The questions I get asked most often are about how to get started with watercolour painting. Here are my best answers and everything a new painter needs to know about the kind of watercolour paint that comes in tubes and pans.
Have you heard the story of Goldilocks and the 3 art supplies? If you have ever wondered if you are choosing the ‘right’ art supplies, this is for you…
Shock! Horror! The manufacturer of my favourite pickles changed the shape of the jar! I know... first world problems.
But you see these pickle jars are an essential part of my painting process. They hold the water for my watercolour painting and I usually have a selection littered across my desk. I need two really, one for clean water and one that I can use for rinsing off my brush. But they seem to multiply. It is funny how such a small thing seems to be important in my painting process. Its a matter of ritual I suppose.
It got me thinking about all the other essentials that I wouldn't be without in my art studio - the ones that you won't find in a art store. I love that! It makes me feel all resourceful and thrifty.
Here's the list:
Ok. I won't go on about these any more. (But I don't think I could paint the same without them.)
Old hair spray bottle
I think that when I first had need of a bottle to spritz water about it wasn't so easy to find them such a thing in the stores. I found a bottle of hair spray in the back of my cupboard. It was surprising because I don't ever use hairspray and also because it was not the aerosol kind but the one with a removable top attached to a long straw that goes into the inside of the bottle.
Clearly it had been sitting there waiting to be emptied, well rinsed and repurposed as a water spritzer in the art studio. Essential for waking up the watercolour palette in the morning or spritzing over the acrylic palette once in a while to try and extend the drying time of that beautiful buttery paint that is squeezed out onto the palette.
And if you spray it directly into a watercolour wash you can get some lovely effects.
Molly the Dolly
Now, I know that you can get a proper mannequin for the purposes of figure drawing but they are not terribly approachable creatures, I find. It's an intimate business this figure drawing lark, you know.
Much easier to have a sweet face smiling up at you regardless of the awkward pose you are requesting. Molly the Dolly sits with me on my desk with her fully articulated joints and a very patient disposition. She even has the prettiest little fingers for me to draw as opposed to the mittens that artist mannequins usually come with.
Old Credit cards
So these I seem to have plenty of! Old store cards are also good. I love them as scrapers for spreading gesso or acrylic paint over my art journal pages.
They are part of my watercolour kit too. You can cut them up into nice sharp shapes for the purposes of scratching into wet watercolour paint for some lovely effects. In fact you can sometimes get them sharp enough to scratch out white marks on paintings that are completely dry to make details like highlights in eyes. Of course you can use a craft knife for this, but doesn't a shard of credit card sound a lot more fun?
If it is a bit later in the evening and you have it to hand, you might see your way to sparing a drop of vodka into your watercolour wash. You can get plain alcohol from a pharmacy, I believe.
However.... painting in collaboration with a spot of vodka.... how can you not?
A drop of alcohol spreads in a perfect circle. Sometimes they turn out like dandelion heads. Delightful.
On the subject of getting texture into watercolour paints, we cant ignore what the kitchen has to offer. Salt.
Drop salt into a nice juicy wash of watercolour and leave it to dry completely. The salt soaks up the water pulling the pigment with it. This leaves little star bursts in the colour when you brush the salt off. For a slightly different effect you can tip the paper at an angle when you drop the salt on letting it slide down the page a little before you let it dry.
(Now it occurs to me that if you had tequila you could substitute that for the vodka and since you have the salt out you may as well make yourself a Margarita. For the good of the painting.)
You are going to need an actual candle stick or some such (I use a floating candle because that is what I had to hand). Before you start painting with watercolour you can rub the candle across parts of your paper. The was will resist the watercolour and preserve the white of the paper. You can do this rather purposefully to put a bit of texture into something like brickwork or as highlights on water, for instance.
These are those little white abrasive cleaning blocks intended for removing marks from walls and that sort of thing. Where I am, the available brand is Chux but I bet you will find something like it in the cleaning aisle of the supermarket wherever you are.
If you rub these little blocks (slightly dampened) over your very dry watercolour painting you can actually remove a bit of the paint revealing the highlight. Go carefully. It is scratching off the top layer of paint and paper - don't be too aggressive or you could end up with a hole in your painting.
