- Education and Science
Understanding watercolour paints
How Watercolours work
I have written this article to help you with your watercolour painting. And yet it contains very few painting tips. So how will it help you? It will give you the technical knowledge you need about the paints you are using. Because lets face it, if you don't understand what the paint is and how it works, you are facing an uphill struggle before you have even lifted your brush!
Technical knowledge leads to success. You can bet a racing driver knows the ins and outs of car mechanics, and a top cosmetic dentist understands biology.
Of course technical stuff can seem like hard work; too much science, too much study. So I have kept it as simple as I can, and written it so you can dip in and out as you please. The article is written in modules, and the index is directly below this introduction. There is no need to wade through it all in one go! Look at the bits that interest you, and come back to it when you need more information in the future.
Because watercolour is a technical medium, and a little knowledge can go a long way. So when you need to choose the which paints to buy, when you see little granules in some of the colours, when you don't understand the symbols on the side of the tube, or wonder if the colours will fade in sunlight... Pop back here and maybe find an answer or two!
The article starts by examining what the paints are made of, and then looks at some of the properties of them in detail, giving you advice that will help you choose the best paints for you.
NOTE: The main body of this article deals with transparent watercolour paints. In other words the paint most commonly referred to as 'Watercolour' At the end of the article I look at other types of watercolour media such as Gouache and Watercolour Pencils, and explain how they are best used.
And another NOTE about language: I am English. Watercolour has a U in it, and I will not be persuaded otherwise! But I welcome my USA readers, and for the purposes of this article it matters not a jot how you spell it. Watercolour is Watercolor and vice versa.
So, what is the paint made of?
A really simple recipe.
Watercolour paints are mainly pure colour pigment (natural or synthetic) mixed with a substance called Gum Arabic. It is then put into tubes or pans (little blocks.) When moistened with water the colour spreads easily onto paper.
About Gum Arabic.
If your tube of paint has been sitting around a long time, and separates slightly, you will notice a clear, sticky liquid comes out before the paint. This is Gum Arabic. It is a natural substance, chosen for its ability to dissolve easily in water, and keep the pigment even and moist. A natural glue, it also helps the pigment to stick to the paper. It is made from the sap of the Acacia tree, and is non toxic. Artists can also buy Gum Arabic in a bottle; it is used as a medium for slowing down the speed at which the paint dries. As a beginner, there is really no need to buy any separately, although you may find it useful later on.
Did you know? Gum Arabic is also used in:
Sweets and Foods
Postage Stamp Glue
Printing and Photography
Gummed tape for artists
Gum Arabic on Amazon - Click for details, or to purchase...
For beginners, a bottle of Gum Arabic is not strictly necessary. However, it can be useful as you become more experienced in watercolour techniques.
Pans or Tubes?
What's the difference?
Many students have asked me "Which is best, pans (also known as blocks) or tubes?" They might as well ask Blond or Brunette? Car or Motorbike? Because like most things in life it is a matter of personal preference.
So, that being the case, how do you choose? Well I am going to give you some concise information about the pros and cons for each type, and this will give you a good idea of which will suit you. Of course there is nothing to stop you using both!
Firstly you should understand that the basic mix of pigment and gum Arabic is the same for pans and tubes, but tubes being sealed from the air stay moist. It's as simple as that. If you squeeze your tube paint into an empty pan it will dry and be just the same as pan paint. Therefore they are both compatible and inter-mixable with each other.
The advantages: Easy to transport, great for travelling. Non messy and neater to store.
The disadvantages: Less easy to get strong colour. Very wearing on brushes.
The advantages: Easy to get strong, rich colours. Softer on brushes, versatile.
The disadvantages: Tubes can split, lids can get stuck on. Less convenient for painting outdoors, traveling.
My advice: Choose pans for light washes, traveling, holidays. Choose tubes for professional paintings, strong colours.
And if you are wondering... I use tubes.
Why watercolours are not like wall paint...
This is possibly the biggest thing to get your head around. Imagine a manufacturer of wall paint for the home DIY market. The aim is to provide a great range of colours all in a similar consistency, coverage and drying time. The colour varies, but the customer expects that the quality is consistent between tins.
