Let It Snow!!!

Painting snow can be tricky.  Most people think snow is white, but if you look closely, snow is full of color.  Many factors can affect how snow appears, including time of day, temperature, atmosphere, the quality of light, and perspective.  Is the day sunny and bright or overcast?  Is the snow freshly fallen and fluffy or heavy, wet, and dirty?  Do snow shadows appear blue, gray, or purple?

In a landscape painting, much of the color of snow is found either in shadows or as a reflection. You can look for the colors reflected by the sky and nearby areas to determine colors to use in your painting. Sunlit snow may benefit from a very pale warm-colored wash to suggest that sun is shining on the snow. In the shadows, a cool (bluer) color combination will suggest shade. Using both warm and cool tones will increase sparkle. In contrast, an overcast day tends to create grayer snow shadows. Edges may be hard on one side and soft or lost-and-found on another.

Check out the following hints for painting snow from several experienced artists:

John Pike has painted many amazing watercolors of snow scenes during his lifetime.  He says that the “tendency in painting snow scenes is to make the shadows too blue.”  Pike creates snow that glows subtly with color by pre-wetting the entire white snow area.  While that area is still wet, he drops in small spots of the three primaries (red, yellow, and blue), then softly blends the whole together “to gain a subtle spectral quality” and ”to kill the deadness of pure white paper.”  He creates soft upper edges of snow shadows by “applying clear water in just that area” and painting shadow color “upward to the water.”

Frank LaLumia believes that snow is “like a laboratory for studying light.”  He says, “In my opinion, using only white paper to depict snow is inadequate.  Light is color.” (www.lalumia.com)

Winter is Coming.jpg

Gordon MacKenzie has said that painting a winter scene offers many opportunities to play with color temperature and purity.  The snow is “a mirror for the subtle atmospheres that surround it, from the pure warm and cool colors of a bright sunny day to the dulled subtlety of a snowstorm.”  He describes two techniques to create the snow shadows that define the contours of the land they fall across.  The first method is a quickly laid-down wash wet-on-damp for the first layer and then wet-on-dry for the final layer.  MacKenzie suggests mixing a large enough batch of paint that you will have enough of the same color for both layers.  The second method of painting snow shadows involves painting the entire snow area with a non-staining blue-gray (cobalt blue or ultramarine blue plus burnt sienna).  Once the surface is dry, you can remove bright sun spots by scrubbing them off with lots of water and blotting away the paint.  (www.gordonmackenziewatercolours.com)

Robert O’Brien uses both warm and cool colors when painting snow.  He will wash in a very pale cadmium yellow light where sunlit highlights fall, but for other sunlit areas, he tones down the white of the paper with a very light wash of brilliant orange mixed with quinacridone rose.  For a cooler, more-shaded area, O’Brien uses a light wash of French ultramarine.  He notes that the color of snow shadows will vary based on sky conditions.  On a clear, sunny day, O’Brien likes to use French ultramarine mixed with a small amount of cobalt for snow shadows, sometimes mixed with brilliant orange to tone down the color a bit.  An overcast sky tends to bring about grayer snow and shadows.  Mixing quinacridone violet and new gamboge with blue creates his desired gray.  O’Brien’s snow shadows can have soft or hard edges, or both.  To paint softer shadows, he may rewet an area of snow, let the water soak in, and paint a shadow when the paper is damp but not shiny.  For harder snow shadows, he may wait longer or let the paper dry completely before he tackles a snow shadow.  He also softens hard edges in appropriate place.  (www.robertobrien.com)

Cecy Turner imagines “key words” that will describe her snow scenes and then tries to use painting techniques to illustrate those ideas.  She likes to use glazing – layers of transparent colors (letting each layer dry before adding another layer) – to “create more interesting colors and nuances.”  The blues that Turner prefers are French ultramarine, cobalt, Antwerp, and cerulean.  She uses a No. 8 Cheap Joe’s Fritch scrubber to soften edges on snow shadows, particularly as the shadows progress farther away from the objects casting the shadows.  (www.cecyturner.com)

