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I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes!

Joe Garcia in The Watercolor Bible puts it well when he says “A common misconception about watercolor is that it’s one of the most difficult mediums to use because you cannot correct mistakes.” In fact, you CAN often correct or adjust mistakes in watercolor painting! You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, change values by lifting or glazing, even adjust a composition.

One of the simplest techniques to correct a mistake involves BLOTTING AND LIFTING wet paint. If while you’re painting you accidentally smudge or paint over an area you intended to keep white, quickly blot up the wet paint with a paper towel or tissue. As long as you have not painted with a staining pigment, the color will lift.

(Suggestion: Become aware of which paints on your palette are considered staining. Common staining colors that cannot be easily lifted include Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, some of the Sap Greens, Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue.)

Another technique used to alter wet paint is using a THIRSTY BRUSH to remove some color from your painting, e.g., to lighten a wash, create a highlight, or lift out clouds. The painted surface should be damp, with the shine just about to go dull. A ‘thirsty’ brush has been moistened but squeezed nearly dry before the brush is moved over the moist painted surface. After each lifting stroke with a thirsty brush, wipe the brush clean to remove wetness and lifted paint from the brush, before continuing to lift.

If your paint has dried, WETTING AND LIFTING can remove areas of dark color. A staining color will require a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing to lift any color. Use a very wet brush to wet the area where paint will be lifted.

Work in small areas to loosen and lift paint, before moving and moistening a new spot. SCRUB until the water loosens the dried pigment. Quickly blot to absorb the liquid with a paper towel or tissue, removing the loosened pigment along with the water. Do not let the loosened color remain on the scrubbed surface. It can be reabsorbed by the damaged paper fibers and not be able to be lifted again. Be sure to have a wet enough brush when using this technique – using just a damp brush may rough up the paper and scrub the paint deeper into the paper. A slight variation to the above scrub and blot technique would be WIPING OFF COLOR with a paper towel or tissue.

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Mountain Stream, scrubbing and lifting.

SCRAPING can help you recover a lost highlight or create sparkle. You can scrape with a variety of tools (for different effects), either before your applied paint dries or after. Create tree trunks; for example, scrape wet paint with a palette knife or hard brush handle. Scraping can form dark marks on wet paint as the paint flows into the scrape. Or, on less wet but still damp paint, scrape in lighter marks as paint is pushed away from the scraping.

 

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Red Canoe, scraping and lifting.

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Waves, scratching and scraping.

Rocks can be highlighted and textured with a knife or palette knife by scraping and pushing damp paint. An X-acto knife can scrape dried paint to reclaim highlights, generate sparkle on water, or repair unsuccessful dry brush work. Keep in mind that scraping can damage paper, so it should be one of the last adjustments made to your painting. (Sandpaper can also remove pigment and bring back the white of the paper, although it also damages the paper.)

Hazel Soan, in The Essence of Watercolour, maintains that errors in “light-toned early washes are NOT a problem. As soon as darker tones are employed the eye is distracted from the pale tones.” Soan goes on to suggest that sometimes you can reclaim your watercolor by disguising or DISTRACTING from a mistake. Add a dark-toned accent nearby the error, such as some grasses or reeds, “to distract the eye away from the problem.”

OPAQUE colors, if not overdone, can be used to cover some painting mistakes or recreate lost highlights. Edges can be redrawn with an opaque color. Titanium White, full strength, can hide a mistake against white paper, while a matching opaque color can reclaim a colored background.

Too many layers of paint will eventually destroy transparency. So, to preserve transparency, consider GLAZING to improve color harmony. Tame overly bright colors, make shadows interesting, or even enliven dull dark color by glazing with a TRANSPARENT pigment. When glazing, make sure the surface of the paper is thoroughly dry. To calm bright colors, choose a transparent NON-STAINING pigment and apply quickly (without scrubbing). To rescue dull, dark colors, use transparent STAINING pigments (such as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, or Phthalo Green) for glazing. As Jean Dobie explains in Making Color Sing, “turn an error into an asset!”

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Apple Blossoms, background glazing.

By accentuating some areas of your painting and playing down other sections, perhaps by glazing or lifting, you can improve your focal point or center of interest. If a picture lacks a strong focal point or the center of interest is too weak, increase contrast of lights and darks between your focal point and the background. If your center of interest is too broad, choose a smaller area, strengthen color and contrast here, then darken or soften the surrounding sections to make the focal point stand out.

Try not to rush to correct all your painting mistakes. It is sometimes best to evaluate your work near the end of the painting process when you can see how one area affects or supports the other sections of a picture. While many mistakes can be corrected or improved, at times it can be best to start a picture over. Try to learn from any blunder. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as knowing when you probably should begin anew. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistakes of all.

