Skyscape Baubles: Starry Mountains

Time for the third in my Skyscape Baubles series! I’m having fun painting these, as well as finding them nice and relaxing after a day of stressing over research-related stuff.

Starry Mountains
The third in my Skyscape Baubles series is Starry Mountains. I’ve seen the starry sky motif on a few different things lately, from leggings to pencil cases, and after randomly browsing various photos of different coloured nebulae, I thought the subtle and beautiful colours would lend themselves well to watercolours. I also thought the pale blues and dark greys of a mountain would suit the deep blue-black of the night sky. The small stars were painted by splattering white gouache, with the larger ones having more detail added with a fine brush.

“Starry Mountains”. Schmincke watercolours and Art Spectrum Gouache.

Hope you liked my third Skyscape Bauble painting. I’m hoping to add more to my blog soon. This design (along with my other Skyscape Baubles) are also available on my Society6 store.

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Skyscape Baubles: Desert Sunrise

Since my Aurora Forest Skyscape Bauble got a pretty good reception, I was eager to keep painting more pictures in the series, especially since they’re quite small and easy for me to actually finish (which is good for my reduced attention span at the moment thanks to our boisterous puppy).

Desert Sunrise
I wanted to do something brighter and lighter as a change from the dark colours I used in my first bauble, so I decided the mellow tones of a sunrise would be interesting to do. Some time last year I tried to do a desert painting in acrylics, and while the painting failed, I still liked the colours, so I used the same soft purples, blues and pinks for the sky, as well as the brighter yellows and oranges for the sunlit horizon. The ground was done in three layers, with each successive layer being darker as it got closer to the camera. I wasn’t aiming to replicate any particular desert but I’ve always liked the beautiful rock structures in Monument Valley so I put in a rough imitation of one, along with a few cacti and scraggly shrubs.

“Desert Sunrise”. Schmincke watercolours.

Keep an eye on my blog for more Skyscape Baubles in the future. In the mean time, you can get this design and others on my Society6 store.

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artdragon86 now has a Society6 Store!

I have now set up an account on Society6 in order to sell some of my artwork as prints and on other everyday items. This way people who like my art but can’t afford to buy the original (or who I can’t afford to post to because they live overseas and the postage from Australia is too expensive) can still enjoy it on stationery and kitchenware products, or on home decor items and tech accessories.

Here are just a few of the products and designs available so far:

Click here to visit my Society6 store, or just search “artdragon86” on the Society6 site. (at the moment several of my items don’t seem to show in my storefront by default so you’ll need to use the Department and Products dropdown boxes to search for particular designs on some products)

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Top Tips: Watercolours

I’ve waffled on at great length about how to choose your colours, what sort of palette to get, and so on, especially in regard to watercolours, but as I continue to explore and develop my skills in the medium, I realise there are some things I do that make things easier (and some that, I have come to learn, actually make things more difficult). While I’m not the first artist to have these ‘epiphanies’ (and I know I won’t be the last), I thought it might be helpful to put together a list of things that I have found to be good habits or at least useful things to keep in mind when it comes to painting with watercolours, especially since this month is World Watercolour Month.

1. Use Two Jars of Water
This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me when I first started. I often found myself becoming frustrated when I’d go to wet my paper with a clear wash, only to find it contaminated with whatever colour I’d rinsed out in my jar last. By keeping two jars of water in your painting area, you can use one to rinse out your brush, and the other to pick up clean water for laying down clear washes or mixing fresh colours.

On a side note, if you’re not going to be using the jars for a while, make sure you empty and rinse them and dry them out. One time I’d put the lid on a jar of dirty water with the intention of ‘cleaning it later’, only to forget about it for several months, at which point I opened it and discovered a thriving metropolis of mold so pervasive I ended up having to dispose of the jar.

My two watercolour jars.

