Buck convention. Turn first to your darkest darks to breathe life into your watercolor paintings.
By Laurie Goldstein-Warren
It took me years to put my finger on it — the reason certain paintings felt lackluster despite being expertly drawn or luminously colored. The explanation for what these works were missing, I came to realize, could only be found in the dark values. Like most of us, I was taught to paint watercolors from light to dark. But by the time I’d crafted a well-drawn composition, meticulously saved my whites, and established gorgeous lights, I was afraid of adding the darkest darks. I didn’t want to ruin all that good work with an errant stroke of arguably the scariest values on the scale. I recognize that same apprehension in many paintings I now jury for exhibitions.
I’ve learned that the best way to overcome this hindrance to a truly successful painting is to face my fears head-on. I needed to go straight in with the darkest darks. I begin a work by establishing my values 8 and 9. Between these darks and the white of the paper (value 1), I then have a clear path to building my middle values. This is where I — and most other watercolorists — feel most comfortable. In this way, I get the difficult stuff over at the beginning. Then I can relax into the rest of the painting.
Choose Colors Wisely
Although I strive to use the full range of values in a painting, I prefer to keep my palette limited. I produce paintings done entirely in transparent watercolor and others done exclusively in liquid acrylic; sometimes I mix the two. I use acrylic paint when I want a passage to stay exactly as it is — even when dry. Whether I pour a wash over it or drop water on it, the passage will remain the same color and value. I use watercolor paint when I want to create softer edges or use glazing to build color and value.
With just four colors — a red, a yellow, and two blues — I ensure that my paintings exhibit cohesion and color harmony. For my watercolors, I use Daniel Smith quinacridone rose and quinacridone gold, and Winsor & Newton cobalt and Antwerp blue. (Very rarely, when I need spots of a true value 9 in a painting, I add Winsor & Newton lamp black.) For my acrylics, I use Golden Liquid Acrylics nickel azo gold, quinacridone red, cobalt, and phthalo blue (red shade).
An Arsenal of Techniques
I begin a new work by first drawing the entire image on my 18×24-inch 300 Series Strathmore drawing pad. This size accommodates most of my portraits. But if I’m working on an urban landscape or other large piece, I simply tape two sheets together. When I’ve achieved a drawing that I’m satisfied with, I go over the lines I want to convey to my watercolor paper with a thin black marker. I then use graphite paper to transfer the drawing. Because I use a lot of paint and water, especially when I’m employing a pouring technique, I go over the graphite lines with a No. 2 pencil on my watercolor paper, so that I don’t lose them during the painting process.
If I’m pouring, I also apply masking fluid to my paper before I begin painting to save my whites and lights. Otherwise, I skip the masking step — or use just a touch on the most important white shapes — and simply brush around these elements.
In addition to pouring and traditional wet-into-wet brushwork, I sometimes apply two or three colors quickly side by side — wet-on- dry — letting the edges of the colors touch, then tilt the paper to facilitate mingling. Also, I use a mouth atomizer to tone down a passage of color or push a value a tiny bit darker without having to disturb the underlying painting with a brush.
This last technique I learned from eminent watercolor painter John Salminen; he is also has been a great influence on how I view value in my paintings. Although I’m primarily a self-taught artist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of today’s best watercolorist. I have learned something from each one. From Mary Ann Beckwith, who also uses transparent watercolor, I honed my color choices. And many years ago, Linda Baker helped me see that my work lacked color unity and an individual style — a realization that inspired me to experiment with limiting my palette. Artists — especially those self-taught like me — must take influences from various sources, use what works and develop styles of their own. I hope that you find something to take away from my approach to value that will add punch and vitality to your own work.
Poring Over Pouring
The pouring technique calls for pouring paint diluted with water over the surface of the paper. Depending on the results you’re after, you can pour each color separately. This allows the surface to dry between each color (which would be considered a form of glazing), or pour multiple colors on your surface and allow them to mingle on the wet paper without drying between pours.
- Watercolors: Daniel Smith quinacridone rose and quinacridone gold; Winsor & Newton cobalt, Antwerp blue and lamp black
- Fluid Acrylics: Golden Liquid Acrylics nickel azo gold, quinacridone red, cobalt and phthalo blue (red shade)
- Palette: butcher tray
- Brushes: Robert Simmons watercolor brushes in sizes 12 and 14;
- a 11⁄2-inch flat by Silver Black Velvet; and a variety of inexpensive brushes available in sets at any local art store. I keep three con- tainers of brushes in my studio. In the first, I keep new brushes for watercolors; when they become inadequate for watercolor, I move them to my acrylic brush container and use them there for a while. When they’ve run their course there, they go into my masking fluid brush container; after that I toss them. I also use a 5-inch house- painting brush for laying down large washes and for uniformly wetting my paper.
- Paper: Fabriano Artistico Bright White, 30×22-inch or larger, 140-lb. cold- or hot-pressed
- Misc.: 18×24-inch Strathmore 300 Series drawing pad; masking fluid; No. 2 pencil; graphite paper; thin black marker; mouth atomizer
Demo: A Full Value Range With Three Colors
I started Solitude with a detailed sketch on a large sheet of paper from my drawing pad. Like-valued elements join into one large shape (for example, the bottom of the subject’s beard and his shirt). I went over the lines I wanted to transfer to my painting surface with a thin black marker.
I made three large puddles of watercolor (a lot of paint and very little water). I used quinacridone rose, quinacridone gold, and Antwerp blue. Then I moved quickly to drop the colors into the dark value shapes, allowing them to mix on the dry paper. Using this method, I covered every value 8 and 9 shape, and then I let the paper dry completely.
I added my value 7 shapes, painting over any value 8 or 9 areas within these shapes. The effect is somewhat softer edges on the value 8 and 9 areas and a smoother value shift between values 7, 8 and 9.
With this subject, most of the values 3, 4, 5 and 6 are within the face. I started with my 6 values along the edge of the cheek, then let the area dry. I then painted my 5s, let them dry, and so on until the face was complete. For portraits, when I get to my value 2s, I run the colors in a watery glaze over the entire face. This softens the value shifts within. At this stage, I also laid in some of the mid to light values in the subject’s jacket and hair.
When the entire subject was painted, I wet down the background with clear water and then applied a wash of the gray mixture that had accumulated on my palette. As the gray wash began to dry, I dropped in some clear water from my brush to create blossoms. I also spattered some of my three primary colors into the gray to create harmony and cohesion throughout the painting.
Learn more about Laurie Goldstein-Warren and see more of her work at warrenwatercolors.com.
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