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Watercolor Hints, Tips and Techniques
Information courtesy of Winsor & Newton™

Watercolors InformationWatercolor is the most popular painting method today.  Its popularity can largely be attributed to the exquisite effects of depth, texture and light which can be achieved from its delicate washes.  It is also attractive for its portability – all you need is a paint box, brush and paper.

Almost all artists have a watercolor box, whether it is their specialization or a sketching tool to support their oil or acrylic work.  Albrecht Durer was perhaps the first to use watercolor as a medium in its own right, for his animal and landscape studies in the early 16th century.  In the early 19th century, Turner can quite justifiable be regarded as the first exponent of modern watercolor.

Watercolor papers
The beauty of watercolor can only really be achieved on good quality paper.  Generally there are two qualities of paper available; both are mould made for greater stability.  The first is made from cotton and the second from chemically processed wood fiber.

Cotton watercolor paper
These papers are supplied in three surfaces:
1.    Rough:  The Rough sheet has been pressed between the ‘felts’ on the paper machine and the roughness of the felt (blanket) is embossed into the wet sheet.  Rough sheets give the greatest texture to watercolor washes as the pigment settles into the hollows of the paper.  Popular for the expressionist technique.
2.    Not/Cold Pressed:  A Not sheet gets its name from ‘not hot pressed’.  It is made by taking a rough sheet and pressing it again without the felts.  This gives it a moderate texture and makes it the most popular watercolor surface.
3.    Hot Pressed:  The hot pressed sheet is pressed between hot rollers to provide a smooth finish.  It is popular with those painters who like detail; do not utilize granulation particularly and with illustrators and designers who require flat artwork for reproduction.

Gelatin surface sizing
Artists’ watercolor papers are coated (surface sized) with gelatin in addition to the internal sizing, which provides just the right degree of absorbency.

The gelatin results in a brighter watercolor wash as the color sits on the surface.  It makes lifting color easier and prevents masking fluid from damaging the paper surface.

Color of the paper
Watercolor papers are traditionally white; this allows the maximum amount of light to be reflected back through the wash, giving that characteristic watercolor ‘sparkle’.  Tinted papers are sometime preferred and give a mellow tone to a painting.

Acid free
It is essential that a watercolor paper is acid free.  In the long term, this ensures the paper maintains its color without yellowing and will not embrittle with age.  This is achieved by using fibers which are free from acidic elements and are treated in a neutral sizing system.

Weights of paper
Watercolor paper is commonly supplied in three weights, 90lb, 140lb and 300lb.  The heavier the sheet, the less the paper will cockle and the more costly it will be.  140 lb is the most popular weight and will not need stretching if using an average amount of water during painting (see Stretching).

Using the right side of the paper
The right side of the paper is the side from which you can read the watermark.  However, either side of the paper can be used for painting.  The reverse side of Rough or Not/Cold pressed will be flatter than the front.  If you prefer the reverse, try to avoid the water mark area as it may interfere visually if the viewer can read the watermark backwards through your work.

Choosing the right paper
The right paper for you will usually be based upon your personal preference for a particular surface, closely followed by the color of the sheet and last but not least, the weight. The important thing to remember about watercolor papers is that the surfaces relate to each other only within each manufacturer’s brand of paper.

Watercolor blocks
Watercolor blocks have the paper glued down along each side, leaving only a short gap to lip a palette knife into. This helps to avoid the need for stretching when painting away from the studio. Blocks are lighter to carry around than boards and easier to use than pads outdoors because the paper is glued down.

Stretching paper
Stretching paper maintains a flat sheet when using large quantities of water. All weights of paper will benefit from stretching, as once stretched, you are free to use as much water as you wish. Stretching works by soaking the paper to expand the fibers and taping it flat to dry taut. More water will not then be able to cockle the paper.

The important tips are:
•    Soak the paper completely – 90lb for 3 mins., 140lb for 8 mins., 300lb for 20 mins.
•    Drain the paper of excess water.
•    If using a manmade fiber board, seal it with dilute French polish first.
•    Use brown gum strip (not masking tape) to tape edges along their complete length.
•    Keep the board flat to dry.

Color ranges and their combinations
In the past, watercolors have been the medium most susceptible to fading from light due to the thinness of the wash. As the 20th century rolled on, the permanence of pigments and the colors available have continued to improve. The result is today’s painters have palettes and permanence that past masters could only have dreamt about.

Tubes vs. pans
Pan color can be easier to use because it is less inhibiting and easier to control the strength of color. Pan boxes are ideal for traveling, as many different colors can fit into a small box.

Tubes are more popular overall, used by regular painters or those who use high volumes of color. Tube colors make stronger washes much more quickly than pan colors.

Most artists like to be sure that their colors are permanent. Fortunately, the 20th century has seen enormous improvements in the lightfastness of colors.

Watercolor is a transparent technique because all the colors are applied so thinly. However, the inherent differences in pigments do still show in painting. Cadmiums for example, are still relatively opaque even in watercolor. Opaque colors tend to give flatter washed and will cover the underpainting more.

Use of white
The white of the paper provides the bright sparkle of watercolor and can be left unpainted for the most intense highlights. This does not however prohibit the use of white within your palette of colors.

Using gouache
Gouache is opaque watercolor and can be successfully combined with watercolor where greater ‘body color’ is required. Used on its own, striking effects can be achieved by working on colored backgrounds.

Basic palettes
Your initial palette should provide a wide color spectrum and should have a good balance between transparent and opaque colors and between strong tinting and weaker tinting colors. Permanent colors are always desirable and the main palette should ideally be low in price. The common practice is to maintain a broad palette of about twelve colors and add to it for specific requirements.

