Watercolours: Grumbacher Academy Watercolours (review)

As I’ve often lamented on this blog, currency conversion rates and excessive postage costs have meant that I can no longer buy art supplies from the big American retailers, which tend to have a much larger range of products and brands than we do here in Australia. Some of these brands are only available from specific American art supply stores, making it even more difficult (if not impossible) for me to get my hands on them. So when my parents said they were going to America and Canada for a holiday, I immediately started plotting what I wanted them to get, so I could give them a big list when they left. They arrived home this morning, and happily they’d managed to get just about everything on the list (though I’d mentioned they should only get them if they happened to find an art supply shop on their way, Dad apparently walked around San Francisco for half a day to three or four different stores, so I definitely owe him some beer or Wild Turkey). I’m planning to do reviews of all the different goodies I got, starting with the Grumbacher watercolours.

I actually wanted the Grumbacher Artists’ watercolours, but whether my Dad misread my list or the staff member he handed it to misread it, I ended up with Grumbacher Academy watercolours, which are the student grade line. Either way, it was still a new brand I hadn’t tried, and I haven’t reviewed a lot of student grade stuff on this blog, so it’s a good chance to even things up a bit.

Here are swatches for the three colours I got.

The strength of the colours is very good compared to most other student grade watercolours I’ve tried (including Winsor & Newton’s Cotman watercolours and the Sakura Koi watercolours). As is common with student grade paints, there are a lot of multiple pigment mixes in the Academy line; all the paints I have include at least three pigments. This means it is important to check the individual pigments, as the more pigments a mixture includes, the higher the chance of one (or more) being fugitive.

I tried using these watercolours fresh out of the tube and squeezing them into a palette and leaving them to dry out overnight. While some paint brands dry almost solid within a few hours, the Grumbacher Academy watercolours were still a little squishy the following morning, and when I started using them the following night after they had finally dried out, they rewet perfectly well. The Naples Yellow Hue watercolour, however, was almost completely fluid when I poured it out of the tube, and it’s still a little gooey even after two days. Luckily it still seems to work alright, though it was a little weaker than the other two colours I have. I should also note that some colours like cobalts and earths can be a lot harder to rewet (regardless of brand) so test these colours with a small amount before squeezing out a whole lot onto your palette. The Grumbacher Academy watercolours are quite active wet-in-wet, allowing for subtle blended washes.

Here’s a small still life I painted from imagination on a Strathmore watercolour ATC. I used a little white gouache for the highlights on the top section of the glass.

Grumbacher Academy watercolours are a reasonably priced student grade paint that perform almost as well as some artist grade paints, making them excellent for both beginner artists and more experienced artists who may be on a tight budget. They’re difficult to find outside the US, but if you are an American, these would be an excellent watercolour to start with.

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Van Gogh and the Seasons Exhibition – National Gallery of Victoria

On the way home from uni at the end of May after teaching my last class for the semester, I saw a large advertisement on the train for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria: Van Gogh and the Seasons. Naturally I immediately photographed it so I could make stupid puns about it on social media with my friends:

But since I’ve been playing with my paints more recently and experimenting with Impressionism myself, I thought it might actually be interesting to see the exhibition. It would also mark the first time I’d been to an art gallery in about 15 years; the last time was when I was dragged along on a school excursion to look at a bunch of abstract contemporary art, which didn’t appeal to me at all (not just because I don’t care for the art style but at that stage of my life, I wasn’t making a lot of art anyway). I was looking forward to being able to wander around and take in the art at my own pace, rather than being hurried along past all the paintings I really wanted to look at. So as soon as I had a day free between exam marking and writing my thesis, I headed into the city to the National Gallery of Victoria.

As you enter the exhibition, there’s a video playing on the big screens, footage of various landscapes during the seasons providing a visually appealing backdrop to the narration by David Stratton. Also included are letters and comments from Van Gogh, read by David Wenham. Much of the information in here is freely available online and in books but it was a nice addition to the exhibition for those who might have been less familiar with aspects of Van Gogh’s personal life. There are also some tablets set up where visitors can scroll through an interactive timeline of the artist’s life accompanied by sketches and photographs.

