How to load your brush.

A good watercolor brush, if used right, can be much more than just a dip and go type of tool. It can be loaded up in all different ways to create all manner of effects.

For simplicity, I’m going to break down this post into two sections: water and pigment.

As we’ve gone over, watercolor is all about controlling water. And how much water you saturate your brush with will have a huge impact on how easy this is for you.
One of the biggest game changers you can learn is this: don’t just jam your brush into your water the same way every time. For some brushstrokes, you will want more or less water. Load your brush up appropriately.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how far to dip your brush in:

If you load your brush with too much water for what you’re working on, you’ll lose control of the painting and make a mess. If you don’t load enough water into the brush, you might make streaks. The only way to get the hang of this is to just practice a lot. Just practice with the awareness that your brush doesn’t need to take a polar plunge every time you use it.

So that’s water. Now you know that there is a technique to develop when it comes to dipping your brush. Pigment is no different.

One of my favorite things about watercolor is how much is going on in every square inch of painting. It’s a very collaborative medium, and it has a mind of its’ own. A way for you to take advantage of this characteristic is to play with loading multiple unmixed pigments into your brush at a time. The results are complex brushstrokes that look like a rainbow.

You need a larger brush to play with this technique. The idea is to incorporate multiple pigments at once, without mixing them on the tray.

Here, using a 3/4″ flat brush, I filled in an area by putting multiple pigments in the brush at once. So for an example, I would fill the brush with naples yellow, and then dip just the end in mauve before making a wash. Or I’d fill the brush with purple, and dip the right half of the brush in blue. Taking that approach, I filled in this rectangle:

With the exception of the hard purple line where the previous layer had dried, you can see that the colors move into each other gradually while still being distinct.

This approach is different than adding colors one at a time onto a wet painting. To show the difference, I did a similar painting but instead of loading the brush with multiple pigments for each brushstroke, I added them one at a time.

You can see that even though the colors and layout are similar, the effect is different because the colors are essentially colliding and push each other out of the way as they meet. Whereas if you put them in the brush at once, they wash onto the paper smoothly and at the same time, creating a more uniform look.

In my opinion, flat brushes work best for washing on multiple colors, because you’re making a broader contact with the paper, but round brushes are fun to play with too.

I hope that all makes some sense! It’s subtle, but a helpful tool to have sometimes. The more effects you can intentionally create, the more interesting your paintings will become.

Happy painting everyone!

How I paint fur.

As you’ve probably noticed, I paint mostly animals. They’re just cuter, ya know? And they’re fuzzy.

Fur and fuzz are difficult to paint in watercolor; it’s not a very furry medium. When you’re approaching a difficult subject, it’s helpful to sit and analyze what the challenges will be. Here’s what you’re up against with fur:

  1. An animal’s coat is made up of gazillions of individual strands of fur. But it moves in cohesive sections, like solid objects. So you have to communicate its uniformity, without losing the fact that it’s an army of individual hairs.
  2. Often you’ll see a dark undercoat, with a frosted top coat. Which results in a layered effect, which is hard to communicate cleanly with watercolor. You have to plan out all the areas that will stay white, which is a strategic nightmare with some fuzzy animals.
  3. Fur has a direction to it. This is one of the things that makes animals so fun to draw, but it requires a lot of thinking ahead to paint. If you don’t observe and plan for directionality in fur, you just end up with a mushy looking animal. Direction creates form, and form makes your work convincing.

Those are the main issues I’ve found when painting furry animals. To demonstrate my approach to this, I picked a photo that I think demos all these pretty well:

RF- European grey wolf (Canis lupus) running through snow in birch forest, Tromso, Norway. Captive, April.

I found this through a Google search. I couldn’t find the name of the photographer. Hopefully they won’t mind me using this to demo. Looking at this picture, we can see all the challenges I mentioned:

  • This wolf has lots of fur that’s moving in sections. To identify the sections, think about the form underneath the fur first. The fur will form little sections that correspond with the underlying form. To identify form, focus on the larger shapes, and where the light and dark sides are. Here’s how I break things down in my mind’s eye:
  • This wolf has yellow/brown undercoat, with a white/grey topcoat and black accents. To communicate all this, I’ll need to leave some flickers of white poking through, which I’ll need to plan for. Here’s how I break that down in my mind before I reach for any paints:
  • This wolf’s fur is going in all different directions. We can tell a lot about his form, and how he’s moving based on the direction of his fur. Before I start drawing, I’ll be sure to sit and look at his fur for a few minutes and make a mental map of all the different directions his fur has. Looking something like this:

Once I’ve figured all this out, I have enough information to make a game plan and I’m ready to go:

Step one: draw out a basic structure to paint in. You can see some of the sections that I’d already mapped out in my mind, and a few lines that indicate form and fur direction.

Step two: block in areas where I see yellow. I have a few favorite yellows that I use: Winsor & Newton’s naples yellow, DaVinci’s yellow ochre, and Holbein’s imidazolone brown (similar to Indian red but a deeper red and more transparent).

Step three: brush in another few layers of fur, building up from the yellow. I like to use a combination of dry brush technique, and individual dabs made with a liner brush. I build up deeper and deeper layers by mixing blues, greens, and purples with the imidazolone brown to try and communicate all the different layers happening in his coat.