Color mixing – The Six Color System
Restricted palettes are used by both beginners and serious painters to develop their understanding and use of color. The six color system uses two reds, two yellows and two blues as a ‘primary’ palette. This provides both a blue shade red and a yellow shade red for example, which will ensure clean violets and clean oranges from your palette. The additional colors recommended in the basic palette introduce a wider range of tones and greater variation in opacity and tinting strength.

Additional colors for particular techniques
When choosing new colors, and excellent investment is a hand painted color chart of the range. For a small price, you’ll be able to see all the colors in graded washes, helping you to make the right choice before buying new tubes.

Landscape painting
New or different colors can really broaden your painting vocabulary. For landscapes, yellows, blues, greens and earth colors are always useful.

Portrait painting
Portraiture needs that spark of life and character; clean, crisp color mixtures and tones will achieve these. Pinks, violets and earth colors will make some of the subtle tones required for portraits.

 The most transparent colors
Using the most transparent colors allows each wash laid down to have the maximum influence on the next one. Infinite optical color mixtures are possible. The addition of gum arabic will also increase transparency.

The most opaque colors
Using the most opaque colors give flatter washes and greater covering over previous washes. Opaque colors are also useful for toning down color mixtures. For even greater opacity, try combing gouache colors into your technique.

High key (bright) colors
These are generally the colors with high tinting strength. High key palettes are popular with flower painters and for more abstract effects in watercolor.

Low key (subdued) colors
These are generally low tinting strength colors. Low key palettes are also achieved with tints (color plus white) and shades (color plus black).

Granulating colors
The granulation of some colors is prized by watercolorists to achieve texture on the paper. The more colors are mixed together and the larger the quantity of water, the more granulation results. If you wish to minimize granulation, distilled water may help, to maximize this effect try using a granulation medium.

Staining colors
Lifting washes can mean anything from a complete wash down under a tap, to get a ‘smoky’ background, to the sponging out of a small area to lighten or rescue it. Staining colors will stay in the paper and lift less easily than the other colors in your palette. The use of gum arabic will reduce the degree of staining.

Mediums are used to create an even wider variety of techniques and effects.

Gum arabic
Adding gum arabic to a watercolor wash will have the following effects:
•    Increase transparency and gloss to give greater brilliance of color.
•    Reduce the staining of pigments, making washes easier to lift.

Ox gall
A few drops of ox gall added to your water pot will improve the wetting and flow of your first watercolor washes on any hard sized papers. On soft sized papers it may increase the staining power of some pigments.

Aquapasto is a gel medium which is added to tube watercolor in proportions of up to 50%, before water is added. It provides watercolors with a texture which can be scratched out or thickens washes and keeps them wetter longer by reducing the flow of the color. It is excellent for blending multiple washes on the paper and reworking them as required. The reduction of flow also prevents two washes bleeding into each other – great for clouds and skies.

Masking fluid
Masking fluid protects areas of your work when color is applied in broad washes. Follow these helpful tips to get the best results when masking.
•    Shake bottle before use.
•    Do not use on wet or damp paper.
•    Use gelatin surface sized paper, this helps to prevent the fluid from adhering too strongly to the paper.
•    Use old brushes or dip pens to avoid damaging valuable brushes. 
•    Wash brushes in soapy water immediately after use.
•    Ensure fluid is dry before applying color.
•    Do not leave fluid on paper for long periods of time.
•    Use a clear masking fluid if there is any risk of staining from a pigmented art masking fluid.
•    If spilled by accident, wash item immediately in soapy water.  Once dry, the latex can only be removed by picking at it. 

Special effects
Watercolor is well suited to numerous special effects.  Impressive results can be achieved very quickly with these simple tricks of the trade.

Salt for added texture
If salt is sprinkled onto a watercolor wash, it will absorb the wet color. Once dry, it is brushed away, leaving a pitted texture. Try fine and coarse salt for different effects.

Splatters and splashes
Extra tone, texture and solidity is provided by splattering colors over an uderpainting. Make a stencil to protect the areas you want unsplattered. Mix a darker wash and use a hog brush to flick the color on in different concentrations. You can also splatter with masking fluid at the beginning of the work if you want white splatters instead. Remember not to leave the fluid on for longer than you have to.

Sanding a finished wash can be a useful rescue technique. If you finish a painting and find it lacking highlights, sanding is an option. Using a coarse sandpaper, lightly remove some of the paper, leaving a mottled wash with highlights. Be careful or you’ll rub too much off and make the picture worse! Washes will not go on evenly over sanded paper.

Cling film (protective food film)
Intricate washes of various tones are quickly made by the use of cling film! Apply a wash to your chosen area, crumple up some cling film and press it onto the wash, making sure not to smudge or move the wet color. Leave this to dry while you have a break. When you peel the film away the texture is ready made. Try this with blended washes of more than one color for even more varied texture.

For protection, a watercolor painting should be displayed behind glass, using a mount to ensure the work is not directly against the glass. When choosing mounts, small pictures generally suit larger mounts while larger pictures will look good in smaller mounts.

Remember to use acid free mounts and backings; without them your painting will discolor in the frame.

Varnishing watercolors is generally not recommended because it alters the tones of the painting. A varnish will also sink into the paper, discoloring and embrittling it.

Cleaning brushes
Brushes will last many years if well cared for. Brushes should be rinsed throughout every painting session and should not be stood on their heads in your water pot. It is important to wash all you brushes thoroughly at the end of each day. Rinsing in water alone is not sufficient to rinse the pigment from the ferrule end.

A long term build up of pigment will eventually prevent the brush from pointing.
•    Rinse brush in water.
•    Wash with warm water and household soap, repeating until there is no trace of color.
•    Shape brush, dry handle and stand upright in a jar to dry.