Monday, August 23, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Watercolor

Tools of the Trade: Watercolor

I'm a beginner. I don't paint often, and so I don't paint as well as I'd like. But to the extent that my skill, and patience, allows, here are some thoughts about the tools and techniques of watercolor painting.

This are my painting tools. From left to right:

  • Brushes
  • Ruler (six-inch plastic)
  • Pen (ballpoint)
  • Pencil (#2)
  • Paints
  • Jar of water to clean brushes
  • Jar of clean water to add to paints
  • Mixing palette
  • Water brushes
  • Small bottle of water
  • Watercolor paper (fairly heavy, to resist curling)
  • How to Watercolor book

Experienced painters will immediately pick up on my innocence...I don't have a clue what type/size/style/quality my brushes are. I don't buy expensive brushes, but I do throw away any that shed their hair.

I especially like the small water brushes.

The water brush has a small, refillable water reservoir, making it easy to add water to color, create washes, and clean. Gently squeeze the barrel to exude a drop of water, before/after/during dipping brush into the paint. I use a medium and fine point.

I made my own traveling watercolor paint kit, following an article found on

I only have six colors. The limitation is a help for me as a beginner. I don't feel overwhelmed by choices. I have the three primary colors:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

plus, a brown and a dark gray.

I also have a green, even though I could mix yellow and blue to get a decent green. But the pre-mixed green seems better. The other secondary colors are okay when mixed:

  • Orange = Red + Yellow
  • Purple = Red + Blue

It's good to keep in mind a simple color wheel while painting. The illusion of distance is best obtained by adding a bit of the color's opposite.

For example, if I'm painting a red barn, and I can see two sides of the barn, I'll paint the two sides slightly differently. The side nearest me, the one in the foreground, I'll paint with basically a red tone.

For the side away from me, the one further in the background, I'll add a bit of red's opposite into the mix. The opposite of red is green (yellow + blue). Just a bit of green added to red will reduce the red's intensity, giving the illusion of distance.

  • Opposite of red = green (yellow + blue)
  • Opposite of yellow = purple (red + blue)
  • Opposite of blue = orange (yellow + red)

Mix all three together, and you get...MUD!

I've got three containers of water:

  • Brush cleaner
  • Clean water
  • Water supply

When I travel, I can fill the small bottle with water. To paint, I'll fill each of the two jars about halfway.

One of the jars will become the brush-cleaning jar. A good way to clean a brush before using it to paint a new color is this:

1. Gently squeeze the brush with paper towel or a cloth. This takes most of the paint out.

2. Dip, but do not swish, the brush into the brush-cleaning jar of water. Don't wipe it, swish it, or shake it. Just dip once and immediately squeeze with the paper towel or cloth. Repeat this until you no longer see color transferring to the cloth.

3. Now, swish the brush gently in the brush-cleaning jar of water. Your brush is clean, ready for a new color, or ready to be stored away.

This method of cleaning the brush keeps the rinse water fairly clear of paint longer, making it easy to clean the brush. When the rinse water gets dirty, dump it and add fresh water from the water supply bottle.

Before placing the clean brush into storage, I like to form the wet hairs into a nice-looking point. My preferred method of doing this is to stick the clean bristles into my mouth and gently pull it out, forming a lovely point. For the fastidious painter, I suggest you gently form the point with your fingers!

The second jar of water is kept clean. Try to keep paint out of this second jar. Use it for water that you add to your paint to thin it. You can dip a clean brush and then squeeze a drop or two of water out into the paint, or use the water brush. The blue rubber syringe which looks suspiciously like a nasal bulb syringe is perfect for transferring clean water to a jar, a waterbrush, or directly to the pans of paint.

My watercolor paper is not expensive, but I try to get fairly heavy stock, 140-pound. This allows me to paint freely with little curling or distorting of the paper. I don't need to stretch my paper, even when covering it entirely with a wash.

All that remains to discuss is the instruction book in the background:

I Draw, I Paint Watercolor

This gem of a book was published in English by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. in 1991. It was originally written in Spanish by Isidro Sanchez, with paintings by Miguel Ferron and Jordi Segu.

Before finding this book, I collected several different how-to books. I found them all interesting, and somewhat helpful, but they all lacked something basic: How do I learn to paint if I know NOTHING???

I Draw, I Paint Watercolor meets that need. It is obviously written for children, but it's just what I need as a beginner.

The explanations and illustrations are very easy to understand, and the pace in which each technique or step is introduced is perfectly suited for my need. I STRONGLY recommend this book!

The first ten pages are solidly basic:

  • What paints to use
  • What brushes to use
  • What paper to use
  • Containers, towels, sponges, supplies
  • Adding water
  • Brushstrokes
  • Background washes and gradations
  • Primary colors, color wheel, and color value

The book ends with twelve exercises, with each step carefully illustrated and explained. The exercises start simple and gradually mature in technique and style toward the last exercises which are worthy of framing.

I really enjoy this little book! For me it has made watercolor painting enjoyable and successful.

That's All!

That's the extent of my watercolor tips and techniques. It's a hobby, one that I enjoy doing once a month or so. Actually, it's probably less often than that. I really enjoy writing and blogging, and I find myself gravitating toward the computer more than my paints. Painting requires a dedicated space and time, whereas my laptop can be grabbed quickly and used to fill any empty time, from ten minutes to several hours.

But painting allows me to express a different part of me. Watercolor, especially, is less linear, more creative, more freeing, than writing or coding.

I need that freedom more and more.

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