From Newsletter 161

Watercolour Washes

BY DENNIS GREENWOOD

The watercolour wash-water-soluble paint spreading across a damp paper surface-is the phenomenon which gives this medium its characteristic look.

Personally, I love doing BIG washes, washes which leave the paper and run across the table and down the cupboard doors onto the floor. There is a considerable risk that this habit will cost you a fortune and produce nothing worth looking at, but statistically you may produce a gob-smacking gem occasionally.

I would recommend all watercolourists to launch into a decent-sized, variegated wash whenever they get out of bed in the morning feeling supremely confident. It’s a real tonic to watch the colours gradually merge and muddy in front of your eyes. It’s an analogy with life reallystruggling desperately to control the forces which invariably work against you and ultimately ‘take you to the cleaners’.

However, it is important to remain bullish about the possibilities for a successful outcome.

To this end, here’s a quick checklist of the parameters which may help determine your success:

Colour Theory

It’s really helpful to know a little about light and how we see its constituent parts as colours. Read up about hue, value and brilliance, the 3 variables of colour. Armed with this knowledge, you can combine colours confidently. Successfully is another matter.

Paints

Dye-based paints stain and tend to migrate (move around) more easily on damp paper. They often go where you don’t want them to. Sometimes chance is more serendipitous than intention.

Pigment-based paints migrate in a more controllable fashion and use can be made of their sedimentary properties. Because they contain large insoluble particles they tend to be more opaque. This can be a
blessing or a curse.

Brushes

Buy good brushes so that the ferrule doesn’t come loose from the handle when you’re adding a final sweeping stroke or so the bristles don’t fall out constantly as with chronic alopecia.

Paper

Buy the best. Consistency of sizing is THE most important feature.

Having a Plan

You must have a plan. Even if it’s “I’m using only green today. What can I create?”

A Case in Point: Painting The Sky as a Backdrop

I wanted to paint a Spitfire in an empty sky. Apart from a small reference photo of the plane, the image would have to be a product of my imagination.

My initial thoughts were that the earth colour of the Spitfire would be complemented by the blue of the sky. The massing of clouds would provide some drama and balance the composition, but should not detract from the detail of image subject, the isolated Spitfire.

I decided to try and paint an appropriate sky using just two colours: Payne’s Grey and Cerulean Blue.


1. I began by drawing out the Spitfire in some detail and satisfying myself where the darks and lights of the sky were to be placed relative to the aeroplane. I then masked the periphery of the aeroplane in case the dark washes of the clouds encroached on it. At this stage I still had no idea what the sky should look like-I enjoy making decisions while the work is in progress. In this way your ideas shape the work, but the way the work develops also shapes your ideas about it. I applied a very wet grey and cerulean wash to the whole surface, and then washed areas of this colour off. I am unnerved by a large, white, empty surface staring at me.

2. After drying the work, I then re-wetted the whole surface and added a variegated wash of the grey and blue where the cloud masses were to be.

Once this wash was dry, I overpainted a third wash of the same colours to darken the darks and give some illusion of depth through layering.

All these processes help me to develop my ideas as to how I want the final sky to look.


3. When the paper is dry, I now add a fourth wash, a single grey/blue mix, having spot-dried some areas to give some hard edges.



4. I repeat step 3 using a more concentrated grey wash to get a more dramatic effect. I decided at this point I was happy with how the sky looked. The sheet was then dried, and the plane mask rubbed out.

5. Step 5 was simply to fill in some detail and colour on the Spitfire, keeping the colours sufficiently muted.




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