2A. Let Masking Fluid Dry Completely Before Painting
If you know you need to reserve the white of your paper in some places, it can be easier to cover them with masking fluid rather than trying to paint around it. As tempting as it can be to put down the masking fluid brush and immediately start slathering water all over the paper, you need to wait until the masking fluid is completely dry, otherwise it will (at best) fail to protect your paper from unwanted colour and (at worst) mingle with paint in the surrounding areas, which can create unpredictable and unpleasant effects or irregularities in your washes. The drying time may vary depending on the brand, humidity and temperature but I tend to find that it has thoroughly dried after 20 minutes. This leads me to:
2B. Avoid Leaving Masking Fluid on for more than 24 Hours
Some bottles of masking fluid will have a warning to not leave it on the paper for more than 24 hours. While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, it is still a pretty good guideline to follow. Masking fluid has to bond to the paper in order to stop paint from getting under it and staining the paper you want to protect, but the longer you leave it on, the more it seems to continue bonding to the paper. As a result, if you leave it on for more than a day or two, it can be really difficult to remove; masking fluid that’s been on for less than a day can usually be rubbed off easily with an eraser or even your finger and will often come up in a handful of large pieces, but masking fluid that has been left for days tends to flake and fragment when you try to remove it, making it a lot more difficult and time-consuming to remove. Also, depending on the type of watercolour paper you’re using, removing masking fluid that has dried onto it too thoroughly can actually damage the paper. If you’re leaving that area white, this may not be an issue, but often artists reserve an area while they put in a dark background so they can come back later and pain that area with lighter colours. The damage to the paper can show up as ugly or uneven texture in this area of pale colour, which can be difficult (if not impossible) to cover.

One of my paintings in progress, with masking fluid on the birch trunks.

3. Don’t Cheap Out on Paper
I think I’ve touched on this in one of my earlier articles, but it’s important enough that I feel it’s worth reiterating here. When it comes to the holy trinity of watercolour supplies – paints, brushes and paper – paper is probably the most important one (which comes next out of the other two is a subject much debated on art forums, and even I would likely give a different answer depending on what mood I was in when asked). When I first started painting with watercolours, I was almost perpetually frustrated by the fact that when I used the same techniques or even the same paints I saw professional artists on YouTube using, my colours just never looked as ‘fresh’ on the paper as theirs did. It didn’t matter how hard I practiced or what quality paint I used, I just felt like I’d hit a wall and wasn’t getting any better, and I couldn’t understand why.

Funnily enough, it was laziness that led to my “come to Jesus” moment; I saw blocks of St Cuthbert’s Mill Saunders Waterford on sale in an art supply shop in the city, and because I always get annoyed at having to soak and stretch and tape down paper from pads, I bought a small one, figuring that having all four edges gummed down would eliminate both the buckling when washes were applied and the need for stretching to avoid it. When I started painting on it, I suddenly found that my paints were actually doing what I wanted them to, my brush strokes looked like professional brush strokes, and my colours looked vibrant and luminous. I realised that I wasn’t having to fight the cheap paper anymore, and was able to just get on with painting. Artist grade paper not only holds water better and more evenly, it’s also usually more durable, so the paper is far less likely to be damaged by any scrubbing and lifting techniques (which might be used to create texture or correct mistakes), or to pill or disintegrate if you apply multiple heavy washes.

While cheap paper can have its uses (for example, practicing brush strokes or testing new colour mixes), it’s a false economy to buy and use it for ‘proper’ paintings. Not only will the resulting painting be underwhelming in a lot of cases, it can frustrate new watercolour artists to the point where they give up on the medium entirely. You don’t need to buy the most expensive artist grade paper but if you’re serious about watercolours, it’s worth spending a bit extra on good paper to make sure you get the most enjoyment out of it.

Various watercolour paper from my drawer: The cheap and nasty Eraldo di Paolo, the mid-range student grade Daler-Rowney Aquafine, and the artist grade Saunders Waterford by St Cuthbert’s Mill.

