The Controversy of Convenience Colours

I am a member of a number of art groups on Facebook, but every now and then I join new groups or leave existing ones. My reasons for leaving are varied; sometimes the group just ‘dies’, and with no one really posting in there I see no reason to stay a member. Other times the moderator or admin are too pedantic about various posting policies which not only stifles discussion, it just makes it an unpleasant place to hang out.

And sometimes, as happened today, I leave because a seemingly large number of the members hold toxic views and will absolutely not listen to any logic or reason that might convince them to reconsider, instead choosing to abuse and harass anyone who has the audacity to make a comment they disagree with. I’m not going to name the group as I don’t think they deserve the extra traffic or air time, but the topic under discussion was ‘convenience’ colours, or specifically this group’s militant attitude against them. It’s not the first time I’ve come across such a hatred towards these colours, but it probably won’t be the last either, so I thought it was worth writing an article about it.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a convenience colour or mixture is a paint made up of two or more pigments. Many paint manufacturers (whether it’s oil paints, acrylics or watercolours) will proudly state how many of the colours in their line are single pigment mixtures, and for the most part, colours made with only one pigment are a good thing. If you know exactly what’s in the tube of paint you’ve bought, it’s easier to tell how it’s going to react or mix with other colours (the more pigments you mix together, the higher the chance you’ll end up with a muddy or at least less vibrant mixture than you were aiming for). You’re also less likely to run into problems with your colour changing over time if one of the pigments is less lightfast than the others and fades (see my watercolour lightfastness tests for examples of some Lukas multi-pigment colours changing because the red pigment used was fugitive).

A lot of artists seem to enjoy heaping scorn on those who use convenience mixtures, calling them lazy or otherwise questioning their skill or the quality of their art, but are these multi-pigment mixes really as bad as they’re made out to be?

Mixing colours takes time. Maybe not much time in the grand scheme of things, but it all adds up, especially if you’re new to painting and aren’t sure how much of each colour you need to mix to get the one you want. This means you not only take longer to mix colours, you also use up more paint (and for beginners who are often already anxious about ‘wasting’ their art supplies, this is not a good thing). Lots of people who are new to painting don’t know where to start when it comes to selecting colours, so they will often buy a set of colours put together by the manufacturer, and these sets often include convenience colours like Sap Green or Payne’s Grey. While I do take exception to the fact these sets often include fugitive colours as it would be better for beginners to learn with lightfast colours instead of learning with fugitive colours and then having to ‘relearn’ colour mixing later on when they decide they want to sell or display their art (dear paint manufacturers: STOP PUTTING ALIZARIN CRIMSON IN YOUR SETS! FFS) and I believe that sets should include as many single pigment colours as possible, some of the convenience colours can be really helpful for a beginner. Most sets I’ve seen that include a green will include either a Phthalo Green or a Sap Green, and nearly all sets seem to include a Phthalo Blue. Phthalo colours are very dominating and it can be difficult to mix colours with them, as you have to use more of the other colour than you think you would need. Pre-mixed colours are often less intense and can be easier to handle for new artists until they get used to mixing.

For some people, multi-pigment mixtures aren’t just a matter of convenience, but necessity. Various disabilities can mean that people have less energy or mobility issues that make mixing colours challenging, exhausting or even painful. I come across a lot of artists on YouTube and various blogs and forums and while their content focuses – for the most part – on their art and the supplies they use, some of the artists occasionally discuss their chronic illnesses or disabilities that impact how often they can make art and even how they have to set up their studio to make things easier for themselves. For most able-bodied people (like myself), painting is just a matter of going into your studio or setting up your watercolours or acrylics or whatever and starting to paint, and being able to do so is something we pretty much take for granted. But for people who have significant limits on their ability to do daily tasks, they need to be as efficient with their energy as possible; if they don’t spend so many spoons on mixing paint, they might be able to get more done in other aspects of their lives that day.

