Choosing Your Watercolour Palette or Paint Box: Six Things to Consider

I talked a little about choosing a watercolour palette in my article Getting Started: Watercolours, but since there are an endless variety of palettes available and forum threads spanning more than 150 pages about people asking for advice on and showing their beloved collections of watercolour palettes, I thought it would be worth making a separate post that focuses solely on selecting a palette or paint box.

Therefore I’ve put together this list of factors you should keep in mind when you’re deciding on a purchase. Some of these factors will naturally influence each other (for example, metal paint boxes will almost always cost more than plastic ones). I can’t tell you which one to buy – that’s going to depend on your budget and painting style – but hopefully you’ll be well-informed enough to cut down the time you spend wading through search results or visiting various art supply shops.

For a lot of artists, cost will be one of the main deciding factors of the palette or paint box they choose. Regardless of your budget, you’ll always be able to find a palette to suit you. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, most art supply stores sell plastic palettes in a variety of shapes for under $5, while those who are shitting hundred dollar bills can opt for a custom made metal paint box for upwards of $400, such as the handmade palettes crafted by Little Brass Box (yes, I absolutely am bitter about the fact I can’t afford one of these boxes and jealous of those who can. So sue me 😛 ). There are also plastic or metal boxes available in the $20-40 price range, as well as porcelain palettes, which vary depending on size and place of purchase. For those who are new to watercolours and aren’t sure if you’ll like it or not, I’d recommend buying either a cheap plastic palette or a metal box for under $30 if you can find one, and spend the extra money on good quality artists’ paints or paper; after all, while the choice of palette is personal to each artist, it’s not going to make a difference to the quality of your painting.

Plastic vs. Metal vs. Porcelain
Paint boxes come in either plastic or metal, as do palettes, which are also available in porcelain. Plastic palettes are typically the lightest, but they also stain far worse than the other two types, especially if you use phthalo colours a lot. They also tend to turn yellow over time, which can affect the accuracy of colours you’re trying to mix. Some metal palettes stain as well, but they’re usually easier to clean, and porcelain rarely stains at all. The downside of porcelain is that it’s heavy, and most porcelain palettes are rather bulky and can be fragile. However, if you do want to go with porcelain, you don’t necessarily have to buy a porcelain palette from an art supply shop; many artists simply buy cheap white porcelain tea-cup plates from homeware stores or chain retailers, as these can be stacked for compact storage and each one can hold a lot of paint and water. Metal or aluminium boxes are generally reasonably sturdy, though the enamel on them can chip or peel (especially on cheaper brands).

Examples of various types of palettes: a cheap plastic palette in the lower right corner, an imitation aluminium folding palette purchased from eBay, and porcelain dishes in flower and round formats.

Studio or Outdoor Painting
Where you paint will play a huge part in determining what sort of palette you should get. Those who paint outdoors in the field will find that a smaller, lightweight palette or box is preferable, though it will also need to be durable to cope with being dropped or knocked around in their bag. This rules out most porcelain palettes, as they are both heavy and easily chipped or shattered. Cheaper plastic boxes will also be cracked easily, but there are some sturdy plastic paint boxes in the higher price range. A Pochade box may be worth looking into, as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be filled with whatever supplies you wish, and usually have a stand or easel built into the lid. Being made from wood, these boxes are heavier than plastic or metal, but they keep everything contained and protected while you are travelling. However, even the smallest ones are expensive, so for a lot of beginner artists, they may be beyond your budget.

If you paint mostly in your studio, you have a lot more flexibility with your palette or paint box choice. Some studio artists are happy painting with pans, but some find these pans too small and fiddly to use with large brushes (especially with half pans, or even quarter pans, which in my view are really only suited for pocket sketchers or novelty mini paint boxes). For these artists, large plastic or porcelain palettes are probably the better choice, along with tube paints that can be either squeezed out fresh for each painting session or squeezed out onto the palette and left to dry until they are needed. If space permits, you could have multiple palettes, for example one with your regular colours and one with ‘guest’ colours you’re trying out, or different palettes for different subjects.

Though it’s possible to find one palette or paint box that suits both indoor and field painting, many artists instead choose to buy two separate palettes, having a small pocket box for outdoors and a larger, flatter palette for studio use.

A portable paint box (Winsor & Newton’s Field Box, which contains a water bottle, sponge and brush) and a larger, heavier palette designed for use in the studio, with room for 52 half pans or 24 full pans, as well as two generous fold-out mixing areas. This one holds my sparkly Daniel Smith watercolours.

