From Frederic Whitaker’s book, Whitaker on Watercolor

Frederic Whitaker

Frederic Whitaker, N.A. was born 120 years ago and he wrote the book, Whitaker on Watercolor, in 1963. It is a comprehensive and authoritative guide to watercolor medium by the man who was known as “Mr. Watercolor.” Unfortunately, it is now out-of-print. In celebration of this anniversary year, the Whitaker Foundation is delighted to bring his book to life for all those interested in the fine details and delicate renderings of watercolor. Look for regular blog updates as we share Whitaker on Watercolor online, chapter by chapter throughout 2011.

Here is Section One:

Whitaker on Watercolor


There are two kinds of students of painting: hobby painters and those who seriously plan to make art their life work.  Hobby painters usually want to achieve results quickly.  Many want to skip such fundamentals as drawing and the study of composition.  Their attitude is understandable, for usually their painting time is limited by other duties which to them are more important.  But more dedicated students do not insist upon immediate results.  They realize that to become a good artist entails long study and practice, and they are prepared to give the time, energy, and concentration needed.  Obviously, a book directed to only one group would not satisfy the other.

What I have attempted in this book is to cover the whole field of watercolor, beginning with simple fundamentals and ranging through more advanced technical procedures.  There are also chapters on the problems of exhibiting and the history of watercolor.  It is hoped that by calling attention to watercolor’s many facets, in the light of my own experience, this book may inspire the student-reader to investigate them more fully on his own.


An important part of learning is repetition, for very few students are able to grasp a new subject fully in a single attempt.  In this book I have sought to avoid undue repetition, but I have placed definite stress on certain cardinal points.  It is expected that the repetition will be exercised by you, the reader, through repeated reviews of parts not fully clear.  Learning calls for practice as well as reading.  By alternating practice and reference you should achieve satisfying results.

For the novice it is advisable to start at the beginning and proceed through progressive pages as circumstances permit.  Aided by the table of contents and the running references to other themes, the more advanced student can be more selective, reading specifically those parts which he feels may be of help to him.


Watercolor painting requires relatively little equipment.  Pigments, brushes, and paper are basic, of course.  In addition, you will need or want most of the following: color pans, water bowl, pencils, erasers, sponge, rag, pocket knife, razor blade, small syringe, blotter, and folding stool.


Watercolors come hard in small pans or moist in tubes.  The hard colors are good for painting miniatures, but for regular painting only the moist tube color can be used with ease.  Tubes come in two sizes: standard,1/2” x 2⅛”, and studio size, 3/4” x 3¾”.  If you paint a good deal, the studio size is cheaper and more convenient.

All the well-known brands of colors are good––but “good” doesn’t necessarily mean permanent.  Most manufacturers make “Student Colors” and “Artists’ Colors.”  The former are much cheaper.  They are acceptable for practice work but not for serious painting.  They handle well, but many of the hues are fugitive.

I usually paint daily, so I never throw away the paint in my pans.  Twenty minutes before starting I drop water onto the hardened color so the pigment is pasty by the time I am ready.  Incidentally, the dirty residue around the paints in the color wells should be cleaned out while the pigment is dry and hard.  If you clean the wells while the paint is soft, you will waste quite a bit of pigment.

For my own work I like to have on hand a wide range of colors, though I may use no more than six or seven in a given painting.  Actually, it is possible to mix any color or shade with no more than the three primaries, but an amplified palette can save time and effort.  You simply lift from the pan the pigment nearest to that needed and bring it quickly to the mark with a touch of one other color.

The work “palette” describes both the assortment of pigments an artist uses and also the pan or board on which he arranges them.  The following lists shows my palette and the order in which the colors are arranged: Ivory Black, Sepia, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Indian Red, Cobalt Violet, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Windsor Blue, Permanent Green Pale, Emerald Green, Oxide of Chromium, Viridian, Windsor Green

Any other array an artist may find convenient is likely to be satisfactory.  Many find it helpful to follow the order of the spectral colors as they appear in a rainbow or when passed through a prism.  You can start with any color and then lay out your own pigments as nearly as possible in the spectral sequence: yellow, orange, red, violet, blue, and green.  Blacks, browns, and grays can be placed at either end.  Note that my palette begins with black and the browns and continues with yellows and other colors in prismatic order.