Jack Reid uses transparent watercolors to make snow translucent and capture its subtle variations.  He likes to mix a soft gray with cobalt and burnt sienna.  If he wants a pure, luminous, warm gray, he adds more burnt sienna.  He varies this color by adding more cobalt for a cooler gray.  Reid’s palette is permanent alizarin crimson, aureolin yellow, cobalt blue, viridian green, raw sienna, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and the staining Antwerp blue and quinacridone yellow.  He prefers to use Winsor-Newton paints except for Holbein viridian.  For painting the illusion of falling snow and the suggestion of trees disappearing in drifting snow, Reid lifts color from the bases of trees with a tissue while the paint is still wet.  He also uses a lot of graded washes on damp paper to create roundness on a mound of snow.  Color lightens and softens (in the graded wash) as it progresses from deep snow shadow up into the light.

Early Thaw.jpg

Debi Watson spatters masking fluid to create the effect of falling snow.  She paints her light values wet on wet, explaining that “most great snow paintings have hints of color in their whites.”  These initial washes are painted with soft, transparent red, yellow, and blue.  Watson moves on to dark areas, then to medium values once the lights and darks have been established.  She states that snow shadows can be kept soft by working on damp paper.  (www.debiwatson.com)

Cathy Johnson paints snow full of color.  If it’s tightly packed in a drift, she says it “may look almost blue; if it’s fluffy and freshly fallen, it can appear blue-gray or lavender.  Old snow on city streets is gray with soot; while in the country, snowy roads may become streaked with brown.  You can achieve either of these street effects by painting wet-into-wet with gray or brown, as appropriate, then adding spatter to suggest splashes.  When the sun is shining on snow, you may see the glitter of light on a billion tiny reflective surfaces.  To recreate this look, try combining all three primaries – red, yellow, and blue – in your underwash.  Wet the paper first with clean water, then drop in pure colors such as cadmium yellow pale, [permanent] alizarin crimson and phthalo blue.  Let the colors mix a bit on the paper – I stir them with the tip of my brush, or by tilting the paper.  These colors shouldn’t be too saturated or they’ll look garish – the goal is to create a light-filled look.  While the initial layer is still wet, add some shadow colors.”  Johnson reserves warmer blues (for example, ultramarine, cobalt, and so on) to suggest the shadow shapes on snow.  “Once the first washes have dried, glaze over them with your blue or lavender snow color” to shape and form the snow.  “To further enhance the prismatic effect of snow, you can also spatter on a bit of each of the three primary colors . . . make sure that your primary spatters aren’t too juicy.  This ensures that the paint spatters remain tiny,” whether into a wet wash or onto dry paper.  (www.cathyjohnson.info)

Fire & Ice.jpg

In his article “A Wintry Mood” (Watercolor Artist, February 2018, p. 82), Geoff Kersey has pointed out that “Just because it’s a snow scene doesn’t mean it has to feel bleak and make the  viewer shiver.” When painting snow, Kersey tries to include bright light and warm color.  He has developed several palettes in various color schemes to alter the feel of an image and suggest different moods.  His COLD PALETTE creates wintry grays and darks.  He mixes a cool gray with phthalo blue and just a touch of burnt umber, a dark brown with ultramarine blue and burnt umber, and a dark green from phthalo blue and burnt umber.  The LIMITED PALETTE includes cobalt blue, neutral tint, burnt sienna, and raw sienna to produce a simple, harmonious feeling.  A WARM PALETTE employs the warm glow of raw sienna and cadmium red, grays mixed from cobalt blue and vermillion, and dark greens made with ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and viridian.  Kersey echoes the sky colors throughout his snowscapes to oppose the rich winter darks he finds in trees and hedgerows (and to ensure color harmony).  He also uses the hard and soft shapes in a landscape to create contrast in his many snowy landscape watercolors.  (www.geoffkersey.co.uk)

Snowy Croft.jpg

Don’t be afraid to use color in a winter snow scene, both warm colors and cool colors.  The light and sky conditions will determine the colors with which you choose to paint.  In snowy conditions skies often require deeper tones than usual in order to make the snow appear lighter by contrast.  On clear, sunny days, snow shadows are bluer to echo the blue sky.  Grayer snow and snow shadows reflect an overcast sky.  As you evaluate your snow scene, look for opportunities to add color and exaggerate color if doing so will improve your painting.  Use snow shadows on the ground to describe the shape of the land under the snow.  Rough ground may need shadow shapes that are bumpy and uneven.  Rocks, twigs, and tufts of grass may stick up through the snow.  Reflected light can be everywhere, sometimes creating glitter and sparkles.  Often snow shadows repeat the sky color, just as a reflection in a body of water can reflect sky colors and the surrounding landscape.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Campbell Smith, Ray.  Developing Style in Watercolour (1992).

