Choosing the right art materials

     The thought of doing this section came when my sister said that the steps in the birdhouse demo seemed too complicated. I prepared a small post for basic techniques and a short floral demo, then I realized I had better write a  quick note on materials. That quick note has turned into a rather long post. If you are completely new to watercolor, and want to learn this fascinating medium, this post will be useful for you.

       Watercolor Papers

       If you don’t want to read any lengthy technicalities, then get yourself a small sized block or small number of individual sheets of Arches 140lb CP or Winsor and Newton 140lb CP. Once you have had practice with these good quality papers, you are in a better position to reasearch some more and judge which  paper suits your style of painting the best. On to the paints section then….. If are interested in learning a little more about why I mentioned the above choices, then keep reading this section.

           Invest in a good quality watercolor paper even for practice. None of the watercolor tehcniques work with ordinary paper becoz water will make this paper soggy. I have already gone through that route when I first began painting, and which ended in some frustration and wasted time and effort. Looking at the splotched results, you don’t realize immediately that the paper is what is wrong and  not your technique. If you have to, skimp a little on the paints and brushes but not on the paper. 

      I have been using the Hahnmuehle watercolor paper from a long time (mainly becoz that is the one readily available in German stores) and since then it has been a battle between me and the paper to paint the washes. I keep thinking I have to refine my techniques a lot more. Just yesterday, I was going to order new papers to replenish my stock, when I stumbled upon an article in www.handprint.com in which I found out that all the problems that I had been facing were due to the fact that this particular brand was not suited to the type of painting that I enjoy doing. Whenever, I remove the masking fluid, the paper gets damaged, so the areas donot take paint evenly afterwards, with the result that I stopped using masking fluid and did more of negative painting. Washes are an absolute nightmare and glazing isn’t too suitable either, a method which I use extensively in my paintings. After reading that article, I spent a gloomy five minutes reflecting on all the years(4 or 5 but with gaps in between) that I had spent trying to push the paper to do something it just cannot do. Now that I have scared you into buying the right paper, lets see what type and brand of watercolor papers are available in the market.

       All good watercolor papers are acid free or neutral PH. (while painting, its a good idea to have a tissue underneath your hand, as the oils on the skin contaminate the paper, negating its neutral PH state making it difficult to apply paint on the paper) Watercolor papers are available in three types – Rough, coldpressed(CP), and hotpressed(HP) and a new one called softpressed(SP). The texture on the Rough paper is extremely rough and you will love it if you want textures showing in your work and is ideal for a loose, expressive style of painting. HP paper is pressed in between hot rollers while it is being made with the result that it has an extremely smooth surface which makes it great for detail work and for delicate florals etc. but it dries quite fast so large washes are a challenge. The CP paper is run through cool rollers, also called NOT because it is not hotpressed. It has a surface grain that is in between the Rough and the HP, which makes it ideal for both washes and detail work, and which also shows some texture. The CP paper is the most popular among artists and I think it is ideal for those wanting to learn.

        All these papers come in several weights, the greater the weight, the thicker the paper, and the greater the price. Don’t use the ones below 220gsm (grams per square metre) (been there too!). Small samples of the 220 gsm paper can be used while beginning to paint to get aquainted with brush strokes, the feel of watercolor etc but switch to the 300gsm (140lb) or begin with it. It doesnot buckle too much when wet but it will have to be streched before using. Then there is the 450gsm and the 600gsm(300lb) and so on. If you want to paint rather large pictures and can afford it, get the 600gsm. It is very thick, almost like a board and does not need to be streched if you do not use too much water. Of the different brands available, the Arches (pronounced Arsh) is the most popular both for its price and quality. Same for the Winsor and Newton brand. There are a lot more good brands available and you can choose which is best suited to your unique style of painting by purchasing a small sample pack consisting of different types of papers. This is for a later stage when you have mastered the medium well enough to judge which paper you would want.

        Stretching: Most all watercolor papers need to be stretched before you can paint on them. This is to prevent buckling of the paper and formation of small pools of water when water is applied. You can avoid this streching process, if you purchase a watercolor block. This consists of several papers gummed together on all four sides, so that they remain taut even when wet and remain straight after drying. When your painting is finished, slip a knife underneath a corner of the paper and gently peel off, revealing a fresh new sheet for another painting. Unless it is a 300lb which is thicker, a little of the water used for the painting may be absorbed by the paper underneath it and change the way it takes washes. The blocks are also a little more expensive than the individual sheets.

