Archive for March, 2016

I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden today with a friend, and there were several artists there all with a big wheeled seat with a bag attached that would hold enough for a week of  clothes in addition to art supplies. Must have been a group of some sort.  I have a much simpler setup that I can hold with one hand while I sit on a bench or a small folding chair if I chose to bring one.

It’s a modification of a Frank Herring and Sons “compact palette”.

frank herring and sons compact palette jpeg


My modification: overall view.  Notice that I am able to hold the palette, the water bottle (you only see the top) , and the pad of paper with one hand.  It’s very convenient when you’re sitting on a bench and trying to juggle and balance everything.  It is difficult to see the modifications in this photo, so I have some closeups below.





<—–the plastic Frank Herring compact watercolor palette which I have modified available from Jackson’s Art Supply in England or check with Frank Herring’s website here.


















A readily available water bottle, just by chance, happens to screw securely into the thumb hole.  It’s a wide mouth HDPE bottle 4 oz made of Nalgene that I got in a camping store. I usually carry two of these. Here is the Amazon reference.    There is one in the photo to the right that is standing up.  Then in the small thin compartment on the right of the palette, which I assume is for a travel brush, I have cut a hole that allows me to slip a banker’s clip in that attaches (clips)  the entire palette to the pad.  The banker’s clip is in the rightmost photo on its side. Here is the Amazon reference for the banker’s clip.  the orange from a rough arches paper block shows through the thumb hole and the cut in the brush compartment in the rightmost photo.

I made the cut for the banker’s clip by drawing an outline with a sharpie, then using a thin nail to hammer in little dents in the soft plastic as guides so a drill bit would not slip, then I made a row of drill holes and use a shop knife to cut between them.  It’s an inelegant way to do so, but the compartment is narrow.  The hole has to be somewhat big because the banker’s clip has a bend in it that sticks up.  It has to be about halfway down because the water bottle sticks down and would hit the pad of paper if the clip were too high.

The Frank Herring compact palette is made out of soft plastic that stains pretty badly but the stain does not get into any paint. There must be a better plastic.   It’s a little stiff to open.  The units for paint can hold a small pan as you can see by looking at the red which is good if you want to change your palette, but it’s a little hard to do so because the fit is so tight.  That said, it’s definitely good enough.

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I have already posted on this subject but only my preliminary observations. See here for what I said.  In this first post on the subject I only discussed “darks”.  In this post, I am going to be more comprehensive.  As far as I can see at the moment, there are the following six problems to juicy watercolors technique when you start a painting.  I am recommending doing them as exercises totally distinct from making a painting.  I am thinking of what it’s like for a musician to learn an instrument and trying to develop an equivalent practice.  We artists tend to always start with the artistic equivalent of a performance.

There is one book, “Hawthorne on Painting”, which is really a compilation of lecture notes taken by his students when he was at Provincetown, MA, that says that you should consider that what you are doing is “starts” which, of course, will invariably fail.  Instead of trying to fix them which won’t work, particularly in watercolor, and waste a lot of time and effort, throw them away and do another “start”.  Little by little you’ll get further along before you discard the painting.

The six problems

  1. darks
  2. lights
  3. drawing out the mid tones
  4. backgrounds
  5. patterns
  6. why not’s

Now to the main ideas about painting and the emperor’s rooster:chinese rooster jpeg

I am proposing a series of practice brush exercises (which, of course, a Chinese artist would find very familiar and would have been doing for years). See on the internet “mountain-water painting” or Shan shi.  Here is a modern Chinese video I particularly like done in that wet, juicy style.  They are black and white for the most part, but that is much more difficult than using color.

There is the story of the emperor who wanted a drawing of a rooster.  He sent a message to that effect to a well-known artist.  Nothing happened for a very long time.  Annoyed the emperor made an unannounced visit to the artist’s studio and demanded the painting.  The artist went into a back room and returned with his brush, put down some paper, and did a wonderful rooster painting in just a few moments.  The emperor, of course, wanted to know why it took so long since it just took the artist in a few moments, and, of course, why he was charging so much.  The artist opened the back room and the emperor saw that it was filled with practice exercises of roosters.  We want to be like that artist — ready for the emperor when he comes.

multicolor swatches

I suggest making “swatches”.  That is putting paint down and not being that concerned about the boundaries demarking a particular form.    Then you could graduate to using a quick sketch of a sphere as the form on which to practice just because spheres have been used for years in art school  and have somewhat complicated value structure in terms of the form values and the cast shadow values.  Then you might graduate to quickly scribbled forms of trees or people, etc. thinking about the value structure.  At some point, maybe after your studio has filled up with these studies, you will find that you can adapt a multi-colored swatch to any particular form you are trying to paint.

core shadow jpeg

If you start with just one color, usually black, then you will have to concern yourself with the various values you can coach out of the paint you have put down, variations in the granulation of the pigment, and so forth.  You might have to blot out some lights and draw out mid tones.  It’s actually harder than using multiple colors to get interesting variety.