Step four: finally, I go in with black and tidy up. I use black very sparingly in my work, because it’s sort of the end of the road as far as color goes. It’s a ‘dead’ color, in that it lets nothing through. Black catches your attention, and it’s almost like a comma for your eyes. It holds your interest for a brief second and communicates importance or change. So it’s usually the last thing I reach for, to put the finishing touches on something.

That’s it! Now you know my fur-painting technique. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, this is just my style and what works for me.

Happy painting everyone!

UPDATE: Something I thought about after making this post is that (to me), there is a slightly different approach to take when painting all white or all black critters. Animals with white coats are a strategic nightmare to paint because they’re often puffy and don’t have many defining features besides eyes and toenails. And as beautiful as your dog’s glossy black coat may be, it’ll be hard to paint without turning him into a little lump of coal.
So I’ll have to make separate posts for those at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good start for painting the fuzzies.

Pigments vs. Dyes

This is a subtle point that doesn’t often come up in the classes I’ve taken, but nevertheless understanding it can save you a lot of grief at your art table.

Which is that while watercolors might all look similar in their tubes or pans, they are not. Some of them are pigments, and some of them are dyes.

So what’s the difference? A big one.

A pigment is basically dirt.
It is tiny particles of pigment, finely milled and suspended in a binder. When you get it wet, it becomes very fancy mud.

A dye is water soluble.
Unlike a pigment, which is particles of color suspended in a binder, a dye actually dissolves in the water. It’s been fixed with a mordant to make it lightfast on the paper, but it still dissolves real good. If a pigment is mud, a dye color is a glass of red wine.

They behave relatively similarly to paint with, but one is permanent and one is not. Dye colors are permanent. While pigments sit on top of the paper, dyes go in and effect the actual fiber of the paper. It’s the difference between getting mud on your shirt or spilling wine on it.

This makes a difference when you’re painting, because you cannot rewet and manipulate a dye color later. Once they touch the paper, the paper is that color now. They are the most unforgiving of the watercolor family.

But they’re not all bad. Dye colors are also generally appreciated for their vividness and transparency. Because a dye color fully dissolves in water, they are fully transparent. They aren’t something to avoid, but it’s helpful to know the difference.

Here’s a list of dye colors that I’m aware of and use (I’m sure there are many more):

Bright Red, Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cadmium Scarlet, Scarlet Lake, Vermilion Hue, Cadmium Red, Winsor Red, Rose Doré, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Winsor Blues, Winsor Greens, Winsor Emerald, Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, Olive Green, Gold Ochre, Venetian Red

So if you’re painting along and you come across a color that won’t budge once it’s touched the paper, you’ve met a dye color.

Don’t panic. They’re here to help. A dye color is your best friend in creating that beautiful watercolor layered effect, because they are truly transparent. They are the perfect solution to wanting a tiny dab of color on top of 5 others, without making a mess. They’re the most watercolory of the watercolors. And, they’re permanent as heck.

So, what is watercolor?

Afterlife 2014

I remember on the first day of my first ever watercolor class, the teacher asked this question, and I decided right there that I was dealing with an idiot. Obviously, watercolor was what old people did and if the oil class hadn’t been canceled that semester I wouldn’t have been sitting through that lecture in the first place.

Cue my surprise when I discovered over the next four months that watercolor is a fascinating rubric cube of a medium, and now ten years later, I still haven’t moved on.

watercolor study 2014

For me, a helpful thing to learn at the outset was that watercolor, oil, and acrylic are all essentially made using the same pigments. It’s the binders that hold them together that makes them different mediums. That was helpful because when you first sit down to watercolor, if you’re coming from an oil or acrylic background, it feels like you just landed on art-Mars and nothing will ever be okay again. But it will be.

So really in watercolor, your foe is water, and how all the different pigments interact with water. For me, that realization was a big key that began to unlock watercolor.
Because, we all know a lot more about water than we realize:

We know that it’s attracted to itself. If you have two droplets of water right next to each other, they will begin to inch together. This happens on your paper all the time.
We know that gravity has a big effect on it. It always runs downhill, so the tilt of your paper is just as important as your brushes.
We know that water ‘climbs.’ We’ve all gotten the hems of our jeans wet and suddenly before we knew it, we were soaked up to the knees because the water climbed upwards. Anytime there’s a pool of water on your paper, it will start to creep upwards and take pigment with it.
We know that certain things float, and certain things don’t. The same is true in watercolor, some pigments have more buoyancy than others, which effects how they’ll layer and interact with other pigments when things get wet.
We know that water erodes things.Your painting might not be the Grand Canyon, but every time you add more water to the paper, the water is going to erode the pigments that are there. It’ll move things around and create little causeways for itself, just like it does in nature.

Field mouse study 2014

There are loads more watercolor/water observations, but I think you get the idea. All the things you know about water, you know about watercolor. It’s not as foreign as you think, or as it feels the first time you sit down to paint.

Each of those things can be broken down into techniques and become a separate post, but I just wanted to share a subtle mental shift that really helped me when I first sat down to watercolor. It’s not as unfamiliar as you might think.