Transparent Watercolour Doesn’t Mean Colourless Paint

Transparent Paint Colour
Watercolour paint is transparent, what’s underneath shows through; how much depends on the pigment and how thickly or thinly it’s used.

On Saturday someone asked me what gouache was. As I was explaining it’s like watercolour but opaque paint not transparent, they got stuck on “how can paint be transparent when it’s a colour?” It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the misunderstanding that transparent means colourless (like reading glasses) rather than having colour but still allowing what’s beneath or behind it to show through (like sunglasses).

Watercolour is a transparent in that layers of watercolour paint allow what’s beneath it to show through. How much shows varies, depending on the properties of a pigment and how thickly/thinly you’re using it. The more water you’ve added to the paint, the thinner the colour will be and thus the greater the transparency.

Traditional gouache is used with water, like watercolour, but is inherently opaque and matt, covering over what’s been painted underneath. The result has quite a different feel to it: flatter, more solid colours. The exception is what is sold as white watercolour paint, which has opaque properties; it’s often called Chinese white, sometimes titanium white.

It’s the transparent nature of watercolour that enables you to build up rich colours with a sense of depth, layer by layer. To darken tones by applying another layer of the same colour. To ‘mix’ colours on the paper rather than on your palette, such as creating a green by painting blue over yellow or a purple with red over blue. (To put it into artspeak: optical mixing rather than physical mixing.)

The opaque nature of traditional gouache enables you to add detail to a watercolour late in its development, for instance grass in the foreground, or for overworking areas that have gone wrong. Do have a go at a complete painting with gouache alone at least once as it’s a different beast to watercolour. Or “fake it” by adding some white to all your watercolour colours; the colours will be less saturated but it’ll give you a feel for it.

Paint with a Beginner’s Mind

Self-portrait with black ink
Self-portrait with black ink
Draw and paint with a Beginner’s Mind

Whenever you find yourself thinking “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how” add a three-letter word to your mental dialogue. Add the word “yet”. Say “I can’t do it, yet” and “I don’t know how, yet“.

Give yourself permission to spend time learning, as well as to stumble and fail while you strive. Abandon the expectation that it ought to come easily (whatever that “it” is) and use the fear of failure as motivation to continue rather than quitting or not trying at all. Learn to “Fail better”1, be open to “what if I…” curiosity.

In the same interview that yesterday’s motivator quote was taken from, artist Alan McGowan mentions the Zen philosophy of a “beginners mind”, saying it is

not easy to do and it’s quite scary because there’s always the chance that it will not work at all, that it will turn into a big mess… There can be an expectation from others that one should always be successful, that a picture should in some way be an expression of expertise, especially as I teach as well. But that’s a bit of a trap. The risk of failure is for me an important part of the whole process of painting (and drawing) and so you want to keep that possibility open; that it could all collapse.”

Stop caring so much about it looking to others as if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re busy learning and discovering as you go along, so you do indeed not always know whether what you’re doing will be successful. But the end product (a “good painting”) isn’t the sole objective, and often not relevant at all. Having an intriguing and interesting journey is also an objective. A drawing/painting that’s about observation, about the process and techniques, not about ending up with a pretty picture.

A beginner’s mind means:
1. Focusing on the moment. What might be the next step in a painting’s creation. Not obsessing about what the finished painting will be.

2. Endurance. Sticking with it, layer after layer. Don’t be preciously protective about any “good bits” in every single drawing and painting. (Ideally none, but that’s near impossible.)

3. Embracing uncertainty
and working through it. Don’t habitually erase and restart; go forwards not backwards.

4. Enjoying the journey. Enjoy the art materials you’re using and try different paints, papers, brushes, colours etc. to find new favourites and fall in love anew.

5. Being patient and impatient. Grant yourself time to learn while being constantly eager to learn more.

Further Reading: How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind by Zen master Mary Jaksch.

References:
1. Writer Samuel Beckett, in Worstward Ho (1983): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Painting-in-Progress: Starting with Magenta Trees

Wanting to move away from the blues and greens of recent paintings, I decided I’d start a forest painting with a seriously intense colour, magenta. It does still tie into reality through foxgloves and pink-purple heathers, so there is a little landscape-painting logic behind the choice.

I started with adding some texture in thin vertical strips for tree trunks, then once this has dried I brushed over magenta. I added a little red to this for a bit of variation, then left it to dry before starting to layer in colour that will ultimately read as “tree trunks”. If you’re wondering about the background, I did this at Skyeworks Gallery.

Painting in progress magenta trees
After the magenta/red ground had dried, I added the first tree layer.
Painting in progress magenta trees
Between the first layer of trees, I added blue for sky (which will become blue for water instead).
Then greens for grass/forest undergrowth (which would soon become green for leaves/foliage instead).
Then greens for grass/forest undergrowth (which would soon become green for leaves/foliage instead).
Turned sideways to allow new layer of blues to run, which is where I decide blues will be at bottom of painting not the top, and turn it  "upside down".
Turned sideways to allow new layer of blues to run, which is where I decide blues will be at bottom of painting not the top, and turn it “upside down”.
Masking tape added so that whatever I did next, some of the colours as they are now will be retained. The masking tape is torn in half to give a ragged edge to enhance the feeling of tree trunks.
Masking tape added so that whatever I did next, some of the colours as they are now will be retained. The masking tape is torn in half and the straight edges put together, to give a ragged edge to enhance the feeling of tree trunks.
How it looked the moment before I removed the masking tape.
How it looked the moment before I removed the masking tape.
With the tape removed.
With the tape removed.? Work in progess. Size 100x50cm.