I prefer myself to use two or three colors,  always mixing cool and warm.    I first put the paint side-by-side and let them flow into each other.  You have to get to like the abstract color combinations and accept the defects that occur.  The watercolor does things by itself.  Let it happen.

dark swatches 0002

The top are formless swatches and the bottom have spherical shapes




light swatches 2

warm and cool experiments








Darks:  As Charles Reid says “The darks carry the painting“.   You should start with the darks when you begin a painting. Obviously, you will have to use paint that is dark-valued like deep blues, mineral violet, black, earth colors.   Even an intense, strong red works for some reason as a dark.  You can use it as a shadow.  But the dark paint itself has to be high in chroma, intense in color, not diluted with a lot of water.  Therefore, it can’t be student grade paint which doesn’t start with a lot of pigment.  It might be best if it were the new Golden CoR paint which uses a “synthetic gum arabic” substitute which holds a higher pigment load than regular watercolor made with gum arabic and is more transparent without the slightly yellow gum arabic cast to it.  I think that is the paint that I used on the dark swatches above.

paddling at Dusk Homer

This is Winslow Homer’s “Paddling at Dusk” (in the Rochester Museum) from his Adirondack period after he learned about Japanese art probably from LaFarge.   Now that’s what I call swatches!!!  Notice the white is “reserved” (unpainted) paper.  The blue here is probably Antwerp Blue, a favorite of Homer, but the way it was formulated in his day is not done anymore.  It’s an iron blue (e.g. Prussian Blue) with white in it and fades in sunlight.

Do not mix the different colors of paint together on the palette.  Let them mix or mix them on the paper.  Of course, you might have to do some mixing on the palette to get a green or a violet or an orange (tertiary colors) if you usually do not buy them from the store, but then don’t mix with other colors on the palette.

Any paint you use has to be “activated”, that is wet enough to stick the tip of a brush into it, pretty much like paint that has just come out of the tube.  Wet it with a spray bottle and wait.   The brush itself can’t be holding too much water.  Dip it in water and give it two very vigorous shakes.  I find myself even touching the tip to a paper towel after the shakes.    The amount of water in the brush is basically the inverse of the amount of water in the paint on your palette. In this case, you want the water in the paint itself just as if you had bought some latex house paint!  If you can’t stick the tip of the brush into the paint, then you need a lot of water on the brush and you have to scrub to get paint.  You still won’t get enough, and you’ll kill the tip of your brush.

Don’t get the idea that you are going to just put down two dabs of  paint.  The idea of the exercise to fuss around and experiment.  You put paint more or less side-by-side in the beginning and see how they mix, but then you can “charge in” more paint wet-in-wet.  Sometimes charge in the same paint to get the area to have strong enough color and sometimes new paint.  Sometimes you might blot or take out some paint with a brush.  Experiment.  As long as the paint is wet and the paper is shiny, you can go back in again and again with more paint of the same kind or new paint.  However, once it is only damp (it feels cold but does not look shiny.  It also smells a bit like wet paint.), you can’t do much without the wet paint you add flowing into  the damp paint and making a “blossom” or “bloom”.

watercolor bloom

Some people like these, but most do not.

Water (e.g. watercolor paint)  not only flows downhill, it will flow from a wet to a less wet area.  It will not invade a completely dry area, but you will get a hard edge between the new paint and the old dry paint.


The version on paper is darker and the spherical forms do not show as much.

Here’s something from the floor of my studio that the Emperor doesn’t get to see which I think illustrates the idea.  I did a few swatches at the top and then decided to adapt some of what I was doing to a tree form.  That’s the basic idea of the exercises.  Ultimately you are going to try to match a swatch idea you had to some forms in your drawing.