Layout and Mixing Space
This is less of an issue if you mostly paint small (ATC or postcard format, or exclusively in sketchbooks) but if you paint anything larger than A5, you’re going to want a lot of space to mix up large washes.

At the start of this post I said that the cost of your palette won’t make a difference to how well you paint… But the layout of your palette might, or it might at least make a difference to how easily you can paint. Whether you put your paint in wells or just squeeze blobs of it around the edge of your mixing area, you want to make sure that you can access them all easily, and that you know where each colour is. Artists may have their paints in rows (for example, warm colours on one side and cool colours on the other) or arranged in a square or circle around the outside of their palette. Once you find the arrangement that makes it easiest for you to find and mix your colours easily, you should aim to get a palette that allows you to have this arrangement. On that note, once you find the arrangement that works for you, try not to alter this arrangement. Muscle memory can play as big a part in painting as in other hobbies, and if you go to mix a green, you could find yourself in trouble if you stick your brush into a blue paint well only to remember you put a new red paint in there the other day.

Pans or Tubes
The type of palette or paint box you buy will also be influenced by whether you paint with pans or half pans or use paint from a tube. Plastic and porcelain palettes are typically designed for use with tube paints; not for storing the tubes themselves, but for squeezing the tube paint into the wells. Metal boxes, on the other hand, are more self-contained and can be bought to house tubes (usually only the small 5ml or 6ml tubes; I’ve yet to find a paint box designed to hold 15ml tubes) or pans/half pans, allowing you to easily transport your collection of paints into the field. Some boxes even come with a selection of tube or pan paints when you buy them, though as mentioned in my watercolour article linked above and in my article Choosing Your Palette that discusses selecting colours, you may not get the exact colours you want (and may end up with colours you won’t use), so it can be more cost-effective in the long run to buy an empty box and then purchase the colours you want individually. The number of colours you use will also be important; if you prefer to only work with a handful of colours, you can usually get by with a smaller box or palette, but if you have 15+ colours in your arsenal at any given time, you will need more room to keep these colours. Boxes that are made to hold pans or tubes are typically more expensive than flat palettes, and they often have less mixing space.

On a side note, if you prefer tubes over pans but are having trouble finding somewhere to keep them, you don’t need to spend big bucks on a specifically-designed palette box with space for tubes. Art supply stores might have a relatively limited selection of options (and they won’t be cheap) but you can look elsewhere, such as the crafts or fishing section of your nearest large chain retail store. I got a fishing tackle box for under $10, and it has the added bonus of allowing me to alter the layout of the compartments, so I can organise my tubes by colour.

A few of my tubes and pans from various brands. Some pans were purchased new, while others I made by squeezing tube paint into empty half pans.

Home-Made Palettes
Before I wrap up this post, it’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to buy a palette or paint box. Many artists on the Palette Addicts forum thread I linked to above have actually made their own paint boxes. For small, pocket-sized boxes, pill containers or cigar tins can either carry individual tubes or have half pans stuck in with glue or magnetic tape, along with waterbrushes for added convenience. You can also re-purpose other containers like old make-up boxes; once the eyeshadow or whatever has run out, the compartments can be filled with a little tube colour. Larger boxes can be made with biscuit tins or plastic travel boxes for bars of soap and can often fit a small plastic palette in along with all the paints and some brushes. If you have children, chances are you’ve bought them a cheap set of kiddie watercolours at some point; once those are used up, there’s nothing stopping you from commandeering it and putting your own colours in (though it’s probably a good idea to buy them a new set for themselves if you do this, to avoid a tantrum 🙂 ). I’ve also seen some truly mini watercolour sets made out of mint tins; these typically can’t hold more than 6-8 colours but if you want a compact set just for sketching on your break from work, for example, this is all you need. Most of these options will be cheaper than buying a palette from an art supply store, and the materials needed to make one can often already be found in your own home.

I hope this post has given you some idea of what might be the best watercolour palette for you. That being said, you might end up going through a couple of setups before you settle on the one that works best for you. What sort of watercolour painting setup do you use? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Accessories, Articles and Opinion Pieces, Boxes and Palettes, Watercolour | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Boards: Ampersand Aquabord (review)

After trying Ampersand Pastelbord a while ago, I saw they had various other boards available, so I got a couple of each to try out. First up was Aquabord.