This is still a work-in-progress. I have some idea of where I’ll go next (such as refining the darks), but have left the painting at Skyeworks so I’ll have to see if what I’ve in mind still applies when I see it again on Wednesday.

One comment so far from someone who’s seen it has been that it’s “tweed handbag colours”, referencing the bright pinks popular in modern tweeds. Any other suggestions?

Edges Paintings: Rocky Shore

Sometimes an idea takes quite some time to make it into paint (and not every idea does). I’ve previously done a rocky shore as a pencil drawing and in charcoal, as well as an etching. This version doesn’t have a sea/sky horizon.

I started by creating a dark ground, using a chromatic black mixed with texture medium. Once this had dried, I “drew” with various colours of Golden’s High Flow Acrylics. Once this had dried, I painted the sea and ‘tops’ of the rocksy, again using very fluid paint. I’m now, once again, waiting for paint to dry, and will then access whether I’ll be doing anything else to it. Right now I think not, but looking in it in different light tomorrow will tell me.

Edges: Rocky Shore painting by Marion Boddy-Evans
Size: 1×1 metre.

Save

Work-in-Progress: Sheep Trio

Work in Progress: Sheep Painting with Distant Cliffs
Work-in-Progress. Painting Size: 1x1m

These four photos show this painting-in-progress I was working on yesterday.

Photo 1: Though you can’t see it in the photo, the sheep in the foreground and the cliffs in the distance had been ‘sketched’ in with texture paste, which is why I had put down colour on the sky, hills, and sea only. This having now dried, I started by adding yellow to the foreground, knowing the blue under this would show through, shifting it towards green. I applied the yellow directly to the canvas, then used a brush dipped in clean water and then some glazing medium to spread it around.

Photo 2: Without cleaning the yellow from my brush, I picked up some blue from my palette and let this run down, creating green. I added dark (perylene green) for the sheeps’ heads and legs, and applied a little to the distant hill. Then I started adding white for the sheeps’ wool.

Photo 3: I’ve added more colour to both the foreground and the distant hills. Permanent rose mixed with the leftover blueish colour on my brush/palette, giving a range of pink-purples, suitable heather colour. Then another round of white added to the sheep.

Photo 4: I’ve applied more dark to the faces (running the brush along the texture of the horns), and greens to the background. This wasn’t tube green, but created by mixing quinacridone gold with leftovers on my palette. Now it needs to dry completely before another round, which I’m hoping will get me to the “is it finished yet?” stage.

Flower Frustration & Resolution (Hopefully)

Given Monday’s Motivator to Keep Striving, I thought I’d share work-in-progress photos of one of the paintings I’ve been working on this week, one that’s been testing my resilience. Wildflowers are something that have bounced around my mind’s eye for some time, but a subject I’ve not translated into paint much. “Listening to Trees” was the first time I painted foxgloves to my satisfaction. My idea with this painting was for it to echo myforest paintings, but be only flowers. It’s a large canvas, 1×1 metre (about 39×39 inches).

The first photo shows where the painting was when I downed brushes yesterday. To my mind, very much still a work-in-progress that lacked oomph. It needed more tonal contrast, a stronger sense of sunlight, pinker foxgloves. The last thing I had done was to add a stronger dark tone using a mixture of Prussian blue, burnt umber, and perylene green. It was a bit streaky but once dry my plan was to do something similar with some “sunlight” and “blue sky”, then reassess.

How long would this take? Would it work? Doing it is the only way to know. I might make it worse, but ultimately that’s irrelevant as it’s not right now anyway.

Flower painting with foxgloves and daisies
Work-in-progress. Size: 1x1m.

Awake at four this morning thinking about this painting, I headed back into my studio to give it another go. I dug out some fluid medium, cadmium yellow, phthalo blue, and titanium white, then played around with very fluid paint and gravity. This photo shows where the painting is now. I like it more — it’s less static — but will reassess once it’s daylight. Studio cat seemed to approve though.

Flower painting with foxgloves and daisies
When I put the canvas on the floor to take a photo, studio cat came to help.

Update: I ultimately decided I did like what I’d done and made only minor tweaks.

Save

7 Ways to Avoid Routine & Monotony in Your Art

If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?

1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.

Ink drawing of a tree by artist Marion Boddy-Evans
Working with a measure of uncertainty — use a brush and water to ‘paint’ the subject on a sheet of watercolour paper, then drop colour into it when it’s still wet. In this instance I was using acrylic ink, dripping in a little directly from the bottle dropper.
2. Vary Your Approach
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.

3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.

4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.

5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.

6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?

7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?

Never Use White in a Painting?

Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?

If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?

Sunset over the Minch monoprints by Marion Boddy-Evans
Sunset over the Minch monoprints

I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).

A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.

 

Permit Yourself the Time

Creative Ideas Overload

This is part of a comment in response to Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative:

“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can’t draw/paint. Of course I’ve always desperately longed to. Can’t afford classes. And if I just ‘go for it’? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it’s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax

We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.

Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.

I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).

Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.