Watercolor painting with coffee

A few years ago I was on my way to do a watercolor painting demonstration at a Sydney art society when I had a sudden panic attack as I thought I may have left my palette back at my studio. I was too far from home to turn back. I pulled over and checked my materials and quickly realised that I had all my gear and that I had panicked for nothing.

This incident got me thinking. During the remainder of my journey I wondered what I would have done had I really left my watercolor paints and palette behind. I wondered what other material I could use instead of watercolor paint. After all watercolors are just a pigment that you mix with water. Sure they have other chemicals added such as binders (gum arabic) and fillers, but the main ingredients are pigment and water. I wondered just what material would have been at my venue as it was quite unlikely anyone would have turned up with their own watercolor palette and paints that I could borrow. I realised that I could use something like instant coffee as a pigment as it would surely be available and as a palette I could use a plastic cup.

Later in the week I related this above story to my regular watercolor painting students who responded by asking me to demonstrate just how I would have produced such a painting.

The painting below is the result of that test. It turned out to be quite a nice little watercolor sketch and I often take it out when I run workshops or do watercolor demonstrations to highlight that it is water that is the key ingredient in a watercolor painting and the pigments are secondary (though also very important if you want your painting to be around for a long time and want to use different colors in your work).

Watercolor painting with instant coffee

Quick Sketch of simple Beach Scene watercolor painting using instant coffee
Using instant coffee to paint a watercolor painting

So I mixed up some instant coffee into a very thick past. This became my strongest tone from which I created my lighter tones by adding more water. It is actually water and how it behaves that is watercolor painting’s most important ingredient.

So if you ever find yourself without your paints but with a burning desire to get creative with some watercolor painting then maybe this is one possible solution for you. Of course if you leave your brushes and paper behind then that is another story. Oh,in case you are wondering, I used Nescafe Espresso blend coffee!


Mold on watercolors in your palette

How does mold develop in your watercolor palette

One of my students brought in the photo below of mold or fungus growing over some of the watercolor paints in his palette.

Mold or fungus on growing on watercolor paint in palette
Figure 1: Mold or fungus on growing on watercolor paint in palette

I have heard of this for many years though I have never experienced it myself or met someone personally who has experienced it so I thought I would take this opportunity to record it.

Mold is basically another name for a type of fungus. These mold spores are everywhere; however they need the right environment within which to grow. Firstly they need food (in this case this type seems to like watercolor paint)!  Secondly they require water, specifically high humidity of around 70%, they also like high temperatures around the mid 70’s Fahrenheit – they also like darkness and stagnant air. So you can see that these could very well be the conditions in an enclosed wet watercolor palette!

I think the reason I have not had mold develop on my watercolor palette is because I generally let my palette dry out and prefer to paint with watercolors that are drier rather than straight from the tube. I mainly use Winsor and Newton artist’s quality tube paints and find that they re-liquefy very easily even after they dry out – at least for the palette of watercolors that I use.

How to protect against mold in your palette

If you find mold developing in your palette I suggest you let the surface moisture dry before you put the lid back on it. Then just before you start your next painting you can lightly spray water over each of your paint wells to make them easily workable. With the Windsor and Newton paints I use I find I don’t even need to give them a spray.

If you have mold that has developed then just wash it off with water before you start painting. Keep it off your fingers as some varieties are toxic to humans!

Hopefully you will never have mold on the watercolors in your palette but if you do maybe the above can throw a little light on the subject.

Watercolor Brushes and Paint for Beginners

Watercolor Brushes

Brushes used when painting with watercolor come in many forms and quality levels.

Some of the most common types are:

  • Round Brushes
  • Flat Brushes
  • Mop Brushes
  • Fan Brushes
  • Rigger Brushes

I use round brushes for 95% of my work, but also use all the others as I need them.

For beginners Round Brushes are the best way to go so will concentrate on these for this article.

When selecting a round brush the key thing to look for is a brush which comes to a good point when it is wet and you tap the ferule (the metal part that holds the brush hairs on the wood handle) on the side of something hard like your water container. The brush must also hold a lot of water. You can see an image of good round watercolor brushes below.

Round Watercolor Brushes hold lots of paint and bounce back to a point
Good quality round watercolor brushes have a good point and hold lots of water

In the past the standard recommendation was to buy the most expensive brush you could afford (usually this meant one made from sable – if you could afford it). These days there are brushes which are much less expensive and still do an excellent job.  The ones I use are a mixture of squirrel hair and manmade fibers.

Why do you want such a brush?  Well if it has a good point it means you can use it to paint both broad and fine areas without having to change brushes.  And why is this important you say? Well each time you have to change brushes you lose valuable time during which your painting will be drying (remember the water in watercolor) and if it dries too much you may not be able to produce the particular effect you are after.  Understanding what the water is doing on your paper, in your brushes, and in your palette is critical to painting good watercolor paintings.

Key points for watercolor round brush selection for beginners: Comes to a good point and holds lots of water.

Artist’s Quality Watercolor Paint

Artists quality paints often appear excessively expensive when you first start out however as in most things in life you get what you pay for.

Why Artist’s quality paint should be used instead of student grade watercolor paint?

Artist’s quality paints generally use purer pigments. Usually the student grade paints use pigments that are the “hue of” some color or pigment rather than the real thing. This means the colors are different. This is mainly a problem if you are taking a class and you have different paints than what your teacher is using and you ask him what paints he used to create a particular color.

Artists’ watercolors have much less filler (used to alter the way the paint behaves out of the tube) than student paints. This means you get more pigment per volume of paint tube. The colors will look cleaner and more transparent as often, in my experience, the fillers make the paint look more opaque.

Student watercolor paints also have more gum Arabic, the glue which allows the paint to stick to your paper, again reducing the amount of pigment which you are actually purchasing for your money.

So now that you have the correct materials and you have decided you want to paint a particular subject matter how you should tackle your painting.

For now we will assume that you have a good design, I will be talking about the importance of good design in another article.

After doing a light drawing on your paper, begin by mixing your starting colors in your pallet before you touch the paint. I often have three of more colors already mixed before I ever touch the paper with my brush. Test you colors on a scrap piece of watercolor paper to make sure each mix is correct color you are after and is of the right consistency.

Usually you will start with the large shapes in your painting e.g. the sky and the ground, so use your largest brushes for these. As these shapes are often the lightest tones, you will have more water in your mixes than later on.  Then as your painting progresses, you will work with smaller brushes and thicker paint (less water) as you work on smaller and smaller shapes. You can read more about this in my article on watercolor painting steps and my watercolor progression chart.

Remember, it is very important to observe what the water is doing. So keep an eye on it, on your paper, brush and palette.  The more in tune you are to it the better and more confident your work will become.

Watercolor and Gum Arabic

Here is a link to an interesting article on gum arabic. Its uses from food additives to watercolor along with its history: gum arabic history.

Happy painting,