Some pigments are composed of fine particles suspended in a binding medium; others are made from dyes, or liquid color.  Dyes stain the paper and are hard to remove.  Only practice can tell you about the properties of your particular pigments and how they will combine and act with others.  If you spend some time trying out the individual colors and mixing them with others, you will soon be able to reach instinctively  for those needed for any particular purpose.


The finest watercolor papers are made of rag pulp.  The standard size is 22 x 30 inches.  The standard weights are 72 lb., 140 lb., 200 lb., 300 lb., and 400 lb.  The weights specified refer to the number of pounds in a ream (480 sheets).

Most of the professional grade watercolor paper used in the United States comes from France or England.  The best French paper, D’Arches, has a relatively soft surface and a slight ivory color.  It is easy to work with, although too-vigorous scrubbing will ruin it.  Also, because of its more absorbent nature, removal of dried color can be difficult.  Of the English papers, there are eight or ten different makes sold here.  Half are handmade, the others mold-made.  All are good.  My favorite is the A.W.S. paper which I consider the finest available.  The English papers are as close to pure white as paper can be.  More sizing is used than in the D’Arches paper, so the English papers have a harder surface and will withstand considerable scrubbing.  There are other excellent, if less well-known, papers such as the Fabriano of Italy, and there are papers suitable for special techniques.

Watercolor board is a commercial product which consists of a sheet of very thin watercolor paper mounted on a heavy cardboard.  It does not buckle in the painting process.  When the paper is mounted at the factory, the surface roughness is reduced somewhat, so if you regularly use “medium surface” paper, ask for “rough” board.  Though rag paper will last for centuries, a cardboard backing may begin to disintegrate in twenty-five years.  If you are painting for the ages, you’d better stick to a good heavy paper, unmounted.

There is a great difference in price between professional paper and students’ grade paper.  Students’ grade paper is made of wood pulp.  A certain grade is sometimes referred to as cartridge paper.  The standard sizes are about the same as those for professional paper.  The customary weights for students’ paper are 72 lb. and 140 lb.

Students’ paper is satisfactory for practice––and for nothing else.  It will not last, it will eventually turn yellow, and it cannot stand the rough handling to which professional paper can be subjected.  The surface of wood-pulp paper is ruined by liberal scrubbing.  I consider the “A.W.S. Students’ Grade” paper to be the best in its division.

If you plan to sell your pictures, you owe it to your patrons to use only rag paper.

Watercolor papers are made with three types of surfaces: 1. Smooth, sometimes called Hot Pressed; 2. Medium, sometimes called Cold Pressed; and 3. Rough.

Smooth paper is not usually suitable for watercolor painting.  It has no “tooth” so the color slides too easily down its surface.

Rough paper, in the professional grade, is difficult for most artists to handle until they have had considerable experience with it.  Rough paper, in the students’ grade, usually corresponds to medium surface in the professional paper.

Most of my paintings are made on medium surface paper and I suggest that students use the same until they have acquired sufficient confidence to experiment with the others.  For watercolor exercises, the half sheet (15” x 22”) or larger is preferred.  Quarter sheets (11” x 15”) may be used, but they do not allow as much freedom as the larger sizes.


The types of brushes commonly used in watercolor painting are shown in Figure 1.

The round ones, ranging in size from the tiny No. 000 to No. 16, are usually thought of as the standard watercolor brushes.  Most are made of red sable hair and are quite expensive, though they can also be procured in relatively cheap ox-hair and sabeline (dyed ox-hair).  Red sable is the only available hair that will give the brush a perfect point.  Flat brushes are available in widths from 1/8” to 2” in red sable, sabeline, or ox-hair.

I see no point in investing a great deal of money is red sable brushes, which are necessarily expensive because of the very high cost of Russian kolinsky tails from which they are made and the great care required in dressing them.  Eighty per cent of my paintings are done with flat brushes of sabeline or ox-hair.  Sabeline is ox-hair, dyed, but it seems to be of more select grade and, for my purposes, is as good as red sable, since no point is needed on the brush.  My brushes range in size from 1/4” to 1½ ”.  It is possible to apply wide strokes with them, though fine detail also can be painted, using the edges or corners of the brush.  I have one round red sable brush, No. 8, which I seldom use.

