Archive for May, 2013

Books on watercolor technique are usually more numerous than any other type of book in the shelf in bookstores on art technique.    I, myself, think this is because of two things:

1.  Watercolor is the hardest technique to master basically because you have to unlearn some much from your use of other mediums like oil, drawing, the use of crayons when you were young or even from painting a wall in your house.

2.  None of the books already in print  have succeeded very well in teaching how to make watercolors to the extent that it has become the standard book to buy.

However, there is one book I recommend.   This is Hazel Soan 10-Minute Watercolours in the Collins gen series.  You can get it on Amazon here.   Usually watercolor books are expensive.  This one sells for $4.17 new and $0.99 used.

It’s a small book that will fit in a breast pocket.  (Don’t be put off by the photo on the cover of 16 worn-out brushes that look like they’ve been used for oil painting. For some reason the publisher used a stock photo. )

hazel soan

on a mini ipad with a fork for scale. Remember this book is open.

The premise of the book is to present ten minute lessons each accompanied by a watercolor done by the author in ten minutes (with a few exceptions which she lets you know about.)   This means that on every page there is at least one example, some better than others.   If a ten minute effort is more than you can afford, you can look at a summary after each section.

The author is apparently a well-known television  personality in Great Britain where she has appeared on two watercolor specific shows and has written six books on watercolor before this one (2005).  She writes a column for a Norwegian Magazine (Kunst for Alle  which I think translates to “art for all”).  She lives in Cape Town and London and has her own gallery in west London.

The book is divided into three color coded parts:

1.  Materials  :  a quick summary of the usual.

2.  Creative Zone:  here she discusses paints, brushstrokes, techniques for speed, and what to include  (each section followed by a summary)

Here’s a quote:  “If your brushstroke is fussy, try working from further back or stand to paint rather than sit.  Hold the brush further down the handle.  Use a mop brush.”

This is a very good illustration of what I like about the book.  These three sentences are all the instruction about the problem you get.  Just do it: These are the suggestions.  Now it’s your responsibility to work at it.

This makes sense to me because the problem of watercolor are in technique not verbal memory.  It reminds me of how (before I got a MFA in painting) when I was a medical interne how we learned technique.  The adage was “watch one, do one, teach one.”  For example,  I remember when a resident asked me to do a lumbar puncture.  I said in astonishment that I had never done one.  The resident said something about his bad luck to get me as an interne, and then somewhat reluctantly said, “O.K.,  I’ll show you.”  He left before the end  leaving it to me to finish the job.  What’s important to realize is that I remembered everything and, in fact, was quite adept at lumbar punctures from then on. That kind of situation makes you very receptive to learning.   It’s not something you can take a class in.  You can imagine:  Lumbar Puncture One (the history of lumbar puncture).  Lumbar Puncture Two (the materials and instruments of lumbar picture,) etc.  In fact, there is some suggestion that, if you do give classes in technique, there is always a group )about 10%) that fails to get it.

Here’s another quote: “Keep in mind that you are using the subject matter to create a watercolour, not using the watercour to re-create the subject.”

3.  Painting in Practice:  here she discusses specific problem: people, places, animals, still life.  All the standard problem:  clouds, water, rocks, trees, etc.   If I don’t like what I’ve done in the field, (e.g. a rock) I usually check her page on the subject just to get a fresh approach.

She also writes well in an upbeat way.  The book is dedicated to “Yassen and his master”. One of the illustrations later on in the book is of her son’s dog, Yassen.

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The other day I was out painting with a friend who liked what I did but commented that it didn’t look like a watercolor although usually what I do does look that way.  For reasons I do not understand I had lapsed into my old habits as a oil painter.  I had forgotten about the “bead.”

The term “bead ” is usually found  in instructions on how to make a one color wash down the length of the paper.  What it refers to is that, since you keep the paper on a slant, when you stop to put more watercolor paint on your brush, there is a little line of wet paint that builds up  along the lower edge of the wash you have already put on the paper.  This is the  “bead”.  You then start your new brush load right into this bread and there is no hard edge that develops in the time that you have taken to load your brush.  Using this technique you get an even wash of color over the entire sheet.   It’s marginally worth doing a couple of these washes to get the hang of watercolor.

Usually I try to  have a “bead” whenever I put down paint, a puddle of watercolor paint.  That is, when I put paint down on the paper, I drop it into an area by having a full brush and touching the belly of the brush to the paper and letting the water flow off it.  I think of what I’ve put on the paper as being “juicy”.

I do not try to “paint” the area with a brush like one paints a wall by scraping the paint off the brush  onto the wall. The adage is to never go over and area you have painted.  No back and forth strokes.  Another way of putting it is that you should spend more time with your brush in your palette making sure that the color and consistency of the paint is right than on the paper.  and still another way of putting it is:  do not take your brush off the paper until the paint runs out.


Of course, you can drop paint in wet in wet or wait for it to dry and do wet over dry.  But never the back and forth movement of the house painter painting a wall.  I saw, in another context, to imagine that you have dipped your finger in paint and are letting the drop that forms at the end of your finger spread out on the paper by just touching the tip of the drop to the paper.

A wash done the way I have described it above can be recognized and differentiated from one done by “painting” it.

Two clues to whether you are doing it right:

1.  The paint wiggles when you wiggle the paper and would run if you tilted the paper.

2.   The blob of paint throws a small shadow.

Now, if my goal, is to fill a shape with that paint, I lead that puddle of  paint around the paper to fill the shape.  I’m actually breaking the surface tension of the drop of paint so that it flows into a new area and sometimes helping by tipping the paper. Hopefully I put enough paint down to still be puddle-like when I have completed the shape.  I then have to wait for it to dry.

