Under-painting in watercolor, its importance

When painting with watercolors in my style, the under-painting (initial wash), is very important as it holds a painting together. The under-painting must be tonally correct or the painting will never look quite right.

When I am painting a landscape, at the under-painting stage, the scene should already look like a landscape. The sky and ground should be obvious. In this way, all I need to then do is add the objects that sit on the ground. Continue reading “Under-painting in watercolor, its importance”

Angle of watercolor painting easels

What should the angle of watercolor painting easels be? This is a very common question of beginner watercolor artists and one I was asked recently by a visitor to this website. It requires a more complex answer than just to say about 25 degrees. The real answer is: “It depends on what effect I am trying to create.”

Before looking at question of easel angle in more detail let us first think about what happens on the surface of your watercolor painting. Also why we even need to talk about the easel’s angle.

angle of watercolor painting easel about 20 degrees
Angle of watercolor painting easels. Mine is usually at about 20 degrees.

The most important ingredient in watercolor painting is water. Water flows faster or slower depending on the angle of the slope it is on.  It also depends on how much water is on your watercolor paper, and the texture of your paper. It will flow faster on smooth paper and not so fast on rougher paper. If only a thin layer of water is on your paper then it will not flow very fast no matter what angle your board is set to. On the other hand if you have a lot of water on your paper then the steeper the angle the more your watercolors will flow.

At a step angle a wet watercolour wash will drip but a not so wet one will not.
At a step angle a wet watercolor wash will drip but a not so wet one will not.

For most of my regular watercolor paintings I just set my easel at between 20 and 30 degrees. It doesn’t make much difference to me. I find that for my own work this angle allows the watercolor paints to flow at just the right speed to give me nice clean washes.

Reasons to change the angle of watercolor painting easels

Sometimes there are reasons to place your watercolor easel at a different angle. Here are some of the reasons why you might do so:

  • When I am painting plein air (outdoors) if the weather is cool I quite often use a more vertical angle so I can paint with less water. I do this so my work dries faster.
  • If the weather is hotter I will use a flatter angle so I can have more water on my paper which will slow down the drying time.
  • Some watercolor artists paint almost vertically because they like having dribbles of paint flow down their work. You can see an example of this in the image above.
  • Other artists paint almost vertically because it is hard on their back when painting with the board in a more horizontal angle, especially when painting large works. In this case the artist will probably reduce the amount of water in their brush to stop the paint from running down the page too fast, if at all.
On the left you can see that if you paint with a watercolor wash which is not too wet it will not run down the page no matter what the angle of your board is. On the right you can see that the very wet wash is just about ready to drip!
On the left you can see that if you paint with a watercolor wash which is not too wet it will not run down the page no matter what the angle of your board is. However on the right you can see that the very wet wash is just about ready to drip!
  •  If I am doing a dramatic sky with warm colors but with bright highlights I will paint with my board completely horizontal. I do this because I will need to use lots of water but at the same time I don’t want all the watercolors to completely run into each other as I want to keep some soft highlights.
Dramatic sky painted with watercolor board kept flat to retain highlights
Dramatic sky painted with watercolor board kept flat to retain soft highlights
  •  Sometimes I will vary the angle of my board as I progress with a painting. I change the angle depending on the effect I am trying to  produce at a particular stage in my watercolor painting.
  • Once the flowing watercolors achieve a particular effect I am after I will often just lay my board flat to let it dry. Otherwise the paints would continue to flow and I would lose what I had created.
  • Sometimes I will pick up my board and turn it diagonally to cause the watercolor paints to flow in a different direction.

Hopefully the above will help you make up your own mind about, “What should the angle of watercolor painting easels be?” It is not a complete list but should be enough to help you understand the question and its answer. Certainly the more proficient you are with your watercolor painting then the steeper an angle you can paint at. As I have mentioned above the steeper the angle the less water you are likely to paint with, unless you want to see lots of paint dribbles running down your watercolor paper!

I think you can see that there is no right or wrong angle for everyone or every painting situation. It depends on the artist and the watercolor painting he or she is painting at the time.  By all means start with about 20 to 30 degrees when you first start your watercolor journey. With observation and experience you will see how you may need to change the angle of your easel to suit your particular needs.

Please let me know if you have any further questions on this topic.

Watercolor brushes – 10 things which will damage them

Caring for your watercolor brushes

I am often giving my students advice about what to do and not to do with their watercolor brushes so I thought I would see if I could create a list of 10 things which will damage a watercolor (watercolour)brush. It took a bit of thinking but here is my list which you may find helpful with the care of your brushes.

