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.
There’s now one less thing to worry about when painting, and it’s how much water you can or should mix with acrylic paint without ruining its adhesion. Golden Artist Colors (a USA employee-owned company renowned for its artist’s quality paint and techical info) have updated their advice:
“For years our standard advice was that a 1:1 ratio was very safe for most of our paints and mediums; plus, it had the advantage of being easy to remember while greatly erring on the side of caution. However, our current testing shows you can go a lot further than that before encountering significant issues. Just how far? We think you will be surprised.”
The article gets into the specifics, but for me this is the takeaway:
“We got no adhesion failure of any of our paints, no matter how thinned down with water, when applied on top of acrylic gesso.”
In the FAQ on thinning acrylics I wrote for Painting.About.com in 2006 (my original version, as here, not the current surreal rewritten-by-who-knows-who version) I’d said this:
“When it comes to thinning acrylics, the only ‘rule’ is to not mix acrylic paint with more than 50 per cent water. Any more than this and it may loose its adhesive qualities and peel off at some stage. You can mix in as much acrylic medium (glazing, texture paste, etc) as you like because it’s got the acrylic resin in it that acts as the ‘glue’ that makes the paint ‘stick’. (Golden describe their mediums as ‘colorless paint’! )”
If painting on a large canvas, I tend to use glazing medium as well as water to thin paint because in addition to adding “glue” it also increases working time (slows drying). Mostly I simply don’t think about it, and merrily spray paint with water to make it drip and run.
Where I have encountered adhesion issues is with water-thinned acrylic ink lifting as I brush over it, despite being touch dry. Leaving it overnight helps, presumably as the paint binder then cures. I sometimes then also apply a layer of glazing medium with a soft brush, leaving this overnight again, before continuing on top. But mostly if I find it’s lifting — you see the colour appearing on the brush — I just keep going and deal with it.
It’s evident that a lot of fun was had with February’s ram, in all sorts of mediums! Thank you to everyone for sharing your photos; it’s been a joy to look at them.
MORE PROJECT SUBMISSIONS:
I’ve created a new page with links to all the projects; you’ll find it here and in the menu under “blog”. Reminder: It’s never too late to do a project nor submit your photo(s), they’ll get added to the next project photo gallery.
This month I’ve selected a photo that offers the option of going wide with a broad landscape view or zooming in on a detail. Plus an extra photo with some other elements you might add into your painting, or all if you prefer it. There is one requirement for this month — your painting must include a passing places sign, however small. The road in this photos is single-track, and where you get such roads, there you find passing places signs. The older signs have a diamond shape, which is easy to identify at a distance; the newer signs are boringly square.
Here’s the wide view, with mountains disappearing into the distance, a road to lead your eye into the middle distance, and a couple of sheep alongside a passing places sign to give a focal point.
I would edit out the electricity poles and wires, and the raindrops on the camera lens. The grass in the foreground is quite blue to my eye (blue-green rather than yellow-green) and with the aerial perspective (that distant things get lighter in tone and bluer in colour the further away they are) it could be interesting to paint this with a warmer blue-green in the foreground and cooler, paler blues in the distance. (Have a look at Michael Chelsea Johnson’s paintings for this warm/cool near/far colour shift, he does it beautifully.)
Alternately, exaggerate and emphasise colours, be playful and emotional. Turn a hint of something into a rich version of that colour. For instance the browns in the tufts to sienna-golds, the grass greens to sunlit yellows. What about starting with brighter-than-you-think colour and subdue it with subsequent layers, rather than mixing restrained colours.
Another option would be to focus on a smaller section of the painting. What catches your attention or interest? Might you change these sheep into ones with horns inspired from February’s project?
How about adding some other elements into your composition? This photo was taken further down the same road, giving you a passing place sign, post box, red phone box, wheelie bin, gate, and a croft house (plus multiple electricity poles and wires). You might prefer this stretch of road, curving around the corner.
The video below (click here if you don’t see it) was taken while I was working on one of my paintings inspired by the photos I chose for March’s project. It’s about 20 minutes of real-time painting (I know this because of the playtime of the original video not because I keep track whilst I’m painting) sped up to two. A couple of things I noticed when watching it was how the board wobbles, something I’m not aware of when painting, and how I shifted the position of the brush in my fingers when I started using the rigger to do the letter, to how I would hold a pen for writing, with the control in my fingers rather than wrist.
I’ll post a photo gallery of February’s project paintings on Sunday, so do send me yours if you haven’t already. Also any from January. Happy painting!
My thanks to all the Project Patrons who help keep my blog advert free and enable me to spend the time on the monthly projects. Project Patrons get access to exclusive extra content on my Patreon page, as well as the option of a critique of their project paintings. It works like a monthly subscription, find out more here.
“Keep pushing yourself to try and to learn new things, no matter how they turn out. You’ll find yourself growing stronger, more capable, more resilient and courageous. Failure is an option. Especially if you succeed at it.”