The first main room has a number of prints and engravings by other artists that were owned by and/or inspired Van Gogh, including some beautiful prints by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige. I hadn’t seen much work in this style before now so I found the almost illustrative style of these landscapes and figures particularly beautiful. Once I’d spent time perusing these prints, I moved on into the main section of the exhibition where Van Gogh’s works were displayed. Throughout the exhibition are sections of text displayed on the walls, providing more details about specific paintings or series of paintings as well as the artist in general.

Unsurprisingly, many of Van Gogh’s most famous works – such as The Starry Night, Irises, Cafe Terrace at Night, Vase with Sunflowers – are absent from this exhibition; given their value, I’d imagine whichever museum or private collector owns them would be reluctant to let them out of their sight. Some of the paintings that were on show at the NGV included Still Life with a Basket of Apples and Two Pumpkins, one of his Self Portraits from 1887, River Bank in Springtime, and Avenue of Poplars in Autumn. Some of my favourites included The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow (1985) for its muted, misty qualities and bleak atmosphere, and Bowl with Peonies and Roses because of its loosely textured background and flower petals. The paintings are all arranged by season – as the title of the exhibition would suggest – and together they convey Van Gogh’s fascination with the way nature’s cycles influence and parallel our own lives.

Though it’s easy enough to look at photos of paintings online, it’s just not the same as being able to see the art in person. When you look at a painting on a computer monitor, you don’t see the textures, the rich brush strokes, the subtle blends of colour within each area of the painting. Some that I particularly loved were Orchard in Blossom, The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital and Flowering Meadow with Trees and Dandelions, where the short, sharp strokes created an almost illustrative style. The Green Vineyard also drew me to it with its brightly coloured, thickly applied paint; so much paint has been slathered on that the foliage look almost three dimensional, and areas of the sky look like they were blended with the artist’s fingers rather than with a brush.

As I left the exhibition, I couldn’t resist picking up a few souvenirs featuring some of the key works, The Wheat Field with Cypresses and View of Saintes-Maries.

Apparently Van Gogh is one of the fastest-selling exhibitions in Australia, with 150,000 visitors coming to the NGV in a little over a month. If you have any interest in Impressionism, it’s worth going along to the Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition. It provides an interesting look into the Dutch artist’s life and it’s a rare opportunity to get a close look at paintings by one of history’s most renowned artists.

The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria runs from April 28 to July 9, 2017.

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Soft Pastels: Conté Crayons (review)

I ordered this set of Conté Crayons from Jerry’s Artarama to push my order over the line into the next discount bracket, which effectively made the box free. I thought the little drawer-based box was cute, and as I hadn’t tried any Conté products before, I wanted to see what they were like.

The full range has about 80 colours with a decent variety of hues. Here’s the colour chart for the 18 colours I have (the small brown sketching box contains duplicates of the white, black and two browns in my larger set).

Though they’re called Conté “Crayons”, these are not crayons at all. They are actually hard pastels like the Derwent or Faber-Castell pastels. I suspect they’re also similar to the Cretacolor hard pastels, though I haven’t tried those. They feel about the same as the FC ones, a little smoother than Derwent pastels. Even though they’re firm, they are still smooth to draw with, and easy to blend by rubbing slightly with a finger.

As I mentioned in my review for the Derwent pastels, the Derwent pastels seem to have been discontinued (both in sets and in open stock), and the Faber-Castell pastels have had their range slashed from 120 to 60 and are seemingly now only available in sets, not individually. Conté Crayons, on the other hand, are available in open stock and in sets. For this reason, Conté Crayons are worth looking into if you like using hard pastels, as it’ll be easy to replace a colour or buy a set if you need to; at around the $2.50 mark per ‘crayon’ (depending on where you buy them) the price between Conté Crayons and Faber-Castell pastels (if you can even find the latter) is negligible.

I haven’t done a proper lightfastness test, but I did have a sketch I did with these sticks many years ago which I’d left sitting on the sidebench in the spare room and promptly forgotten about. When I came back to it a bit under a year later, I couldn’t see any noticeable fading. Though it wasn’t in direct bright sunlight, it was still a reasonably sunny room, so the fact there was no fading suggests that their lightfastness is at least reasonable (though I’d want to do a proper test with some swatches in my front window to confirm).