Do not leave watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
Figure 1: Do not leave you watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
  1. Leaving them sitting in your watercolor container while you paint or worse still all day. This will force the hairs of your watercolor brushes out of shape and also make the wood of your handle swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule (the metal bit that connects the brush hairs to the handle)with the result that the hairs can fall out or the wood could rot.
  2. Letting the paint dry on your brushes. The paint builds up down low near the ferrule which can be very hard to remove. Will cause the point on the brush to be lost.
  3. Storing wet brushes point up – this allows the water to settle in the ferrule causing the wood of your handle to swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule as in point 1 above.
  4. Storing wet brushes with the point bent. The brush will dry in this odd shape losing its point. Depending on the brush this may fix by itself when you rewet the brush but sometimes it just stays in this wrong shape. One thing that can do which sometimes fixes even this problem however is to dip the hairs of the brush in very hot water and then reestablish the point with your fingertips and let the brush dry while laying it flat – I have had success with this technique with squirrel hair brushes but may not help with others – try at own risk!
  5. Using them for acrylic or worse still oil painting. Just don’t do this. If you want to use your watercolor brushes for acrylic or oil painting then set some aside just for that. Once you use your brushes for oil or acrylic painting they will begin to lose their point. Any oil or turpentine residue on the brush will make it behave differently then you later try to use it with watercolor.
  6. Using your good watercolor brush for apply art masking liquid or frisket. This is probably the quickest way to ruin a good watercolor brush. Once the liquid latex in the masking fluid dries on your brush it is gone. Even if you use the right technique when using masking fluid in time the brush will still finally pick up the odd bit of latex which will ruin it. Save your old brushes or buy some cheap ones and use them for masking.
  7. Storing wet brushes in a sealed container. The fibers of your brush will go mouldy if you store them wet without adequate ventilation. It will also keep the wood of the handle inside the ferrule damp which can lead to rod and a loose ferulle and cracked paint on the brush handle.
  8. Don’t use a good watercolor brush for scrubbing out color. Just makes good sense, the scrubbing will break down the hairs and in time your brush will thin out. If you want them to last longer then don’t use them for this purpose.
  9. Using paint that is too dry. I find this especially when students try to paint with cheap paints that dry really hard. The extra rubbing you have to do to get color out of your dry paint will wear the brush down faster than normal. If my paints have been left to dry without a lid on my pallet for a few days (which rarely happens now days) I just give each paint well a little spray with my water spray bottle and leave them for about 15 minutes, this will make it much easier to lift out paint after that. I use Winsor and Newton tube water colors almost exclusively I find they re-liquefy very easily.

10. Trying to put the round plastic protector back on that sometimes comes with a brush. Just don’t try it! The protector that came with the brush was probably put on by a machine and if you try to do the same yourself you will most likely end up with hairs pushed out of shape permanently. I just throw the protector away once I get my new brush home.

So there you have my list of the 10 things which will damage watercolor brushes. No doubt there are others but the above are the main ones I have come across. Once you get a really nice watercolor brush it is well worth your while taking the extra effort to look after it as it should keep in good shape for many years. A good brush will help you paint your watercolors while a bad or damaged brush will hinder you.

Watercolor Paper Selection

How to choose the best watercolor paper for your painting?

You can’t just paint a watercolor painting on any type of paper. You need to use artists’ quality watercolor paper if you want to produce good work that will survive the test of time.

Some cheap papers have little or no sizing on them which makes them behave more like blotting paper rather than watercolor paper, making it impossible for you to create beautiful watercolor washes.

Some of the well known watercolor paper manufacturers are Arches, Saunders Waterford, and Fabriano, but there are many more.

These professional watercolor papers are designed specifically to allow you to get the best results with your watercolor paint.

Not all papers are the same however, even though they may still be quality watercolor products. Watercolor papers come in different weights and sizes though generally there is a similarity between manufacturers as far as that goes.

Watercolor paper colors do vary from brand to brand and also within a brand, some are even colored. For example the Arches watercolor paper I use is slightly whiter than say the Saunders Waterford brand, which I also use; it has a slightly beige tint. I choose one or the other based on the painting I am doing. It all depends on the effect I am trying to create and which paper color will most assist my painting.

They also have different textures and sizing quantities which causes them behave differently. This I also take into account before making my selection. Again there is no general right and wrong with regard to textures or paper color or the sizing variations, you just have to choose based on what is best for the particular watercolor painting you have in mind.

So what am I saying here, well basically, go with a well known watercolor paper brand, especially when you start out as you will not have the experience to know which paper is behaving correctly or not. Also try different brands of watercolor paper till you get a feel for how they each perform so that, with experience, you will be able to select the best paper for the particular painting you are going to do.