I’m not sure what wood these boards are made of, but it looks and feels like MDF (according to my Dad, anyway; I’m pretty clueless about woodwork stuff). You can get Aquabord in a variety of sizes (ranging from 5X7 inches to 24X36 inches) and thicknesses (from 1/8th of an inch to 2 and 1/8ths of an inch), but they only come in white. However they seem to only come in rectangular formats, whereas some of Ampersand’s other boards can be bought as square panels. The front of the board is coated in a sort of clay primer with a slightly textured surface. It says you can frame them without glass, but I would probably put it behind glass anyway just be on the safe side, in case water somehow got spilled on it.

The back of the label has a tip telling you to wet the whole Aquabord surface with a thin layer of water to release trapped air bubbles, and I strongly suggest you take notice of it. I didn’t bother the first time and after laying on some colour I was horrified to see little bubbles popping on the surface, creating a pitted look. After lifting the colour off with a wet paper towel, I washed the whole surface with water and let it dry and after that had no more bubble problems.

Another claim made by the label is that the clay surface absorbs paint like a “fine watercolour paper”. While the surface is quite absorbent, it doesn’t really behave like paper. When working on watercolour paper, I often work on backgrounds by starting in one corner, laying down some colour and then picking up more colour and working it into it while it’s still wet, resulting in a fairly smooth transition. However doing the same on Aquabord seemed much more difficult, as that surface really wanted to retain my brush marks. I found that to build up uniform washes, I had to use many layers of pale colour, rather than a few layers of more concentrated colour.

If you make a mistake, it’s very easy to lift colour off compared to on watercolour paper (as I had to when I accidentally got a big blob of dark grey in the pale cream area of the rose), but this can be a double-edged sword. With watercolour paper, if you put some colour down and let it dry, it will pretty much stay put unless you scrub the living hell out of it. However on multiple occasions, I kept accidentally lifting underlayers of colour when I tried to put more colour over it, even though the underlayer had been allowed to dry for at least two days. It is possible to layer watercolour on Aquabord, but you have to be much more careful, using almost no pressure with your brush and being sure to avoid ‘backtracking’ over an area while it’s still wet. With this in mind, I found it a little difficult to work with while trying to paint a fairly realistic rose, but I feel like if I was working in a more experimental style, this unpredictability might have been fun to experiment with, as you’d be able to get some really interesting runs and patterns in the washes.

Also beware if you like to draw outlines for your paintings in either coloured pencil or greylead. While it is generally easy to lift at least most of the pencil marks from watercolour paper using a kneadable eraser, it was very difficult (if not impossible) to do this on the Aquabord, even though I hadn’t pressed very hard when drawing. I used Prismacolor Premier Watersoluble pencils to draw the outlines for my rose (I didn’t want greylead marks muddying the colour, and I thought the watercolour pencil would dissolve once I started applying watercolour paint), but even with a lot of scrubbing, the outlines are still visible in some areas (particularly the leaves).

Prices for Ampersand Aquabord start at around $5 for the 5X7 inch boards and go up to about $28 for the 16X20 inch boards (my local art store doesn’t seem to have any bigger ones). This is noticeably higher than most canvas panels and boards, but for what they are, they are not overly expensive, in my view (many of the cheaper panels use poor-quality wood that warps over time, unlike these boards).

Here’s a painting I did on a 5X7 inch Aquabord panel, based on a photo by C. J. Dee.

Ampersand Aquabord might be a blessing or a curse, depending on your painting style. Though I personally didn’t care for them that much and probably won’t buy more, I can see how some other artists would really like painting on these. It isn’t bad, it’s just very different to normal watercolour paper. If you like to work in fine detail, you should probably proceed with caution, but if you enjoy looser, more abstract techniques, I think you will have a lot of fun playing with Aquabord. I would recommend buying a small board to play with first, so you can decide whether you like it enough to invest in more or larger boards.

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Caring for your Brushes

Buying a new brush or brushes is always lovely, whether it’s a nice set of synthetics or a single expensive brush you’ve been lusting after for ages. Still, most of us like to save money where we can, and that means we generally don’t like having to buy new brushes on a regular basis, which makes it incredibly frustrating when a brush ends up with its bristles all splayed and bent after only a few uses.

Think of brushes like children: you get used to them the longer you have them and they can be a source of joy for some people, but you still need to keep them clean, and you shouldn’t stand them on their head (brushes, at least; dunno about children). If you want to help your precious paint brushes last as long as possible, here are some things to keep in mind.