Kersey, Geoff.  “A Wintry Mood.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2018).

Kersey, Geoff.  Geoff’s Top Tips for Watercolour Artists (2010).

Kersey, Geoff.  Painting Successful Watercolours from Photographs (2015).

Hendershot, Ray.  Texture Techniques for Winnign Watercolors (1999).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting! (2017).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Landscapes (2006).

Metzger, Phil.  Watercolor Basics: Perspective Secrets (1999).

O’Brien, Robert J.  “Winter Whiteout.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2015).

Pike, John.  John Pike Paints Watercolors (1978).

Pike, John.  John Pike Watercolor (1973).

Ranson, Ron.  Watercolor Painting from Photographs (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Let’s Get Started (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Painting Snow and Water (2000).

Reid, Jack.  “The Snow Scene.”  Watercolor Magic (Winter 2002).

Ryder, Brian.  Painting Watercolor Landscapes with Confidence (2005).

Strickley, Sarah A.  “A Revolution of Snow.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2010) .

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo, Artist at Work (1979).

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques (1995).

Watson, Debi.  “It’s Snow Time.”  Watercolor Artist (December 2010).

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Prevent, Correct, And Reframe Your Painting Mistakes!

      

Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.                                                                                                                          Nikki Giovanni, poet, writer.

                                                                                                      

It is a common misconception that experienced painters don’t struggle or make mistakes. Not true! We all inadvertently make wrong decisions at times when painting and get outcomes we don’t desire or intend. Failing in this way is unavoidable. If recognized early, however, many mistakes can be corrected in watercolor. You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, disguise mistakes, change values by lifting or glazing, reevaluate and change course, or even adjust a composition.

YOU CAN CORRECT MANY MISTAKES.

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 for altering 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. To lift at least some of a staining color, you will need a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing. 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. If the damaged paper fibers reabsorb the color, you will not be able to lift it. 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.

‘Mountain Stream’ watercolor painting, using 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. To add texture to 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 you push paint away from the scraping.

‘Red Canoe’ watercolor painting, using scraping and lifting.

‘Waves’ watercolor painting, using 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, such as some grasses or reeds, near or over the error “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 consider GLAZING to preserve transparency and 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 it 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!”

‘Apple Blossoms’ watercolor painting, using glazing to tame background and create depth.

MISTAKES HAPPEN. HOW YOU REACT AFFECTS THE OUTCOME.

While no one enjoys or aims to make mistakes, the way you react to an unintended outcome makes a difference. Will you respond with upset, embarrassment, and self-criticism, and feel that you’re a failure as a painter? If so, you will lose objectivity and be unable to learn from your mistakes. Instead, try to remind yourself that mistakes can actually be good things (even though it may not initially feel that way)! Making mistakes is a clear sign you’ve moved beyond your “comfort zone” and are challenging your abilities. In other words, this is exactly where you NEED to be so that you can learn and improve your skills. Remember, to improve your skills, give yourself a challenge.

MISTAKES SHOW US WHAT WE NEED TO LEARN.

If making a mistake upsets you, stop painting and take a break. If you don’t know what the painting needs, you should stop. Avoid an emotional response by giving yourself some distance from your painting so you are able to regain some objectivity. A mistake does NOT mean you’re a failure as a painter or a person. When you regain your calm, you’re ready to REFRAME your thinking about your mistake. The best artists are problem solvers. Remember that mistakes are unavoidable, no big deal, and they present us with clear lessons. Looking at your work with fresh eyes, evaluate what happened and think about how best to correct and learn from this mistake. (Look for an upcoming blog post on how you can critique your own work.)  What specifically isn’t working? How can you improve what went wrong? (One or several of the above techniques might be useful.)

REDEFINE ‘MISTAKE’.

