tough to trim the edges cleanly to the exactly match the edge of a wrapped canvas.)
Or, you can do as I do and make your paper slightly larger than the support so that you can trim the edges flush with the edge of the support once the painting is glued down (works best with gessobord and other hard boards). (You’ll see this in the video.)
Or, you can make your paper slightly larger than the support to give the effect of the paper simply floating above the wall (mounting on half-inch Gatorboard, for example). If you do this, the edges of the paper will be unprotected from getting bent or caught on things, so I’d only do this if the hanging location is pretty protected. You could also do this within a deep frame, however, so that the paper appears to float. Just like a normal float-mount, but without requiring glass. This provides the least protection, but you might still consider it worthwhile if you like the look.
Preparing your Support
Gessobord or Canvas
Ampersand Gessoboard, as it’s name implies, already comes with a coating of gesso on the front surface. Many pre-stretched canvases also come already gessoed. These supports need no preparation, unless you wish to paint the surface or edges a coordinating or contrasting color.
Foamboard or Gatorboard
If you are going to use foamboard, I suggest you check out one of these sources, where you can buy all sorts of foamboard (including acid-free, self-adhesive, and Gatorboard), in 10- or 20-packs cut to your preferred size:
Regular foamboard tends to warp as the glue dries. For small paintings (e.g. 8×10″), it’s usually not enough to matter. For larger paintings, you can try applying a coat of acrylic medium to BOTH sides, which seems to even things out pretty well. Or, better yet, use heavier Gatorboard for larger work. (It’s not as expensive as you might think, ordered from the two above sources in bulk.)
Hardboard, plywood, MDF
For other supports, such as hardboard, plywood or MDF, you will want to consider that these materials are not acid-free. Acrylic medium (which we will use as our glue), will act as a barrier to protect the paper, provided there is enough medium to make sure the paper is not in contact with the wood. To be on the safe side, I’d pre-coat the support with a couple of coats of acrylic medium to seal it before gluing.
You’ll want to spray several thin coats, instead of saturating the paper. You don’t want puddles, and you don’t want to get your watercolor so wet that the color starts moving! A bit of practice with this is a good idea. Make a sample sheet with some fairly heavy applications of paint and get the hang of spraying with those, instead of a painting you really care about!
I usually apply 2-4 thin layers of fixative. At this point, I can judge by appearance if I have a good seal. You might spray thinner or thicker layers than I do. Again, test it out on a sample sheet first!
If you are working on YUPO or Terraskin, or some other extremely slick surface where the slightest moisture might move the paint, you will probably want to skip down to the part about Golden MSA spray varnish.
SpectraFix (lots of potential, but not quite ready for prime-time around here)
If you were at the demo, you heard me talk about SpectraFix. I was recently at a workshop taught by Bob Burridge where I heard about this great (I thought) solution. This fixative is casein (milk protein) and grain alcohol in a pump spray bottle. No hazardous materials (you could drink it, although I can think of tastier adult beverages).No worries about spraying indoors—a big plus for lots of us in the winter!
Unfortunately, when we tried it at the demo, there was still some smearing of heavier applications of pigment. I’ve been doing more testing, and I’m pretty sure the problem is humidity. I think if the humidity is about about 65%, SpectraFix may either not dry completely or take a very looooong time to dry enough to stand up to brushing a water-based coat on top. Might be why it works fine in California and not so great here (in summer, at least).
I’m going to rescind my recommendation of Spectra Fix for now and keep testing. If I figure out a way to get reliable results, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m going to recommend sticking with some sort of acrylic spray.
Krylon clear acrylic spray
Sold as a fixative and relatively easy to find in art supply stores and some hardware store paint departments. Aerosol can, so you have to spray outside. The gloss finish is the easiest to find, and you can use it even if you want to end up with a matte finish, because you’ll be applying a topcoat and/or varnish over it. The final layer or two determines the gloss, so your topcoat or varnish is the product that will determine whether you have a gloss, satin or matte finish.
Acrylic airbrush medium applied with a mouth atomizer, airbrush, Preval sprayer or misting spray bottle
This is what I use in my airbrush, and I didn’t cover it in the demo because most of you probably don’t have an airbrush, but — duh! — for many years before I bought my airbrush that I just used a mouth atomizer. I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention that option!