Now imagine the opposite: colours that vary in transparency, strength, quality, consistency and price. There you have watercolours. Why are they so complex? Actually they are really very simple, but their simplicity is also what makes them all different. Because many of the colours are still made from natural pigments they all vary. Paint for walls is highly processed and contains lots of chemicals and body colour (opaque pigment.) With Watercolours they even vary between brands, as manufacturers each use their own special recipes - in other words 'Winsor and Newton' Cobalt Blue will not be exactly the same as 'Sennelier' Cobalt Blue!
So how on earth do you get to grips with all this variety? My advice is to stick initially to one brand and type of paints: just a few basic colours. Get to know them. As you progress, you may find yourself becoming unhappy with the quality, the type, or perhaps you simply can't find that particular shade of yellow you always seem to need. Then is the time to start to expand your range, try new things, different brands.
Watercolours are transparent (More or less)
Watercolour is a transparent medium. There is no white watercolour. White is opaque, therefore it is not used in pure watercolour painting. Pure water-colourists leave white paper for their lightest areas. The main part of this article refers to transparent watercolours. I will give an overview of other types of watercolour medium at the end of the article.
Already I see you pointing to that little square of white in your box of paints. What is it, if not watercolour? Gouache (probably.) More about Gouache and other types of watercolours later, but just for now, there is no white watercolour. If you mix white into your watercolours, you are now working in mixed media, not only that but you lose the beautiful glow watercolours are famous for. Listen, I am not the paint police, I can't stop you using white, mixing charcoal in or peanut butter or anything else. Nor do I wish to, mixed media is fun; I am simply explaining what watercolour is and what it's not. It's a tricky medium, so to get the hang of it I suggest using it in its purest form initially, before you experiment.
How are colours lightened without white? Simply add more water. Check out the picture: the more water you add, the paler the colour. People often talk about the disadvantages of watercolour, so lets just mention the sheer number of tones you get from one little colour, fantastic!
A little more info
Next I am going to contradict what I just said above: because although watercolours are transparent... the transparency varies, some are slightly opaque.
Which colours tend towards being more opaque?
Cadmiums (eg Cadmium Yellow)
Some Earth colours (Earth colours are the browns, some brownish reds and Ochre yellows)
Cheaper paints with synthetic fillers can appear more opaque too. (This is because they are bulked out with fillers)
Quality: Artists v Students
Not all paint is created equal (you get what you pay for)
The next thing to look at is quality. Did you know most ranges have two quality levels? For example I use Talens (manufacturer) Rembrandt range. This is an 'Artist' quality range. However Talens also make Van Gogh watercolours, these are a cheaper 'Student' quality. Quite what poor Vincent did to have the cheaper ones named after him, I am not sure.
So what is the difference?
Artists paints are the top of the range, they use the finest pigments, whether synthetic or natural, they are the best you can get.
Students paints are cheaper, therefore they may have synthetic fillers, less expensive pigments. They can still give great results, but they will never be as good as the Artist's range.
Are synthetic pigments always worse than natural? Not at all, many of the less stable natural pigments have now been re-invented with synthetics, for the better.
Which should you choose?
Personally I found watercolour hard enough, and wanted to use the best, to give myself every advantage. But some people feel intimidated by using expensive paint, and if you need to start with the cheap stuff in order to feel free throwing it around and having fun then do so. You cannot paint well if you are being stingy with the paint and worrying about the cost. Or perhaps you simply are on a very tight budget. In that case, I suggest starting with a cheaper set, then replacing individual colours with artist's ones as you use them up. This will spread the cost nicely, and you will end up with the best anyhow.
As for the differences between brands, as I said before, each manufacturer has their own methods and recipes, but all the 'Artists' ranges are very high quality, it matters less which brand you choose, it's just personal preference.
If you put cheap paint on with an expensive brush it won't look any better. If you put expensive paint on with a cheap brush it can still look divine.
A little more about prices.
Yes, when it comes to watercolours, even prices vary!
You will notice that within a single range of paints the prices can vary according to which colour you buy! This seems crazy and at first can be very confusing. But it is a fact that some pigments are far more expensive than others. Actually if all the colours are the same price, it's a bad sign; you may be looking at a lower quality range ( they are bulking out the expensive pigments with cheap synthetics or body colour, hmm sneaky!) Manufacturers often label their price list with levels, Series 1 may be the most expensive, 2 middle, 3 cheapest, or they may use A, B, C and so on. In addition to this each colour will have its own identifying number too. The earth (browns) colours tend to be the cheapest. Familiarise yourself with how your paints are priced, each manufacturer does it differently. Check out the sizes too, to see how much you are getting for your money. Pan paints come in two sizes: the little blocks are either half pan or full pan (double the size.) Tube paints may come in 5ml up to 20ml and any other size in between. In all good quality ranges, individual colours can be purchased, yes even for the set you bought with pre-chosen colours.