I can also provide a personal example of this. My artist grandmother doesn’t really do much painting anymore because the tremor in her hand has progressed to the point where she can only hold a brush for 10 or 20 minutes or so (on a good day) or not at all (on a bad day). However, in her younger years, she was often time poor, so time she saved from having to mix colours by being able to use a tube colour was extra time she could spend actually painting. Once her hand started to deteriorate, convenience colours allowed her to paint for longer before she had to stop for the day because her hand was too tired and shaky. Instead of having to mix a blue and a yellow or a phthalo green and a yellow, and then mix other colours into that mixture, she could just start with a tube green and then adjust it as necessary. While she has effectively given up painting now (preferring to sit with me when I paint and squeeze out colours when I need them), she has said that without convenience mixtures, she would have had to stop painting earlier than she actually did.

Some of my own convenience colours in various mediums.

Obviously if you use convenience colours and intend to sell or display your work, you should conduct your own lightfastness tests to see if they will change, but if you’re just doing sketches in journals or mucking around for fun, it doesn’t really matter. You may also find you have problems with some convenience colours – particularly greens – looking artificial or unnatural if you use them straight out of the tube, but most artists still add small amounts of other colours to convenience mixtures to get the colour they want. On a side note, it’s important to remember that different manufacturer’s versions of a particular convenience colour may vary wildly, so if you can, look at a colour chart online before buying a specific convenience colour in a different brand (for example, in the lightfastness tests I linked to above, there are three examples of Sap Green and all are completely different).

Also, even if you don’t really need to use convenience colours, sometimes they make things so much easier. I use a lot of dark grey, and rather than having to mix it all the time with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna (both colours I use frequently on their own or in other mixes), I find it so much easier to just use Payne’s Grey. I tend not to use convenience greens as I prefer to use a phthalo green and add yellows, reds or blues to make them look more natural, but I am fond of some convenience colours like Naples Yellow (which is sometimes made of a single pigment but is often made up of two or three colours) or various pale flesh tones. Even though I’ve been painting for a long time, I always find it tedious and difficult to mix a pale flesh tone I’m happy with in a timely manner and with a minimum of paint wastage, so why would I keep fart-arsing around trying to do so when I can just get a pre-mixed skin tone and add pinks, yellows or browns to it to get the exact colour I need?

I think if you can get single pigment mixtures and mix your own colours, you should try to do so where possible (not only for pure colours but also to gain a more thorough understanding of colour theory), and if you don’t wish to use paints with more than one pigment, that’s perfectly reasonable. However people shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or ashamed if they do use convenience mixtures. I mean, it’s right there in the name: ‘convenient’. For a lot of people, convenience is the difference between being able to paint and not having enough time or energy to paint, and I think that anything that helps more people make art should be considered a good thing.

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Watercolour Paper: St Cuthberts Mill Samples (product comparison)

A few weeks ago, St Cuthberts Mill posted about their new Millford paper on Instagram. Intrigued, I made some inquiries about it and they kindly sent me a little packet of samples of various types of paper from their line (I later discovered you can buy the same sample packet from Jackson’s in the UK for about 50 cents, so if you want to try these papers out yourself, you can do so without breaking the bank). I already use and love their Saunders Waterford rough press paper so I was keen to try out other papers from their range.

The sample packet included six sheets: three of Saunders Waterford (in hot press white, rough white and cold press high white),  two of Bockingford (cold press and rough, both white) and Millford (cold press white). All six sheets are 300gsm, or 140lb.

As these are just samples, they’re relatively small sheets (roughly A5 size) and have the information about them printed on the paper itself, with space in the middle to paint on them and experiment. It says you can use a variety of mediums with them, from acrylics and gouache to pencils and pastels, but as I am primarily a watercolour artist, that’s what I’m going to use to test these samples. They also sent a single A5 sheet of the Millford paper with no markings on it, so I’ll save that and use it for a proper painting (and probably do a more detailed review of it in a separate post).

