Experimenting with DIY Watercolour Ink

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.

The sheet with the masking tape removed from the edges. The inspiration was Talisker Bay’s pebble beach, but without putting in the sea stack and leaving the sky blank.

How to Avoid Cauliflower (the watercolour variety, not the vegetable)

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.

Tree Trunk Colour Studies

Colour studies tree trunks

In a multi-day workshop, I usually include some time for colour studies, exploring colour mixing with some underlying focus but mostly for the sheer joy of colour, of seeing what happens. The most common response is what fun it is and why don’t we do it more often when we’re by ourselves? I suspect the answer lies in that we get too fixated on “creating a painting” and forget it is time well spent to practice our scales.

When I sat down at my favourite picnic bench in the Uig woodland, I had intended to do a watercolour version of the sketch I’d made a few days before. But after the first tree trunk was painted, impulse led me to trying various colour combinations in search of the ‘perfect recipe’. An hour or so later, I had this:

Colour studies tree trunks

Colour studies tree trunks

This photo is a bit blown out. In the middle is my favourite:
lunar black + cobalt blue + serpentine green

Colour studies tree trunks

I know what the colour are because I remembered to make notes! Not the proportions of each, just the ingredients.

Photos: Sketching at Uig Bay

Yesterday afternoon I was at the Uig woodland, mostly sitting at the shore looking towards the ferry pier and Waternish Peninsula. This is a favourite spot, but this time the light was particularly beautiful, the juxtaposition of light and dark shapes, the clouds. Minimal colour when looking into the sun, but not entirely monochrome.

If I moved a little, there could be some green in the foreground.

This is the wide view you see when you emerge from trees.

A few steps further back.

Puddles and reflections can be distracting.

Where I sat to sketch, on an array of flattish stones, the grassy lump being a bit damp.

My sketching kit: watercolour box (my indulgent, big one which holds a flat and a rigger brush), pencil box (with coloured pencils, sharpener, and some acrylic inks, Payne’s grey, yellow, and red earth), watercolour paper (A3 350gsm NOT) in a plastic folder which also acts as a board, couple of clips to hold paper, water container , and a bag to carry it in.

I don’t regard any of these as successful pieces, but they do all have potential for being continued /reworked in the studio.

The first, the one on the left, has bits that work but don’t work together.; this might be resolved by overworking it with pastel or opaque paint. The middle one I stopped because I liked what the hematite watercolour was doing but suddenly thought I wanted more rocks/seaweed in the composition but would mess it up if I tried to alter it, and so started the third. That lacks contrast, but the 350g paper needed to dry totally so that subsequent layers of paint didn’t just spread around and soak in. It’s a “stopped too early” painting.

Will I rework these? Maybe, rather than probably. What my fingers are itching to do is to paint the greys and light on a large canvas, lots of texture and interesting greys.

Don’t Sabotage Your Watercolour Painting

Seaside Yellows Watercolour

A beginner painter just told me her first art tutor advised her to buy a basic watercolour set because she was only starting out and it wasn’t worth her while spending the money on better quality yet. It makes me want to cry with frustration, because that’s how you too easily end up hating watercolour rather than loving it and giving up before you’ve ventured very far. I was once there.

Too many watercolour paintings are wishy-washy, pale, insipid, nothingness simply because there isn’t enough pigment in each brush stroke. Better quality paints have more pigment in them. More pigment equals more intense colours, brighter colours, better results when mixed. More pigment means a little bit goes a long way.

Cheap pan watercolours are hard and you have to scrub away to get decent colour. Decent watercolours ‘dissolve’ readily, leading instantly to stronger colour. It’ll go further than you believe, and you’ll enjoy using it more.

You need only a handful of colours to start, and these will get you off to a better start than a load of cheap. Stick with pencil and paper while you save up a little more. Ask your family and friends to each get you one colour for your birthday, and build your set that way. You’re worth it.

What do I consider essential colours? A single-pigment blue, yellow, and magenta (not red). Next step would be Payne’s grey, then another blue, then another yellow.

Brands I like? Daniel Smith, Golden (aka QoR), Sennelier, Schmincke. I love the Sennelier eight-colour set (*affiliate link) as a starter set, not least because it has Payne’s grey rather than a useless white. I struggled with watercolour until I got one of these little Sennelier sets, about five years ago now, and I’ve never looked back. Suddenly it was easy to get strong colour, to get bright results. From this I ventured into Sennelier tube watercolours, putting together my own set of colours with three blues, two yellows, two greens, two reds, magenta, and Payne’s grey.

I haven’t tried Golden’s half-pan set (yet) though I do have two tube watercolour colours (quinacridone gold and quinacridone magenta) and love them for their intensity. With 12 colours, two blues, reds, and yellows, plus Payne’s grey, it looks like a great starter set too (read about it here).

Why pans rather than tubes? Because it’s one less thing to faff about. You just put brush to water to pan to paper and you’re painting.

Seaside Yellows Watercolour

Sketch to Studio on Skye, Monday 17 to Thursday 20 September. Six participants only, ensuring personal attention. Plus the chance to try my watercolour set if you’d like.
Details here…

Lake District: Expressive Mixed Media art retreat at Higham Hall near Cockermouth, in early November and early April.

Thinking Outside the Colour Box

There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.

While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?

At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.

So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.

Testing the watercolour dot card from Daniel Smith watercolours

It All Rests on One Finger (when painting clouds in watercolour)

Practising Clouds in Watercolour

I was practising “clouds shapes” and mixing “cloud colours” for tomorrow’s art workshop when I took the photo below. Looking at it I registered how I tend to rest my little finger on the page if I’m using this watercolour brush in my right hand. Add that to the reasons, beyond mere dexterity, as to why I get different results with my left hand.

Practising Clouds in Watercolour
(Don’t ask me what colours are in these clouds, it’s ‘leftovers’ on my palette mixed together.)

I was thinking about ways for getting white in clouds besides leaving the paper white, and have ended up with a contender in the “most useless how-to photo” competition. Top to bottom there’s masking fluid (blue so you can see where you’ve applied it), white oil pastel, and white gouache. Why did I take a photo? Well, I had to do something while it dried.

Whites for Cloud Painting

It looked at little more, urm, interesting after I’d added some watercolour. Though the gouache hadn’t quite all dried (not helped by being it cold and humid, or that’s my excuse for impatience and I’m sticking to it) so the cloud shadow colours mixed in with it. Looks more like a flying saucer. than a cloud. Back to the drawing, I mean painting, board.

If you’ve any cloud-painting tips — besides being more patient and waiting for paint to truly dry — do let me know!

My Top Painting Tips: Head Away From an Edge

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge

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:

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge

Controlling Wet-into-Wet Watercolour: It Can Be Done

Wet on wet watercolour with granulating pigments

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.