5. WATERCOLOR IN OPERATION
In preceding sections we have covered the basic fundamentals of watercolor technique. Now we are about to consider the additional methods of handling the medium, special tricks that are sometimes useful in special situations, and ways of making changes and corrections when necessary.
Wet-in-wet painting is a method of painting on water-saturated paper with relatively thick pigment, so that the color diffuses somewhat. For a painter who is skilled in orthodox watercolor technique, it is only necessary to control the diffusion. Before beginning a wet-in-wet painting, soak the paper in a bathtub or sponge both sides of it with water until it is limp. Lay the wet paper on a drawing board, mop off surplus water from the face of the paper with a large brush, a cloth, or a cleaning tissue, and you are ready to paint. Brush in the large areas first. As the paper loses its moisture, add the smaller ones, finishing up with the sharp accents. Even line work can be added when the surface is sufficiently dry. This was done with the painting, “Vegetable Still Life” on page 52. The trick in this method is to apply the color at exactly the right stage of paper dampness. Naturally, the color spreads as it touches the damp paper. Only practice can tell you at what point the paper is ready for the particular effect you have in mind. It is advisable to lay on just a small amount of color to see how far it spreads before painting a whole area. Remember that the thicker the paint on your brush, the less it will spread on the paper. With very thick paint, it is possible to paint quite a sharp thin line on moist paper.
While working from damp to dry, the paper can be kept moist by lifting the edges and inserting water under it with a sponge or small syringe. Drying can also be retarded by using a nonabsorbent base, such as glass or masonite, instead of a wooden drawing board. Individual areas may be moistened with water sprayed from an atomizer. Rough paper is best for wet-in-wet painting. The deeper surface depressions hold the pigment and give the artist greater control.
Flat washes can be laid one a top the other if each is allowed to try thoroughly before the next one is applied. In wash-over-wash painting virtually no modeling of wet color is attempted. Though seldom seen in contemporary American watercolor work, the method has been followed by many British artist, particularly in the past.
In drybrush painting, the brush is charged with color, squeezed or shaken out until little moisture remains, then brushed lightly across the paper. Since there is little or no diffusion of color, the effect is crisper than in a wash, with areas of white showing through where the brush has not quite touched the paper. If one wished, it would be possible to cover large areas of the paper with drybrush strokes, but this is not unusual. Complete pictures are rarely painted using drybrush technique, but it can be very effective in combination with wash. Part of a picture can be painted with wet solid washes while other sections are drybrushed. Drybrushing can also be added right over a light wash. Another approach is to use the drybrush method, then flood plain water or color over certain areas to pull them together. To much drybrush technique alone, however, is likely to have a brittle, incoherent appearance. Use rough paper for drybrush work, so the depressions will remain white as the minute elevations catch the color.
LINE AND BRUSH PAINTING
Some pictures lend themselves to a combination of line and color. This is especially true with architectural subjects where one wants to indicate precise detail, without losing the dash of watercolor. There are several ways to handle this technique. Some artists begin with a complete drawing, then brush the color over it loosely. Others apply the color first, then the line; still others work in line both before and after placing the color. Usually the line drawing is made with pen and black or sepia waterproof ink. Sometimes steel pens are used, but bamboo pens are frequently employed, for with them lines can be made as heavy as one pleases. Occasionally I draw the picture with a sharp sable brush using sepia casein because, when dry, the casein cannot be moved again with water. At other times I draw the line work with standard sepia watercolor so that when washes are later applied, the lines will be diffused and merge imperfectly with the wash.
PALETTE KNIFE PAINTING
Palette knife painting is usually regarded as an oil painting technique, but there is no reason why the watercolorist can’t use it too. An example of this technique is shown in Figure 4. Apply watercolor pigment to the paper. While still fluid, spread it into the pattern desired with the edge of a palette knife or painting knife. Fascinating, unorthodox effects can be obtained in this way.
For large, bold subjects or for abstract or semi-abstract work, try starch painting, as shown in Figure 5. Place a bowl of ordinary liquid laundry starch alongside your water bowl. Use the water for washing out your brushes and the liquid starch for mixing with your colors. Brush the color and starch onto the paper in thick applications, or cover the painting area with the starch first and then immediately paint the color into it. The pasty mixture can be pushed around at will and the color will stay exactly where it is left. By adding water, starch and color from time to time, the mixture can be kept pasty enough for manipulation as long as required. An atomizer filled with water can also be used to moisten the whole picture if necessary. Parts may even be mopped out and new color added. Manipulation is the key to this process. Any suitable instrument can be used. In addition to regular watercolor brushes, try a standard housepainter’s brush, a pointed stick, a spatula, or a painting knife. Use the thumb, the fingers, or the heel of the hand for moving the color about. One artist I know uses her elbow and forearm for broad effects.