Clean them after use – This one’s fairly obvious and most people probably do this anyway, but it’s not good to put brushes away if they’ve still got paint in their bristles. When acrylic or oil paint dries, it can be very difficult to remove from the bristles, especially if the paint has got up into the ferrule (the usually-metal strip that holds the bristles in place). Even if you clean it after this point, the bristles will often retain the shape they were stuck in when they were covered in paint, so you want to wash them thoroughly (in water or solvent, depending on what sort of paint you’re using) to avoid this. It’s probably less of an issue with watercolour, which isn’t really that harsh on brushes, but you still don’t want to start painting and mixing colour only to find your mix contaminated by colour that was stuck in your brush from your last painting session.

Pamper them occasionally – Even if you wash your brushes out thoroughly after each painting session, you can sometimes still find them getting a bit ratty after a little while. When this happens, it might be worth giving them a good clean with some soap. You can use dedicated brush cleaners (I’ve reviewed The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver on this blog, and there’s also an Escoda brush soap bar with olive oil), but to be honest, your regular hand soap or hair shampoo would be just as effective (though if you’re using a particularly strong medicated shampoo I’d suggest not using that, just to be on the safe side). I’d also suggest using the Master’s Brush Cleaner for hog bristle or synthetics, not on natural Kolinsky or squirrel hair brushes, as the abrasive in it may be a bit harsh for these brushes.

To clean the brush thoroughly, run it under water and then swish it around on the soap bar (if using a liquid soap or shampoo, squeeze a little blob into your hand and swirl the brush around in that) until it’s a nice foamy lather, and then rinse it out. Chances are the soap and water will turn whatever colour was still lurking in your brush bristles. Repeat this process until the lather remains clear when you rinse it.

Shape your brushes – Whether you’ve given them a normal wash after a painting or a proper deep clean with some soap, it’s worth taking another few seconds to shape the brush with your fingers. If it’s a flat brush, squeezing the bristles gently between your thumb and finger and then running them to the tips of the bristles will help make sure the bristles keep their ‘flat’ shape rather than forming more of a wobbly line. If it’s a round brush, close your thumb and first two fingers around the ferrule and then drag them outwards, squeezing a little tighter at the tip to help the brush form a point. Brushes that have been maintained well will usually keep their shape after being washed anyway, but if you’re washing a brush that’s been a bit neglected, shaping it can help restore it to something closer to its proper state.

Some people like to leave a tiny bit of soap in the bristles to help them shape it (it can easily be rinsed out before the next use) but this is optional. I usually just shape them with water, and they retain that shape as they dry.

Don’t let them rest on their bristles – If there was a list of Cardinal Sins in Art, this would have to be one of them. Though it can be tempting to leave your brushes in your jar of water after you’ve rinsed them out, you’re better off taking them out and resting them on a paper towel or something next to you. Leaving them in the jar with their bristles down might seem like a good way to keep them clean when they’re not in use, but it’s also a good way to end up with brushes with splayed and bent tips instead of nicely shaped points, and the longer you leave them this way, the harder it’s going to be to get them back into shape (if you can at all). Rest them either on a flat surface or in another empty jar with the bristles up while you’re painting. Once you finish painting, you may leave them in the jar or on your work table, or you may have a brush case of some sort to store them in (be careful not to cram too many brushes in, as if the bristles are squished against each other, this can also warp their shape). Some artists have a system of pegs or bulldog clips attached to a string along their shelf or wall, which they can use to hang the brushes with their bristles down but not touching anything.

Let them dry before storing them – Depending on the climate where you live, this may not be a problem, but I have heard stories of artists closing up their wet watercolour paint palettes and opening them up months later, only to discover mold growing in the pans. Mold loves dark and damp places to grow, and unfortunately this can also apply to brushes that have been put away in airtight containers while they were still wet. You should be safe if you store your brushes upright in a jar or hanging up somehow but some artists (particularly those who paint out in the field) may tend to store their brushes in a zip-up case or a lidded tube or canister. These are good to protect your brushes from getting knocked around on their journey to or from your sketching destination, but make sure that when you get home, you take the brushes out and let them dry completely.