Which is the correct side to use of my watercolor paper?

I am often asked in my workshops or watercolor classes if there is a correct or right side to watercolor paper. The front side of professional watercolor paper is the side that shows the readable watermark when you hold your paper up to the light. If the writing appears back to front then you are looking at the back of the paper.

Having said that; for Arches and Saunders Waterford paper I use there is no problem using either side. The main difference is that the front and back have different textures. With some papers the variation is barely detectable and with others it is quite noticeable. For this reason I choose the side which provides me with the type of texture I want to use for the particular watercolor painting I am going to paint.

If I am painting a watercolor landscape painting with lots of tree foliage then I use the roughest side of my paper. If I am doing a brightly colored sunset with soft cloud shapes I will most probably use a less textured paper like cold pressed watercolor paper. When I do my pen and ink and wash paintings of often use the smoother side of cold press paper – this still has a little tooth to catch the nib of my ink pen which I like, but not so much tooth that the pen actually gets stuck in the paper.

Painting the sea, people and birds with watercolor

Painting the sea

Now the sand is done we will now look at painting the sea.

Using the same mix of watercolor paints but make sure the consistency is stronger than that used for the sky; we use a dry brush technique to paint the water.

I use the point of my brush to establish the horizon line and then use the side of the brush with quick horizontal dry brush strokes to create the sea and waves.

I add a little clean water to the mix in my brush for the foreground water and waves.

The trick is to leave just enough untouched white patches in the sea area that they look like the white of waves. If you have too many, the sea looks very choppy, not enough white and it looks too calm or maybe like a lake.

Painting the sea with watercolor
Figure 8: Painting the sea with watercolor

This watercolor painting is nearly finished now, once we paint the figures.

Painting small figures

To paint these people, figure 9, start by using an almost buttery mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (learning towards the brown) to paint the head, arms, and legs. Notice the legs are drawn with dry brush strokes that are of different lengths, this is done to give them the feeling of motion.

If both legs are touching the sand with sharp edges, the figures will look stationary.

Then use the same mixture with some more blue added for the shorts.

For their shirts I use a weak tea strength mixture of these two colors and shade in the sides of their clothing away from the sun, some parts of the shirt are left untouched.  Notice that the shadows on the shirt are irregular to give the feeling of motion and surface variety.

Painting figures with watercolor paint walking along a sandy beach
Figure 9: Painting figures with watercolor paint

By using a quick semi dry brush stroke we can give the impression of sea weed on the sand. By giving it a bit of a curve we can more gracefully lead the eye into our painting, it also adds more interest to the sand.

The foreground rocks are painted with almost pure paint with just enough water for it to flow off the brush. Again remember to leave highlights. Also make sure the rocks vary in size or they will look unnatural and boring.

Before the rocks dry, get a damp brush and soften their edges here and there at their bases. This will help anchor them to the sand and not make them look like they were stuck on as an afterthought.

Watercolor painting of foreground rocks and sea weed
Figure 10: Watercolor painting of foreground rocks and sea weed

Now put in the birds in the sky. The key to this is to use birds as a device to direct the eye of the viewer where you would like it to go. Don’t just put them any old where. Also vary the space between the birds, their size and the angle of their wings.

Birds in the sky can also be used to add interest if the sky is looking a bit too plain and open.

The birds on the wet sand are painted by first putting a little flick of paint to represent a bird. Then under each bird, leave a little gap (for their legs which are too thin to show) and then place a little dab of the same colored paint underneath. You then get your finger and touch this dab and drag in down the page to create a little dry brush (with your finger) stroke under each bird – this should read like the birds reflection.

If you put these birds on the part of your painting which is supposed to be dry sand then they will not have a reflection, but will instead have a shadow that is away from the light source (usually the sun). Remember when painting reflections and shadows – reflections are towards the viewer or the bottom of the painting while shadows are away for the source of light in your landscape (usually the sun).

The shadow for the two figures is the last step in this painting, though it could have been done any time after the figures were painted in. A couple of quick irregular brush strokes starting from the figures legs and away from the direction of the sun with give their shadow and the painting is done!

Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene
Figure 11: Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene

As you can see, even with a relatively simple two color painting as this there are many steps to consider with a watercolor painting. By thinking through any of your paintings in this way, and deciding when to let various sections dry, what painting consistencies to use and what type of edge (wet on wet, dry brush, wet on dry, etc) to use where, you can tackle any watercolor painting with increased confidence.

You can find more simple demonstrations at this link: Simple watercolor painting demonstrations

Should you have any questions about this demonstration or watercolor painting in general please let me know through my Contact page.