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To learn to paint fabulous watercolors, we have get a handle on or “master” the water.
Like me, you want the pigment and water to do what you want them to do in your paintings.
In other words, you want to understand the mechanics of watercolors.
Even as you paint any of my simple learn-to-paint examples, you figure out that you’ve got to simultaneously know
- how to read your paper (how wet is it? how saturated is the paper?)
- what is your pigment mixture consistency (how thick is your pigment? how diluted your mixture)?
- what is on your brush: how much water are you carrying?
- PLUS painting with the tip or the belly of the brush delivers different amounts of water
I think the best references are written by Joseph Zbukvic and Ewa Kurpinska. Both paint fabulous watercolors and master the water.
by Joseph Zbukvic
Inter library loan was how I read this book, because the cost is prohibitive.
In this book, Zbukvic describes a “watercolor clock” to teach how the paper’s degree of wetness will react to different consistencies of watercolor mixes. He has 5 versions of paintbrush wetness and 4 versions of paper wetness. Each combination of hands (one being how wet the pigment/brush is and one and being how wet the paper is) creates a different effect, depending on what “time” it is on the clock.
Zbukvic’s Consistencies of the Paint Descriptions:
- very thin and watery, not much pigment
- “tea” races on the canvas if tilted
- very thin, this is good for skies and clouds
- stronger mix;
- “coffee” moves freely when canvas is tilted, but leaves behind a true wash of color.
- this thickness of paint is good for distant mountains, clouds, and gentle shadows
- on the palette, I find that dragging through your paint puddle with your brush will leave a visible clear path at this consistency.
- “milk” is thick enough to dry reasonably close to the color in the palette;
- this is good for mid and foreground, dry brush techniques and can get muddy if over-manipulated.
- sludgy, fluid consistency;
- “cream” moves on palette when mixed, and slowly on paper when tilted
- this is too thick to create a bead, so use it more like gouache
- good for darker things like shadows, rocks, dark trees.
- can also be dropped into wet and milky washes to create darker values
- basically straight from the tube;
- “butter” won’t move even if held upside down
- used for creating rich contrast and only at the end of the painting.
Zbukvic’s Paper Wetness Descriptions to create fabulous watercolors that master the water
- Let the water saturate the fiber layers for at least five minutes with enough water so that after this time,
- looking at the paper sideways in light, you can see a uniform shiny, or glossy surface
- you can tilt the water in any direction you want
- creates soft edges and uniform washes
- Again looking sideways at the paper, you will see shine in the valleys of the paper but the “hills” will look dry
- this stage does not last long.
- good for controlled color mixing and soft edges on shapes.
- looking sideways, the paper looks dry, but when you touch it with the back of your hand, it is cool to touch.
- THIS is the ideal time to work with blossoms and bleed backs (more below)
- paint well with a thick application of pigment (like cream or butter) and creates soft edges
- good for lifting pigment, splattering water drops or adding
Dry creates sharp edged contrasts and uses the paper texture a lot
Watch this in Action: Sit Down: This is fabulous
Here’s a video of Zbukvic painting from YouTube (part of the Australian show “Colour in Your Life”) so you can see the effect of both the paper wetness and the consistency of the wash.
by Ewa Karpinska
Ms Karpinska spends an entire book unpacking and teaching the concept of wet into wet watercolor work. Included are images that show fabulous watercolors that master the water.
Rich with pictorial examples and demonstrations, this book is detailed and technical.
Although this required slow going for me, that’s exactly why I like it.
If you fully understand these references, your painting skills will advance.
But, because I found both of these references challenging, we will learn one of Zbukvic’s “time on the clock” or one of Karpinska’s boxes on the “Tables of Effects” in this post.
I think it unlikely that you won’t have painted a “bleed-back” or “blossom” (whether you wanted to or not).
However, beautiful “blossoms” placed where you want them to be create amazing light or textural effects.
Here are paintings by masters of watercolor blossoms.
- Top Left: Ali Cavanaugh
- Top Right: CarolCarter
- Bottom Left: Karl Martens
- Bottom Right: Jean-Louis Morelle
Clearly, these artists know when and how to place their watercolor blossoms.
How to make “Blossoms” where you want them to be
Read a great explanation of how to move paint or water here.
- Make and test on a scrap piece of these paint consistencies:
- this mixture will resemble tinted water.
- it will move across your paper at the same speed as clear water does.
- add a small amount of water to fresh pigment from the tube.
- the consistency is like single cream.
- it will drip from your brush.
- wWhen mixing on your palette, as you draw through your puddle of paint, you will leave a clear area.
- use only a small amount of this mixture on your brush.
- use the tip of your brush and obtain paint straight from the tube.
- pasty colors are solid and thick like toothpaste.
- instead of behaving like a liquid, this adheres to the spot where is has been applied and remains stuck there
- on a shiny surface, a tiny amount of color will spread from the edges of where the pasty color has been placed. You will therefore get dense shades surrounded by a sort of “halo”
- With your waterproof pen, set up a chart on watercolor paper.
- Label it from bottom to top Shiny (=Wet) , Semi Matt (=Moist) , Cool Matt (=Damp) Dry Matt (Joe Fettingis calls the “DANGER TIME” ).
- Place your paper on a slight tilt and wet it thoroughly.
- Make sure that the entire area is wet and looks like a mirror.
- This thorough wetting will allow you the time to work in each “type of paper wetness”.
- Wait minimum of 5 minutes
- Note: to “blossom”, there must be moisture somewhere: dry to touch paper moves if the inner fibers of the paper are wet
- Gently remove the leading edge (or “bead” as Zbukvic refers to it) from the bottom with a piece of paper towel
- Look at the paper in a good light on an angle so that you can follow (and time) the evolution of the ”shine” on the surface.
Work on a Semi Matt, Cool Matt Surface and Dry Matt Surface
A drop of dilute (or less effective: creamy) color will create halos of various sizes (depending on the amount of liquid that is added) on the above paper wetness.
- The blossoms on the wetter (semi matt) will move faster from your brush and leave spikey edges.
- “Perfect” small textural blossoms (like Karl Marten’s feathers) which are more round-edged, happen on a cool matt surface.
- There are a few seconds to uncover the white of the paper with delicate halos in the dry matt wetness phase.
- Practice with an under wash of color using a small or very small amount of dilute paint on your brush.
- Then “halo” with either a very small amount of clear water or a very small amount of dilute paint of a different color.