Yet another way to look at mistakes is as gifts. What just happened on your paper may not have been what you were planning to have happen, but… it may be something good, if not even better than what you intended. It may be a chance to change the direction of your painting if you let go of a preconceived idea that is not working – it’s okay to be open and change your mind. Perhaps the paint is moving in an interesting way, creating a pleasing effect. Is the ‘mistake’ truly a mistake or instead an opportunity to take the painting in a different, better direction? Letting go and allowing the painting to lead requires trusting in the PROCESS (rather than stubbornly trying to control the paint and force a desired outcome). It’s not easy, yet there are times when you might wish to rethink your initial intention and let the painting begin to ‘paint itself’. Try it! (This option can result in a looser style of painting.)

‘Pitcher and Pears’ watercolor painting, a picture that wanted to ‘paint itself’.

SUMMARY.

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. Identify where and how you can improve your work. If you’re not learning from your mistakes, you’ll tend to repeat them. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as know when you probably should begin anew. Continue to enjoy the process of painting, without trying to force the watercolor to always bend to your will. Part of the beauty of the watercolor medium involves its flowing, unpredictable nature and its ability to create beautiful, transparent blended color. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistake of all.

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LUMINOSITY AND CREATING GLOWING COLOR.

TRANSPARENCY OCCURS BETWEEN PAINT PARTICLES.

Many people say that the way to create a “glow” in watercolor is to paint pale glazes of “luminous,” transparent hues so that the white of the paper underneath passes through the paint particles “like light through a stained glass window.” Apparently, however, light passing THROUGH a layer of watercolors is not the way luminosity actually works! That description is just a myth! 

According to several color scientists, chemists, and Bruce MacEvoy (handprint.com), little light actually passes THROUGH the particles. Instead, transparency happens when light reflects off the paper BETWEEN the particles of watercolor paint.

We know that watercolors don’t form a solid paint layer the way acrylic and oil paints do, as discussed in this post: ‘Some Watercolor Pigments Lighten More Than Others When They Dry…,’ (9/7/2022), https://leemuirhaman.com/2022/09/07/some-watercolor-pigments-lighten-more-than-others-when-they-dry/ . Oil and acrylic paints stay on top of the painting surface and dry in a solid paint layer. 

In contrast, watercolors (made up of various sizes of suspended paint particles ) end up “on top of, between, and underneath paper fibers” (Bruce MacEvoy of handprint.com). More of the white paper is therefore revealed as the water evaporates. The most transparent of watercolor paints produce a thinner coating of smaller pigment particles on the paper. These pigments in a smaller particle size seem to hide less of the paper (or other pigment particles) underneath, making the color appear more transparent. Thus, transparency happens BETWEEN these pigment particles and NOT THROUGH them ( see http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/tech16.html) .

ACHIEVING THE GLOW OF LIGHT.

Although transparency and glow may not work the way we once thought, achieving a glow remains a goal for many artists. We want to paint the light! We wish to highlight brightness, glow, radiance, luminosity. But to create a luminous glow, don’t rely on using lots of ‘bright’ colors that may not work together. Bright colors can be intense but also may be dull and opaque, and they may not set each other off to advantage. For example, yellow is a bright color, but if applied too thickly, even a transparent yellow becomes LESS luminous and will no longer be a light value. 

‘Golden River Sunset’ Watercolor Painting.

Instead, although transparency is essential, luminosity comes from choosing colors by their effect on each other; that is, you should choose colors that create a reaction with nearby colors. Remember that paint colors change their apparent brightness, transparency, and hue depending on the context in which they appear. 

To bring about a glow, you will want to create CONTRAST in both VALUE and TEMPERATURE by surrounding a transparent light color with a COMPLEMENTARY dark ( a dark leaning toward the complement of the light color, NOT an unexciting, flat tube black such as Ivory Black, or purchased mixes such as Payne’s Gray or Neutral Tint). Colorful darks can therefore enhance the effect of light in a painting. The function of a dark color is NOT JUST to create value contrast, but to help the light-valued color (whether warm or cool, muted or intense) to glow. (For more information on complementary colors, review ‘The Color Wheel, Color Bias, And Color Mixing In Watercolor’, (7/2/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/02/the-color-wheel-color-bias-and-color-mixing-in-watercolor/ .)

HOW? VALUE CONTRASTS AND COLOR COMPLEMENTS.