         To strech a watercolor paper, put it into a clean tub full of water and let it soak for 3 mins or so. Remove carefully, let the excess water drain, and place it on a gator board (available in art stores). Tape all four sides of the paper with an artists tape. You can also use a gummed tape which is dry and sticks only when wet. Cut four pieces of the length and breadth of your paper and keep aside. After you place your soaked paper on the board, wet each piece by dipping it in a jar of water in a long smooth motion and stick it on the edge of the paper, a half inch on the paper and a half inch on the board should do the trick. Do this on all four sides. Let it air dry completely. As it dries, it shrinks (it expands during soaking) and then you have a taut piece of paper ready for work. Even if there are  some buckles when you are making large washes, it will dry completely flat. After the painting is finished, slide a sharp craft knife underneath the tape and cut to remove from the board. You can leave the half inch tape on the paper which protects the corners of the paper, or if you find the borders unsightly, you can trim all 4 sides. If you donot have a gator board, you can use a hardboard which has varnish on it so that it does not absorb water from the paper. Leave a comment, if you find this a little tricky, I can post a few photos the next time I do it.

       If you want in depth information about choosing papers, visit www.handprint.com. There is also www.wetcanvas.com where you can find just about anything related to art. Registration is required which is free. Go to the watercolor section , then to the handbook , scroll down to find tests which have been made on watercolor papers of different weights and brands.

Watercolor Paints

          Watercolors usually come in artists grade or students grade. The artists grade are more expensive but they are definitely worth it. They are more lightfast, more dispersible, more saturated so that a little of the paint goes a long way. A good option is to buy the starter set consisting of 6 or 12 most needed colors offered by the manufacturer. If you find it too expensive or if you would like to choose your own colors, you can start with just three of the artists grade paints and then slowly add other colors to your pallette. This way, you get to know the properties of each color thoroughly (transparency, staining, granualting, dispersing etc) and also know which shades can be mixed with them before you add others. Choose the three primaries – red (red tending towards pink), yellow and blue . Ofcourse, there are a lot of reds , yellows and blues available in each brand. For muted landscapes, choose raw sienna (a dull yellow), burnt sienna (red tending towards brown) and cobalt blue. I use mostly transparent colours because I do a lot of florals and I need all the colors to be luminous in glazes for the flowers to be delicate. The properties of each color will be written on the label. Check them before buying. Same names can have different shades across brands.

        M Graham paints are said to be the most intense, I feel they are also less expensive. Winsor and Newton colors are very popular. Da Vinci, Holbein, there are many you can choose from. I have used Schminke Horadam and Lukas. I wasn’t too satisfied with Lukas but Schminke has some good luminous colours. You can try Indian yellow, ruby red and pthalo blue. You can make a variety of colors and shades from these three primaries. You might want to have semi opaques for solid objects like tree trunks and buildings where you don’t want them to look ethereal by using transparents. For objects like stones and bricks, you might want granulating or sedimentary colors like ultramarine blue and cobalt blue. The pigment in these colors settles in the troughs of the paper giving a readymade texture which would take a long time to paint with a brush. But these colors cannot be used where you want a smooth finish, like for potraits or flowers. Choose colors according to the subjects that you like to paint. Check the properties of each color that you want to buy, which are usually given in a catalogue. Print it out or get it from the art store and take time to acquaint yourself with the colors. This might be a little vague in the beginning, with so many options but no clear cut rules as to which to decide on. But as you start to paint and practice and practice, you will know what you are looking for. (like cool red thats not staining or cool blue thats not sedimentary). Also look out for lightfastness. If a color is not light fast enough, it could start to pale losing its bright hue with age (as in years not in months). Some of the students grades usually fade this way. Colors come in pans or tubes. Everyone uses the tubes, but somehow I’m always stuck with the pans. The pans are dry and need to be activated with water, this scrubbing is what I don’t like but they are useful for plein air studies. The tubes contain juicy fresh paint, easy to just mix water to a gobble of paint to the desired consistency. Some times you might like to use white Gouche for fine white lines (on feathers , for e.g or veins) or for recapturing lost highlights. Gouche is opaque, so you have to use it sparingly or you lose the luminous effect created by the watercolors. Buying colours is such fun, I love to color shop. In Germany, there is always an art store somewhere around the corner of the block. While returning from a trip to the grocers, I occasionally reward myself by slipping into the store and buying a brand new color! This adds an excitement to several days of painting for me. I’m in India now, and in this town that I live in, no one’s heard of an art speciality store, so I’m going to order online from www.cheapjoes.com . There’s also www.jerrysartrama.com for those interested. In case you think of sneering at the lack of aesthetic taste of our town, I have to add that we have a number of speciality stores for embroidery work and fabric painting here!

