When it comes to my watercolour set, it’s very different to the colours I use with acrylics and oils. I’ve built up a big set of tantalising colours by squeezing out tube watercolour into half pans (which have the names written on them). Opening the box makes me happy, being presented by the possibilities and joy of the colours, though I do feel a bit embarrassed bringing it out in a workshop where I’ve been extolling the virtues of a limited palette.
I know have favourites amongst these; I can tell by which I need to refill regularly, such as haematite genuine. I never use them all at once. I do know what most are, but will admit to getting a bit lost amongst the blues which look very similar as dark dry pans. I solve that by simply trying one after another till I hit the right one. I do know that the end one is Payne’s Grey and the one above is Graphite Grey (it has that typical graphite shine to it). I also tend to use the set orientated as it is in the photo, as this helps muscle memory in terms of what colour is where.
I’ve had my first go at an idea involving foxgloves, blind embossing and watercolour. Blind embossing is a printmaking technique where you “print” with the aim to create indentations in the paper rather than printing an image using ink. (The appeal isn’t simply that there’s no ink to clean up!)
My thoughts behind using blind embossing are about how white space can be a crucial part of the composition of a watercolour or ink painting, about having something in that area that doesn’t reveal itself unless you look closely, which will add to the overall painting whilst not detracting from the sense of white space.
The results are hard to photograph because it’s about the play of light across the surface. I still need to figure out a good setup for doing it, but the photos below will give you a sense of it.
I started with a bit of cardboard from a catfood box, drawing a foxglove on it to give me a reminder of the overall design I had in mine before cutting out shapes for individual flowers. Studio Cat Freyja had fun helping me with this; she does love to shred cardboard.
I arranged the pieces on a sheet of paper on my new-to-me Gunning printing press that I bought from a printmaker in Banff who was upgrading their press. With a printing bed of 50x100cm it gives me the chance to work considerably larger than the little A3 press I bought I with the proceeds from the first art workshop I taught on Skye.
I didn’t stick down the cardboard shapes, so was hoping a studio cat wouldn’t come to investigate!
In order for the paper to bend around the cardboard and not tear, you dampen it beforehand. Failing to find something that was big enough, I repurposed this unused kitten litter tray which was just wide enough for an A3 sheet.
After blotting the damp sheet on a towel to remove excess surface water, I placed it over the cardboard pieces and ran it through the press. It took a few tries to get the pressure (“tightness”) of the press set so it embossed nicely.
The stripes in the embossing come from the cardboard. The pieces without are where the cardboard was the other way up. A happy accident as I hadn’t realised the cardboard would produce texture within the shapes.
By the fourth sheet the cardboard was quite flattened and I decided it wouldn’t produce much of an effect on a fifth sheet of paper. Part of me likes this limited number; another part wants to try next time with something that won’t flatten as fast, if at all, such as lino or perhaps mount board.
I clipped the embossed sheets to a board on my easel, then spent several days pondering them. Where would I paint, how many foxgloves, would I overpaint any of the embossing knowing from my previous experiments with pebbles and embossing that this tends to make it disappear? Would I start with the sheet that was embossed the best (the first sheet) or worse (the last sheet), knowing that I might well mess it up but also that sometimes the first attempt is more successful as I’m not trying so hard.
In the end I went the second sheet I’d embossed as there was slightly less pressure (no pun intended) not to ruin it. I tried to put aside my doubts and overthinking, and just jump with watercolour in a pipette (magenta, purple, green) without any preliminary drawing. I let the watercolour dry overnight before drawing onto it with coloured pencils.
Overall I am pleased with this. The foxgloves are a bit upright and stylised, and the scale of the embossed foxglove is bigger than the painted, but I like the feel of it and how the embossed element echoes the painted but you only see it if you look closely.
As for the other three sheets, well one is still unused, one I played on to see what would happen if I let the watercolour spread into the embossed area (there’s also some Inktense pencil in this, see bottom right in the photo below). This in turn led me to play with the third sheet to see what would happn if I applied watercolour onto the embossing when the sheet was damp (wet-into-wet) and let it spread. I was wondering how much it’d accumulate in the lines/edges.
PS: I’ll be sharing a “behind the scenes” photo from my studio related to this with my Patreon supporters. If you’d like to see it, and more, sign up now using this link (there’s a special seven-day free trial at the moment).
Sitting in friends’ garden in southern Scotland, I kept coming back to the purples in one border, particularly the alliums, which are one of my favourites. These were about twice the size of the ones in my garden.
So I moved a table a little closer and got out some paper and my watercolours.
A blank sheet of paper hold such possibilities and dreams, with the potential to go right or awry from the start, for things to flow or require persistence.
I started with mixing colours that I thought would give me “allium purples”. The darker swirly marks in the photo above are where I indented the paper with the brush handle while the paint was still wet; the paint accumulates in the dents and thus is darker.
For the foliage I used some of the greens that dry as a varied colour from Daniel Smith — Undersea Green and Serpentine Green — and again scratchd into the still-wet paint, this time to create a sense of the stems. Overall it wasn’t working for me, so I introduced some pen and then coloured pencil.
The photo below is where I stopped.
I decided to have another attempt, aiming for the sense of delicateness of alliums and the space within them. I thought splattering paint might do this, so tore a stencil in a piece of watercolour paper, hoping the rough edges would give an organic or softer edge.
I tried to avoid inadvertent pattern repositioning the stencil and not worrying about paint that flicked off the sides.
I then torn a strip to use for the edge of the stem, running the brush in a series of short sideways strokes off it.
I also flicked a little of the green within the purples, as you do see it in the flowers.