4. It’s Better to Underwork a Painting than Overwork it
Once again, this is more of a guideline than a rule (and there are probably valid arguments against it), but the more you ‘fiddle’ with a painting, the more you run the risk of ruining it by overworking it. Overworking can take various forms, but in my own experience, it’s usually when I’ve kept noodling at the details of a painting until one area looks too ‘busy’, or when I’ve brushed over an area too many times and the paper has started pilling (usually a problem with cheaper paper; see tip number 3 above) or the glazes have become muddy. This often happens when I’ve made a mistake and keep scrubbing the paint to remove it, only to repaint it and still not be happy with the result. While I’m not saying you should bin a painting as soon as you make an error – it is sometimes possible to correct watercolour paintings – there comes a time when you need to accept that it’s a lost cause and think about how you can apply the lessons you’ve learned in your next painting.

In terms of those who tend to tinker with paintings long after the point they should have left it alone, one thing you can try if you feel you’re close to finishing a painting but not quite satisfied with it is to let the painting sit for a day or two and look at it from a distance. This can help you to be more objective about the piece. If after this time you still think it needs more work, then you can go and do what needs to be done, but often you will find that the painting stands well enough on its own at this point, and any further additions are unnecessary and may even be detrimental to the painting. Think of it like writing a book; the author needs to tell the audience some things, but at least some of it should be left to the reader’s imagination. Unfortunately there’s no ‘formula’ to tell you the right time to put your brush down and step away from the painting; it’s something that will only come to you with practice.

One of my first decent watercolour paintings. I overworked some sections of the water and though I was mostly able to salvage it, I can still see some of the flaws.

5A. Timing is Everything
One of the most challenging thing for watercolour beginners is getting the timing right when layering washes or working wet into wet, and I still get it wrong sometimes. Unlike oil paint (which can pretty much be worked and reworked to your heart’s content) or acrylics (which dries quickly and becomes more or less permanent), watercolour dries very quickly but can still be reactivated if you’re not careful. Even if you’re adding colour to a wet wash, you still need to be careful of how quickly the paper dries, as half a minute or so can make or break your painting. A good rule of thumb to follow is that you should aim to either finish working on your wash before it is one-third dry, or wait until the area is completely dry before glazing another wash over it. When the paper is still mostly damp, any more colour you add to it should diffuse softly into the clear wash or existing colour on the paper, creating smooth transitions. However if you add wet colour to an area of colour that is more than one-third dry, the disparity in dampness between the new colour from your brush and the colour already on the paper will result in a hard edge where the colours meet. How long the paper will take to dry will depend on the paper you’re using, how much water you laid down and the ambient temperature where you’re painting, but usually you’ll have a 2-3 minute window from when you lay down your first wash to when it’s dried too much to add more colour without getting hard edges. This is closely related to:
5B. Each Brushstroke Should Contain Less Water than the Last
In addition to the water that’s already on the paper, you also need to be aware of how much water is in your brush. If you’re working wet-into-wet, the surface of your paper should already be wet, so there’s no need to add even more water. It can be tempting to add more water to make the new colour lighter if you’re afraid of going too dark (related note: see Tip 6), but you’re better off just picking up fresh paint straight from the tube or pan but just less of it, rather than diluting it further. If you add the straight or nearly-straight colour to the wash, it’ll diffuse and blend with the existing wash. However if you add a lot of water, the new water will displace the existing wash and push it into unpleasant patterns with harsh outlines, especially if the existing wash is more than half dry.

To understand both of these principles, let’s look at the sample swatches below. In the first one (on the left), I allowed the green to dry completely before I applied the red, fading it from right to left, using less pigment and more water as I went, until it appeared to blend smoothly into the green. In the second swatch, I applied the green and then immediately blended in the red from the right, so it merged with the still-wet green for a gradual transition (I also didn’t pick up as much water in my brush when I picked up the red). In the final swatch, I applied the red when the green was only about half dry, using a brush loaded with a lot of water. This resulted in the ugly hard edges between the two colours, which were unable to blend properly.

From left to right: Wet into dry; Wet into wet; Wet into semi-dry.

