Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Watercolor Special

Week 8 – Watercolor: Splatter Explained

I hope the acrylic class doesn’t feel left out, I’m hoping to post something for them before we meet again but I have to figure it out first. However, you can always learn something from other media that maybe you can incorporate into your own art. You just need to not have fear. Remember we “… don’t make mistakes, just happy accidents” as per the late Bob Ross learn to use them and /or buy a big bottle of gesso ;-)

I didn’t realize what a Pandora’s Box I opened when I showed the splatter technique from “Watercolor Artist” magazine, that is until I saw everyone with their tea bags and coffee filters! How great is that! As a teacher I’m always happy when I can inspire my students to try something out of their comfort zone, this is where your art takes off because you learn from trying something new and when you have success you find ways to use what you learned with the things that you know and suddenly, it becomes your own! Besides, this technique is fun and the results are amazing!

With that in mind, I thought I would do a step-by-step so you have something to reference while we are away for a couple of weeks. I hope that you take some time to paint during our break, remember we only have 2 weeks left after we come back and we will do a critique in both classes the last day, more on that later, so I want to see what you are doing. Enjoy.

While thumbing through the June 2008 Watercolor Artist magazine (, I came across an article by Wendy Hill that talked about loosening up your paintings by loosening up your backgrounds. I really like what she did knowing that I have a least one person in class who could stand a bit of loosening J Not wanting to go into class unprepared, I decided to find, among my own photos, something that I thought could work with Ms Hill’s technique and I found an old truck in my Death Valley pictures that was perfect and proceeded to experiment with her technique. Sometimes I even amaze myself!

When I was done I couldn’t wait to show my class this fun way to enliven their watercolors and I also couldn’t wait to try this with something else it was so much fun. I found several pictures that I think will work but the one I did here stood out, it was a picture I took of a lion fish at the Long Beach Aquarium.

First, I did a design on a piece of tracing paper. When I really want to be precise with my sketch on my watercolor paper, I will work out problems on the tracing paper until I get it the way I want, then when I’m ready for it, I transfer the design to my watercolor paper using wax-free graphite paper. In this case, I waited until I had my spattering done and it was completely dry before I transferred my design. I had to keep the design simple not extraneous stuff and I did check to be sure that the design would fit in the format of my paper (1/2 sheet Arches 140 lbs cold press) so that the design wasn’t too big that it went off the paper or would touch an edge when matted or look too small lit a goldfish in a lake. This is an important part of a design to use the space on your paper well.

Once I had my design, I looked at my photo. Ms Hill says that she splatters then looks to see what she can see in the splatters but I need a bit more information than just splatters on paper so I looked at my photo to find the colors I needed and where they needed to go on the paper. I first randomly sprayed my paper with water, you want dry areas and really wet areas to make this work and then I splattered my warm colors like burnt sienna, orange and yellows in a roughly diagonal pattern from the left corner of my paper but didn’t worry if some of that color went into the other areas where I splattered cooler colors (blues, purple and greens), again not worrying if some of the splatter got into the warm area where my fish will eventually go. The trick I see here is to get enough color down on your paper but not so much that you cover all the white of the paper.

When I had my color down the way I wanted, I torn up some used coffee filters (I don’t drink tea) and laid them along both sides where the cool and warm colors touched. I also sprinkled some of the used coffee, and salt and I added some wrinkled cellophane in a couple of areas. I let it dry completely before I removed all of the above and transferred my design on to the paper. I then masked out the light lines on the fish (see fist photo on picture page).

After the mask had dried, I went over the entire fish with a wash of yellows and orange, keeping the lighter colors at the top of the fish darker (relatively speaking) color to the bottom of the fish and then I let it dry. When it had dried completely I masked out more areas that would be hard to paint around in the next few steps like the spiky fins on top and the part that is separate from the main side fin, the smaller feelers around the mouth and the dot in his eye. Again, I had to let it dry.

I next started painting the rock he is coming out from behind using phthalo yellow green along the edge and blending the inside edge with just water, I also splattered some other greens (think it was emerald or phthalo, I was having too much fun and I think I used every color I have on this painting just about) and sienna, blending these colors so there were no hard lines on the interior of the rock and before it dried added more salt and cellophane.