PAINTING WITH TURPENTINE
Turpentine and watercolor combine in an interesting way that is particularly useful for backgrounds or semi-abstract pictures. See Figure 6. With a small housepainter’s brush, spread turpentine over the painting area. This will be absorbed by the paper immediately. Now, using a large brush, swish loose, watery color over the area without delay. The light, oily film of the turpentine will make the watercolor take hold in unusual patterns. If you continue brushing over the surface, the effect of the turpentine will wear off, and gradually the paint’s behavior will revert to normal. The painting can be stopped at any time. The effects can be left extremely accidental or brought under control. For the painting “The Sisters Lopez” on page 134, the paper was first brushed over with turpentine as suggested above. The color in the background was left as it originally settled, but the influence of the turpentine was partly overcome in the clothing by repeated brushing. The faces and arms were brushed even more, until the turpentine effects were almost eliminated.
TRICKS IN WATERCOLOR
There are quite a number of technical “tricks” that can be helpful in solving special problems, although one must be careful to avoid placing undue reliance on them. There is no real substitute for straightforward painting. The following devices and techniques may suggest others that you can invent for yourself.
By adding a little glycerine, honey, or gum arabic to your painting water, you can slow the drying of the color. Alcohol, on the other hand, will make it dry faster, and some artists have been known to paint with wine to achieve fast drying. There are several commercial preparations available in art supply stores which, when added to water, enable you to paint on glass or other smooth, repellent surfaces.
Watercolor compositions often include small light areas in the midst of a large expanse of darker background color: a birch tree against a dark mountain or a white seagull flying across an azure sky, for example. The easiest way to gain such effects is to mask out the light area in advance and brush the darker wash over it. When the masking material is removed after the wash has dried, a pure white space will remain. Depending on the composition, this space can be left white or a small detail can be painted on it. Rubber cement can be used as a masking material if necessary, but the special masking mediums which can be bought at art supply stores under various trade names are preferable. They are more easily applied, have better covering power, and leave the paper pure white. To remove these rubberoid masking preparations, it is only necessary to rub them off with the thumb, a soft eraser, or a wad of dried rubber cement. Scotch tape and other adhesive masking tapes can be used, but the artist has to cut the material to fit the shape of the spot.
To clean the paint from a small spot, say the size of a dime, a stencil cut out of heavy paper or a sheet of acetate can sometimes be helpful. Using a razor blade or other sharp pointing cutting instrument, cut out a stencil of the right shape, hold it on the painting in the desired position, then with a moist rag or nearly dry sponge, scrub the paint down to the white paper. I once used this trick in painting the red polka dot skirt of “La Coqueta.” I simply painted the skirt red, and when the paint was dry I mopped out the circles to a pure white using a half-inch circle from a piece of acetate as a guide. Later, I touched up certain parts with loose paint to destroy the suggestion of mechanical treatment. I know one artist who always keeps at hand a piece of acetate pierced with a large number of small apertures in different shapes. Using these, he can mop out virtually any small shape.
A sheet of transparent acetate or celluloid (the stiffest you can get) can be helpful for testing projected changes or additions in a painting. If, for instance, you decide you want to add a figure to your nearly finished picture but are not sure where to put it or how large to make it, place the acetate over the picture and paint the figure on it roughly. You can move the acetate about and change the size of the figure until the arrangement suits you. The figure can then be painted just where you want it on the paper itself. Watercolor will adhere to the acetate if it is mixed with opaque white or if a commercial glossy-surface painting preparation is used.
Razor Blade and Pocket Knife
The corner of a razor blade can be used to scratch out white lines in dry color––such as wheat stalks, a cat’s whiskers, or the like. Some artists break razor blades with pliers to make sharp cutting edges about 1/8 – or 1/16-inch wide to use for scratching out. Pocket knives are less sharp and are better for scraping out color while it is still moist. The curved end lets the artist control the width of the swath. If the color has dried, moisten it with a brush where the scrape is about to be made. In scraping out moist color, be careful not to cut the surface of the paper; just take off the color. This method is excellent for indication light tree branches, for giving character to the bark of trees, and the like. See Figure 7. It works well with sedimentary or earth colors, poorly with penetrating dye colors.
Atomizers filled with clear water can be used to remoisten surfaces that are drying too quickly, or to soften hard edges while they are still wet. Colored water sprayed by atomizer can change the tint of any given area. When using the atomizer, be sure to keep the paper flat. Use a stencil to control the limits of the are to be sprayed.
It is often said that watercolor cannot be worked over. It must be brushed on directly and left alone. This is not true. No watercolor is finished as long as it can be improved. If an area or line offends, it should be taken out. Some artists, particularly in Britain, base their customary techniques on repainting. They first paint the entire picture broadly and simply in approximate colors, let it dry, then mop or scrub the whole with a sponge or brush until colors merge and lighten and only a reminder of the image remains. This provides a wonderful “quality” and a base for the picture proper. Then, with deft strokes, the picture is repainted in correct colors and values. The combination of the underpainting of scrubbed color and the directly painted surface suggests spontaneity without the rawness sometimes seen in oversimplified paintings. Actually, watercolor can stand a great deal of handling. Very few simple, direct, on-the-spot renderings pass the juries of national competitive exhibitions today. Most of the prize-winning pictures are carefully composed and carefully handled. They may have been mopped out and repainted, in the preliminary study if not in the finished painting itself, for a perfect composition rarely happens by accident. But no matter how much work has gone into the development of a painting or how much “working over” may have been called for, the final picture should appear fresh and spontaneous. There should be no evidence of the toil, sweat or anguish that accompanied its production. Since repetitious painting ordinarily results in muddiness, how can be retain freshness while repainting and correcting? The answer is by clean, direct repainting after the undesirable passages have been thoroughly cleared out. Some of the tricks or techniques that can be especially helpful are discussed in the following pages.