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Fostering Creativity.

How many of us are secretly afraid, although we hope it is not true, that we don’t have the abilities necessary to be creative? How many of us feel it is too late for us to become artistic and reinvent ours lives? How many of us don’t know where to start even though we have a desire to be creative?

If you’ve ever wondered about these issues, let me assure you: you are already creative, and you can become a still more creative artist if you wish. Creativity – bringing something new into being – is a tool we can all access and utilize. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.” And similarly, according to Brenda Ueland, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

Cooking can supply an example of how creativity enters into even everyday processes. At first, you learn the lay-out of the kitchen and how to use equipment; you learn how to read a recipe and where to find and how to prepare ingredients. However, with a little practice, time, and effort, you begin to change the recipes, combine two or three different recipes, adapt a recipe to use ingredients on hand. You have begun to create something – perhaps dreadful, but often wonderful – with your own style. You are being creative! You take the time and make the effort needed to finish cooking the meal. You persist through difficulties and interruptions. You focus on what you’re doing, observe the process. You might take a chance and trust your intuition, adding less of one ingredient and more of another. With luck, you do not judge the results negatively, put yourself down, or feel a failure, and you are not afraid to try again, make a mistake, or feel foolish. Instead, you taste and evaluate the product, keeping in mind what worked well and what you might improve next time. You note your reactions and ideas, are inspired to plan another meal and to keep practicing your skills. You continue to experiment.

Once you’ve decided you want to get acquainted with your creative self, where do you begin? How do you jumpstart the creative process? First, be yourself; you are original.

With mass production, mass marketing, and mass media, it is important to remember that an artist needs to be independent of pressure groups and popular opinion. Have the courage not only to say no to superficial trends, but to say yes to your own emotions, thoughts, and creative impulses.

Abstract Beach.jpg

Don’t be in a rush! Take the time to get to know yourself. Get beneath the surface, and observe your reactions to what goes on in and around you, allowing yourself to notice details you might have missed. This patience and openness will allow you to recognize the invitation of inspiration, whether the stimulus is an idea, a hunch, a thought, or an impulse. (See my related blog post, titled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.)

When you choose to follow your inspiration, whatever it may be, it needs to be captured and recorded. One of the best (and most adaptable) tools available is a journal to help provide a “visual record the way your creative ideas evolve.” Write down what you want to make. Think about your project – subject, materials, technique, color, time, cost, style, shape, whatever seems relevant. “Record everything.” In writing (or sketching) your thoughts, you honor their value. Brainstorm. Research. Plan. Get organized. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you.

Tiny Waves series - crashing wave.jpeg

The next part of the creative process may take an hour, a week, or months. Don’t be impatient – you mustn’t be in a race to the finish line! The project may need time to come together, to simmer, to mature, to evolve. Allow the time necessary for this incubation. It often helps to carve out a corner as a sanctuary where you can sit in quiet reflection. Spend time regularly in your creative space. A ritual, or simple routine, can often spark the creative process, whether it is taking a walk, lighting a candle, or sitting with a cup of tea. Interestingly, shaking up your routine can also cause a creative spark. Try some new things, a museum, gallery, or art fair, and expose yourself to new ideas. New experiences will stimulate your imagination. (See my related blog post, titled “Creativity Can Be Learned”, published January 8, 2019.)

It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s quite another to trust your idea and follow where it leads. Translate your thoughts into a plan of action. Take the risk and begin! Many of us have been taught to be too cautious, too nice, to play it too safe. To be truly creative, you must be willing to try and fail, and then get over it. Remember that perfection is NOT the goal – this is the time to experiment! Have courage and heed your intuition. Sample or test, change a variable, and sample again. Do the work and DON’T give up!

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Avoid judging yourself by whether your project is a “success.” Enjoy the journey instead of focusing only on your results. If your goal is creativity, it’s the process that matters. Trust that if the process is good, the end will be good as well. And NEVER allow other people’s opinions to intimidate you or make you feel vulnerable.

You might seek out mentors, role models, or advisors who are supportive of your uniqueness and expression. Creativity flourishes within an atmosphere of security and trust but dies if surrounded by a climate of criticism and stress. One thing a mentor might tell you is to leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy. Keep in mind that what you really WANT to do is what you are really MEANT to do. Don’t feel guilty or selfish! Take the time to make painting (or whatever else you choose to do) fun, and strive for your dream.

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Creativity is within your grasp. It means you being yourself, thinking your own thoughts, responding to what you feel, NOT rotely copying someone else or a reference photo. Creativity transforms conditions as they ARE into conditions as they COULD be or OUGHT to be. You create only when you bring forth something that was not there before. There is no need for you to make your painting abstract, realistic, or any other particular style if these options make you uncomfortable. Make your own shapes, values, and color!