I am very happy with this second attempt, with the colour variation, the feeling of openess and movement, and even the unintended bits of purples (middle towards the bottom) don’t bother me (being watercolour I could probably remove it). It’s an approach I will try again at some point.
Yesterday I sat on a tree stump in the Uig woodland amongst the bluebells, with my watercolours. My aim was to try the various blues I have and see if I could crack “bluebell blue”. Looking at the options I had for shifting blues towards purple, I decided to try Imperial Purple (a Daniel Smith mixture of PV19 quinacridone rose and PB29 ultramarine blue) and mixed it with my favourite blue, Prussian (PB27). And just like that I had my recipe, andnow I can tick “paint bluebells in the woodland” off my to-do list.
This is the tree stump I sat on whilst painting bluebells. It was one of the trees cut down by the woodland trust last year because they were damaged or rotten.
It was such a beautiful, windstill morning I couldn’t resist painting outside despite the temperature struggling to get to 0°C. I don’t know that I would recommend it, but having ink and watercolour freeze as I used it was intriguing. It certainly “sparked joy” as ice crystals gathered on the tip of my brush.
Ending up with paint frozen on the surface of the paper made for something very tactile, inviting my fingers to slide across it. Of course, as soon as the painting was moved to a slightly warmer environment (i.e. indoors), it melted and the paint behaved like “normal”; the paper was cold-damp to its core across the entire sheet and took a little while to dry through.
This was my favourite painting from today, a slice of loch shore, started on location and finished indoors.
There’s one little tree in the Uig woodland that wears its autumn colours later and longer than the rest. I call it the “The Little Tree That Could” (context: the children’s book The Little Engine That Couldwith the lines “I think I can, I think I can … I knew I could“) and first painted it in 2014 (see this blog). On Monday I went to say hello again, taking my watercolours and some acrylic ink (video link if you don’t see it below).
This video was taken when I started moving the colour around with a rigger. (It goes a awry for a bit as I open a bottle to add more orange, just skip that bit. Video link)
My fourth painting is my favourite, ending up a bit like Moses’ burning bush. Watercolour only.
I was sitting on a convenient rock next to the stone wall. 1 = Watercolour set. 2 = Painting drying. 3 = A bit of waterproof padding to sit on. 4 = Plastic folder with paper that also serves as a ‘drawing board’. 5 = Inks and fluid watercolour in plastic box. 6 = Water bottle (for me before my brushes) 7 = Backpack with raincoat, biscuits etc.
As all location painting should, I started by just sitting staring out to sea. The warmer the sunshine, the longer this stage tends to last.
Then getting out my supplies: sheets of watercolour paper, clips to hold these down, my watercolour set, container for water, box with drawing supplies and longer box with bottles of fluid watercolour (also known as watercolour ‘ink). I’m hoping not to drop anything off the left-hand edge of the wall, because it’d be quite a scramble to get to it.
My first sketch of the day was the view to the left, of the headland and the pebble beach. I was trying to get a sense of the rocks and the colours of the seaweed on it. The direction of the sea as it comes into the bay isn’t right — it doesn’t turn this sharply — but I didn’t feel like fixing it as I’d lose the white and overwork it.
I then shifted my focus closer to where I was sitting, the jumble of larger rocks with the puddles of green weed.
I was pleased with the painting above, and decided to try again with a wider view. As so often happens, I was then trying too hard, hindered by what I’d just done, and ended up with a displeasing result. It lacks the strength of the previous painting, and feels insipid, unresolved, confused. If I crop off the sides, I’m less unhappy, but I consider this a dud.
This was the other dud of the last, the very last painting I did, though this one might still be rescued if I add something that pulls the sea and shore together. And also crop.
This was my favourite painting from the session. The rocks were painted with Daniel Smith’s Lunar Black, a strongly granulating colour.
I then did a version using Daniel Smith Hematite Genuine, which goes from deep dark to browns depending on how diluted and mixed it is, plus some Lunar Black. I like the colour, but I’ve rounded the rocks as I concentrated on the colour rather than shapes.
I’ve kept the expanse of sea ‘white’ as part of my ongoing exploration of white space inspired by the little I know of the traditions of Chinese painting. It’s ever so tempting to paint colour in that space, but that’ll change it completely. Also, I find the granulating colours lift very easily, so you’ve got to have a light hand painting over them. Given I was using a stiff acrylic brush not a soft ‘proper’ watercolour brush, that’d be near impossible, thus removing the temptation to try.
Whilst hunting out the one bottle of fluid watercolour I’ve got in preparation for a 1:1 workshop on expressive watercolour, I came across a few empty bottles of acrylic ink and had a lightbulb moment. Why not wash them out and make my own watercolour ink with some favourite colours?
The unknown of course was how much to squeeze out of a tube, and if I’d been sensible rather than impatient I would have started with less and then added more testing it as I’d mixed it up. Maybe next time.
If you’ve noticed that the bottle of Aquafine watercolour ink is ultramarine and are thinking that it’s a colour I openly dislike and wondering why I would have chosen it, the answer is that I was given it as a sample last year at Patchings Art Festival. I wasn’t about to get fussy about the colour of the gift horse!
This is the spread from my sketchbook where I was trying out my three DIY watercolour inks. Definitely a member of the messy sketchbook club.
The sienna is too strong, and needs further diluting. The Lunar Black spreads out a lot on wet paper. The haematite genuine holds a tighter edge on wet paper, and on dry dries to a variegated line. Overall I anticipate much happiness working with these colours and the ink-bottle droppers as the drawing tool,. Taking what I’ve been doing with acrylic ink but using watercolours that granulate and have multiple layers of colour., and remembering that it’ll lift up unlike acrylics.
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.