Re-purpose old brushes – If a brush is well and truly cactus and cannot be revived with any of the above tricks, don’t be too hasty in sending it off to the great big paint palette in the sky. Give it a new lease on life (or afterlife?) as a masking fluid brush, so you can apply frisket without ruining your good brushes. Turn it into a spatter brush, loading it up with paint and flicking it to get interesting snow or star effects on your painting (after all, this doesn’t require a perfectly-shaped round or filbert to achieve). Or use it as a special effects brush; some artists are quite mean to their brushes, dabbing them onto the surface with a lot of force to create foliage and other similar rough effects. While you might not want to do this to a good or relatively new brush, you won’t feel bad about doing it to a brush that’s past its prime anyway. It may even find some other use around the household; many of my dearly departed brushes end up out in my Dad’s garage, where he uses them to touch up paint or lacquer on various woodwork projects.

Hopefully this helps your brushes live a long and happy life. Let them prosper. Keep them clean and don’t abuse them. Spoil them. Cuddle them every day and tell them you love the- Hey, where are you going?

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Paper: Canson Heritage Watercolour Pads (review)

Good watercolour paper is expensive, so I’m always on the lookout for a nice paper that is easy on the budget. While browsing eBay one day, I came across a store having a ‘buy any two watercolour pads/blocks and get a third free’ sale, so in addition to the two blocks of Saunders Waterford I bought, I also picked up a pad of Canson Heritage watercolour paper.

As far as I know, all of Canson’s Heritage watercolour paper is 300gsm, though like with most brands, you can get it in Hot, Cold or Rough press, as well as in blocks instead of pads. My preference is for rough-textured papers so that’s what I got.

In terms of colour, it’s slightly whiter than the Saunders Waterford White paper I have (which has a slight cream tint) and about the same as Arches. The texture is almost identical to the Saunders Waterford as well, a nice, non-uniform surface that allows dry-brush techniques to work really well. I used some pretty thick washes in my sample painting and though it buckled significantly (as most pads do, which is why I normally prefer blocks), it didn’t pill up or fall apart like some watercolour papers do when I tried scrubbing or lifting techniques.

If you buy Canson Heritage in a gummed pad, you’ll be paying about the same as you would for the equivalent sized/weight pad of Arches or Saunders Waterford, give or take a couple of dollars. But for some reason the blocks are comparatively more expensive at around the same price as Arches; at Jackson’s in the UK the Canson is $5 dearer, while at The Art Shop in Victoria, it’s $5 cheaper, but both are still significantly more expensive than the Saunders Waterford.

Here’s the painting I did on Canson Heritage watercolour paper.

Canson’s Heritage watercolour paper is definitely a worthy entry into the watercolour paper market. It’s a good quality paper that performs just as well as the other major watercolour brands and seems to be easily available, at least from online stores. It isn’t all that competitive on the price front, but if it’s on sale or if you need more watercolour paper at short notice and can’t get the sort you regularly use, you should give it a try.

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Watercolours: A Walk in the Autumn Woods (demonstration)

The other day on Facebook, one of my friends posted a photo she took of her daughter and her German Shepherd walking through the forest. I just loved the composition of the photo and the way the trees and foliage framed the two figures against the sky at the end of the path, so I decided I’d turn it into a painting. I had some new watercolour paper I wanted to test so I figured this would be a good opportunity to do so.

M Graham Watercolours:
-Azo Yellow
-Pyrrol Red
-Cerulean Blue
-Ultramarine Blue
-Quinacridone Rust
-Burnt Umber

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolours:
-Raw Sienna

You can use whatever you have, but I do find that natural hair brushes are easier to work with than synthetics. I used the following:
-Alvaro Castagnet Neef Squirrel Mop Size 2
-Raphael Squirrel Mop Size 3/0
Silver Black Velvet Round Size 10
-Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable Round Size 4
Creative Mark Ebony Splendor Round Size 2
-Artist Edge Series 2224 Taklon Round Size 20/0
-Princeton Neptune Liner Size 1

Canson Heritage Watercolour Paper – 300gsm Rough (148X210mm)

Step 1
Transfer the line drawing to your watercolour paper using tracing paper (or draw it on directly if you like to live dangerously). Dab it gently with a kneaded eraser to lift any loose graphite, but not too much (you don’t want to erase it so much you can’t see it). Mix a diluted puddle of Cerulean Blue and wash in the sky, making it a little darker at the top of the page. Bring the wash down to the line that marks where the footpath is (it doesn’t matter if you wash the colour over the two figures). Let this dry.

Wash in some Raw Sienna from the path line down, keeping it mostly to the centre of the page. Pick up a little Quinacridone Rust and wash this outwards from the path to the edge of the page.