What painting methods actually work to create glowing color? First, choose a pure, transparent color, well diluted to a light value. Second, mix your dark surrounding values to be complementary dark colors. If your light value is a pale yellow, you might try to use a version of deep purple or dark purple-gray. 

‘River Flowing Forward’ Watercolor Painting.

ADD COLOR AND TEMPERATURE COMPLEMENTS.

To further exaggerate the glow that is forming, you can adjust your dark by taking into account color temperature. That is, establish a warm-cool relationship between your light and dark by remixing your complementary dark, altering proportions of pigments to move the color to be cooler or warmer. If your light valued yellow is WARM, the best complementary dark to set it off would be a COOL bluish-purple dark. Or for a COOL light valued yellow, contrast it with a WARM, reddish-purple dark. Always judge a color in relation to the colors next to it. A blue, for instance, will feel even cooler next to a warm color.

‘Rocky Maine Shoreline Sunset’ Watercolor Painting.

TRY MID-VALUE CONTRASTS ALONG WITH COLOR AND TEMPERATURE COMPLEMENTS.

At times, a strong dark can overpower your composition. In such a situation, a mid-valued color contrast can also enhance and complement the glow of light values in the painting. Mix the complement of your light color, shifting it into a warm or cool variation, as needed, to create a temperature contrast. But instead of a rich dark, strive for a mid-value mix. If you mute this mid-value mix somewhat by adding a bit of its complement, you will gray the mixture, thus setting off the light-valued color. A cool purple (which you gray slightly with a touch of warm yellow) will cause your warm yellow light to glow even brighter. In the same way, you can gray a warm red-purple with a bit of its cool yellow complement to make a cool yellow light look still brighter.

‘White Primroses’ Watercolor Painting.

OR CREATE AN ILLUSION WITH UNTOUCHED PAPER.

Perhaps you want to leave the untouched white paper as your light value. It’s possible to make this white begin to glow depending on what you choose for a nearby accent. Whatever mid-tone you pick creates a subtle, optical or color illusion as it nudges the white paper into appearing as a complement. There is actually no need to alter the white paper, even though that might be your first tendency. Cool nearby colors will make the unpainted paper seem warm. For example, cool blues create a subtle orange glow, while cool purples move the nearby whites toward a yellowish glow. In this way, you can establish a glowing contrast, instead of merely a simple dark-light contrast.

(Much of the above information on how to create glow through complementary darks and dulled mid-valued colors is presented in  Jeanne Dobie’s Making Color Sing: Practical Lessons on Color And Design.) 

‘Clouds Over Dales’ Watercolor Painting.

IN SUMMARY.

The mechanism producing “glow” may be different from what people say, but you as a painter don’t need to DO anything differently as a consequence of your new understanding of how that mechanism works. You can create the illusion of glow in a watercolor painting in several ways. 

Remember that paint colors change apparent brightness, transparency, or hue depending on the colors that are nearby. Therefore, you can establish luminosity by building color relationships (through value and temperature) between lights and darks (or mid-values). 

Try to use transparent, single-pigment paints to maintain the impression of light. Opaque paints are thicker and duller, and can become lifeless in mixtures, causing you to lose ‘the light.” Also avoid using lots of bright colors hoping that ‘brightness’ (without contrast) will create luminosity.

Learn to use complementary colors to create color and temperature interactions that produce glow. Your goal when mixing luminous color is to combine unequal proportions of the two paints in a mix, so that the final color is either warm or cool and can be used to complement another in value, as well as color and temperature.   

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Some Watercolor Pigments Lighten More Than Others When They Dry…

Don’t settle for less vibrant color in your watercolor painting. I see too many watercolor painters whose paintings could be improved by using stronger mixes of paint in their art. A watercolor painting needs contrast, strong lights and darks, to create impact (unless, of course, you’re painting fog, mist, or similar types of weather).

Make your colors vibrant! (EerieLight Watercolor Painting).

Watercolor paints change their color appearance as they dry. Colors that look to be the right value and color when painted and wet, may shift as they dry, creating a ‘DRYING SHIFT.’ Expect almost all watercolor paints to appear paler, duller, and less bright when they dry. 

DRYING SHIFTS VARY BY PIGMENT.