Watercolor Brushes

    Watercolor brushes are of three types – natural, synthetic and blend. Natural brushes are made of animal hair and are expensive, synthetics are manufactured from nylon etc to closely resemble the functionality of the naturals and are the least expensive. Blends are a combination of both. In the natural brushes, the Kolinsky sable is the best brush. It holds a lot of paint, so that the number of trips your hand makes from the paper to the palette are reduced, but always comes to a nice point and lets the paint flow smoothly to the paper. With proper care, they last for many years. The kolinsky, red and black sable brushes are a real pleasure to paint with. You have to try them to experience it. Having said that, the other brushes of various good brands do a good job as well, find the type that fits into your price range. The synthetics have to be replaced every year or so.  

   The numbers vary across brands but for the round brushes choose a 0 brush for small details, two medium rounds like 3 and 5 or 4 and 6 and a largish one like 8 or 9. Choose according to the size of the paper that you like to work on. For the background washes, you need to wet a large area quickly, so you need a flat very wide brush. Oval brushes come in handy to blend those colors in a wash but not absolutely necessary. A stiff synthetic inexpensive brush comes in handy to lift highlights. Some artists like to use flat brushes of different sizes for bold expressive strokes. The catalogue in cheapjoes.com (found on the right hand side in the site) has a vast array of all kinds of brushes. Browse around to see what you feel would work for you. I have used the da vinci kolinsky brushes bought in an art store up till now.

    Be sure to read the section on brush care and storage at handprint.com.

Additional Supplies

Masking fluid (also called frisket): is a thickish liquid which can be applied to parts of the painting that need to be white or lighter in value than the surrounding area; for highlights, for stamens of a flower etc. You can paint over it with watercolor after it has dried. After the color has dried, remove the mask by rubbing gently with masking fluid pick up or an eraser. You now have the pristine white of the paper on that area which can be toned by painting over it. To apply masking fluid, stir the fluid first with the handle of a brush. Keep a bar soap near you. Wet an inexpensive brush kept especially for this purpose, rub on the soap till it is coated nicely , then dip in the fluid and apply on the parts of the paper that you want to mask. Before the fluid starts to dry on the brush, clean the brush in the water and back again to the soap, fluid, paper. If you don’t do this, the fluid dries on to the bristles of the brush, and you will have to throw away the brush. Never use an expensive brush for masking fluid application.

Hair dryer: this is useful to speed up the drying process.

Artists tape:  for streching paper or for getting straight edges on the borders of the painting.

Palette: You can use any which that you prefer. It should be white, preferably non staining with wells for colors and an area for mixing. I recently ordered the porcelain ones at cheapjoes because in the plastic palette that I had, cleaning the wells was a chore and paint would never get out completely. Also, the small porcelain rounds can be placed on the paper or board instead of the large palette and they can be cleaned easily.

Water containers: You need two containers for holding water. Ones that have a good base to prevent them from toppling over. An old large coffee mug is a good idea. One is for rinsing the brushes. The water in the other should always be kept clean, so that it can be used for laying in clear water washes, mixing colors etc. Keep changing the water once it gets dirty, you don’t want your painting to look muddy.

Rags, paper towels or tissues are a must for the watercolorist to remove excess water from the brush, blotting etc. I lay all my water containers and brushes on an old cotton saree (without starch). It’s excellent for absorbing water from the brushes and for catching spills caused by my son running all around. A sprayer with a fine mist is useful for wetting paper where wetting with a brush would cause already laid in color to lift. Can also be used to wet pan colors in a jifffy. A natural sponge is used for laying in color which gives some texture, for simulating the look of small leaves on a tree for e.g. Ear buds can be used to lift color. An old ball point pen without ink or the corner of a plastic card can be used for veins on leaves or flowers. You will soon be adding to this list once you get started on your creative journey. 

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