A natural sponge is a marvellous, and perhaps essential, addition to a basic set of watercolour painting materials. It is ideal for creating mottled or speckled textures, for the patina of granite rocks, fine foliage, or multiple flowerheads. To use, moisten the sponge in water to soften it and squeeze the water out fully. Mix up plenty of creamy paint on the palette (and I mean plenty because the sponge is greedy), and then dab the sponge in the paint and onto the paper, turning the sponge as you go to avoid any repetitive patterning. Colours can be applied in several layers both wet-into-wet or wet-on-dry. But even more useful is that the soft rubbing motion of a natural sponge can be used to lift and remove patches of paint more quickly and effectively than with a brush. On thick paper you can actually rub quite vigorously, I have lifted staining colours to quite an extent by allowing the paper to dry thoroughly in between repeated rubbing, and as soon surface of the paper shows signs of scuffing, I stop! Use a stencil to protect areas you do not wish to erase.
When I am travelling, if the light is flat or overcast and I cannot see anything that really excites me to paint, I go in search of people on the street, figures in motion, relaxing on park benches, standing in queues. The shapes people make are always interesting and can be simplified into a few pertinent brushstrokes. Look for poses with gaps made between arms and torso or head, the triangular spaces between striding legs, or the classic ‘taking-picture’ poses and the ‘texting’ pose. Crowds are good too as the gaps between individuals change as they move apart and together. Wet streets are great for reflections and umbrellas and shopping bags are excellent accessories for the artist to paint!
I am often asked what actual kit I use to make my watercolours out and about: I carry one bag, over my left shoulder: a flap top-opening bag, so my other hand is free to get the paints out in seconds. Inside is a palette of pans and some extra tubes (5ml), several brushes in a thin case, sketchblocks/books x 2 (so I can keep painting while previous watercolour is drying), 2 x 500ml plastic water bottles, (one to drink, one for painting), 3 small transparent plastic pots for water and cotton rag or kitchen towel.
Also in the bag are scarf, pencils, blade, eraser, often a camera, and always a plastic bag (to sit on if wet, or to put over the bag if raining). I carry no stool, no easel. My bag can be ready in seconds (I have used the same bag for over 30 years, and repair it often!).
My check, as I leave home/hotel/tent/car, is: "Do I have: Paint, Brushes, Paper, Water, Pots, Rag. " If I say yes, I can go! When I see something to paint I can set up really quickly so I catch the exact light that has inspired me. There always seems to be somewhere to sit or lean, and with so few materials I can even stand and balance one water pot on my palette. I take up little space! This is why watercolour is such an ideal painting medium, it is SO practical.
This month's Tip is an answer to a question that I am often asked: how often do you use masking fluid? Do watercolour artists use less of it as they improve? My response: I have indeed found I use masking less now than in earlier paintings, but is is more about the mark it makes—if the negative space that the masking fluid preserves is right for the painting then I use masking. A good example would be sea spray, or water splashes around an elephant's foot. If it makes the laying of a wash more whole, confident and harmonious then I would probably also use it. But, if it is a 'lazy' way to maintain a highlight that could be left out by a brush, or reintroduced with lifting, scratching or white paint, then I would not, because the mark it makes is not as attractive as that left by the edge of a brushmark. So it is really about appearance. Negative shapes can be more vital to a watercolour than positive brushmarks.
With the book-signing event of Learn To Paint People Quickly underway, I thought a tip on Signatures would be appropriate. I usually don’t sign my paintings until the time of exhibition, sale, or before they go into a frame or under glass. This is because it is only at that point that I know they are definitely finished. I am reluctant to sign certain watercolours because I feel that adding the signature upsets the delicate balance of the composition and, if a painting holds some magic, I am concerned the signature might disturb it. Hence I sign my name with colours from the painting and choose a spot, either bottom left or bottom right, where I think the least intrusion will occur, so not necessarily where the most space is, because it is often the space I am eager to preserve. I sign with a brush, boldly, swiftly, not too small, not too neat. On smaller paintings I use a rigger to keep the signature as fine-lined and non-blobby as possible.
Signatures do say something about the artist’s character.
Some painters sign their paintings with a flourish, as soon as they are done, some use big signatures, bright colours (Cadmium Red being a particularly good colour over dark tones), others write in tiny, hesitant writing, or hide their signature beneath a shadow, still others use pictograms or sign in quirky places within the composition, some sign only on the back. It does not actually matter how and where you sign a painting, all ways are fine, so long as the addition of the signature does not harm the image. As a guide I would suggest a not-too-hesitant-not-too-showy signature works best, it tells the viewer you believe in the strength of the painting, rather than your personality.