Step 2
Mix Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber into a fairly dark wash and ill in the lower left and right corners, bringing some of it up on the left to indicate dark tree trunks and more dark foliage in the top left corner, as well as two thin trunks on the left. Mix some Burnt Umber and Pyrrol Red (maybe a little Quinacridone Rust) to make an earthy red-orange and blend this out from the lower left dark area towards the path. On the right side of the path, blend a light green made from Azo Yellow and Ultramarine Blue from the dark area towards the path. Use more of the red-orange (slightly weaker) and, with a dry brush, dab in some foliage on both sides of the path. Do the same with a pale wash of Burnt Umber, and the light green. When placing the foliage, make sure the gap in the trees is not perfectly round; it you keep it uneven, you’ll avoid having it look like a weird tunnel.

Add a little texture to the path by dabbing in some pale washes of Burnt Umber, and Burnt Umber plus Ultramarine Blue (taking care to not completely cover up the Raw Sienna undercoat).

Step 3
Continue building up the foliage using the same colours from Step 2, but in darker/more concentrated washes. Try to keep your brush even more dry than in Step 2, as this will give you a convincing leaf texture when brushed lightly over the watercolour paper (this is also why a rough-textured paper is recommended, as dry brush techniques are not as effective on smooth surfaces). In general, there should be more red-orange on the left and more green on the right, but bring some of each colour into the opposite side to help unify the painting. Mix up a darker wash of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber (it should be a dark grey, leaning slightly more towards brown than blue) and lay this over the lower corners and into the upper left corner, darkening them further. To avoid ending up with odd-looking blobs, flick this colour up in places to represent dark grass or undergrowth. Water it down and use this to paint some little rocks and irregularities in the footpath (try to make the rocks larger as they come towards you).

Step 4
Using a slightly more brown-grey mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber, paint in the tree trucks on either side of the track. On the left they should be thicker and between the trunks and the foliage, very little light should show through on this side. Paint these in with a round brush (I used a size 4). The trees on the right are thinner and can be painted in with a rigger or liner, along with their branches and twigs. Vary which way the trees are leaning (you don’t want them all standing straight up), and make sure that some of the branches and twigs overlap each other. After you lay in the trees, add a slightly darker wash along the outside of their trucks to indicate a subtle shadow (since the trees are in the shade, this should not be overly noticeable). Using a very pale wash of this colour, lay in some shadows over the bottom half of the path to create a sense of perspective.

Using combinations of this brown, your red-orange and the light green, use the liner or a small round (size 0 or 2) to add some detail around the centre of the path, like little flower stalks or long bits of grass. Dry brush over one or two of these to add leaves.

Step 5
Time to paint the woman and her dog. Fill in both shapes with plain Raw Sienna, using a small round brush. Before this is completely dry, add a little Burnt Umber to the figures, leaving just an outline of Raw Sienna on the right side of each figure (this is to show where the light is hitting them). Let this dry, and then add some of your dark grey mix from earlier to the left side of the figures to create darker shadows and give them form. Finally, sign your name with this dark grey along the bottom of the footpath.

And that’s it for today’s watercolour demonstration. I hope you had fun painting it 🙂

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Acrylics: Atelier Free Flow Artists’ Acrylics (review)

When I went to the newly discovered art supply shop in my town, I saw that among their range of acrylics, they had the Atelier Free Flow Artists’ Acrylics. I already had a bottle of Carbon Black from somewhere (I think I got it as a free sample for sending away to a magazine or something) but not only had I never seen them in brick-and-mortar art supply stores, I’d never been able to find them online, either (though it seems recently a few other places have started stocking them). This always disappointed me since Chroma (the manufacturer) is an Australian brand and I like to support those where possible (I also use their Atelier Interactive acrylics). When I came across them, I decided to pick up a handful of extra colours to go with my Carbon Black.

Here’s the colour chart for my small selection of colours.

The most similar paints I know are the Jo Sonja’s acrylics (also made by Chroma, I believe, but targeted more at folk art painters) and Golden Fluid acrylics. I’ve not tried the Jo Sonja’s but I do quite like the Golden Fluid acrylics, though they are expensive for the quantity of paint you get. Atelier Free Flow acrylics range from $5.90 for series 1 colours to about $14 for series 5, but these are for 60ml bottles; on average, the 30ml bottles of Golden Fluid acrylics are a few dollars more expensive, meaning the Atelier Free Flow acrylics are far better value for money. You can also buy them in 250ml or 500ml bottles.

