Getting Started in Watercolor
Interview with Sue Miller
Getting Started in WatercolorBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
I had cause to whip up a palette for plein air painting recently, and I realized it's been years since I went over the very, very basics, and maybe some people could use a refresher.
It can be overwhelming to look at all the options available for you, especially for a medium as old as watercolor. Thankfully, you don't need very much to get started, but it's helpful to know what you need initially and what can wait for later. That's what we'll go through today.
Some people would argue with me, but brushes are one area where not only do you not need very many, but you don't need to spring for super-expensive ones right away. Now, cheap kiddie brushes aren't going to do you any good, but the store-brand ones at any good art store should be fine to get you started. Once you learn what you like and don't like, you can spring for the better versions if you need them.
I probably do ninety-percent of my watercolor painting with these five brushes. I've had my 3/4 inch chisel flat for about a decade now. The brand name wore off long ago, but it's still kicking. My largest round is a number 8 Grumbacher sable; I have a few smaller ones as well, but I rarely use them. My DaVinci Cosmotop spins are my work horses, and I'll probably have to replace them soon. I've gotten five solid years out of them, though, so they've paid themselves off. My 3 and 5 rounds are here. They are a synthetic brush and fairly economical. Note the difference between the natural hair round and the synthetic one. The smaller detail brush is a Curry's brand 1. I tend to pummel my detail brushes, so I need something a little stiffer than the really expensive brands tend to be. I've also had good success with Escoda brushes of all sizes, but those are a little higher-end.
This selection of brushes works well for my personal needs. I don't work very large and don't use many large, flat washes, so I can make do without an enormous flat brush. If you like to work large, say 18 by 24 or bigger, it might do to invest in a 1 1/2 inch flat. I also use a lot of detail work, hence the synthetic rounds. If you like working with big, messy washes, then you might need more natural hair brushes. It pays to determine what your needs are.
Different mediums have different support needs. Acrylic, for instance, can be used quite effectively on almost anything.
Watercolor, unfortunately, is not one of those mediums. You absolutely cannot skimp on your support. Cheap paper will make you hate life. If you splurge on anything, splurge on paper.
The most common finishes are hot press (very smooth), rough press (very rough) and cold press (intermediate). The most common weights are 90lb (very thin), 300lb (very heavy), and 140lb (intermediate). 140lb, cold-press is the most versatile and forgiving. I highly recommend starting with that.
Not that you have to stick with paper. There are many options available. I like using cold-press illustration board. Hot press is another option, though it give you a completely different finished look. Hot press tends to preserve your brushstrokes much more. Ampersand makes a product called Aquaboard that is a joy to work with. Several companies now make a watercolor board that is basically a piece of high-quality watercolor paper bonded to a piece of board. I've only just started using them but I've enjoyed them so far. There is also watercolor canvas, if you really enjoy that texture.
You will also need something to brace your support. Foam core works fine. You can use wood if you find you need something sturdier, but make sure it hasn't been finished with anything that might compromise the archival qualities of your paper!
Ah, paint. This might get long-winded.
Now you have two initial options: artist-quality and student (or sometimes economical) quality.
Now, if you can, you should opt for the artist quality. If you must buy the low-quality stuff, know what you getting into.
Student-quality paint sometimes uses the same pigments as the higher quality paint, but in lower concentrations; there is more binder compared to pigment. Sometimes a student-quality paint will use synthetic versions of what would be natural pigments in a high-quality paint.
What this means is that a lower quality paint won't behave like a higher quality paint. Inherent qualities of the paint are lessened or absent entirely. Granulation, transparency, staining strength, and even just the strength of the color can be effected.
Also to keep in mind is that student-quality paints are not archival. That means the color is more likely to fade with time. While that doesn't make a difference when you're puttering around in your studio, you shouldn't in good conscience sell anything made with non-archival supplies.
Then you have to chose between pans and tubes. Just chose tubes. Pans are less versatile. No reason to bother with them. Carry on.
So. That's over with. Now you only have about a thousand different colors to choose from.
I do swatches like this of all my colors (I have something like seventy tubes of watercolor paint now). The pencil squiggly pencil line (you can also use marker) helps to check opacity. Once the paint is dry, I scrub off a line of it as much as I can to check staining strength and type. And I make the swatches large enough so that I can see whether or not the paint granulates (small swatches can make it hard to see the fine texture).
You most basic palette needs six colors: a warm and cool of red, yellow, and blue. That's it. You need both a warm and a cool so that you can mix a wide range of greys without mixing mud. Ultramarine, for instance, is a warm blue, so it has a little red in it. This means it can make some nice violets (blue+red=violet), but its greens tend to be a little... horrid. So keep some phthalo blue on hand to mix greens. Etc. A decent beginner palette could be hansa yellow, Indian yellow, quinacridone red, cadmium red, phthalo blue and cobalt blue. With just those colors, you can do a lot. And I mean a lot.