However, when drying, some pigments change appearance very little whereas others change a great deal. Not only does a watercolor pigment end up looking different from what you expected when you mixed the paint, but EACH PIGMENT changes to a varying degree compared to other pigments. 

Test Your Colors To Overcome Drying shift (Beach Shadows Watercolor Painting).

WHY DO WATERCOLORS LIGHTEN AS THEY DRY?

Oil and acrylic paints look much the same whether wet or dry, and stay on top of the painting surface as they dry, bonding with the paint binder and forming a paint layer. In watercolor painting, however, the combination of paint, water, and binder (whether gum arabic, glycerin, honey or a glucose humectant) behave differently (from oil or acrylic paint) as the water dries. 

According to Bruce MacEvoy of handprint.com, when watercolors dry, all of the water evaporates, and the paint vehicle (BINDER) “along with the dissolved surface SIZING of the paper,” are drawn by “capillary action” into the tiny spaces between the paper fibers, where they harden and dry. Paint particles may be a VARIETY OF SIZES and DO NOT uniformly stay on the surface of the paper. Instead, MacEvoy says, “in many watercolor paints, smaller pigment particles tend to be less saturated and lighter valued than the larger particles. These duller, paler and smaller particles also remain in liquid suspension longer than the more intense, darker and heavier particles, which sink first to the paper surface and into the paper crevices” where they are more hidden from light. No solid paint layer seems to be formed. Pigment particles are “strewn on top of, between, and underneath paper fibers,” revealing more of the white paper. Thus, watercolor paints will appear to whiten or fade as they dry. (http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/tech16.html , and http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/cds.html .)

CHANGES IN PAPER.

The PAPER SURFACE also changes during this process. (Different brands of paper, weight, fiber content — e.g., cellulose vs. cotton fibers — and paper finish — e.g., hot press, cold press, rough — will each be affected somewhat differently.) But, in all cases, the wet paper fibers soften and expand, becoming thicker and fuzzier, especially with repeated brushing of the paper or ‘fussing’ and fiddling with the applied paint. In general, the less agitation of paint on the paper, the better. Lots of brushing forces a larger number of pigment particles into the scuffed paper crevices which will DULL the color. If you want to achieve bright, clean color in your painting, try to apply your paint in one brushstroke (or in as few as possible) and let it dry. Limit your brush strokes!

Avoid Over-brushing (Red Bumpers Watercolor Painting).

COMPENSATE FOR DRYING SHIFT.

Drying shift is one reason color mixing can be very challenging in watercolor painting. As a watercolor artist, you should be aware of drying shift and know that you must compensate for it by adjusting your paint/water ratio. More specifically, get to know which paints on your palette tend to have a great drying shift and dry lighter or duller. (See http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/cds.html for Bruce MacEvoy’s chart of Watercolor Paint Drying Shifts where he lists the pigments he has found to have the greatest shifts. For example, Prussian Blue, Indanthrone Blue, Lamp and Ivory Blacks show some of the largest drying shifts, whereas Cerulean, Hansa Yellow Light, Cadmium Lemon, and Benzamida Yellow have low drying shifts. Keep in mind that drying shifts may vary by brand as well as pigment, since different manufacturing and milling methods will affect the size of paint particles.) 

With some notion of which of your watercolor paints produce greater drying shifts than others, you can compensate for this tendency by mixing those pigments with LESS WATER (decreasing dilution) to create a more vibrant color mix. It is always a good idea initially to test your mixed color on a watercolor paper test sheet prior to painting, let it dry, and check its appearance when dry. With experience, you will become able to judge what the pigment will look like in a painting when dry.

Intense color (Iris Watercolor Painting).

IN SUMMARY.

Color drying shifts in watercolor pigments are highly variable. These shifts depend on several factors:

  • the pigment itself (different pigments behave differently), 
  • brand/manufacturer of paint (various milling methods),  
  • paint vehicle (type of binder), 
  • paint dilution (some paints can be made more vibrant by mixing with less water), 
  • type of paper (brand, paper weight, fiber content, and finish), 
  • and application method (try to limit repeated brushing). 

Compensate for large drying shifts by adjusting water/paint ratios when mixing your paint. Use more pigment (or less water) in your color mixing to intensify a color likely to produce a large drying shift. Feel free to check your mix on a watercolor test sheet to ensure your dried color will be the correct value or the value that you intend. 