In order to give a fair and accurate comparison, I painted the same scene on all six pieces of sample paper, using the same selection of brushes and paints. The watercolours I used were Winsor & Newton Artists watercolours, specifically, the following colours:

  • Winsor (Dioxazine) Violet
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Payne’s Grey

It was a quick sketch that took less than an hour for each piece, as I wanted to be able to use the same techniques and methods on each sheet of paper and I didn’t fancy doing six copies of a detailed, time-consuming painting. On some of them, I didn’t use dark enough colours in the water, but I still felt I was able to get a good idea of how each paper handles.

Bockingford Cold Press White
There seem to be a few watercolour paper manufacturers with a Bockingford line in their range. I have a few pads of Daler-Rowney Bockingford (cold press), which I mostly use for doing watercolour charts and thumbnail sketches as part of my planning for larger paintings. St Cuthberts Mill’s Bockingford cold press paper feels much the same as Daler-Rowney’s; it has a subtle but still discernible texture. It’s also a little bit brighter white than the Saunders Waterford papers. Colour can be lifted relatively easy, but it does buckle a lot when a heavy wash of water is applied (moreso than the Saunders Waterford). This was the second piece of paper I tested and I think I inadvertently used stronger concentrations of colour on this one than on the Saunders Waterford rough paper I tested first. One thing I found odd was that the colours seemed to separate more on this paper; for the trees on the misty bank in the background, I mixed a pale mauve from Cerulean Blue and Winsor Violet, but you can clearly see in this painting how the Cerulean Blue seemed to granulate and leave the Winsor Violet behind. I don’t know if this was caused by the paper but it was the same mix I used on the SW rough paper, so I don’t know what else it could have been.

Bockingford Rough White
This was the fifth sheet I tested. The same texture but more pronounced than the Bockingford cold press white, it created much more noticeable granulating effects, which are especially noticeable in the sky area and in the misty bank of trees in the background (which again seemed to separate out into the two colours I’d used to mix it). It took a little longer to dry than the Saunders Waterford papers, but it didn’t buckle as much as the cold press Bockingford, and it still allowed me to lift colour easily when I wanted to.

As with Daler-Rowney’s Bockingford paper, I suspect St Cuthberts Mill’s Bockingford paper is aimed at students or amateur painters. It’s also the cheapest at about $4.60 AUD per 56cm X 76cm sheet at Jackson’s (UK). It’s still acid free and archival, but not 100% cotton like the Saunders Waterford or the Millford. It is, however, noticeably whiter than the SW or Millford white papers (but not as bright as the SW high white). Even with the rough paper, I find the Bockingford texture to be smoother, more uniform (for lack of a better word) and slightly less absorbent than the Saunders Waterford. The Bockingford papers are available in sheets (individual and packets) and in pads and blocks.

Millford Cold Press White
This paper was apparently brought in to replace St Cuthberts Mill’s discontinued Whatman paper (which I never tried so I can’t comment on how similar they are). I left this one til last in my tests since it was something new, and at first I thought it seemed similar to the Saunders Waterford cold press paper in terms of texture, but once I started applying paint to it, I noticed it doesn’t absorb the paint as much as other papers do. The card says it’s “hard sized” which gives it a high resistance to water (according to their website). Indeed, the paint almost seemed to float on the surface, especially when I used thick, heavy washes (when I used less water it seemed to behave more or less normally). This meant some of my washes spread a little further than I wanted or intended them to, but it was still an interesting effect and it’s something you could get used to and learn to work with. It’s also noticeably whiter than the Saunders Waterford white papers; almost as white as their high white paper. The colours I used looked bolder and brighter on this paper but I’m not sure if it’s due to its whiteness or because of the different sizing. I should note that, like the SW hot press paper, the Millford paper suffered some damage after I pulled the masking tape off, even though it was only on there for an hour. Millford paper is about $7.60 AUD per 56cm X 76cm sheet at Jacksons, making it the most expensive of these papers. At this stage it’s only available in sheets (individually or in packets), not pads or blocks.