If you are just getting started, I highly recommend doing a lot of work with just your initial six colors. That is the best way to teach yourself to use them well. Later, you may wish to invest in some quinacridone gold, burnt sienna, viridian, and quinacridone magenta.
But what about all those other things I was talking about before? Why in the world would I keep seventy paints on hand if I only need six?
Well convenience is one part. Having an orange, green, and violet paint on your palette just saves you some time.
But different paints also have different traits, and once you get past the very basics you might want to take advantage of them.
Here's another group of swatches that feature paints with heavy granulation (except for the aurelin down at the bottom). Granulated paints are usually made with natural pigments, which are more unevenly shaped once they are ground up than synthetics. This means that when you suspend them in water, they do beautiful things as they settle. Burnt sienna, ultramarine, and viridian green are all granulating paints.
All watercolors are relatively transparent. When we talk of one being opaque, we meant that the pigments tend to settle on top of the paper, as opposed to into the fibers. The cadmiums are a good example of this. This colors are great for upper layers, but you wouldn't want too many layers of top of them, as they can mix into mud on your paper. So if you like to work in many thin layers, stick with transparent colors. All the quinacridones are transparent, and so are the phthalos.
There are several different ways paints stain the paper. Some act like dyes (the quinacridones and the phthalos, again), and stain the paper in a similar fashion. These paints are likely to be synthetics. They can be explosively powerful colors, quickly taking over a mix. Be careful with them.
Paints that granulate, as we have seen, are usually natural pigments with heavy pigments. These paints tend to stain because the pigment sinks so deeply into the paper that it can be impossible to get completely out. You can usually scrub them a little back to white, but rarely all the way.
The staining quality of a paint is helpful to know if your technique involves a lot of scrubbing or lifting away to create texture and light spots. A strong, rugged support is recommended for any of these techniques! Burnt tiger's eye, viridian, and cobalt violet are a few colors that can be lifted away almost completely with a little effort.
Now the fun part!
There are a lot of ways to organize your palette. Different things are intuitive to different people. Some people go warm to cool, or group all their transparent paints together. Whatever you feel comfortable with.
I am currently using three palettes. My home palette set-up consists of two. As you can see, a smaller, hinged palette fits neatly into my larger one. The larger one has a removable lid that acts as another mixing surface, especially if I need to use fresh paint. My technique at the moment depends heavily on a contrast between granulating/non-granulating paints. The larger palette contains all of my granulating paints, proceeding yellow-green-blue-violet-red-neutrals.
The smaller palette contains all of my transparent paints, with the colors proceeding in the same fashion.
Setting up a palette is easy, though it takes a little time. Decide on the order you want the paints to go in. Lay them out and make sure you have enough wells for all the paints you want to include. If you don't, you'll have to make some hard choices about what gets to stay and what doesn't. Use the swatches you made (you made swatches, right? Good) to help you.
Squeeze a bit of paint into each well. A spot about the size of a dime is good, maybe a little bigger.
Then put that sucker away and let it dry out completely for a day or two. When you're ready to paint, spray the wells with a little water and let it sit for five or ten minutes.
There you go, all done.
Well, maybe not quite. There is an extra step you can do that I have found extremely helpful. I make a cheat sheet.
I keep mine in my art journal/workbook, but you can use anything. Paper with a bit of weight to it, or even watercolor paper, will give you best results.
Many colors look very different in a dry hunk of paint than they do wet. This also helps me remember what paint goes where.
I basically drew a simplified diagram of my watercolor palette, and then painted in the wells with the color currently stationed there. I labeled the colors, and also noted their relevant properties, in this case transparency and staining. They were already sorted by granulating/non granulating, so I didn't need to worry about that.
I cannot recommend doing this enough. It can be a life-saver.
As I said before, I have one additional palette. This is a smaller, travel palette that I use for outside. It has fewer wells than my combination home set, so I had to go through my swatches again and pick a smaller combination of colors that represented all the qualities I needed.
I made a 'cheat sheet' for this palette as well. This one is made from watercolor paper. Once it was done, I taped it onto the front of the palette with packing tape to protect it from the elements. Now I have it available for easy reference when I am painting away from my studio.
What else might you need? Besides a hard backing (which we discussed earlier), you will find having painter's tape (make sure it's artist's painters tape, which has acid-free glue) and a spray bottle for water very handy. Keep paper towels or old rags handy to mop up extra moisture while you are painting.
If you really want to experiment, pick up natural sponges, masking fluid (only apply with synthetic brushes!), sea salt, and even gum Arabic to play around with texture and effects. Be warned: once you get started, you'll be hooked!
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