Speaking of watercolour texture, how about getting an old toothbrush (ok to be honest that seemed a bit yucky so I used a fresh toothbrush for this) and dipping it in watercolour paint, watered down acrylic paint or ink and flicking it across the page. Lovely!
It's best to hold the toothbrush with your thumb over the bristles and then pull your thumb nail back over the bristles releasing the colour in delightful random splatter over the page. With a bit of practice you can learn to control this at least a little bit and then use it in particular areas to indicate things like stars in the night sky or a field of flowers in the distance. But filling journal pages with nothing but abstract toothbrush splatter is a charming way to spend a lazy afternoon too.
Now these are just fun things to have around. I wouldn't dream of sticking one in my ear somehow but I use them as mark making tools - cute little dots they can make.
They are also handing for dispensing things like mineral spirits/ blending solvent/ Gamsol when you have your colouring pencils out.
What is this blending solvent you ask? Well, before you rush off the to art store you might want to see if you have any .... vaseline.
Yes, vaseline. This can be used to transform your colouring into something more like a smooth painting. The vaseline reacts with the coloured pencil and smooths it out giving some lovely blending effects. Similar to what you might achieve with something like Gamsol which is made specifically for this purpose.
Don't believe me?
Ok maybe this isn't essential for you but it is for me.
I am seldom without a cup of tea and painting is no exception. A word to the wise though... it is best to move the teacup a safe distance from the water jar.... that could end tragically...
If you are anything like me you have a box of watercolour paint and you can't resist splashing a bit into your sketchbook. This gets you thinking about 'proper' watercolour painting. Is sketchbook paper good enough?
Yes and no. It really ….
A few years ago, when the creative itch first started to trouble me I decided I needed to equip myself with a sketchbook. I was on holiday and with only one small bookshop nearby the closest thing I could find was something labelled 'visual diary'. Later, a bit of research turned up yet another possibility... an art journal.
So. sketchbook, visual diary or art journal?
What's the difference?
Which one should a beginner take up?
Was I doing this right?
I set about to do yet more research. Of course. That is my left brained way. My default setting. It turns out that there is no International Federation of Creative Taxonomy handing out clear definitions or a set of instructions. I ended up forming my own meanings for each of these things and I would like to share them with you. Hopefully this will leave you one less avenue for procrastination and free you up sooner to get creating!
This is a helpfully descriptive name in itself. A record of one's life (diary) in the form of pictures (visual) as opposed to words. The emphasis here seems to be on documenting one's life, capturing moments or details of the every day. I love that idea. I appreciate any sort of tool that helps me surrender to the present and notice the small delights of the day. Or perhaps even the not so delightful bits... the important bit is the noticing, being present. It also solves one of the dilemmas that a beginner faces - what to draw.
Unfortunately this also raises another issue for the beginner - how to capture these moments when you have perhaps not yet gathered the necessary drawing skill. One approach is to make peace with being a beginner and give yourself permission to produce drawings that you will probably never want to show to anyone. Doing something badly is the first step towards doing that thing better. If you can let go of the attachment to an attractive outcome and surrender instead to the process of keeping a visual diary, you can only get better at it.
A'sketch' is a rough or unfinished drawing, according to the dictionary. Therefore a sketchbook comes with an in-built licence to be imperfect. It is a place to try things out, to think aloud... but on paper, if you see what I mean. Sketch things from your imagination. Or from photos, or from your life. Here you can practice and prepare for more polished things in the future. Or not. For some, sketchbooks are enough in and of themselves.
I always used to associate sketchbooks with dry media, pens and pencils. But the sketchbook gods are more forgiving than that. Depending on which dictionary you look in you may even find that the definition of sketch is a rough drawing or painting. Many sketchbook artists will add watercolour to their pen or pencil sketches. If you want to see some marvellous sketchbooks, take a look at Urban Sketchers. Typically urban sketching is of things you find in towns and cities. Browsing through the Urban Sketchers sites is like travelling vicariously on other people's holidays or peeping into their lives. You get to see their world through their eyes. Sounds like a visual diary... doesn't it?