So, once again, don’t settle for less vibrant color in your watercolor painting!

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When Should I Use Masking Fluid?

Preserving lighter shapes in your watercolor painting is tricky. Sometimes you can simply paint, with care, around them. As an alternative, however, you can preserve the light areas or develop special effects by taking advantage of one of several masking or resist materials available. These include candle wax or wax crayons, dripped wax, rubber cement, packing or masking tape or Scotch Magic tape #810, masking Frisket film, and liquid latex fluids. The two types of masking materials that watercolorists use most often are liquid latex masking fluid and tape. Apply the masking, paint around it, then when the paint is dry, remove the masking (wax resists cannot be totally removed) to reveal the lighter shapes. Rubber cement pickup erasers are easy to find and use to remove masking, or you can rub with your finger if the mask-covered area is not overly large.

Not every light area should be masked, as masking can inhibit spontaneity or alter your painting process. Consider your purpose in masking. Masking can allow you to save delicate white areas in a picture and protect intricate lighter areas temporarily from nearby dark paint. I have also used masking fluid to make sense of very complex areas in a painting. For example, in this White Primroses painting, I masked many but not all the flower petals in order to distinguish and simplify the painting of leaves and negative spaces.

White Primroses Watercolor – Masked some of flower petals.

Masking can also create interesting special effects. Splattering masking fluid before painting can create the impression of snow falling. Use an old toothbrush dipped in mask by gently dragging your thumb over the bristles to get spots of mask. Splatter from a variety of directions to suggest snow swirling. Or try dropping masking fluid into wet paint and allowing it to dry before removing mask. This technique is said to create the effects of moss or lichen on a wall. You can also create textures to suggest tree bark or rocks. Apply masking fluid, let it dry, then gently rub the mask with your finger to partially remove some of the mask, leaving uneven blotches. Paint the area, and when it is dry, remove the rest of the mask. 

It’s possible also to paint color first, let the paint dry, then mask to protect the first color, and later add more paint. Or you could mask multiple times, between several applications of color. Multiple masking, however, requires good quality paper! Transparent or semi-transparent colors, which layer well, work best for multiple masking layers. 

MASKING WITH LIQUID MASKING FLUID.

Masking fluid is an emulsion of natural latex, water, and ammonia (used as preservative). Many brands of masking fluid are available, although quality varies. I find Pebeo, Grumbacher, and Winsor Newton to be the highest quality, but you can also search for other brands that suit your needs. My favorite is Pebeo Drawing Gum, which covers smoothly and is easy to see because of its gray-blue color. I find Grumbacher’s bright orange to be very distracting, and Winsor Newton’s clear and lightly tinted options difficult to see on white watercolor paper.

Ducklings Watercolor – Masked edges of ducklings and their bedding material.

TIPS:

  1. Make sure to test your choice of masking fluid on your watercolor paper before using it on your painting. Some masking fluids can damage softer, poorer quality, or student-grade types of watercolor paper when they are removed. 
  2. DON’T shake masking fluid; it’s better to stir it gently. Shaking adds air bubbles, and too much agitation can cause the fluid to clump or start to solidify.
  3. Let masking fluid on the paper air dry naturally. Adding any heat, from the sun, a heater, or a hair dryer, makes it extremely difficult to remove without damaging the watercolor paper. Similarly, I don’t apply masking fluid to wet or damp paper because it seems to be absorbed into the paper and become permanently attached. I have read that you can wet the paper and float in the masking fluid to create a soft-edged shape; however, that technique doesn’t work well for me.
  4. Don’t leave masking fluid on the paper too long. It becomes more difficult to remove as time goes by. The time limit for removing the masking fluid may vary by brand, yet I would try never to leave mask on the paper longer than a week or two. I have seen masking fluid carelessly left so long that it becomes permanently bonded to the paper.
  5. Let the masking fluid completely dry before painting over it. Keep the cap closed tightly when the container is not in use, as masking fluid dries when in contact with air, and the contents of the masking fluid bottle can deteriorate quickly.
  6. Remove your masking fluid only when you have finished painting around it AND the paint is completely dry. 
  7. While hard edges result when masking fluid is removed, the edges can easily be softened by wetting and tickling the edge with a somewhat stiff brush after removing masking fluid.
  8. Apply masking fluid with careful attention to detail. If you are sloppy or careless, your preserved light areas will also appear messy and unattractive when the masking fluid is removed. Practice your application technique on scrap paper until you are able to apply masking fluid carefully and neatly.
Red Bumpers Watercolor – Masked ropes, bumpers, light edges of boat and oar against water, highlights on darkest boat.
Pumpkins Up Close Watercolor – Masked only outline on stem.