The dark water was painted in a series of washes using turquoise, phthalo blue and green, emerald, purple and ultramarine blue. I started out behind the rock in front with a dark wash painting over the masked top fins, the tail, the under parts of the fish and the front side fin adding clear water as I moved further away from the hole he is coming out of and switching from the blues to the greens. Between each wash I added more salt in places and cellophane.

By painting over the lower parts of the fish and his tail, you start to establish shadows on the fish it is important to remember to blend out the color so you don’t create hard lines. After about the third wash going over the same areas to build up color, I stopped painting the fish and kept my colors mostly behind the rock and bled them out, just notice there was also a dark shadow under the fish I needed to paint in.

How many washes you do is a personal preference. I wanted it to be dark but still look like water and to show some detail in the rock shadows, I also occasionally splattered more paint must because it felt good. That is the fun in this type of painting is to not worry about the paint. You are looking for the end result.

Without taking off the mask, I started painting the body of the fish with burnt sienna and purple in the shadow parts of the fish and sienna and orange- sometimes some Indian yellow - in the sunlit areas. Note that the underside of the fish near the tail is slightly darker than the area around it but it is almost a lost and found line. I painted the eye in with indigo and purple.

Only when I thought I had the body of the fish shaded the way I wanted and had let it dry completely did I take off the masking. Over the tail end of the fish, I used a thin wash of phthalo blue starting at the tail and adding water to the wash to blend to about where the top spikes get smaller on the back part of the fish, remember, this part of the fish is in shadow. I also used this same thin wash along to bottom of the top spiky fin but was careful not to go more than half way up or onto the body.

At this point in the painting I’m looking to refine things such as smoothing lines where needed, adding detail, lifting if I have to. I get up and look at the painting from a distance quite often at this point so I know what I need to do without over doing it. This is where I decided that I needed to add more color to the top and bottom rocks. While the top was still damp I put more cellophane and on the bottom I added more coffee to the wet paint.

The dark areas on the fins and in some of the stripes were done with a mix of indigo, purple and sienna. It makes a very dark color that looks alive rather than using black.

Last but not least: When I couldn’t find anything else to do without fiddling I used my pens with permanent black ink to out line the fish and add detail to the edge of the rock and sign it.

I hope this has been helpful and gives you some ideas for things you want to paint. Keep it simple, only the main subject that is important the splatter becomes your background. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Learing to Use Your Brush

Week 7: Brush Techniques both Acrylic and Watercolor

I meant to post to the blog sooner but I’ve been trying to figure out how to put picts on the picture page so you can see examples but the ones I took of the demos didn’t really turn out so well so I will have to do them again with picture taking in mind. I really need video but I haven’t figured out how to video myself yet.

Now the reason I’ve combined both the watercolor and acrylic into one this time is because all the strokes are basically interchangeable between the two or any brush and pigment painting like oils or gauche, for that matter, it is how you use them that may differ from medium to medium.

Handling the brush is a problem for many in my classes like it is a one note instrument when in reality it can be a whole symphony if you know how to play it. Maybe this comes from years of being told how to hold a pen or pencil and how important it is the keep the strokes even and smooth, well, that’s great for writing and may even be helpful in calligraphy but a paint brush isn’t a pencil and while smooth and even has it’s place it isn’t the only tune you should play on it.

First, let go the notion that you hold a brush the same as you hold a pen or pencil. Learn to hold the brushes in different positions depending on what your needs are at the time. I will hold the brush in the classic “pencil” hold if I am doing detail or when I need my best control but most of the time I am holding it in anyway but the classic position. Some times I hold it firmly; some times I’m barely holding it at all. Some times I’m griping the brush other times I’ve just lightly holding it between my thumb, index and middle fingers like I’m picking up crumbs and I always try to hold the brush as far back as possible, not right up close to the bristles unless I’m doing detail. Get in the habit of checking yourself when you are holding your brush, it is natural to want to “choke up” on the brush – I do it all the time – but your painting will be freer if you hold your brush back a bit especially for the acrylic/oil painters. To hold you brush back means that you have to be back away from your canvas/paper a bit and that is a good thing, keeps you from overworking an area a problem with a lot of artists including myself.