Now the name art journal scared me a bit at first. Art? As in fine art? High brow sort of stuff?
Actually, no. Well, not unless you want it to be. Those with a lot of skill from years of practice inevitably seem to transform any page into a work of art. But the term art journalling is often associated with a process that requires no prior drawing or artistic ability. If you let it, an art journal can be the most forgiving of the three. Splash paint in it like a five year old. Scribble furiously with a marker. Stamp, collage or stencil. Or draw a finely detailed portrait. Maybe just some words.
Now we get down to the essence.
What I have learned from my investigation, is that if there is a rule, this is it: anything goes.
The benefit of exploring these different options and labels is seeing just how broad the scope really is. The label offers some sort of direction. For me, visual diary emphasises documenting your life. I associate sketchbooks with freedom to be loose and unfinished. Art journals are about healing - therapy in paper form. One of those angles probably resonates with you more than others. Go with that one. It is the right choice.
Choose whatever media you want. Draw or paint things you love or things you hate. From memory, imagination or reference. Part of your daily life or the one you wish you had. You can paste things in, you can rip bits out.
You can call it an art journal, or a sketchbook or a visual diary. Heck, you can call it Gertrude.
It really doesn't matter.
Just make sure you take it out and make some marks in it.
Want some help with your sketchbook practice? I have a class full of tips on that…
Control of watercolour.... is it possible? Hmmm, debatable. But the right supplies certainly help. A few well chosen watercolour tools make life easier.
I started today with my Grown Up Watercolours ( the tube kind). Then I realised I had given myself lots of tiny details like the little hearts to fill in. I was using my much loved goat hair chinese paintbrush (this one if you are interested) which did make the task a little easier.
If you haven't tried a chinese paintbrush before I recommend it. It took me a little while to get the hang of it but it is lovely and springy. It holds its point beautifully and holds a huge amount of paint. If you hold it vertical to the paper you can get the finest point. The link above is to the set of three that I bought a few years ago. They are still doing really well for me. I seem to be using the little one rather a lot in this month's series.
I am not known for my patience. I was pleased with myself for making it through all the little ruffles round the petals. My goat hair brush did well. But then I remembered my beloved Tombow markers.... how could I forget?
I think Tombows are one of my favourite tools. Actually, I have a hard time choosing favourites. I love them all. But Tombow markers are something I keep coming back to. I love the flexible nib. Just like a paintbrush.... but better because it keeps its point, and is always juicy. The main attraction for me though, is those glorious colours. You can lay them down so precisely with the brush or bullet end of the marker (yes they are double sided) and then a little bit of water will get the marks moving and flowing in the way watercolour always does. The pigment is so vibrant and strong, I am always surprised at the coverage.
I used to feel like it was cheating - using a marker instead of paint and a brush. What nonsense is that? Fortunately I have come to my senses. There are no rules. So cheating is simply not possible. I believe art should be fun. Guilt should not apply. Use whatever tools feel joyful.
It is feeling increasingly wintry here in Melbourne. Lots of rain. Puddles my daughter can't resist.
I think that is why I started today with big splashy puddles of watercolour.
I love the willful nature of watercolour. The unpredictability that used to bother me is something I really enjoy now.
And I have learned to be patient enough to let the layers dry before continuing. Art is helping me learn to slow down. I take this sort of thing as a most excellent excuse to go and make another cup of tea. (You are right. One never should need an excuse to make a cup of tea.)
I added more layers of colour. Dropped in different reds and purples. Enjoyed watching what they became. Because you never really know what you are going to get with watercolour.
And what I ended up with is one of those oversized, generous blossoms like peonies or roses. I love all those layered petals and the sense of abundance they leave with me. I can't help but see little whimsical faces everywhere, even snuggled into the base of one of those blooms.
I couldn't resist taking out my Derwent Inktense pencils. I like drawing into the still wet layers with them. The inktense colours are so vibrant when they meet with the water. And of course, being pencils they make small, controllable, detailed marks possible.