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Choosing and using
Watercolour Paints

What's so special about watercolour paints? Why are artist watercolours by far the most popular medium?

After all, using watercolours isn't always the easiest method to master - certainly until you get used to it.

Watercolours are different from most other painting materials as they are a transparent medium.

All this means is that most of the watercolours you use allow the painting surface - usually watercolour paper, to shine through - unlike oil paints or acrylic paints for example. 

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The white of the paper imparts a glow to the painting which shines through the colors and gives it a quality all of its own.

But there's a number of questions that newcomers to watercolour ask me over and over again and I'll try to clear up some of the confusion.

So here's some things you might like to know about watercolour paints if you're going to use artist watercolours for the first time...

Artists watercolour Paints - Some Basic Information

Colors are thinned and lightened with water.

Because a small amount of watercolour goes a long way, the paint tubes and pans are smaller and lighter than those for oils and acrylics.

Because of this, paintboxes are lighter as well. This means artist watercolour paints are very portable and ideal for using outdoors.

Paints and brushes clean up easily with soap and water so they feel less messy than other media.

There are two main qualities - artists grade (or quality) and students grade.

The transparent nature of artist watercolour paints means you can't paint light colors over dark.

With watercolour you start with the lighter areas and work through to your darks to achieve tonal contrast (light and shade). In opaque media, you start with the darker colors and gradually get to your highlights.

You can buy artist watercolours in either in tubes or pans. Pans are blocks of color usually in a small plastic tray about 1 inch long by 1/2 inch wide and 1/4 inch deep. The more common half pan is about 1/2 inch square.

Both the Student and Artist Grade tube sizes vary depending on manufacturer. However, many do two standard sizes. The bigger tubes typically contain up to three times the size of the smaller one but for normally, only about twice the price.

The pan-color plastic trays are designed to fit snugly in most watercolour boxes, whilst other watercolour boxes have spaces for several standard sized tubes.

Pans are a firmer texture than tube colors and take a little more effort to get the color moistened and onto your watercolour brushes.

Many artists (including me) fill empty pan trays with tube colors as it's easier to work.

Student quality artist watercolour paints often contain synthetic substitute pigments (Hues) to keep costs down. They are available in tubes, pans and half pans, as with the more expensive artist-grade watercolours.

Student grade tube and pan colors tend to be all the same price, obviously varying from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Artists grade watercolours are grouped in price ranges A,B,C & D etc or 1,2,3 & 4 according to the pigments used. '1' and 'A' are the cheapest ranges.

No compromise is evident in the use of the best pigments and there can be a discernable difference in the vibrancy of many artist grade watercolours, as opposed to the equivalent student color.

The best advice, as ever, is to get the best you can afford. On a purely personal note, I feel that in selling my work, my clients are always entitled to my best efforts, which also means using the best materials as well.

Nevertheless, student grade artist watercolours are still excellent value and used successfully by many professional artists.

Look out for the star rating on packaging to define the permanence of artist watercolours. Even in artists grade paints, some colors eg: Prussian Blue, are described as 'fugitive'. This means that they fade faster than other colors when exposed to light. The more stars, the more permanent the color.

On the other hand, some colors are described as 'staining' colors, i.e. they are difficult to lift out of the paper once the paint gets into the fibers. Good examples are Viridian Green and Alizarin Crimson.

Using the correct brushes is important when using artist watercolours. The relatively delicate nature of watercolour painting requires a softer brush than for most other media.

Traditional watercolour brushes have been made with a variety of natural hair sources.

As a result, they can be very expensive at the top end of the range. The Kolinsky Sable, for example, has an unrivalled ability to spring back into shape, to hold a lot of paint and to retain a fine point for many years. But it comes at a price. 

However, there is a huge selection of brushes using less costly natural hairs. There are also many synthetic brushes which will give the newcomer excellent results.

Do I Use White Paint With Artist watercolours?

Watercolour painting in its purest form doesn't use white paint to tint colors or provide highlights.

Instead, white areas of paper are covered with only a very pale watered-down wash to simulate light areas or, to achieve pure white, are left unpainted altogether.

This means you have to have a good idea where these areas are going to be before you start painting. This involves some pre-planning of your picture - which is actually a very good discipline, whatever paint medium you use.

In other more opaque mediums like oil painting and acrylic painting the artist relies on adding the finishing highlights with lighter colors or white paint. This gives a bit more flexibility if you change your painting half way through.

However, don't be put off by this. Great watercolourists often used white in their watercolour paintings.

Turner was a good example. He had to use white for some of his highlights as he frequently started off by staining his paper with tea, coffee or even wine to create a particular atmosphere!

Remember, there's only one rule in painting and that's to enjoy yourself. So if white paint's good enough for Turner and the other greats, you go ahead and use it as well!

Talking of opaque colors..

A Little Bit About Gouache

Gouache is also a method of watercolour painting. In terms of finish, it's not dissimilar to the sort of paint you probably used in the early years at school.

However, there is a much greater concentration of pigment and filler (usually chalk) than in traditional watercolours.

This is what gives it a solid, opaque feel.

As such, it is a form of watercolour paint which allows you to put lighter colors on top of darker ones.

It provides a matt, smooth surface and is widely used in design studios as well as fine art painting.

Hence its other title of Designer's Gouache. Also known as body color because of its ability to cover the layer below, even light over dark.

Often used by watercolourists in conjunction with artist  watercolours where it would be difficult to paint around small, light areas, such as a white ship's mast against a darker sky.

Or perhaps where some thin, light-colored grasses need to show up against darker tones in the foreground of a picture.

With care, gouache can also 'rescue' a watercolour painting where a mistake has been made.

It's got me out of many a mess - but as I said, do use restraint otherwise it'll look like the proverbial dog's breakfast...

Before gouache was invented, painters used to add Chinese White paint to their regular artist watercolours to achieve the 'light over dark' effect.

You can of course still do this, though some of the richness of the color is lost.

And Finally...

We've had a brief introduction to the world of artist watercolour paints.

It's an exciting medium that often has a mind of its own.

It does take some getting used to - especially when the watery paint wants to go in the opposite direction to what you intended!

 At first the paint usually wins...

However, once you you've had a bit of practice with artist watercolours you'll be more confident about controlling the effects.

Better still, you'll start to exploit watercolour's tendency to do its own thing.

Instead of seeing a potential disaster, you'll realise it can  be turned into an inspired little passage in the picture.

There's a few foreground doors in my pictures that started life as a figure that went wrong...

...and improved the picture no end!

It's all about not panicking and instead, seeing the possibilities...

Artists world-wide will tell you about their 'happy accidents' that have lifted an ordinary painting into the 'little gem' class...

I promise you, once you realise the full range of possibilities that artist watercolours offer, whatever the subject or your preferred style, you'll derive an immense satisfaction from your efforts.

So go on... stick at it and enjoy!

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