I am favorably impressed with the  small spot of cadmium yellow shining through the green as you can see in the rightmost tree at about 2 o’clock.  I’m sure I’ll use this somewhere.  Also, the tree trunk on that rightmost tree uses ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, a classical way to make a gray in watercolor, but I’ve varied the amount of each, and I kind of like that too.  The green is sap green (that all I had on my palette) the yellow is raw sienna for the most part in the trees.  There’s also some violet and some cool red.

The foliage of the trees seems a little too much of lots of little spheres. It might work in some contexts.   I think that’s because I was doing spheres at the time and there was no underdrawing.  I have to remember to use bigger and more amorphous forms with an underdrawing.

Midtones:  You don’t put in mid tones, you wet a brush and draw the midtones out of the darks into other parts or lift out some color in a swatch.  This has the additional advantage of softening or losing some edges and connecting areas, but that’s another discussion.

Lights:  Here the trick is not to paint the lights at all.  Leave as much white paper as possible all over the painting.  For example, if you go to sketch night, you may have the problem of a nude Caucasian model whose skin is mostly “white”, that is light.  There probably will be a distinction between skin that is exposed to sunlight which is very slightly warm and skin that is not which is very slightly cool. You might float in on prewetted paper some light warms and light cools around the edges of large white areas making subtle swatches.  Or you might be outside where there are white birches or London Plane trees with patches of very light bark.  Leave them unpainted paper.

London Plane

by Charles Reid in his Watercolor Secrets p.65 North Light Books. 2004 Notice the tree and all the unpainted areas as well as the intense colors. A great book. It is actually from his personal notebooks.  Second hand on Amazon for $20 (March 2016).


Backgrounds:  Don’t paint in the entire negative space of the background.  In fact, don’t hesitate to leave the background unpainted altogether.

I would, first of all, consider what is called “counter change” in decided how to handle a background.  See here for a discussion by James Gurney.  The idea is to compare the value and intensity of the color of the negative space with the positive space.  If the positive space (the thing in the painting) is dark, make its background light (or white by reserving paper.) On the other hand, if the positive space is light, make the negative space behind it dark.  Counter change refers to doing this for one object that transverses both a light and dark background like a tree rising against dark green but continuing up against a light blue sky.  The top is dark contrasting with the light blue and the bottom is light, also contrasting.  James Gurney even suggests having passages that are light against dark, dark against light, light against light, and dark against dark.  His prototypical figure is a windmill with lots of vanes.  The idea is to make each vane or sail of the windmill have a different figure-background type.

Otherwise you can just play around with colors that you like and decorate the painting.

If there is a main subject in the middle of the painting, let’s say a tree, it is important to continue the background to the other side of the tree so that it appears to go behind it.  In contrast to how I recommend you do the darks, wet the paper first for backgrounds.

Patterns:  like a rug or a plaid shirt.  Paint it with fairly dry paint, but then after it is done, flood some water over parts of it to smudge it.

Why nots:  these are drips, splashes, and blotches as well as spots of color just for fun, perhaps in the corners of the composition.  Knock a wet brush against your hand and splash paint somewhere. Sometimes people put in a random selection of colored dots or a splash of color in an otherwise unoccupied corner.  I’m not sure what these say to people, but I think the comic book artist invented the idea.  Occasionally someone will start with a splash and work over it, leaving very little to see.  The why nots you see in Charles Reid’s people or Ewa Ludwiczak (on Facebook and her blog) are often bright splashes of cadmium red.


Here’s a face by Ewa Ludwiczak who does very good work and acknowledges that she is heavily influenced by Charles Reid. I think these spots of red work on parts of the body that tend to get red in real life from pressure like elbows, feet,  knees, and hands and to a much less degree than shown noses. The red cheeks, however, seem out of place to me.  Reid has mentioned that the red nose brings it forward, and it’s clear to me he is thinking about the planes of the face when he paints.  But I still think the areas like those above are best classified as why nots.

There’s more to come because we are only discussing one form painted in its wet state.  When this first swatch dries, there is the possibility of another layer you might want to consider in a real painting.    When you have more forms, there’s the issue of edge control between forms.  You want to lose some edge like in the model’s left mouth above.  Sometimes you might do that to a whole eye.  You also want to do what James Gurney calls “shape weld” combine some of the shapes, particularly the shadow shapes.  But that another set of exercises that builds on this set.  You could probably base such an exercise on two swatches next to each other.

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