There are 35 colours in the range, with many being single-pigment colours. They are quite runny, so if you want to use acrylics in a thick, textured manner, these won’t be suitable for you. I find them quite useful for laying down backgrounds in paintings before switching to my thicker acrylics to paint the main subject or foreground objects. Most of the colours I bought are transparent or semi-transparent, but the opaque colours (like Yellow Ochre) provided pretty solid coverage, even with only a single layer. In terms of pigment concentration, I found them to be on par with Golden Fluid acrylics, as well as the thicker acrylics I have.

Here’s a painting I did with the Atelier Free Flow acrylics.

I would definitely recommend trying some of these if you want a more fluid acrylic as opposed to a stiffer-bodied tube acrylic. Unfortunately they do seem to be hard to find, so I’m guessing a lot of people will just go with Golden Fluid acrylics for convenience, but if you can get your hands on the Atelier Free Flow acrylics, they are excellent value for money.

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Acrylics: Crimson Rosella (demonstration)

I’ve painted a few crimson Rosellas in watercolour over the years. It’s hard to resist the beautiful deep red of their feathers with those soft, almost fluorescent blue highlights. I thought it would be nice to paint one in acrylics for a change.

Chroma Atelier Free Flow Acrylics:
-Pyrrole Red
-French Ultramarine Blue
-Phthalo Green
-Yellow Ochre
-Carbon Black

Golden Fluid Acrylics:
-Titanium White
-Quinacridone Magenta
-Primary Cyan
-Burnt Sienna

Generally you can use whatever brushes you have and are comfortable with using, though I would suggest some sort of synthetic (eg. golden Taklon) bristles. This is what I used:
Ebony Splendor Rounds (sizes 0, 2 and 4)
-Ebony Splendor Flats (sizes 2, 6, 10 and 12)

A small (size 4 or 6) Filbert brush would also be useful if you have one. I do but it’s old and ratty with hairs sticking out at odd angles, so I didn’t end up using it.

Mont Marte Canvas Panel (5″ X 7″).

Step 1

Start with a heavily watered down puddle of French Ultramarine Blue (to be honest it doesn’t really matter what colour you use here, I just choose blue). Using a size 2 or 4 round brush, draw in the outline of the Rosella and the branch he’s sitting on. Once everything is outlined, use this same colour to block in the blue areas of the bird. Make a similarly watery puddle of Pyrrole Red and Quinacridone Magenta to wash in the red areas of the bird, then put in his eye with a thinned down Carbon Black. It doesn’t matter too much if the red and blue areas overlap a little as you will go over it with thicker, more opaque paint anyway; this is just to cover the white of the canvas and give you an idea of where the final colours will go. Block in the branch with a watery wash of Burnt Sienna.

For the background, pour out separate little blobs of Phthalo Green and Yellow Ochre on your palette, leaving an inch or two of space between them. Bring some of each colour into the middle and make a soupy wash out of it; this will give you a light, yellowish green. Make another puddle of a similar colour but with more Phthalo Green added, to give a darker, leafy green. Wash these colours into the background with a large flat brush, starting in the middle with the yellow-green and blending out into the darker green. Again, you’ll be covering this up with thicker paint, so it doesn’t matter if it isn’t exactly right as long as you have a nice, naturally gradated background.

Step 2
Pour out larger puddles of Yellow Ochre and Phthalo Green and make similar mixtures as you did for Step 1, but this time don’t dilute the paint with water. Once again starting in the middle, upper left and bottom right, brush in the yellow-green with soft, crisscrossing strokes to avoid making it look to uniform, blending out into a mix of Phthalo Green with only a hint of Yellow Ochre in the top right and bottom left corners. If it was a bigger painting you might want more detail in the background, but since it’s only small I didn’t want it to detract from the bird, so I went with an abstract representation of foliage. Mix Titanium White, Burnt Sienna and a small amount of Carbon Black to get a dull, pale brown, and use this to block in the branch the Rosella is perched on.