I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of PRACTICE! Just like any musical instrument you need to practice handling your brushes and trying different ways of using them. Have a spare canvas or the back of an old watercolor you don’t like (I’m sure we all have some of those ;-) then pick up a brush and see what it can do. Press hard on it and see what results you get and then lighten the pressure, what do you see? Try combining heavy and light pressure to see what you get. Twist and shift the brush in your hand to see what you get. Try these strokes with a lot of paint and then with little paint like a dry brush stroke. If you have a liner brush, practice is the only way you will learn to handle this handy little brush but the results on your painting will be well worth the effort. Think thick and thin strokes or heavy and light to get the effect you want. Get you whole body into your painting, I will often times find myself standing when painting on my watercolor when I’m working at home even if I started sitting first because I need to have the room to work plus it gets me away from my painting so I don’t see every little “flaw”.

Now for some different strokes ;-) Most of these strokes can be done with just about any brush you have be it bristle or sable; round, flat, bright or angle; acrylic or watercolor. Practice them with the medium you are using then incorporate what you’ve learned into your art work.

Thick and Thin – This stroke is good for things like leaves and grasses and can be done quickly (little short strokes) or in long graceful strokes depending on what you are trying to accomplish. This stroke usually requires that you have your brush well loaded with paint (watercolor students, it doesn’t mean dripping off your brush but you should have a well loaded brush). You can start this off either lightly (barely touching the canvas/paper) or pressing pretty hard the trick is which ever way you start, you want to end up the opposite. For example if you were doing a long leaf, you might start out pressing pretty hard but as you create the leaf you not only lighten the pressure on the brush but twist it as well. The quicker you can do this stroke the better it will look. If you twist and lighten the pressure one or more times along a long stroke it will give the appearance of the leaf/blade of grass twisting so you are seeing just and edge in some places and the whole surface in others. This is the stroke you will use a lot when using you liner so practice this stroke with your liner especially the heavy to light pressure. Try using round and flat brushes with this stroke and thing about where you can use it in your painting.

Dry Brush – This is a very important stroke for acrylic painters because it is how we can blend when our paint has dried but it also has applications for watercolorists as well. As you have heard me say before, there is very little water in your brush when doing this stroke this includes watercolor (w/c). For the acrylic painters this works best with your bristle brushes the key for either medium is to rinse and dry your brush before picking up paint. Acrylic painters, you might have to tap the bristles up and down on your palette to get the bristles loaded just be sure to take only a small amount of paint and work it in then wipe off most of the outside paint, w/c students same goes for you: Don’t take the paint from the pile of color but from the edges. Both of you, keep a paper towel handy and touch the back end of the bristles before going to your canvas/paper to soak up any excess water.

Use a very light touch with applying color with a dry brush. The goal is to see what is under it be it canvas or paper. For w/c it makes great light on water if you drag a flat or angle brush horizontally across your white paper. It will add highlights to water using the same light stroke for acrylic painter. Using a light scrubbing stroke you can add texture or blend one color into another.

W/C students should have at least one bristle brush they can abuse for the next way to use dry brush which is stippling. Mash the paint into your bristles so the end of your brush looks pretty mangled, then lightly dab straight on the ends of the bristles to create masses of leaves in trees or bushes or texture on rocks. This makes great baby’s breath if you are doing a floral. Find other places where this will work. Just remember the harder you dab the more filled in it will look so be gentle.

Another place where dry brush is great is creating texture in wood whether you are using acrylic or w/c you can make it look like a polished table or old wooden fence, follow the grain of the wood with your stroke, I know, again with the practice.

Dry brush is a great way to make grass, fur and hair. Grass and fur are just short quick flicks of the brush the pressure on the brush is key, keep it light and quick. Hair is a very light stroke that follows the shape of the hair. Practice.

For acrylic painters clouds are a great place to learn how to use a light touch when lightly scrubbing clouds into your painting. It is a series of light, circular, scrubbing strokes. If you observe clouds you will see that they tend to boil as they form and dissipate, keep this in mind when you are painting clouds it will be helpful.