If you wind up hyperventilating when you use a mouth atomizer, the paint department at Home Depot (and probably other places) sells a sprayer that you can fill with your own paint. The Preval sprayer is probably the easiest method, but you do have to buy refill cans of propellent.
Another alternative is to put the airbrush medium in a pump spray bottle that makes a fine mist (like the one the Spectra Fix comes in, or the type used for hair spray). If you choose to do this, I would suggest you empty the airbrush medium out of the spray bottle after each use, thoroughly rinse everything with water, and spray a good amount of water through the nozzle to make sure the acrylic doesn’t dry in the nozzle and clog it. (You don’t have to do this with a Preval sprayer.)
Golden MSA Varnish (aerosol)
Golden makes a removable acrylic varnish that is mineral-spirits-based and comes in an aerosol can. I’m not a fan of either mineral spirits or aerosol cans BUT if you have a really touchy piece that can’t tolerate even a light mist of water, this is the way to go.
Once you have several coats of this applied, you should be able to proceed carefully with the remaining steps. However, abrasion can remove both watercolor and acrylic from YUPO, even if there is no moisture involved, so you’ll need to be gentle during the mounting step. Again, if you’re working on something besides regular watercolor paper, PLEASE do some testing before you try things out on a painting you care about!
Top Coat (a.k.a Isolation Coat)
After you have fixed your watercolor, you can apply a protective acrylic coat with a brush. This would be called a topcoat if it’s the final coat. If a removable varnish is applied over it, then this coat is usually called the “isolation coat” because it isolates the painting from the varnish to protect the painting if and when the varnish layer is removed.
Just to make things confusing, a lot of people call this (nonremovable) topcoat layer, “varnish”. However, it makes more sense to use the term “varnish” for a layer that can be removed and re-applied if it gets dirty or contaminated (that’s the historical rationale for varnishing paintings). But, be aware that many acrylic “varnishes” are really just topcoats. (If it’s removable, it will say so, either in the name or in the instructions! Otherwise, assume it’s not.)
I usually apply 2-3 thin layers. This gives me better control, and a nicer finish. Plus, if I miss a spot in one layer, hopefully I’ll catch it in the next.
Acrylic Soft Gel Medium, thinned with water (or liquid acrylic medium, with care)
One option for your topcoat is to use Acrylic Soft Gel Medium, thinned with water so that it brushes out nicely. I can’t give you exact proportions, because different brands have different consistencies of gel. You’ll have to experiment a bit and see what you like.
By the way, I used to wonder why you would thin down a gel medium, instead of just using a liquid medium. The reason thinned gel is recommended is that the liquid mediums have more surfactant, to keep things from settling out and give them a longer shelf life. But “surfactant” is basically soap . . . so more chance of foaming or bubbles. Y
You CAN use liquid medium, though, if you are careful applying it. If you do, it’s recommended that you wipe it down with a damp cloth after it dries and before applying the next coat. This removes most of the surfactant, which can also sometimes cause clouding.
Again, gloss, satin, matte—whatever finish you like is fine. They all protect equally well. Some people feel that you should use gloss everything up to the final coat or two, so there is no loss of clarity from multiple coats. I can’t tell the difference, so I don’t worry about it.
Minwax Polycrylic (Water-Based NOT Oil-Based Polyurethane!)
Another great tip from Bob Burridge. Polycrylic is cheaper than the “art store” acrylic varnishes, self-levels beautifully, and comes in gloss and satin finishes. According to Burridge, it has UV protection, too. And, if it’s good enough for somebody who’s been selling his paintings all over the world, winning awards and judging the national and international shows, it’s good enough for me. 🙂
Read the label carefully when you buy it, though. It’s sold in hardware stores as a floor and furniture finish. The water-based and oil-based varieties are usually sold side-by-side, but they are NOT THE SAME! The water-based version is an acrylic resin, the oil-based version is polyurethane, which is a different plastic and not what you want (it’s subject to yellowing over time, for one thing).
Acrylic (Non-Removable) “Varnish”
You can also use one of the products sold in art supply stores as Acrylic Varnish for your topcoat or isolation coat. The only downside to this is that it’s probably the most expensive option.