When it comes to the quality of equipment, for me the paint is the top priority. After all, it's the only thing in the end that the viewer looks at.
Yes you guessed it, they vary
Now this is a biggie. There is a huge difference between the strengths of individual colours. Of course cheaper paints may look less vibrant, I am sure you have noticed children's paints are very weak. But the main difference in strength within good quality paints is caused by the pigments used.
A few colours are called 'Staining' colours. To know what they are like, imagine ink, really rich in colour, and transparency. These colours are strong: a little goes a long way. They are useful in making rich colourful darks, and can make a painting. They can also ruin it if you are not careful. And they live up to their name, being harder to remove than others. Every paint box needs a few, but they should be treated with respect.
Some well known 'Staining' colours (this varies between brands):
Other paint colours are very weak; you will find you get through a tube of them very quickly.
Some well known weaker colours:
Look at the colours in the picture, the ones on the left are staining colours, the others are weaker, although typically the yellow is a little more opaque than the others. The best way to find out how strong your colours are is to paint with them!
Did you know?
Watercolours can dry up to 50% lighter than when you apply them! Better be a little bolder with your application...
Now, once you start painting with watercolours you may notice something strange. Some colours seem bright and clear, but others dry with an odd textured look, kind of like tiny grains of sand. These colours are the granulating colours.
So is granulation good, or just a nuisance? Well granulation is good, so long as you want it in that particular area of your painting. And if you are painting something with texture, such as a beach or a rusty post, then it can be a real help to your work. But if you are painting something smooth and clear, it may be that you would prefer to choose clearer colours.
So which colours granulate? Well it depends, but the blues and earth tones (browns) are the most likely candidates. That is not to say all blues or earth colours granulate, for example both Sepia and Prussian blue are non-granulating colours.
Your best bet is to paint little squares of your colours on a piece of textured watercolour paper. Make a note of which colours granulate. Remember granulation is caused by actual pigments settling, so if you mix a granulating colour with a staining one, the result will still have granulation.
It is worth noting too, that if you mix up a wash (large puddle of paint) containing any of the granulating colours you will need to stir it with your brush each time you dip in, to avoid the pigments settling too much, and to ensure a more even application.
Classic Granulating Colours:
Recently I was lucky enough to see the exhibition in London: Van Gogh, the artist and his letters. One of the paintings was of a huge vase full of white roses, it was beautiful, but the colour balance looked a little odd. On reading the notes by the painting I discovered the reason. When Van Gogh painted the picture the flowers were pink! In only just over 100 years the flowers had faded to white. The cause of this? Fugitive pigments. No, not fugitive like the Harrison Ford film (although they do abscond), when applied to painting the word means pigments that degrade and fade. In the case of Van Gogh the most likely pigment used was genuine Rose Madder, or Alizarin Crimson; a notorious colour for fading.
In order to avoid possible problems with light-fastness, modern paints are labeled according to permanency. This labeling varies from brand to brand, but is often indicated by a rating of stars or crosses on the side of the tube or on a list from the manufacturer. It depends, of course, how much you care. If you are a live in the moment, let the future worry about itself sort of person, then perhaps you needn't worry about how permanent your paint is. But if you are a control freak like me, who wakes up cold and clammy at midnight, haunted by the thought of your paintings fading... then I suggest you check the permanency ratings before you choose your colours.
If you are a professional artist, then in my opinion, you owe it to the people who purchase your work to use the best quality, most light-fast paint you can. Paintings may be passed on through generations, and will certainly outlive their creator.
No matter how high quality your paint, all paintings suffer when placed in strong direct sunlight.
Remember, modern synthetics have in many cases replaced less stable, fugitive colours, so best to trust the ratings on the tube, more than the colour's name, which may mislead you.
Here's one of mine: this one is painted in Pure Watercolour - (Read on to learn about other types of watercolour)
This is Gainsborough's House in Suffolk England. Painted for the Visions of Sudbury exhibition 2009, and selected and included in the book published thereafter, a view of the back of Gainsborough's House, birthplace, and childhood home of the artist, now a dedicated gallery for his work, as well as a thriving print workshop used by contemporary artists.