These are just a few ways to use dry brush I’m sure there are many others, just remember that just because both acrylics and w/c are water media doesn’t mean that you always have to have them dripping off your brushes, less is more, more often than not.

Liner Brush – The most important aspect of using this little brush to its best advantage is loading it. To load it properly is opposite of everything I usually tell you about adding water. This is the one brush that you need to use a lot of water so that the paint will flow off it evenly, so when you are mixing water with your paint, especially for acrylic painters, be sure that the paint has a very ink-like consistency. W/C painters usually won’t have that problem unless they are working straight out of the tube but it is important none the less to be sure that the paint is very fluid. Once you have the right consistency, to load the brush roll the whole brush in the water/paint mix and twist it to a point as you lift. The bristles should be full of color.

To create individual grasses, as Jerry Yarnell ( says, “Get your motor going.” You need to get your whole arm and wrist going in a circular motion while holding your brush slightly down, you fingers should be holding the end of the brush. As you make this motion, you will lightly touch the canvas/paper usually on the upward stroke. Little circles = short grass. Big circles = tall grass. You can also flick this brush to make grasses that look like they have seed heads on them. Practice.

This little brush makes wonderful trees and bushes! This is where I said that learning how to go from think to thin lines with this brush would come in handy. It is usually better to start at the base of a limb or twig where it is thicker and go to the thinner ends then the reverse, you will have more control. Start with the brush on the canvas/paper and with a jerky motion start you limb, lifting as you go to create a thinner and thinner limb. It is good to have a bit of a nervous twitch when doing this stroke because it will give your limbs and twigs a more realistic look (go out and look at trees and bushes, their branches, limbs and twigs go every which way).

This little brush is also good for making long lines as in ship rigging, phone lines, and barbed-wire fences – any where you need a long even line.

These are just some basics as far as brush strokes go. It is up to you to practice and experiment to find out what works best for you. Your brush will play many tunes if you just let it. Good luck and like a broken record: Practice, practice, practice!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Week 6: Acrylic Demo – Skies

Skies or backgrounds are an important part of a painting, sometimes skies can be the focus of the painting so it is important to know how to do them right.

As with most things in art, there is not one right way to do a sky or background, they can be very “impressionistic” meaning they have lots of brush strokes or they can look seamless like a photograph, as an artist, you have to make those choices to satisfy you own personal tastes. I can only show you how I do a technique; it is up to you to make it your own through trial and error otherwise called practice.

When I start a sky, I usually first sprits the canvas with a bit of water – not much, a little water goes a long way – then cover the area where the sky is going to be with a thin coat of gesso. The gesso helps me to blend colors on the canvas but remember it will change the value of the paint if you are using the regular white gesso (they do make a clear gesso now). I use my 2” blender for this process because it helps me get the gesso on quickly and evenly, use small circular strokes to cover the area of sky.

I started out the demo showing how to first make a impressionistic sky using a #12 flat brush, if I was going to do a seamless sky I would have continued to use the big blender through the whole process.

A problem many beginner painters have when painting a sky is they want to have yellow near the horizon going to blue at the top, however, where the blue and the yellow meet, they get a green that just isn’t a natural sky color. To solve that problem you need more colors. First I put the yellow on near the horizon with “X” strokes leaving them very crude in appearance (remember this is the impressionistic version) then picked up some orange and applied it just above the yellow and lightly blended the two so there were strokes left but a transition area between the colors. Next I picked up red and applied it just above the orange and lightly blended those two colors THEN I went into my blue and purple and applied them to the top of the canvas and blended down into the red. Red and blue make purple so it solves the green problem in the sky. You can skip the yellow and orange and use the red near the horizon and mixed with the gesso makes a nice pink, or if you want the yellow you can just go to the red if you want a subtler sky without the orange, the trick is to have the red between the yellow and the blue to avoid getting green.