My most valuable brush for small work is an inexpensive, double-ended, bamboo-handled Japanese brush.  Its hair has little resilience, but it is perfect for brush-drawing, for painting hairlines, and for scumbling in small areas.

The round camel hair brushes included in many inexpensive watercolor sets are useless for serious painting.

The flat bristle brush illustrated is a standard oil painter’s brush (called a “bright”), and the round, flat-ended one is an inexpensive bristle brush made for shipping-room stenciling.  Either can be used for scrubbing out previously dried paint.  The flat one is also handy for “modeling” pasty color.  I also have a regular housepainter’s varnish brush with a round handle, somewhat like the large flat brush illustrated but considerable heavier and about 1.5” wide.  This is not used often, but on occasion it is helpful for reducing the value of a color passage already dry.

The best results for you are, obviously, those with which you get the best results.  Try different kinds until you know their possibilities, but––an admonition––don’t try to paint watercolors with little brushes.  Always use the largest you can manipulate for the job at hand.

Brushes used for Watercolor Painting. A and B are standard round brushes made of red sable, sabeline or ox-hair. C and D are flat brushes made of red sable, sabeline or ox-hair. E is a Japanese double-ended brush. F is an oil painter’s bristle brush. G is a stiff bristle stencil brush.


Pencils Nos. 2B or 3B are about right.  Very soft pencils, Nos. 4B to 6B, are delightful to work with, but if erasure is necessary they smudge.


Pans for holding and mixing colors are available in innumerable styles.  Before definitely selecting one, look over the possibilities.  If possible, see what your artist friends are using and find out whether or not they find them satisfactory.

Most artists like a large flat pan for mixing colors and washes.  This may be connected with the wells which hold the colors or it may be simply one of the white porcelain-enameled butcher’s trays that are now in vogue.  These pans measure 10” x 15” or 12” x 19” and are about 1/2” deep.  Whatever your choice, the pan should be white so the colors can be accurately judged.

For making small sketches, the folding, pocket-size metal color boxes with built-in mixing wells are satisfactory, but for large paintings one needs much more capacious equipment.  Today, when most large paintings are made in the studio and when outdoor subjects are reached by automobile, the compacts kits of yesteryear are not so essential.

Indoors or out, I prefer to work with two standard white plastic color “slants,” 4” x 12,” each containing eight circular color wells and eight inclined depressions, 1½” x 2¼,” for mixing.  For convenience, I have had them cemented edge to edge on a plywood base.  For a large pure wash I prepare my liquid pigment in a separate small glass bowl.  I also like to have at hand an expanse of newspaper, which I use for testing colors and for reducing the liquid content of a brush.


A small rubber or plastic ear syringe, which can be bought in any drug store, is very useful for squirting water onto the paint when you want to moisten the pigment and for cleaning out the liquid in color wells.


Blotting paper come in handy for soaking up unwanted water.  Some artists use a “thirsty brush” for the same purpose, wetting the brush and squeezing out the water with the fingers.


I usually carry a number of camp stools in the car trunk.  When feasible, I sit on one and use another to rest my board and paper on, while a third, topped by a piece of 16” x 24” wallboard, makes an excellent table for colors, brushes, water, etc.


Some artists believe a viewfinder is useful not only for finding compositions, but also because it helps them exclude distracting side elements during the actual painting.

It is easy to make a simple viewfinder for yourself.  Cut a hold about 2¾” x 3¾” in a small piece of cardboard.  These dimensions are proportionately the same as those of a standard 22” x 30” watercolor paper.  Close one eye and hold the card before the other, moving the card backward or forward until you can see through the hole exactly as much of the scene as you want to include.


If you look through a piece of blue glass at a brightly-colored scene, you will find it reduced to virtual monochrome.  Many artists find this helpful in determining values.  Some combine the blue glass with the cardboard viewfinder.  Personally, I feel the two operations involved are of different natures and are better handled separately.