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How Wet Is Too Wet? The Secrets To Controlling Water And Paint.

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If you have ever tried to paint with watercolors, you know how difficult it can be to estimate amounts of water accurately. Some beginners may use too much water and lose control of their painting or paint overly pale colors. Other beginners are inclined to use rather dry, stiff color in their work creating uneven, streaky, or possibly even muddy passages. How wet is too wet?

While many people feel watercolor is difficult and uncontrollable, once you understand how using the right amount of water can give you control, you’ll begin to have more fun painting.

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BASIC RULE.

A basic (and unbreakable ) rule of watercolor is that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area, whether you are placing paint next to other paint on the watercolor paper or touching a wet or paint-filled brush to paint already on the paper.

Further, there are different degrees of wetness, and these differences affect the success of the techniques a painter uses. Whether a technique works or not will depend on your ability to observe and control the amount of wetness involved.

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THE SECRETS.

The secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush.

When you want controlled, clearly defined brushstrokes and a hard edge, paint on a dry paper (wet-on-dry). On dry paper, paint will only go where you put it. Keep in mind that after you have put paint down, you have created a wet area into which you can charge other colors or paint wet-in-wet. (See one of my related blogs, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019).

It can be difficult to paint large, complicated areas wet-on-dry because some sections of paint may dry too much before you can finish painting the area. This can create problems such as ‘cauliflowers’, ‘blossoms’, or ‘backwashes’ as you place wetter paint next to a less wet (damp, starting to dry) wash. (Remember that wetter ALWAYS flows into less wet!) Try to paint leaving a ‘bead’ of wet paint on the edge of your painted area (i.e. keep your paint edge wet) while you pause to reload your brush with color, to avoid having a drying edge of paint. If you have trouble maintaining a ‘bead’, you might want to pre-wet the area to be painted.

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Make sure you mix a large enough puddle of paint so that you don’t need to skimp on paint or run out of mixed color partway through a wash. Also use a large enough brush to get paint down quickly, before it starts to dry and creates unwanted brush marks or ‘cauliflowers’.

One important point to remember is that watercolor fades as it dries and color that looks just right when it’s wet, can often look weak and unconvincing when dry. Try to mix your colors darker than you think you need. Getting the color right the first time looks fresher (and often less muddy) than trying to adjust color with a second layer over the first. If possible, try to avoid unnecessary over-painting.

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THE PAINT ITSELF.

Only experimentation will tell you what your paints will do, which is why you hear so much about the need to practice painting and to get to know the colors on your own palette. Paint behaviors depend on the type of pigment used in manufacture (organic, mineral, chemical, dye), how finely the pigment is ground (how it is milled), and also whether or not paint contains fillers (as many student grade paints do). Different brands may use different ingredients in different proportions. Generally, experts say that the more transparent a pigment, the better its flow on a wet surface.

PAPER AND TIMING.

The wetness of the watercolor paper itself also is a factor in how paint behaves. When water is first applied to paper it can be described as FLOODED with a sheet of water. After a short time, a WET sheet of paper becomes evident, as water starts to soak into the paper. On wet paper, you see a shine but the texture of the paper can be observed. As time goes on, water continues to soak into and evaporate from the paper. On DAMP paper the shine becomes dull and the watercolor paper is ready for the artist to put paint to paper. Here is where TIMING becomes so important! If the shine disappears from the MOIST paper, it can be a problematic time to paint. The paper may not be wet enough for paint to move smoothly or may be drying unevenly, which can create unexpected streaks or bleeds. (Note that the time it takes for these processes to occur can vary quite a bit depending on weather conditions, such as humidity, and even the type of watercolor paper in use.)

 

THE BRUSH.

Similarly, through practice, you should learn how to control the amount of water on your brush. Small brushes don’t hold a lot of water or paint, especially synthetic brushes, so it is difficult to overload them. But they also cover a limited area when painting, making it very unlikely that you will be able to paint a smooth wash with them. Large brushes will quickly cover the paper and keep your painting looking spontaneous, however, they can sometimes hold more water and paint than you want. “How much water should I use?” Not too much.