I am lucky enough to be a member of the Gainsborough's House print workshop, and when not painting watercolours sometimes have a play at lino printing and mono printing. This view is just a few feet from the door of the print workshop!
Read on to learn about other types of Watercolour!
At the start of this article I mentioned White Gouache paint. Gouache is simply a form of watercolour with added body colour, making it opaque. In fact the earliest watercolours were opaque. It is related to and compatible with modern transparent watercolours. However the transparent glow and beautiful blended pigment effects you get with transparent watercolours are not possible; at least not to the same extent.
Gouache is sometimes called 'Designer's Gouache' as before the advent of computer graphics programs, it was the first choice for commercial artists. The advantage of Gouache is that areas of flat, opaque colour can be painted quite easily, and light colours can be painted over dark, although not perhaps with the same clarity as acrylics. A painting done entirely with Gouache appears chalky, like a high quality poster paint, it has a very matt finish. Use Gouache as a medium in its own right, or with watercolour for a mixed media effect. However it is a bad idea just to dump it into watercolours, for example to lighten or darken colours. Be sure you know why you are using it, or you will lose transparency with little gain. The worst use I see of Gouache is on pure watercolours, put on as white highlights at the end. It has all the subtlety of a correction fluid ridden school essay.
Really very useful
As the name suggests, these are pencils made with watercolour pigments. They are very versatile, and can be used dry just like ordinary coloured pencils. But add water, and pigment turns to paint. If you have small children or grandchildren they will be captivated by these 'magic' pencils.
There are several ways to use watercolour pencils: They can be applied by sketching areas of colour, then a wet brush drawn across them, to turn them to paint. Alternatively they can be used on wet paper or paint, this will give lines, but with a soft edge.
I find them most useful for things with linear patterns or markings, particularly rocks and seashells, or areas that need lots of small textural strokes, such as hair, or fur. If you press fairly hard when applying them you can make marks that are then softened with water, but still remain. In fact you should never assume that the pencils will dissolve into completely flat fluid paint. I use watercolour pencils when painting very detailed botanical or wildlife subjects. They are also invaluable for fur type textures. The main disadvantage watercolour pencils have is that they do not produce very strong amounts of pigment.
If you wish to paint and sketch on holiday, watercolour pencils are the perfect travelling companion, many artists use them for sketches and colour notes, working them up to large paintings on returning home.
Other Watercolour Media
Water-soluble crayons, pastels, felt tips and more...
In the last decade or so I have seen an explosion of different media for Watercolours (and indeed all types of paint.) Some of these can be a little gimmicky, but many are fabulous. I once had a sample of watercolour felt tips, the colour was intense and glowing, like beautifully coloured ink. That said, there is no real reason to invest in these if you are happy with standard paints
I occasionally teach in an elderly peoples home, and they found the watercolour felt tips very easy to use, better than a paintbrush for arthritic hands and tired eyesight. In fact I think this may be where the real benefits of these new media lay, as an introduction to painting for those who lack confidence, or have disabilities, mobility problems and the like. They are also a great introduction to painting for children. I have never understood why children's sets of paints are virtually devoid of any decent amount of pigment, and include a pathetic nylon brush that Picasso himself couldn't hope to do anything with.
Like watercolour pencils, these new media are great for painting outdoors and taking on holiday. And many of them have an added advantage of producing really bright colours!
I painted this one in Mixed Watercolour Media - (It's perfect for fur)
This painting is called 'Expectant Squirrel'. Although it is rare for me to paint animals I couldn't resist when I found a photo my boyfriend had taken. His father has squirrels in his garden, and they jump up on the windowsill, where they are passed walnuts. They literally wait there and take them in their little paws before skipping away to eat them. So cute!
I find feathers suit the crisp edges of pure watercolour, but fur does not. Here I used a mixed approach. The background is pure transparent watercolour, but the squirrel was built up in layers of Watercolour, Watercolour Pencils and black and white Gouache, applied very dry with a rough brush. It took a long while, but I was pleased with the result. My teenage daughter says he looks like a rat. Teenagers huh.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you found this article useful, scroll down if you would like to leave me a comment.
And remember, the best way to learn about Watercolours is to paint with them!
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