Here’s a little sketch I did today with the Conté Crayons.

Whether you want some hard pastels to use under softer pastels or just to use on their own for quick pastel sketches, Conté Crayons are a solid investment. The compact size of the sets makes them excellent for drawing on the go, and their texture allows for fine detailed lines as well as smooth blends. It’s worth buying a small set to add to your drawing supplies and see if you like them enough to upgrade to a larger set.

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Brushes: Silver Black Velvet Brushes (review)

I watch a few art channels on YouTube, and several of the watercolour artists use Silver Black Velvet brushes. While I know that practice is at least as important as the tools you use (ie. there’s no magic brush that will make you paint better) I did like the look of the brushes, and at the time the only non-synthetic brushes I owned were a Jackson’s Squirrel Mop and a Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky sable I got free with an order from Jerry’s Artarama years ago, so I decided to get one.

The first Silver Black Velvet brush I got was the size 10 round (top brush in the above photo). I liked it so much I later bought the 3/4 inch wash, and then, when I started doing bigger watercolour pieces than the postcard sized works I usually did, I bought a 1.5 inch wash brush as well.

The bristles are a blend of natural squirrel hair and black synthetic fibre, and the combination produces a perfect balance – at least to my mind – between soft and springy. The softness means it’s easy to get subtle, delicate blending, especially wet in wet, and the springiness helps it snap back and keep their shape, so achieving fine controlled marks presents no real challenge. It’s firm enough that you can use it to scrub at dried watercolour for lifting techniques, but soft enough that it won’t damage the surface of the paper. The bristles hold a lot of water or paint, which allows you to paint for longer without having to dip the brush in the water or palette again.

In addition to being wonderful to paint with, these brushes are just really nicely made, and they look good, too. The wooden handles feel sturdy in the hand and the black finish with silver accents makes them look like the high quality painting tools they are.

Unfortunately, buying these brushes will be difficult if you don’t live in America. So far I’ve been unable to find anywhere that sells them in either the UK or Australia, and postage costs from the few US art supply retailers push them into the ‘too expensive’ category. The only way I was able to buy any was from a single seller on eBay. They were still expensive when purchased that way, but no more so than natural bristle brushes purchased from local retailers.

Silver Black Velvet brushes are difficult (and expensive) to find outside of America, but if you can get your hands on them, they are worth every cent. If you’re a watercolour artist and you have some money to spare, you owe it to yourself to at least try one Silver Black Velvet brush.

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Watercolours: Seascape (demonstration)

Time for another art demonstration! I found an old picture of my Nan and I at the beach many years ago, and while I didn’t want to paint any figures, I thought the beach scene itself was simple yet appealing enough that it would make a good watercolour painting. Once the painting was finished, I decided I had taken enough progress photos that I could turn it into a demonstration post, so here we go. As always, remember you can substitute the colours I’ve used here for the equivalent colours you already have in your palette.

Schmincke Horadam Watercolours:
-Ultramarine Finest
-Permanent Green Olive
-Yellow Ochre
-Burnt Umber
-Payne’s Grey Bluish

Winsor & Newton Watercolours:
-Cobalt Blue

Lukas Gouache:
-Chinese White

-Silver Black Velvet 3/4 inch flat
-Silver Black Velvet size 10 round
-Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable size 4 round
-Creative Mark Ebony Splendor size 2 round

300gsm rough press watercolour paper (I used Saunders Waterford by St Cuthbert’s Mill). You can do it in whatever size you like but I did it on a block 5″ X 7″.

Other Equipment
Masking Tape
Greylead pencil (HB or 2B)

Step 1

Mask off the outside border of the paper with masking tape. Use a ruler to draw the horizon line about two-thirds down the page and the outline of the headland (don’t press too hard with the pencil). You might also want to lightly sketch the shoreline along the bottom. Put another piece of masking tape across the horizon line (the top of the masking tape should be aligned with the horizon line). The sky area needs to be done quickly to avoid ugly hard lines forming, so it’s probably best to mix up puddles of the colours you need before you start, so you don’t waste time mixing while the wash dries. Make one puddle of Cobalt Blue, a little puddle of Yellow Ochre (or Raw Sienna, if you have that instead) and a larger puddle of Ultramarine Finest and Burnt Umber mixed into a bluish grey.