6. Watercolours Get Lighter As They Dry
Another common mistake beginners make is using washes that are too weak. This is usually down to one of two factors: either they are scared of ‘wasting’ paint, so they’re stingy with how much they put into their mixes, or they judge the colours by how they look when they’re wet instead of taking into account the fact that watercolours look different when they dry. Lighter colours like yellows will often look more or less the same dry as they do wet, but the darker a colour gets, the bigger the difference there will be between its wet and dry states; some colours can look up to 30% lighter when dry. As you practice with your watercolours you’ll eventually come to know how much paint you need to mix up wet to achieve the desired saturation and intensity when dry but as a rule, it’s better to make your wash a little stronger and darker than you think it needs to be.

Two swatches of Dioxazine Violet. The dry swatch on the left is noticeably lighter and less intense than the fresh, wet swatch on the right.

I hope some of these hints and tips are helpful to anyone who is just starting out on their watercolour journey. It can be a challenging medium, but if you put in the time and effort to understand it, it can also be very rewarding.

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Skyscape Baubles: Aurora Forest

After not drawing or painting much for a few months because of uni commitments, I got out my watercolours and spent an evening just mucking around to see what I could come up with. Many of my efforts resulted in work that went straight in the recycling bin, but after a while, I decided to get out the packet of handmade watercolour paper my friend had sent to me from Italy. I had seen a few different paintings on Instagram where the artist had painted a landscape or skyscape within a circle, so I thought I’d have a go at one. I was quite happy with how it turned out, and figured I had enough ideas (and enough of the handmade watercolour paper) for other similar paintings to turn it into a series.

Aurora Forest
The first in my Skyscape Bauble series is an Aurora Borealis. I wanted to do something with green in it as I found that I hadn’t used that colour much in my set, and I’d caught bits and pieces of the northern lights in some nature documentary Dad was watching on TV. Earlier in the day I’d also watched an artist on YouTube paint some pine trees, and though they were more detailed than what I ended up painting, I felt the dark, angular shapes of these trees would go well with the ethereal background of the Aurora Borealis. I think I overworked some parts of the green lights but it turned out well enough; someone has already called dibs on buying the painting.

“Aurora Forest”. Schmincke watercolours.

That’s the first of my Skyscape Baubles. Keep an eye on my blog for more, as I’ll be posting each new one under the same tag as I paint them. You can get this design (as well as other paintings I’ve done) on my Society6 store as prints or on various products.

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Sketching Media: Cretacolor Creativo Drawing Set (review)

Though I mostly prefer working in colour, every now and then I go through a phase of feeling that I should practice sketching in monochrome, or at least using limited colours, to improve my drawing skills. When I mention this, artists usually tell me to try charcoal, which I have in the past and utterly loathed (it’s basically like having the sound of someone scratching their nails on a chalkboard in stick form). When one of the online art supply retailers I buy from had a sale on sketching sets, I picked up one of the Cretacolor Drawing sets to try.

There are a few Drawing sets in Cretacolor’s range, some of which are purely monochrome and some of which have the usual array of sketching colours (sepias, sanguines etc). The sets range from 10 to 35 pieces, but I got the Creativo set, which includes 27 pieces. Here are my swatches for all the items in the set.

As you can see, 12 of the pieces are the Pastels Carres, or hard pastels. There are also three watersoluble graphite pencils (Graphite Aquarell), some charcoal and chalk pencils and a few sanguine and sepia pencils, as well as accessories like a paper blending stump, a sharpener and a kneaded eraser, all of which are good staples to add to a sketcher’s arsenal. My set also included a sample bit of sandpaper, which can be useful for sharpening pastel pencils. Make sure you look at the contents descriptions for each set though. In most cases when you have various sized sets in the same range, the larger sets usually include everything in the smaller sets, plus some extra stuff, but that’s not the case here. For example, there are items in the Artino (10 piece) set that aren’t in the Creativo set, and items in the Creativo set that aren’t in the large 35 piece Ultimo set.