Saunders Waterford Hot Press White
I’ve never been a huge fan of hot press paper (mainly because it doesn’t suit how I usually like to paint) and the Saunders Waterford hot press paper didn’t change that feeling. This was the third sheet I tested from the sample pack. It’s a very smooth surface, so those who do illustration work will probably find this is suitable to their painting or drawing style. The first thing I noticed was that it seems to absorb the paint more and dry very quickly compared to the cold press and rough papers in the sample packet. This made it more difficult for me to get the wet-in-wet effects I like to use as the first wash I put down was often dry (or at least almost dry) by the time I could put down the next colour, even if I already had it mixed up. The smooth surface of the paper also seemed to make paint spread in a more uniform way when I did drench the paper and add more colour, as you can see by the mauve background trees; though I dotted in some of my purple colour in an uneven manner along the bottom, it spread much faster and further, filling out the whole square I’d wet with clean water and resulting in a more blocky set of trees and an ugly hard edge instead of the distinct shorter and taller trees with soft edges in the other sample paintings. The autumnal background trees also didn’t look as variegated and mottled as I was aiming for as the colours I dropped in blended together more completely than on the other papers.

As I mentioned above, the even spread and fast drying properties probably make it excellent for those who paint fine detail and need the paint to stay exactly where they put it, but it doesn’t suit my painting style that well. Funnily enough, this hot press paper also didn’t seem to buckle anywhere near as much as the cold press and rough papers. However, it also doesn’t seem to be as sturdy as the other papers, as it began to pill a little bit when I lifted the wind streak from the water, and when I pulled the masking tape off, there was noticeable damage where it had been (even though it had been on there for less than two hours). It’s also not as easy to lift colour from the hot press paper, most likely due to how fast it dries (as you can see, the wind streak on the water is a lot less defined than on the other paintings). If you enjoy using granulating colours, the effects of those will be much less noticeable on hot press paper.

Saunders Waterford Cold Press High White
Saunders Waterford is a cold press paper so it has a distinct texture, though not as pronounced as the rough paper. The texture also feels more natural and random (at least to me) than the Bockingford papers. It stands up quite well to heavy washes and allows colour to be lifted or scrubbed up without too much difficulty. Pigment flows nicely on the paper and you can get some nice granulation and dry brush effects. Unlike the other SW papers I got in the pack, this one was high white, which is a much brighter white than the standard white (the regular white paper has a bit of a yellowish cream tinge). I felt that this made the colours look that little bit more vibrant. This was the fourth paper I tested from the sample pack.

Saunders Waterford Rough White
When doing my sample paintings, I actually used this paper first, since I already use it regularly and am familiar with how it handles. I figured it could act as a sort of control for all the other papers, which I’ve never used before. An artist grade paper, it has a lovely, natural-feeling rough texture and is quite sturdy, able to stand up to heavy washes and scrubbing techniques (though it will buckle when lots of water is applied if not taped down, as most watercolour papers do). It also allows most watercolour to be lifted easily, with the exception of some notoriously staining pigments like the phthalos.

On a side note, I did a more detailed review of this paper here. Of all the St Cuthberts Mill paper ranges, this is my favourite.

The Saunders Waterford papers all seem to be about $6.50 per sheet at Jackson’s, as well as being available in packs of sheets, pads and blocks (I can buy most locally in white papers but none of my nearby art supply shops seem to have it in high white, which is disappointing). It’s definitely an artist grade paper. My preference for watercolour paper is a rough surface, and I tend to use either Saunders Waterford or Arches. Both are excellent brands but I find that Saunders Waterford is usually significantly cheaper than Arches, without a loss in quality.

If you haven’t tried St Cuthberts Mill’s watercolour papers yet, I’d recommend getting a sheet or pad of some of them to try. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional artist, they’re a good quality surface at a reasonable price, and you can find most of their papers easily in your local art store (as the Millford paper is only new it’ll take longer for it to get into circulation, but it’s worth getting some to play with if you get the opportunity).

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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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