Blooms, washbacks, backflow, cauliflowers … whatever you call it when you’re painting wet-into-wet watercolour and the colour you just applied pushes out the one already down, rather than making friends and sitting with it. There’s one rule to avoiding it (or to use if you deliberately want to get this result, much as watercolour purists might shudder at the thought). In the words of that skilled Australian watercolourist John Lovett:
If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created.” Source: John Lovett, Watercolour Edges
So how do you know whether you’ve got more pigment or not? Like everything, practice. It starts by deliberately considering it, and eventually it becomes ingrained knowledge, instinctive. If in doubt, add more pigment (“thick paint”). Or pull some of the water from the brush hairs by holding a piece of paper towel to the ferrule end of the hairs, a tip the artist Katie Lee taught me.
“Imagine a fly walking on a surface. If the fly walked across a line and disappeared by going around a corner, then that line should be heavy. If the fly walked across a line which marked a change in material in the same plane then it should be light.” Brian Ramsey, “Trade Secrets”
Or if flies give you the heebie-jeebies, perhaps imagine an ant.
Or a caterpillar, though not a very hungry one like Eric Carle’s.
The Rule of Odds in art runs along the lines of “whatever odd thing you do, people will put it down to your being arty”.
No, wait, that’s the Rule of Oddbods.
The Rule of Odds in art is that a composition will be more dynamic if there’s an odd number of elements in the composition, say three or seven, rather than an even number, say two or six. The reasoning is that having an odd number means your brain can’t pair them up or group them as easily, that there’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps your eyes moving across the composition.
Why do we pair things up naturally? Perhaps it’s because our body is designed in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, and so on. (Okay, only one nose, but it’s got two nostrils!) Whether we’re painting apples, apple trees, or apple-eating creatures (aka still-life, landscape, or figures), the same Rule of Odds applies.
Take a look at the brushes in the jar in these two versions of a painting.
If I asked you to count the brushes in the left-hand photo, you’d likely be able to do so quickly — once glance and you’ve taken it all in. Whereas in the right-hand version you’d have to spend a little more time and you may, ultimately, be uncertain because some brushes are hidden behind others — you’re spending longer looking and engaging with the composition.
It’s the Rule of Odds in action. That I painted this scene at all, well that’s the Rule of Oddbods.
While I think it’s nearly impossible to answer to the question “How long does it take to make a painting”, I do believe there are five definite stages every painting goes through as I’m making it. Not every painting or drawing spends equal time at each stage, and some never get all the way through. I divide it as follows:
Stage 1. Anything is Possible
Stage 2. So Far So Good
Stage 3. The Ugly Stage
Stage 4. Don’t Mess It Up
Stage 5. Are We There Yet?
1. Anything is Possible
The very first step is simultaneously stimulating and intimidating. That moment you overcome the fear of a blank canvas, your hesitation to make that first mark, and start translating the image in your mind into paint. At this stage, anything and everything is possible, and it’s up to you to decide which steps to take. It’s about narrowing down the options, choosing from all the possibilities, and stepping boldly onto the path even though you’re not entirely sure where it’ll lead.
2: So Far So Good Once you’ve made a start (whether it’s by blocking-in colours as I like to do or working on establishing shapes or whichever of the approaches for creating a painting you prefer) you quickly get a feel for whether the foundation for the painting you’ve in your mind’s eye has been laid, or not. So far so good… though exactly how far this is varies for each of us.
3: The Ugly Stage
At some point, nearly every painting takes a turn for the worst, you doubt what you’ve done, and wonder whether it will turn out okay or if you’ve ruined it. Accept it, keep going, and don’t give up yet. It can be ever so tempting to throw your brushes down in despair at the mess you’ve made, but it’s only by continuing, pushing on and through this, that you develop your artistic skills and persistence. I might not do it until tomorrow when I’ve a little emotional distance from it, but I’ve learnt that “doing something dramatic” can lead to a better and unexpected result (though there’s no guarantee).
4: Don’t Mess It Up
For me, this is the most stressful stage of a painting’s creation. Where lots of things are working well,but there’s still some way to go to bring all aspects of the painting to the same level. The potential for ruining it looms overhead, intimidating me into hesitation. I start second-guessing myself, my colours, the brushwork, and can end up desperately trying to preserve “the good bits” while “fixing the rest”. The solution is to either stop completely (which if you do every time means you’ll never finish a painting!) or to be bold. Trust in your ability, in what you’ve learnt and your experience, that you’re not a one-trick pony, and keep going. Don’t try to protect bits, but try to paint? as if there were no “good bits” to protect.
5: Are We There Yet?
Deciding whether a painting is finished or not can be tricky, but it’s always better to stop too early than too late. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh eyes and decide if you still think it needs that tweak. I try (note: try, I don’t always succeed) to stop when I find myself fiddling, thinking “I’ll just quickly” or “this little bit” and to continue only if I’ve something definite, decisive in mind. If you’re uncertain, it’s time to stop and put down the brush for now. Sometimes it’s very obvious when I get back to a painting what needs to be done, sometimes it’s still not clear, and on rare occasions I can’t think what I thought might still need doing and like it as it already is.
You know that perspective rule with the railway lines, where they get further and further apart as they come towards you? Usually stated as the lines getting closer and closer together as they recede into the distance, meeting at a vanishing point on the horizon?
Well, it’s not true for the reflection of the sun or moon in sea.*
So please stop painting reflections getting wider and wider in a neat band as it comes towards you, because it doesn’t follow that perspective rule. The distances are too great. Movement in the water, ripples and cross currents, can also have an impact on how the reflection appears.