Use a large flat brush to put a clean wash of water over the whole sky area. Working quickly, before it dries, use a size 10 round brush to put in the Cobalt Blue for the blue areas of sky. Rinse your brush and pick up your grey mixture of Ultramarine and Burnt Umber and dab this along the bottom of the clouds to create the shapes, concentrating the darkest parts in the middle and right of the cloud formations. Rinse and dry your brush and use it to gently move some of the grey up higher into the clouds to create a lighter grey. Rinse and dry your brush one more time before picking up a small amount of Yellow Ochre and lightly dusting it along the top edges of the clouds to show the sunlight hitting them. Let this dry thoroughly. Make a dark mixture of Paynes Grey Bluish and Burnt Umber to paint in the distant headland with a size 4 round (if this isn’t dark enough, you may need to go over it again once it is dry with a stronger mix of the same colours). Again, let this dry thorough. Once it has, remove the masking tape across the horizon.

Step 2
The next step will require more wet-into-wet blending like the clouds above, so mix up separate puddles of three colours: Ultramarine Finest, Permanent Green Olive and Yellow Ochre. Wet the ocean area with clean water, then pick up each of these colours and apply them with horizontal strokes, letting them overlap in places while still remaining pure in others. The colours should generally be lighter the closer they are to shore. Apply Yellow Ochre in the bottom corner for the sand (leave a strip of white between the sea and the sand for where the reflections will go; this strip should get wider as it moves to the left and gets closer to the viewer). Blend a little Burnt Umber into the very bottom right corner. Let the painting dry.

(side note: apologies for the oversaturation of this photo, I’m not sure why my iPad camera distorted it so much. The painting isn’t this bright in person.)

Step 3
Go over the sea area again with the same colours you used above, dropping a little Paynes Grey Bluish in along the horizon on the left. Create a puddle using all three of your sea colours and add a little Paynes Grey Bluish (the colour you end up with should be a bit darker than the sea areas). Using a mostly dry size 4 round brush, pick up some of this dark sea colour and add some horizontal strokes to show the shadowed areas of some incoming waves. Once these have dried thoroughly, use a size 2 brush to carefully brush some Chinese White gouache along the tops of the waves for the foam (flick it down in a few places to show it crashing down) and in a few other areas to indicate light sparkling on the water.

Wash clean water along the white area between the sea and the sand, making it overlap onto the sand a bit and leaving a narrow, uneven strip of dry white paper at the water’s edge. Using your grey cloud mix of Ultramarine Finest and Burnt Umber, drop some grey into this to show the clouds reflecting in the wet sand (make it darker along the right side, where the clouds are darkest). Drop in some Cobalt Blue in a few places on the left.

Now all that’s left is to sign your name, which you can do with a size 2 round and a slightly darker mix of Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber.

Thus ends today’s art demonstration. Though it may look challenging, watercolour can be made easier by mixing up your colours before you start painting, so you don’t have to worry about your wet washes drying on you before you can mix the next colour. Until next time, happy painting!

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Books: Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson (review)

Something I’ve always struggled with in art is letting myself paint loosely and not getting bogged down with perfection and realism. Though I do enjoy painting and drawing (or at least trying to paint and draw) realistic art, I also want to paint in a more expressionist or Impressionist style, but every time I try, my subconscious takes over and demands that I make everything accurate and detailed. As a result, I ended up with a painting that’s neither realistic or Impressionist but is just a colourful mess.

Though I know that instruction books aren’t a magic solution – you still have to put the effort in and practice to become good at something – I thought it might be worth picking up a book about Impressionist painting to see if there were any tips or tricks I could learn. A quick Google search yielded a number of results for various books, and I ended up buying Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson.

The first parts of the book provide a brief history of Impressionism and some of the key artists (like Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Renoir) of the movement and how their work evolved. It also looks at the sorts of tools and materials (including the paints and particular colours) they used and their techniques. I found the historical aspect quite interesting – even though I was familiar with some of it – and it was interesting to look at the different styles and preferred subject matter between artists within the Impressionist movement. The materials and tools sections also talked about modern day equivalents, so the reader can go out and buy what they need in any art shop if they want to attempt the exercises in the book.