After I showed how to get an impressionistic kind of sky, I cleaned and dried my big blender so it didn’t have any paint or excess water in it and with very light strokes, starting in the light area and working up, using big “X’s” I blended up into the darker areas of the sky (I think I sprits the sky first with a little water because it was drying out, just be careful adding water, a little goes a long way, and be sure to get it blended in). Folks, when I say very light strokes I mean VERY, VERY light. The late Bob Ross would say “Two hairs and some air” and that is a good description of this technique. Most people I see are way too heavy handed when they are trying to blend and they end up picking up paint rather then blending. The bristles of your brush shouldn’t bend at all and it will feel like you aren’t touching the canvas enough to do much but that is what you want to get a very soft blend that will look almost like airbrush when it is done. Practice this and it will be useful in many applications when you need to soften edges or blend backgrounds. P.S. It is important to be using a soft blender a regular bristle brush just won’t work here.

After I finished the sky, I showed how to start clouds. I could have let the sky dry completely before starting this step but wanted to show the class that you can work into the sky while it is still wet to at least start a base for the clouds. For this I used my #12 flat brush again, I mixed blue, purple, sienna and a touch of white and using a dry brush technique (very little paint) and a circular motion to based in my clouds. This is only one way to do clouds, a more realistic version, impressionistic clouds would be painted with a series of strokes and would appear more solid and have more strokes showing. I let the whole thing dry before the next step.

Once the sky and clouds were dry, I use a similar mix of paint – blue, purple, sienna and white - to make a grey color and using the same dry brush circular stroke added detail to the clouds. I occasionally added some reds or oranges because these are colors in my sky and might be reflected in the clouds. Skies and clouds can be almost anything you want from flamboyant to subtle, sunny to stormy, clear to cloudy, you have to decide what will work best for your painting.

Next week more demos.

Week 6: Watercolor – Splash of Color

As a teacher I think it is important to expose my students to other methods of painting in the hopes of helping them find ways of improving their own paintings. I have noticed that most of my students get into ruts and their paintings suffer for it. Doing the same thing just because it is comfortable doesn’t mean that it is the best thing for your painting and throwing caution to the wind might just find some new ways for you to express yourself and add some much needed life to your paintings.

When I saw this technique in Watercolor Artist magazine, it looked really fun and I thought it might be a good thing for my class to see and from the response, I think I was right in that assumption.

The artist who wrote the article says that she does the splattered background first then finds something to paint over it. I need a bit more structure than that so I looked for a picture I wanted to paint then I had some idea where I needed to splatter what colors. You will have to find out want works best for you.

I first used my spray bottle and sprayed my paper but I didn’t want it completely wet so there would be some dry areas and some wet areas to give me blends and hard lines, then I started throwing paint quite literally (this can get messy). I tried to keep my warm colors (reds, yellows and oranges) separate from my cool colors (blues, purples and greens) for the most part, if one splashed into the other it wasn’t the end of the world. In the area where the two groups of colors met, I laid down dampened, used coffee filters sans most of the old coffee (the artist in the article used used tea bags. The grounds are great in the garden), then dripped some color on the filters, added a dash of salt to some wet areas and crumpled plastic wrap to others then let it dry completely a process which could take several hours because of the filter and plastic wrap depending on how wet your paper was to being with, just make sure it is dry before removing either or you could loose some very interesting stuff.

Next I transferred my picture onto my dry paper using non-waxy transfer paper. It is important that it not be carbon paper because of the oil in it or waxy graphite paper, the oil can ruin you paper and the wax can act like a resist and the paint won’t cover it (actually a good thing to know in case you want that effect ;-). I tried to keep my design simple only worrying about my main subject – boats in the harbor – and a couple of palms in the background, the rest will be left as is to exploit all the good splattering we did. I also masked areas that were “white” on the boats so I could paint over them then I painted as I normally would though I tried to stay within the colors I splattered with to keep a sort of color harmony.

I finished this at home and found that I wasn’t to pleased with the white of the boats, it didn’t stand out enough, so I used a bit of gauche to lighten the area and I also mixed the gauche with some turquoise for the blue on the boats to brighten them up. Once I was satisfied with the painting part, I took my Sharpie and outlined the major elements of my painting, I left the palms just painted.

This was very fun and I’m so pleased with the results, I hope to do more for my self and see what other things will lend themselves to this technique. Enjoy.

Next week: Demo on brush strokes.