Tips

Watercolour welcomes the bold.

By bold I mean a confident approach to brushstroke, colour and tone. Trust the medium to deliver the freshness inherent within it by using fewer brushstrokes, fewer colours, fewer layers and a more immediate delivery of tonal depth. Taking the brush back and forth upsets and wearies the pigment particles, too many pigments tend to darkness, excessive layers compromise translucency, dark tones built up through layers are less vibrant than deep transparent single layered darks.

So be confident, be deliberate, try to get the appearance and effect intended with bold applications rather than hesitant increments. A watercolour that takes one hour may be fresher than if you take two, but it is not speed that is the key, it is the enthusiasm, efficiency and economy of delivery and application that contribute to the freshness of watercolour.

The Temperature of colours seems to be quite a confusing area, so here is more clarification. Red is warm and blue is cool but within each hue (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, grey) there are many different versions, and these individual colours have a red or blue bias, ie they veer towards red or blue. This ‘veering towards’ warmth or coolness is what constitutes the temperature of the colour. Hence Alizarin Crimson is classified as a cool red because it is a red that veers towards violet, and violet is going in the direction of blue. In relation to blues and greens Alizarin Crimson remains a warm colour but in relation to other reds it is a cool red.

A good way to see temperature bias is to paint swatches of all your yellows (then reds, then blues and so on) and compare their warmth or coolness alongside each other.

Temperature of Colour:

Aspiring painters usually understand which colours are warm and which cool, but have less understanding of why temperature bias is so useful in practice.

Within the hues, individual colours veer towards red (warm) and blue (cool), so, for example, Permanent Rose, is a cool red and Ultramarine Blue a warm blue. Knowing the temperature of a colour enables the artist to mix colours extremely efficiently. The two colours above would mix to make a bright violet because both are already veering in that direction.

Everyone knows blue and yellow make green, but if you mixed Ultramarine Blue with Indian Yellow you would get a very dull green because both are warm colours, veering towards red, and red, being the opposite of green, dulls the mix.

A bright green is reached by mixing a cool yellow, eg Aureolin, with a cool blue, eg Prussian, because each colour already leans towards green.

It is easier to make vibrant watercolours on pristine paper. That sounds obvious, but often I see painters touching the surface of the white paper with their fingers or the palm of their hand, or rubbing out pencil marks broadly and vigorously. Fingers transfer grease onto the paper and erasers scuff the specially prepared surface. Anything that compromises the appearance of watercolour, however minimally, is not in your best interest. Rub off only the pencil line, avoid the paper either side. I have even seen people stacking their palettes and brushes on top of their white paper, Noooo, keep it covered until the moment you start drawing or adding paint, anything else is self-sabotage!

To understand how the transparency of watercolour works on paper it helps to think of the minute particles of pigment like the millions of pixels on a screen. Watercolour pigments, which are bound in gum Arabic, do not dissolve in the water, the micro-particles of pigment are held in suspension and floated across the paper in the solution of gum Arabic and water. When the water evaporates the gum Arabic dries and sets the tiny particles in place. Light shining on the white paper reflects back through the transparent particles, and may be refracted, and bounces back from the white paper spaces left between the opaque particles. Now you can see why it is so important not to block out the light with too many layers of paint or to push the pigment around on the paper into clumps. Keep your pigment happy and it will reward you with the luminosity for which watercolour is famed.

Fear of failure sometimes prevents us from experimenting and taking risks in watercolour. We start a painting with such hope and excitement and too often end with an awful feeling of disappointment when it goes wrong. But is this failure? What have you actually lost? The brushes are still there; the amount of pigment squeezed probably barely indented the tubes; the only thing ‘lost’ is the lovely clean piece of paper (even this can be recycled by over-painting with pastel or priming for oils). Is the time wasted? Usually we learn more from the paintings that go wrong than from the paintings that go right. So if nothing is actually lost why fear ‘failure’. Failure is a necessary part of the creative process. 

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

Richard Branson: “To increase your success rate, increase your failure rate”

Pushkin: “We can try, and fail, but we shouldn’t fail to try.”

Tiger Woods: “I am my own worst critic, but I never undermine my own confidence.”

Exodus: "Do not linger, move on"

Knowing the properties of the pigments used to make your watercolours makes it possible to guess which colours are opaque and which transparent. If the micro-particles of coloured pigment are extracted from metals, eg Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, or Cobalt Blue, you can guess that the minute pigment particles would be fairly dense and therefore likely to be somewhat opaque, whereas those extracted from carbon (eg Permanent Rose and Permanent Sap Green or the polysyllable names like Quinachridone Red and Indanthrene Blue), can be rightly guessed to be transparent since carbon is a lightweight organic material. Likewise, in diffusion, the metal particles are heavier and spread out less rapidly than the lighterweight carbon particles.

The pencil sketch in a watercolour should act as a guide for the brush, telling it where it can and cannot go, it tells you that something different is happening either side of the line because this is where you have observed a change of tone. When you come to paint, if you wish to create the illusion of three dimensions on the two dimensional surface of the painting, ensure the colours either side of the line exhibit a change of tone.
I took a small group of painters into the Masai Mara for The Artist Magazine and showed the guests how to paint the wild animals directly with watercolour without drawing first, explaining that it was actually ‘easier ‘. But it took courage for the painters to lay aside the comfort of the easily controllable pencil and go straight in with the brush, those that took the plunge were surprised that it was much quicker and much more possible than they had expected, that the brush could paint area and area could describe the animal more fully than line - the results were delightful. Life isn’t meant to be easy, painting isn’t easy, watercolour isn’t easy. But it is possible, and made so by the materials expertly and specifically designed for the purpose.

Good composition is crucial to the success of painting, but if you are painting outside, planning and drawing for too long can delay catching the very light that attracts you to a subject. You can go straight in with pale washes to establish the composition, especially if short on time, or if a drawing is required to position items, make it a guide for the brush, to tell it where it can and cannot go. You can always draw more detail into a watercolour as you go along, don’t waste precious time at the start on detail that may quickly be covered up, especially in the shadows. If you begin from the middle of the paper or with the thing that most interests you, it may not matter if the rest is unfinished when you have to stop. 

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