A little over half of the book is taken up by demonstrations painted in an Impressionist style by the author, Jonathan Stephenson. A lot of art demonstration books annoy me because they have one or two little pictures of the painting in progress, followed by a full page shot of the finished painting, proclaiming “Look how easy it is to paint this!” Though some of the progress shots in this book are small, most are a decent size, and there are a lot that show close-ups of the detail and brush strokes used. There are 25 demonstrations in the book, each based on the style of one of the key Impressionist artists and ranging in subject from landscapes and still lifes to portraits and figures. Most of them are done in oil paints but there are a couple that use acrylics or pastels. The accompanying explanations and descriptions for the pictures provide a good idea of how the artist completed each stage of the artwork, making it fairly easy for even a relatively inexperienced artist to follow along.

Paint with the Impressionists by Jonathan Stephenson is a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in Impressionist painting. I got a second-hand copy off eBay for about $11 but a new copy from the Book Depository only costs about $22. Those who are purely interested in a historical perspective will enjoy the information about how the movement got started and how the original impressionist artists liked to work, while those who want to learn to paint in an Impressionist style will find the comprehensive demonstrations throughout the book helpful and fun to paint along with. I’m looking forward to applying the techniques from this book to some landscapes and still lifes of my own.

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Art Roundup: May 2017

So far this blog has been structured almost entirely around art supply reviews and art demonstrations, with the odd article or opinion piece thrown in for good measure. This has been deliberate; my brain likes structure, with every post having a proper category and no post being an ‘odd one out’ in terms of how it should be categorised, but as I’ve been doing more paintings recently, I’ve started to realise the limitations of this structure. Whenever I post art, it’s usually in the form of a demonstration post – showing all the steps I went through to create the finished piece – or in the form of an art supply review, thrown in at the end as a ‘sample’ painting or drawing to illustrate what I did with the art material I’d just spent a whole post waffling about. But when I created art with supplies I’d already reviewed or couldn’t be bothered reviewing at that time, I didn’t really have a category for it.

Hence I’ve decided to create the monthly Art Roundups, where I’ll post any new art I create in a given month that hasn’t been used in a review or a demonstration. Depending on how much art I create each month, I may also include art that was used in reviews and demonstrations so it’s easier to find for those who just want to see the art and don’t care about the supplies used. Depending on how lazy I am, I might eventually go back and create Art Roundup posts for past months as well.

Anyway, here are the new things I’ve painted or drawn in May, 2017.

Spring by the Lake – Winsor & Newton Artists Watercolours
This landscape was my first real attempt at a looser, more impressionist landscape. Though I love the impressionist style, my brain always demands that I make things look realistic and detailed, so I struggle to let myself work more freely. Though there are things about it I’d change if I did it again, I’m quite happy with how it turned out, and it was good practice for watercolours, which I find the most difficult medium to use. I also thought I’d ruined the painting at one stage by overworking a section, but in the end I managed to save it, and I think that the corrected area isn’t visible to most people.

T-Rex – Daniel Smith Watercolours
As I often do, I was dicking around on Twitter one day instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing: marking assignments. I Tweeted that I didn’t know what to paint and one of my friends told me to paint a dinosaur… so I did. I ended up ‘selling’ the dinosaur to said friend in exchange for churros and hot chocolate.

Reflections on the Shore – Schmincke Watercolours
I’ve painted a few seascapes in acrylics and oils but I hadn’t painted a watercolour seascape, so I decided to attempt one. I didn’t get the structure of the clouds quite right (and I couldn’t really fix it since I know I would have ended up overworking it and making it worse) but otherwise it came out alright, I think. It was loosely based on an old photo I took with my grandparents many years ago, when we were at the beach near their house. I do think it came out much nicer than the original painting I did for my review of Schmincke watercolours, so I’m going to go back and replace that painting with this one.

That’s it for this month’s art roundup. I do have a few other pieces in progress but I’ll wait til I actually finish them to post them. Now that I’ve finished teaching for the semester I’m hoping to have more time for art, but since I’m now off intermission, much of my time will now be taken up by research.

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