Color may be removed in a number of ways. The simplest method for a large area is to mop it with a sponge and clean water. In some cases, one can return almost to pure white paper by sponging. A more forceful method is to brush the space with water, let it stand a moment until the color loosens, then rub the color off with a cloth. If the color does not come off easily, it can be scrubbed off with water and a stuff bristle brush. For very stubborn cases, sandpaper can be used when the surface is dry. All these methods apply only to sturdy, all-rag paper. To remove color from a small area (up to about 1/2” in diameter), wet the area, then wad up a bit of dry rag into a tight knot and, holding it firmly in the hand, place it over the spot. Press down quickly and firmly, then with a hard side-wise swipe, pick the color out cleanly. Wet watercolor can be lifted out easily with a blotter-like “thirsty brush”––any regular watercolor brush which has been dipped in water, and squeezed virtually dry with the fingers. A kneaded eraser is very good for picking out previously dampened thin white lines.
Repainting the Cleared Areas
After color has been removed, the paper should be allowed to dry thoroughly. Naturally, adjacent colors are likely to be affected by scrubbing and mopping. In repainting, one must be careful to make repairs invisible.
Lightening the Value of Dried Color
If color needs only to be lightened a little, just wet the surface and after a moment or two press it with a blotting paper or dab it with a cleaning tissue or rag. Another way of lightening color is to use an ordinary flat varnish brush, about 1” wide. Wet the brush and squeeze out as much water as possible. Then, using the side of the brush, not its end, press firmly downward and draw it across the dry paint. The strength of a color can also be substantially reduced by using an eraser on the painted area when it is dry. It is advisable to practice all these methods on discarding painting before trying them on new work.
Darkening a Passage or Changing Its Hue
A wash of a darker or different color can be run over a previously painted, thoroughly dry area without picking up or disturbing the under color if the new wash is brushed on quickly and lightly, without stroking twice over the same spot.
Coordinating Incompatible Colors
Sometimes adjacent color fail to harmonize. However, hues with a common color in their makeup will usually tend to harmonize with each other, so you can simply wash any light color over both offending passages and bring them into accord. You can achieve the same effect by flooding a little of either color into the other. A common tint may also be useful for pulling together a color-jumpy picture. It is better to avoid an over-all wash, however, because a was can’t be set down rapidly enough to avoid disturbing the underlying pigment. One method that I have used is to blow a color mist through a fixative sprayer while the painting lies perfectly flat. This sometimes produces a speckled effect, but this can be avoided by first spraying clean water the flat painting so the color spray can mingle with it. Some artists prefer to tint their entire paper with a pale color (often yellow or orange) before starting to paint.
By “modeling” color, I mean manipulating pigment in a manner comparable to a sculptor’s manipulation of clay or wax. The results can be surprising. Wet the painted area to loosen the pigment, if necessary stirring it up with a brush until it becomes pasty. In this condition the pigment can be manipulated for an indefinite time. Keep it moist and pasty until the repainting is finished. Take color our, brush new color in, move the pigment about until you are completely satisfied. Use brushes, rags, a sponge, jackknife, or what you will. The thumb is especially good for indefinitely shaped objects such as trees. Sedimentary colors are more amenable to modeling than dye colors.
Using Crayon Over Wash
By going over a dried passage with crayon or hard pastel, you can change the color slightly, not enough to obliterate the watercolor but enough to give it a different cast. This technique can also be used for special textural effects.
Choosing Paper for Working Over
If one wishes to indulge in vigorous scrubbing, one must use a good grade of 300 or 400 lb. rag paper, preferably linen, with a touch surface. A.W.S. Paper, endorsed by the American Watercolor Society, is perfect for the purpose and most of the better grade English papers will stand a good going over. Some watercolor papers, however, are of intentionally soft composition. Scrubbing will remove a “skin” from the surface which cannot easily be repaired. While soft papers have their uses and virtues, they should be used only for direct painting.
Painting Over White Casein
White casein can be used in special cases where it is necessary to paint out an area that you wish to repaint. I was once called upon to insert a motor truck, 6” high, in the foreground of a completely finished full-sheet watercolor. I carefully pencilled the truck on tracing paper, laid it on the painting for exact positioning and registered the outline there. Next I covered the area of the picture in which I planned to paint the truck with white casein paint and left it overnight to dry. (When dry, casein is impervious to water.) The next day, using regular transparent watercolor, I painted the truck right over the white casein. The repair could not be detected. Occasionally, I have also used this trick successfully for correcting small areas.