Last week I had an email exchange with Erika about there being so much to learn and try and do. She said: A lifetime isn’t enough. And even though our logical mind knows that, we tend to dither and hesitate to go for it. What can be lost but a bit of paint and canvas or paper. Actually, I shouldn’t say “we”, I should say “I”.
My response was: It’s definitely “we”. I still dither and hesitate and doubt and second-guess. Particularly when I’ve got a painting where I like part of it but not all, then it’s a dance of do I keep going but what should I do or should I just give up. I try to be brave and bold, but sometimes it takes me weeks to work up to it, sometimes it never happens.
It takes confidence to fail, but with practice we get better at it and more out of it.
I’ve had a few comments from February’s project participants about not being able to paint horns like I do. Let me let you into a little secret: in my studio I have a pencil drawing of a horn the in-house art critic did for me several years ago as a ‘cheatsheet’ for the shading because I kept getting myself muddled and stressed.
It’s a bit cryptic, reduced to four elements — outline line, white highlight, shaded shadow, and twisted-form zigzag . It reminds me of the essentials, without the distraction of colour, pattern, or ridges, or position of ears. It’s been in the corner, within view though not consciously seen every day. Encouragement and reassurance, a reminder and incentive. It’s taken me ages to feel I can do horns to a level that consistently pleases me, but I feel I’ve got there now, probably.
If you scroll through my sheep paintings you’ll see how horns pop up now and again, but not often. That’s changed over the last few months, even going to this extreme:
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It started with something familiar, using Payne’s grey acrylic ink to do the line drawing that’s the basis of the composition. My next step usually would be to spray the ink and let it run, or to wet a brush and turn the still-wet ink into wash, or to leave the line to dry entirely (the latter being the least-chosen option). But this time, as I picked up the brush to dip it into some water, I found myself looking at the dry, scratchy hairs and wondering what result I’d get if I drybrushed the still-wet areas of ink. Only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to give into the impulse and see what happens.
This is what the ink lines looked like before I starting drybrushing them; that awkward vertical in the middle is supposed to be a single-track roadsign:
After I’d drybrushed, I dipped the brush into water (the tip, I didn’t want to wash out the ink in the brush) and added some light-grey watery wash.
It’s the beginning of my first attempt using the reference photo I’ve selected for next month’s painting project. So far so good.
I’ll end with the redaction poem I did as the morning’s warm-up exercise:
This is interesting for many reasons. I feel that not too much has changed. The time had come. We shall not fail. Fear. Flinch. So be it then. A sleepless night.
I’ve been pondering what I’ll create for the “Words” exhibition opening at Skyeworks Gallery in April, aware of time ticking away without my starting anything. My mind has kept circling back to found poetry along the lines of Tom Phillips’ Humument. (I fell in love with Phillips’ word-based artwork on encountering it by chance at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 1989, I just looked it up).
A few days ago when the in-house art critic accidentally drowned a book with a cup of coffee, I thought “aha, words exhibition”, and thus it entered my studio to begin a new life as “collage material”. Add a felt-tip pen, and I ended up creating some redaction poems (also known as found poetry, blackout poetry). Turns out the book was indeed as interesting as the in-house art critic had said.
The writer-artist Austin Kleon, who does a lot of blackout poetry, describes it thus: “It’s sort of like if the CIA did haiku.” His video on the history of this borrowing and reworking is worth a watch.
I prefer the term “redaction” to “blackout”, because redacting a document is something deliberate and active, while a blackout is more something that happens to you. And redacted documents do carry that sinister edge of “what is it they don’t want you to see”, along with the changing of meaning by hiding things. Also, you needn’t use black.
Not being able to do something does not invalidate everything you can already do.
There will always be someone who appears to do it easier, faster, better. At times you’re that person to someone else.
Learning as a shared journey is a recipe for discovery and intrigue, spiced with angst and frustration. Helping one another to not over-season, nor only pick out the cherries from the fruitcake, is part of it.
As sometimes happens, I lost the plot. I was doing a little studio study based on my sketches and previous paintings of the River Rha, and at some point I lost too much of the dark and ended up with mid-tone mediocrity and brushwork blended to blandness.
I’d started on a sheet of dark-charcoal pastel paper* that could’ve served as the dark , but painted out too much of it. (*Full disclosure: it wasn’t a carefully considered choice but simply the sheet of A2 that came to hand in a portfolio bag of mixed papers.) I was frustrated with myself, with what I’d done with a brush, so instead of continuing to paint I decided to change mediums, which can be a bit like changing gears. I reached for some oil pastels to redraw a layer of line and hopefully reinvigorate the painting.
Once I’d re-found the joy in the piece, I painted the stream a bit more. I don’t consider it a finished piece as there’s a disconnect between the stream and the rest. But I know where I would go next if I do decide to continue working on this: a layer of paint over the rocks and background, add a suggestion of stream to the right, bit more water-colour that isn’t white to the stream and a flick of splatter.
Why might I not continue with this painting and finish it? Well, it was a warmup, an excuse-for-playing-with-colour moment, a do-something-so-you-feel-productive piece. It might take a little to resolve it and it might take a lot. It might already have served its purpose. I left it taped to the board for now.