A SOPPING brush, which goes directly from the water container to the paper, is only okay when you are pre-wetting your paper! You will probably NOT want to paint with a dripping, sopping brush because too much paint will flow onto your paper and you will have little control. Instead, a WET brush is wiped once or twice on the edge of the water container or tapped lightly on a paper towel to make it more manageable, and can be dipped into the paint and used for painting. Before applying the paint, check your brush again to see if it is dripping with paint, and, if so, gently squeeze a small amount off on the edge of the palette or on a paper towel, as before. A DAMP brush is wiped on the edge of the water container and excess moisture is squeezed or blotted away. A damp brush can still moisten your paper and would be ideal for ‘softening an edge’. When softening a just painted edge, the painted edge should still be wet AND the brush MUST be less wet than the painted area. (See my related blog “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, dated October 23, 2018.) Finally, a MOIST brush has only enough moisture to hold the brush in shape and would be perfect to use for lifting color.

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TO SUMMARIZE.

While nothing is simple in learning to paint, attention to detail and practice WILL lead to your success. Everyone can learn how to paint. Keep in mind the basic rule of hydrodynamics in watercolor – that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area. And also try to remember, the secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush. Enjoy!

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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part III.)

Tree color is dependent on several factors.  Never depict trees in your paintings as all the same color – a strong, unvaried green – because you “know” what color trees are.  Tree color varies with the type of tree (species), the season, and the distance from the viewer. You should look for blue/greens, yellow/greens, and red/greens.  Your work will be far more interesting if you include and even exaggerate these variations in color, paying special attention to the cooler, darker hues of the shadowed areas which appear on the side of the tree away from the source of light and on the undersides of the branches.

Spring trees display fresh, bright foliage.  Make the foliage translucent by mixing your colors with plenty of water, and try to keep your shapes well defined.  Leave lots of white paper showing between foliage shapes to suggest sparse, new growth.  Lemon yellow or Hansa yellow light with sap green would work well for creating bright greens and yellows.  Remember to paint foliage in at least two layers (light and dark).  For spring trees in the distance, strive for cooler greens by adding blue to your mixtures; the blue will complement the warm, bright colors of nearer trees.  A good reference for seasonal paint colors is my blog of 11/27/2018, entitled “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Palettes.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/27/spring-summer-autumn-and-winter-palettes/.

Summer trees look more solid and richer in color than spring trees.  The foliage is fuller.  Build up the summer tree in two or three layers, starting with the outline of the canopy.  DaVinci Sap Green and Ultramarine Blue work well for summer foliage, with perhaps Payne’s Gray added for the darkest parts.  Remember to leave a gap or two for sky holes.

Autumn trees have somewhat less foliage than summer trees, and as the season progresses, the trees will, of course, drop more and more leaves, and foliage will become sparse.  Autumn colors are rich and warm:  siennas, reds, and yellows develop, and a few greens linger.  More branches are visible.  In bright sunlight, your autumn tree will appear somewhat paler than you might expect.  Try to mix your colors on the paper, dropping in several colors next to each other and allowing them to blend softly into each other on their own.  Trees are seldom a single color.  A variegated wash of Cadmium Yellow and Light Red with a touch of DaVinci Sap Green could be used to make a range of fall colors.

 

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Conifers have a somewhat different structure and shape than deciduous trees.  To paint conifers convincingly, you must take notice of their structure.  You don’t want to paint Christmas trees!  Conifers develop around a single central trunk.  Look closely to get the angle of the branches correct.  In general, limbs grow up and out.  More specifically, branches at the top of a conifer head upward, those in the midsection go outward, then head upward, and those near the bottom head downward, then upward.  Remember: all the branches are heading for sunlight.  Coniferous branches tend to be shorter and most branch out flatter than deciduous branches.  Try to leave space between many of the branches.

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White paper birches are tall, thin trees found in the Northeastern United States, growing singly or in clusters.  The trunks tend to be thinner than those of many large trees, with only a few large limbs but many smaller horizontal branches and flexible twigs.  The bark of the birch tree is paper-like and chalky white, sometimes peeling, broken with irregular horizontal textures and dark scars.  Larger branches are white, but the smallest branches appear black.  When you are painting birch trunks, brush strokes, shadows, and bark texture should follow circumferential lines, using blacks and grays (mixed by combining Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna) and a brownish orange (made from Burnt Sienna).

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You should paint distant trees as simple masses of shapes with minimal detail.  Squint your eyes to observe shapes and groupings of light and dark areas.  The farther away the trees, the paler and less detailed they become.  Distant trees also have a cooler (bluer) color.  As you move from the horizon to the middle ground, you can very gradually warm up your colors by putting more yellow and less water in them.  However, you still need to reserve your richest greens and strong contrasts for foreground trees.

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Many of the previously mentioned details about trees may seem obvious or overly simplistic, but a lot of beginning painters do not paint with these many small details in mind.  Attention to such details helps you paint convincingly and accurately.  Details are important!

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

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Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

Meadow road tree.jpg

This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…