Are you having trouble with drawing and composition? If so, look at the gaps between things, rather than the items themselves. The painter’s world is flat - on paper and canvas, spaces of air are no different to solid material things.
Even within an item, it is spacing that counts.
If you are interested in painting faces, for example, take a look at my current series on portraiture in The Artist magazine: this month I concentrate on the features within the face, and here again it is the positioning of the eyes, nose and mouth in relation to each other that counts, just as much as getting each feature shaped right.
Do you have times when the paint on your watercolour palette looks more lively than the watercolour marks on your painting? If so, be a little less controlling and introduce blobs of paint onto the paper by more random means. Give the paint some freedom and it can make unexpected and exciting marks.:
For example, load the brush and flick back the brushhead to splatter small blobs onto the paper to suggest foliage, grasses or mud. Flick an old toothbrush loaded with paint to make a soft spray of small blobs to suggest gravel texture or spray; flick a loaded brush in a horizontal motion along the bottom of a beach scene to suggest footprints in the sand, or drop watercolour onto the paper from directly above to make colourful splots.
Time, our most valuable, irreplaceable asset, is highlighted as we enter another new year. Painting takes time because creation takes time.
From human scientific discovery, we can assume that our Creator (I believe in God) took an abundance of time to evolve the millions of different species of plants and animals, used even more time to shape small blue, red and other coloured planets, and still more time to swirl and gather countless particles in an infinite arena, set in motion immeasurable universes, minute and massive chemical reactions, etc, etc.
In our small way as watercolour painters we get the chance to be mini-creators, to make something out of ‘nothing’, turning a blank sheet into a new creation using a zillion colourful particles swirled around with water, harnessing the properties of light. We set them in motion to make some sort of order on the paper allowing for random exchanges, which can go either way. We know to some extent, (by the laws of physics and chemistry, and our own experience), what should happen, but we are never quite sure of the outcome. Isn't this why the adrenalin pumps? Because chance is integral to watercolour painting, (as it is to evolution and planet building). With time we get more adept at controlling the materials, putting right what goes wrong in a painting, at correcting mistakes - even using the mistakes - and realising what counts, but it takes time to gain that experience (some quote the 10,000 hour rule).
All of the time spent painting is worthwhile for progress, if you are enjoying the time, how can it be wasted? Plants do not stop sending out seeds because some never germinate, they just keep on sending them out and some bear fruit! So this year, let your motto be Nike's, "Just do it": keep on painting no matter what!
Don’t be afraid of the Dark! Although watercolours are generally built up from light to dark this does not mean you cannot go straight in with your darks. If you want delicious translucent, luminous bright, deep or dark areas in a watercolour it pays to be bold with the initial applications. To err on caution and increase the depth of colour with tentative incremental layers is usually a recipe for dullness and may not benefit the watercolour. Maximum translucency is found in the first layers brushed over the white paper, so these washes are therefore the freshest and most vibrant. And if a bold wash does come out too rich, or dry too dark, the pigment can be lifted off with the brush because it is effectively in a similar state to concentrated pigment in the palette - the gum Arabic can be dissolved with very little water on the brush to release and shift the pigment particles one by one or en masse!
In October I tutored a painting holiday in the South Luangwa in Zambia. We had plenty of space in the game viewing vehicles and the painters followed my lead in painting the wildlife and landscapes from the vehicles, even painting while we were bumping along! The ‘less is more’ principle of watercolour became very apparent in this set-up: 3 small pots of water nestled within a low height container could survive rattling around on the bumpy roads, a palette of pans and 1,2 or 3 brushes max, was enough to handle, 3 colours in each painting were enough to manage and made the painting more straightforward. ‘Painting on the hoof’ is very good practice for becoming more ‘efficient’ in watercolour. If you are becoming studio-bound or slow to take your paints out in ‘the real world’, deliberately break the habit. Take a minimum of materials with you, into the lounge, the garden, the cafe; out in a park, to the mall or the promenade. Keep the subject simple, just paint skies and clouds, or quick figures, bird shapes and colours, the tonal recession of distant hills, or the shapes of trees and the gaps and spaces underneath them, and amaze yourself with what you can do in less than 20 minutes in watercolour (especially if it’s getting cold!). The bliss you will experience will last much longer. Go on have a go!