The pastels are similar to the Derwent or Faber-Castell pastel blocks in firmness and texture; when it comes to soft pastels, these are definitely at the harder end of the spectrum. This means they’re a little crumbly and some felt a bit scratchy (especially the black one), but they still smudged and blended when rubbed with a finger, even if not as easily as soft pastels do. I felt that several of the browns were very similar in hue and value, and it would have been nice if a grey pastel or two had been included instead of so many almost-duplicated colours.

The watersoluble graphite pencils included in the tin were HB, 4B and 8B, and all went down smoothly. They also dissolved cleanly when water was applied, unlike a lot of watersoluble coloured pencils which tend to leave the residue of pencil strokes visible. You can buy various brands of watersoluble graphite pencil pretty easily and cheaply in most art supply stores, but if you’ve never tried them before, this is a good introduction to them.

I was most interested in the various chalk and charcoal pencils that came with the set. A I still enjoy using my Cretacolor Artists’ Leads occasionally, but I find them a bit fiddly in terms of having to stop and take a lead out of the holder and put a new one in every time I want to use a different one. All the varieties in that lead set are represented as pencils in this Creativo Drawing set, including the two wonderful Sepias and the oil Sanguine I really liked. There are also three chalk pencils (a black and two white, though I can’t see the difference between the two white ones), which, though they feel a little dry, still go down smoothly enough. The charcoal pencil included unfortunately didn’t do anything to change my dislike of charcoal because it still has that scratchy feel I loathe, as does, to a lesser extent, the dry Sanguine pencil. The tin also included a Nero pencil, which I’d never tried or heard of before. After doodling with it a bit and deciding that I liked it, I looked it up on the internet and discovered that it’s an oil-based charcoal pencil. This means you can get darker marks than with normal graphite but without the crumbly scratchiness of charcoal, though it doesn’t smudge and blend that well. These pencils apparently come in four grades, of which I got the Medium. I would have liked to get Extra Soft instead as it seems to be the darkest, but I can just buy one open stock (even if they are a bit dear for individual pencils).

The sharpener had a good blade and did a nice job sharpening one of the white chalk pencils I used, without damaging the core or the wooden barrel. I didn’t bother using the kneadable eraser as I already have one that I’m using but I expect it’ll perform the same as any other kneadable eraser. I also didn’t use the blending stump as I’m lazy/messy and just use my fingers, but I guess one blending stump is much the same as another anyway.

Here are some sketches I did with the Creativo Drawing Set (all on Stonehenge Vellum texture drawing paper).

Rocks from Rosco. Cretacolor pastels.

Half Pan. Cretacolor watersoluble graphite pencils.

Mushrooms for Lunch. Assorted Cretacolor chalk and pastel pencils.

For anyone who wants to get started in monochrome or limited colour sketching but isn’t sure what tools to buy to begin with, I’d recommend getting one of these Cretacolor Drawing sets. Even the small ones include a nice variety of good quality products for you to try, and the price is reasonable. Since they include erasers and other helpful items like sharpeners and blending stumps (at least for the bigger sets), you will pretty much have everything you need in one tin to go out and start sketching.

Posted in Materials, Pastel Pencils, Pastels, Pencils and Blocks, Reviews, Sketching Media, Soft Pastels | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watercolours: Butterfly on Milkweed (demonstration)

Every now and then I ask my friends on Twitter or Facebook to give me photos of birds or flowers or other stuff I can use as a reference for a painting or drawing, and I usually end up with some nice pictures to add to my collection. The painting in this demonstration is based on a few photos submitted by Blaze O’Rama, of different types of Milkweed and some Monarch butterflies.