The result is a very distinct mark that only watercolor makes.  There is usually a little more pigment at the edges so that they are somewhat hard.

There is a variation of this when you are painting negative space.  Let’s say that you have a small square and you want to paint the space around it.  You start your “bead” at the very edge of the square by putting the brush down along the edge and moving the bead away from the line. This makes a very straight line to one side of the drop of paint.   That way the most intense paint is right along the line and gets a bit less intense as you brush away from it.

In the event that you want  to soften the edge of the area covered by your blob, you have to start with a pure water brush away from the blob and wash toward it allowing the paint to diffuse into the plain water area you’ve laid down.  That way that edge will not be hard.

The big “disadvantage” is that you have to wait for your “bead” to dry.  You can use a hair dryer if you are indoors, but outside there is a wait.  The best thing is to look for another area of the painting to work on.

What you get when you use this technique are edges that are very easy to read.  There is a cognitive science explanation for this which I am not going to get into, but the visual system is also very interested in reading edges and has a method of intensifying the color at them.

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I have previous suggested that the wooden pochade boxes that are for sale, while beautiful, are not useful for watercolor artists although they are often supplied with a plastic watercolor palette insert with the suggestion that they are useful and that the watercolor artist should pay about $300 for the box.  See here for an example of the highest quality (but for oil/acrylic).

Furthermore, I have argued that we watercolor artists have a much longer history of painting out of doors with our own paraphernalia.  Watercolor was the medium of choice for explorers, naturalists, botanical artists, military intelligence and map making.  They thought long and hard about what and how to take things into the field.

Now, in addition, to all the old stuff that shows up now and then as antiques, there are four craftsmen now making beautiful, entirely brass watercolor palettes with a wide choice of colors that are about the same price as the wooden pochade boxes.  (I am not endorsing any of them, by the way, since I do not have enough experience.)  The reason for brass is that, the other metal palettes eventually rust.

Most of the original designs being made in brass stem from a period of time when there were a lot of skilled tinsmiths in London and a lot of watercolor artists.  Several very inventive designs were developed.  For some reason the designs were not duplicated by the big art supply companies, probably because they appeared too expensive to them.  The only design that remained was the metal box with which most of us are familiar.  Since it is made out of ferrous mental, it tends to rust.

Schminke metal palette (with pan paints)

Schminke metal palette (with pan paints)

Here are the four people making all brass palettes in a variety of designs.


This is Craig Young’s website here.  He was the first to starting making the good palettes again, and, when he started, he made them in brass.  The price is the highest, the wait is well over a year, and there is no correspondence from him.  He is in Great Britain.

After over a year and a half wait with no response to my e-mails about whether they had lost my address, I cancelled my order.  Only then did I hear from Craig Young’s son, Robert.  By then I had one made by John Hurtley, see below.

Probably the most popular Craig Young design.

Probably the most popular Craig Young design.


 This is John Hurtley’s website here.  The wait is a couple of months (and he tells you when to expect it) and the price is less than Craig Young, and he is forthcoming regarding communication.  He, too, is in Great Britain.  This is one of his designs which he offers in a variety of colors.

John H

Here are some views of one he made for me in “Ultramarine Blue” which, by the way, he sent to me just before he mailed the package off.  Ultramarine is one of many colors you can choose from for a small fee.   He very thoughtfully included a cloth bag to keep it in and little stick on “feet” which allowed it to sit flat even ‘though it has a thumb hold on the bottom.


EPHRAIM  (I’m sorry I don’t know his last name)

This is Ephrain’s website  here.  The wait is a couple of weeks, presumably because he has just started out.  The prices are about the same as John Hurtley, which means much less that Craig Young, and he is making them in Oakland, California.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 9.02.43 PM

I have one of his red “cigar boxes” pictured at the bottom of the above photo and I like it.  It is much thinner than a real wooden cigar box.   It took less than a month to get it.   I use it in the studio.  You can see to the right at 3 o’clock, the same design that I have shown above for Craig Young and John Hurtley.

David Cooper

I believe it was David, himself, who let me know about his work.  See here for his website.   At this moment there is a ten week delay.  His photos do not show the oval wells as well as some do, but he does feature them.  Below is a photo of his original designs.

dr copper

Steve Fanelli

Here is the fifth guy making brass palettes

I don’t know much about his palettes and I cannot find out his prices, but on his website here there a really good self-portrait in watercolor!  It looks to me like he is just starting out with his own designs like David Cooper (above).  Below is a picture of his large palette.  He plans to make a smaller one as well.  I personally prefer the older designs which have to tried and proved successful.   He has an interesting idea about thumb holders for the palettes and is beginning to work in “German Silver”, an alloy of brass and nickel which is a white color not yellow like brass.

If you happen to have some experience with these palettes please leave a comment.  This is now one of the most popular pages on this blog, so a lot of people would appreciate it. Of course, Steve, if you’re reading this, please add anything you want in the comments.

steve fanelli

A plastic palette that is similar to the brass ones

There is a plastic palette now being made that is similar to the most popular brass one here.  It cost about $70

plastic winged palette

If you happen to buy one of these, please leave a comment about it.  Thanks.

There is another version at Ken Bromley at approximately the same price. See here


Here is my post on the “poor person’s palette” which will work as well as any of the above to make a really good watercolor.  You should take a look at it before you decide.  I know these are very beautiful and seductive, but beware of buyer’s remorse and becoming a “palette addict” which, I know sounds odd, but it’s an accepted problem of watercolor artists (See the wetcanvas site, if you don’t believe me.  )


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