This photo might seem to prove this:
But it’s more complicated than that because, when I took the photo, nature was playing optical illusions. The sun is in fact still fairly high above the horizon, hidden by cloud, and what’s reflected in the sea is both the sun and the band of light coming towards you (not getting wider).
*Same is true for reflections of trees, and shadows cast by sunlight and moonlight. Though your camera will lie to you and show it otherwise if it’s set on any kind of wide angle.
A misunderstanding I regularly encounter in workshops is what is meant by “transparent” in a paint colour. It seems to come from conflating “see-through” and “colourless” into “transparent”.
We can see through some things that have colour. Think of stained glass or coloured cellophane or sunglasses. You see through it, though it adds colour to what’s behind it, changes the colours of things seen through it. Normal window glass is colourless; stained glass is transparent (to varying degrees, but that’s a digression).
If you’ve done a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen this “visual aid”. One day I’ll create a neater, textbook version!
At the bottom right of that sheet is a black line with opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent colours painted over it.
How opaque or transparent a pigment is depends on the inherent properties of a pigment, but also how thickly you use it. Red iron oxide is one of the most opaque pigments there is, even more than titanium white. It obliterates whatever’s beneath it.
Figuring out which colours are which is best done by creating a chart of your own. Yes, many tube labels give an indication, but you can’t beat trying it for yourself, straight from the tube and thinned somewhat, as well as adding white to transparent pigments to shift their opacity.
It’s an excuse to get out every tube of paint you’ve got and say hello to it. Neatly in a grid or not, that’s a potential procrastination. Just put brush into paint onto paper and save neatly for another day.
If you’re wanting to paint neatly up to an edge, say the side of a vase or tree trunk, painting away from that edge or imaginary line rather than towards it is easier. You position the brush at the exactly the right point when you start, then move the brush away from the edge. If you’re painting towards it, you have to decide when it’s time to stop. Lift the brush too early and there’s a gap; leave it too late and you go over the edge.
This short video demo was done with a flat brush and watercolour, but it applies to all brush shapes:
Mention painting wet into wet with watercolour, and many a person seems to have a vision of a wildly spreading chaos like this: (video link)
Whereas wet-into-wet can be a tightly controlled technique. It all depends on how you wet the paper and how you apply the paint.
If you’re on totally dry paper, carefully wet a specific shape, and then apply paint within this area only, it won’t spread out into the dry paper. As I’m doing here with a shape that’s excessively wet to illustrate the point: (video link)
(My apologies, do not adjust your glasses, the focus does get a little fuzzy at one point in the video.)
It also shows how a good flat brush gives you a very sharp edge or line and control. Note too how I’m using my little finger to steady my hand on occasion; it’s not something I consciously do, though I know I do it only if I’m painting sitting down.
I love the “look like a scientist” line, that if you want accuracy in a drawing you need to look at the subject in a different way. Look like a scientist, not everyday looking. Learning to look is as much part of learning to draw as mark making.
It’s also about persistence and developing on what you did before. Too many adults pick up a pencil, give drawing something a go, and then give up because it doesn’t have the degree of realism they imagine they should be able to produce effortlessly.
The “it must look real” in order to be good or worthwhile art is a can of worms, not least because there are many forms or styles of drawing, realism being but one. Rather than saying “what is it?” try “tell me about your drawing”.
You’ve heard the motivational speech: keep at it, practice more and you’ll get the results you wish. But will it?
Repeating the same thing again and again isn’t going to get you anything but a pile of similar results. It’s not only about regular practice, it’s also about how you approach it. You need to look critically (constructive not destructive self-critique). Assess what you’re pleased with and what not, where the successes are and failings, where you want to be and where you are. Then work out what your next practice piece should be.
This week I’ve been practising painting a sheepdog in acrylic inks, with the aim to have detailed realism in the face, getting increasingly expressive outwards. I’ve a specific subject, style and medium, not a vague “I’ll practise painting dogs”.
I’ve various reference photos printed out to check details, but not with the aim of copying one photo. I think of it as a visual dictionary where I look up specific things as I’m working and to crosscheck my visual memories of sheep dogs I’ve met. I do it whilst I’m painting and afterwards.
I chose acrylic inks, working on paper, because they’re transparent and can be used like watercolour but without the danger of lifting existing layers of colour (or mixing them into mud which I still do too readily). Earlier this year I painted sheep dogs with tube acrylics on canvas and didn’t want to do that again just yet (which is not to say I won’t ever again, just that it’s not what I’m doing this week).
The photo below shows where I tried and tried again and tried again. Each has bits I am pleased with but none works overall for me. I like the nose on the leftmost dog and the sense of snout on the rightmost. The ears are too big, making her look like a puppy. I’m happy with the sense of fur in all three, but also the looser wash on the leftmost body.
The background on the centre piece came about when I tried to dab off a bit of excess ink and instead created a blob on the until-then-white background, so I repeated it to make a background. I think it distracts, it’s too busy, but maybe cropping in tightly would solve that. On the rightmost one I used tube white to re-establish the white of the background around the ears, and was reminded that you can’t get back to “paper white”, you have to start with “painted white” if you want it to match.
What will I do next? I feel I need to focus in on individual parts instead of doing the whole, spending time painting some noses only, to get the shading, sense of wet-ness, without the distraction of the ‘other bits’. These three paintings will stay propped up where I can see them for a bit still, as encouragement to keep going.