Da Vinci Watercolours
-Viridian Green

Dick Blick Watercolours
-Lemon Yellow

M Graham Watercolours
-Quinacridone Rose

Winsor & Newton Watercolours
-Permanent Magenta
-Payne’s Grey

Art Spectrum Gouache

Silver Black Velvet Wash size 1.5 inch
Jackson’s Sky Wash size XL
Alvaro Castagnet NEEF Mop size 2
Silver Black Velvet Round size 10
Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable Round size 4
Isabey Kolinsky Sable Round size 3/0

Schmincke Masking Fluid
Masking Tape
Salt (small but slightly varied sized grains or flakes are best) (NB: Some artists have said that salt can increase the rate at which the paper degrades. This is the first time I have used it in a piece of art so I haven’t tested this theory myself. However if this is something that worries you, perhaps try just dropping in some clean droplets of water (or even using a fine mist sprayer) while the background paint is drying to achieve a similar effect.)

Arches Watercolour Paper – 300gsm Hot (180X260mm)

Step 1
After working out the composition, transfer the lines to your watercolour paper. Apply masking fluid to the flower, leaf and butterfly, and let it dry. Wet the entire sheet of paper using a large soft brush and clean water, then drop in Viridian Green and Permanent Magenta in various areas in the background. Try to ensure the area within the flower petals is mostly Permanent Magenta. Let this dry completely, and then add a bit of Paynes Grey to both the colours you used above and go over the background again, dropping some Quinacridone Rose into the flower area. While the paper is still wet, scatter some salt over some areas of the background. Let the paper dry thoroughly, and then brush the salt away and remove the masking fluid.

Step 2
Once you remove the masking fluid, you may need to straighten the lines of the stem (as I did). Using a slightly wet small flat brush on its side, run it along the outer edge of the stem, picking up some of the dark grey background colour and spreading it along until the stem looks straight and even.

In the dark pink area inside the flower, use a wet brush with stiff bristles and a clean, dry tissue to lift paint in straight lines, radiating from the centre of the flower outwards. This will help create the impression of stalks within the flower but you don’t want them to stand out too much, so if they’re a bit faint or blurry, so much the better. Using a very pale wash of Quinacridone Rose, colour in the petals, leaving some white highlights here and there. Add a darker wash of this in a few places to show the shadows on the other side of the petals, but make sure that even the darkest shadows are still lighter than the interior of the flower. Don’t worry about making the petals too accurate or detailed as we want the focus to be on the butterfly.

With a light mix of Viridian Green and Lemon Yellow, paint the stem of the flower and the leaf and let it dry. Add more Viridian Green to make a darker green and paint another layer over the leaf, leaving the main vein as a lighter colour. For a little variation, while this is still wet, drop small amounts of Burnt Sienna and pure Lemon Yellow into a spot or two to create speckles on the leaf’s surface. Once this dries, use the stiff bristled brush scrub out a few smaller, more faint veins on the leaf and then dab with a clean tissue to make the veins more pronounced.

Step 3
Draw in the details on the butterfly’s wings. When I originally traced the butterfly’s outline onto the paper, I had already drawn the details on the tracing paper, so I just lined up the outline and went over the rest of the details to get the stripes and spots. Make sure you dab it gently with a kneadable eraser to lift any loose, excess bits of graphite, as you don’t want it to muddy the watercolours. You may want to apply masking fluid to the white areas of the butterfly’s wings, but I didn’t bother; I just painted around them where I could, and decided I’d apply white gouache later if I needed to. Using a pale mix of Lemon Yellow and Quinacridone Rose, paint most of the butterfly’s wings in a light orange, going over it in a few places with a darker mix of the same colour. Wait for this to dry, and then paint the black areas of the wings and the butterfly’s body using a very small brush (something smaller than a size 1 would be ideal). If you have black watercolour, you could use that here, but I just used Payne’s Grey. Once this dries, look at the white spots on the butterfly; if you discover you accidentally covered some of them up, as I did, use the same small brush to repaint the white spots using White gouache. Finally, mix a little white gouache with some leftover greenish or purplish grey from the background and sign your name in the lower corner.

I hope you enjoyed this watercolour demonstration and learned some useful new techniques. Until next time, happy painting 🙂

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