Step 3
At this point I decided the top right and bottom left corners needed to be darker still, so I brushed in some pure Phthalo Green, feathering the strokes so it blended into the dark olive green from Step 2. For the branch, mix up various shades of brown, using Burnt Sienna, Titanium White and a little French Ultramarine Blue for the darkest shades. Using the size 6 flat brush on its side, add strokes of the different browns along the branch, following its slight curves. Switch between the colours, overlapping them and making sure the greyish brown undercoat is completely covered. Use more of the darker browns along the shadowed underside of the branch, while saving the lighter browns for the top part. Using a mixture of white with only a tiny amount of brown, add a few strokes along the very top of the branch for the highlights. Add a few strokes of dark brown around where the smaller twig grows out of the main branch to show its rounded shape and help differentiate it from the rest of the branch. Finally, mix French Ultramarine Blue with Titanium White to start painting in the blue areas of the bird (add a little more white for the highlights under the beak, along the front of the wing and on the left side of the tail).

Step 4
Mix a bit of Quinacridone Magenta into some Pyrrole Red for a deep crimson (the red you should end up with should be a cool red, not a warm red). Use this for the rest of the bird’s body (don’t worry if you cover his eye a bit, you’ll paint it in more detail at the end). Don’t forget his leg, just visible under his wing. Using some Carbon Black mixed with either Phthalo Blue or Ultramarine (you want a dark colour but not straight black), paint in his little foot. Add a bit of white to this colour to add the highlights on the top of the foot.

Now it’s time to build up more variation in the bird’s blue feathers. Add a thin line of diluted Carbon Black for the shadow under the wing, blending it down to avoid having a harsh, solid line (most of this will be covered by blue paint but enough will show through to indicate the soft shadow). In Step 4, we mixed French Ultramarine Blue with Titanium White for the base blue colour, but it has a bit too much of a violet tint (it almost looks like a pale lilac rather than blue). For this stage, add some Primary Cyan into your French Ultramarine for a more intense blue, and then add varying amounts of Titanium White. Most of the tail should be quite dark (aside from the highlight along the left and a tiny bit on the top right), as well the tips of the wings. Use a mid blue mix for the majority of the wings and for most of the blue cheek spot. Mix in more Primary Cyan and a lot more Titanium White, so create a more vibrant blue for the lightest areas along the outer edge of the wing and just under the beak.

Step 5
It’s time to put in the dark markings on the Rosella’s wings. Mix some French Ultramarine Blue and Primary Cyan in one blob on your palette, and then pour out a blob of Carbon Black nearby. Pull some of each blob into the middle and mix so you have a dark blue-black, but don’t worry about mixing it too thoroughly; it’s good to have the marks vary from being dark blue to almost black. At this point you could use your Filbert brush if you have one, but mine was too badly damaged so I used a size 1 Flat instead. Starting at the Rosella’s neck, pick up the dark blues and blacks and make little crescent-shaped marks to represent the feathers. Vary the size of these slightly, but make sure they follow the contours of the bird’s body. As you get lower, make some of the marks longer and wider. For the edges of the wings, use longer, wider strokes to show the long wing feathers. Add the thick dark mark along the bird’s upper wing with some of your blue-black (make it lean more towards blue than black). Water down a little of this blue-black and, using the smallest Round or Flat brush you have, draw in a faint line along the tail to show the divide between the tail feathers (you may also want to darken the shadow under the wing, as I did). At this point, I also darkened the bottom edge of the bird’s blue cheek with a little more Primary Cyan.

Add some white to the blue-black mixture and add the highlight along the upper part of the tail feather divide, then water this down even further and add some highlights to the edges of the dark blue-black feathers. Mix a tiny amount of Carbon Black into some Titanium White to get a very pale grey and use this to define the beak. Make it slightly darker and draw the oval shape for the Rosella’s eyelids. Then, once this is dry, paint in the eye with solid Carbon Black. Add the highlight to the top right corner of the bird’s eye in an almost-white light grey. Take the Pyrrole Red and Quinacridone Magenta mix you used for the bird’s body and add a tiny amount of Primary Cyan to get a dark brownish purple, then use this to shade the red area around the bird’s beak. To add the subtle background lighting around the edge of the bird’s feathers, mix a watery puddle of Titanium White. Then, using a dry brush, softly feather this white around the outside of the bird along the top of its head, down its back and on its chest. Finally, add the shadows under the Rosella’s tail and foot with a watery grey mix of French Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna.

All that’s left to do now is to sign your name, which you can do with a dark green mix of Phthalo Green and Yellow Ochre in the lower right corner.

Now the painting is finished! I hope you’ve enjoyed painting this crimson Rosella. These lovely Australian birds are a wonderful subject for beginners as they are not too challenging to paint, but still look beautiful.

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