Mounting the Work
Once you’ve applied a couple of layers of topcoat, the painting is protected well enough to move on to mounting it. The “glue” to use for mounting is Acrylic Gel Medium. It sometimes comes in different consistencies—soft, regular, hard—but brands vary. Softer is easier to work with, so if a brand offers the option, go with soft. But any gel medium will work, and you can thin it to a good working consistency, You do not want it as runny as Elmer’s glue, but you do want it thin enough that you can smooth everything down without globs and blobs showing on the front of the work.
DO NOT use Elmer’s or Yes! Paste. They don’t give a strong and durable bond (especially for larger pieces).
I have heard people say Modge Podge works for them, but I’ve never tried it.
Final Topcoat (Isolation Coat) Layer
I apply my final top coat or isolation coat after mounting the work. I apply it to the work AND to the support (and sides of the support, if they will be exposed) all in one coat. This gives me a uniform finish, and little more insurance to seal the edge of the work to the support.
You can apply additional coats to achieve the look you want. I usually DO apply several more coats to the sides of the cradled boards to give the wood a nice finish. (I also usually apply one coat to the sides of my panels as soon as I take them out of the package, so they won’t be stained if they accidentally encounter some stray paint in my studio.)
Removable Varnish (Optional)
I apply the varnish layers AFTER mounting, in case I scuff up the surface in places during the mounting process, and to help seal everything further. I apply the final topcoat or varnish to the painting AND the sides of the panels. I usually apply 2 coats to the painting (again just to make sure I don’t skip any spots). I apply as many coats on the sides as I feel I need to get a nice finish on the wood.
Golden water-based UVLS Vanish
Comes in gloss or satin, and you can mix to get the degree of gloss you desire. If you use Golden varnish, you can later remove it with household ammonia (which will not dissolve the isolation coat) and re-varnish. The varnish should be thinned with water before applying! If you try to use it straight out of the jar, it will be too thick and you’ll get brush marks. Follow the proportions given on the bottle for thinning.
You’ll see that there are also proportions thinning for a spray application, and you might think that would give you a nicer finish. I have an airbrush, so I used to spray the varnish layers. What a waste of time! If you thin to the correct proportions for brushing (and don’t fiddle excessively), this stuff self-levels beautifully. There’s no need to spray it on.
Other Removable Acrylic Varnishes
Several other manufacturers make removable acrylic varnishes (e.g. Holbein). However, I have not been able to find any besides Golden’s that are water-based. Most of the others don’t say what the base is in any obvious way on the label, but a little digging reveals that it is mineral spirits. And, instead of ammonia, you use mineral spirits to remove these varnishes, if need be. I’d rather not have mineral spirits in my studio, so I have not explored these products.
(By the say, Golden also makes a mineral-spirits-based removable varnish, called MSA varnish, which I mentioned as a possible fixative. It can be purchased in an aerosol can. If you want to apply your final varnish as a spray and don’t mind going outside, this is an easy, though pricey, option.)
WHAT DO THESE PRODUCTS LOOK LIKE?
Just so you know for sure what you’re looking for, here are some links to the products I’ve mentioned. I’m not recommending any particular source; you can find them lots of places, but you’ll know what they look like:
mouth atomizer (small bore, for solvent-based fixatives; you can make it work, but it will make YOU work!): http://www.dickblick.com/products/art-alternatives-mouth-atomizer/ (Almost every time, people look at the price difference and order this one. Then after they hyperventilate for a while, they order the Pat Dews one instead. It really IS worth the price difference, in my opinion.)
I highly recommend you do a little practicing before you try this out on a painting you love!
Please let me know how it goes for you!
And PLEEEEASE post comments, helpful hints, and questions in the comment section! I know this is a lot to take in, so help make this a better resource for everyone by asking questions or sharing your tips.
Many of you have asked about the little collapsible cup I carry with my sketching stuff. I finally found it on Amazon, so now you can have one, too!
The exact one I have seems to only come in a set with a bowl, but there are quite a few other silicone rubber collapsible camping cups listed down in the related products lists at the bottom of the page.
(I swiped the photo from Amazon’s website, so obviously I don’t have the copyright, but I’m guessing they’ll be happy for me to use it to promote their product.)