There are many tools available to use in applying masking fluid. Use one or many, depending on the effects you want to create. Possible tools include inexpensive synthetic cellulose brushes, sponges, sticks and toothpicks, a dip pen, a palette knife, found objects like pencil erasers, leaves, the handle of a paint brush, or bottle caps, a cheap synthetic brush, a toothbrush to create spatter, and my favorite, a ruling pen. (Be extremely careful to protect any brush you use by first applying soap to the brush and wiping any excess soap off prior to dipping the brush in masking fluid. Immediately after applying the mask, rinse and soap your brush again, then rinse, to remove masking fluid before it dries and adheres to the brush. Also, keep masking fluid away from clothing!)

Let’s Pig Out Watercolor – Masked light against dark edges and foreground straw.

MASKING WITH TAPE.

Tape can be used to mask larger or straight areas (e.g. parts of a building or the horizon line) in a picture. Masking film (which is available in sheets) can be used to cover and cut to fit larger areas of a picture, as well. Brown packing tape (lightweight economy grade) or Scotch Magic tape (#810 only) work better than masking tape on ‘Rough’ watercolor paper. Masking tape can be too thick to bend and adhere well to the numerous depressions in rough paper, allowing watercolor paint the chance to sneak under the edge. Experiment with different brands of tape and paper. Again, test the tape on the watercolor paper you intend to use to make sure tape removal does not cause damage. Good quality paper, such as Arches or Saunders Waterford, is preferable to poorer quality or student-grade papers. 

To mask objects with tape, cover the shape with tape (overlapping edges if more than one strip is needed), then use a very sharp  X-acto or craft knife with slight pressure to carefully cut around the saved shape, and remove excess tape. Don’t use too much pressure when cutting the shape with the knife as you can apply so much pressure that you cut into your paper. Experiment first on a test sheet. After cutting the tape, press the tape down firmly. Paint.

Tape can also be precut prior before application to your paper. For example, to mask a window frame or a picket fence, you could attach a strip of packing tape to a self-healing cutting mat, cut narrow strips in the tape with your X-acto knife and a ruler, and then apply the strips to mask out a window or fence on your watercolor paper.

Personally, unless the area to be masked is large or straight, I prefer applying masking fluid with a quality, vintage German ruling pen (purchased on Ebay), as I have better control. I seem to struggle with tape, finding it difficult to apply, cut accurately, and also to remove. You should try it, however, as it has some advantages.

MASKING WITH BOTH FLUID AND TAPE.

If desired, masking fluid and tape can be combined to make it easier to mask larger areas, or a combination of a hard-edged area with nearby uneven areas. Both masking fluid and tape might be helpful if you wish to protect: 1.) blotchy, partially snow-covered ground (masking fluid) and a large, hard-edged snow-covered roof (tape), or 2.) a grove of tree trunks (tape) and a few leaves (masking fluid) that will be painted in contrasting colors or values, or 3.) lots of sky reflections on a lake (tape for straighter reflections and masking fluid for more erratic ripples).                                                   

First, apply overlapping pieces of tape over the chosen masking area. Press down lightly and carefully cut tape with an X-acto knife. Remove unwanted tape pieces, then press the remaining tape down firmly on the paper. Add masking fluid and let dry. Proceed with painting.

AVOID OVER-DEPENDENCE.

Try not to become overly dependent on masking materials. Instead, practice and improve your brush handling skills so you don’t need to use masks as often. Think about whether you can easily paint around an area and whether you need masking at all. Not every painting benefits from the use of masking. Sometimes painting is more spontaneous and quicker without masking. Choose the times when applying masking fluid or another type of mask material makes sense for you.

My Swamp Watercolor -No masking used.

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