Monday, August 10, 2009

Welcome to the Art School!

Welcome to the first installment of my “how to paint” blog! I’m going to be alternating this with “how to write a book” and will try to post every Sunday or so. We're not starting off too well since it's Monday, but I was working all day yesterday on my very first book video. (Which you'll see here tomorrow.)

SO YOU WANT TO PAINT, huh? Terrific! What do you want to paint? Portraits? Landscapes? Florals? Abstracts?

Focus first. (You can always change your mind later.)

Which painters/paintings have really hit you over the head in the past, dazzling you so you exclaimed, “I want to paint like that!” and dreamed of the work afterward? Have there been really different styles that caught your eye? What do they have in common? Maybe you liked the colors they used or the way they used them or maybe the style. Maybe you like that they were different. There’s nothing that says you have to paint the same way all the time. (But try focusing in these beginning stages and get the basics down.)

First of all, you’re going to have to get materials so you can start to paint. There are a lot more things to paint with these days then back when I was an art student in college. You can use colored pencils and pastels, but I don’t know much about those so I’m going to ignore them. La la la, I can’t HEAR you!

That leaves us with the three major media for painting: watercolor, acrylics, and oils.


Now, technically acrylics are watercolors because you use water to work with them. To differentiate, sometimes watercolors are called “aquarelles,” but most of the time watercolors are "watercolors."

Watercolors are fun because you can accomplish one with very little investment. You can travel with watercolors since they’re non-toxic (for the most part; read the label!) and airlines won’t think you’re a terrorist by packing awful solvents in your luggage. They dry quickly. If you’re working on paper you can stack a bunch together for storage and they won’t take up much space.

They do have a reputation of being difficult. I think it’s more of an attitude adjustment that painters from other mediums have to make. Once you get the swing of watercolor and figure out how to approach things (which are kinda opposite what you do in other mediums), you should enjoy watercolors. Oh—they do tend to be rather unforgiving, but there are ways to correct watercolors if you make a mistake. Don’t forget that the term “happy mistakes” probably was first coined by a watercolorist! Mistakes can be GOOD.

You need to remember that even though your watercolors will dry, they won't be protected for all eternity unless you do something to them, like put them under glass or use one of the new spray varnishes that are made for watercolors. Otherwise if you happen to sneeze near them or perhaps Fido comes in from the rain and shakes off near your watercolor--uh oh!


You can buy your WCs in little tins like you did in kindergarten, but I think most watercolorists get tubes. This means that you’ll need a palette to hold everything. Don’t worry if your paint dries on it; a little water will make it spring back to life. When you first get your stuff out to sit down to paint, spritz your WCs with a few drops of water so they'll be nice and moist for you by the time you lift your brush.

Which reminds me: NEVER GET “STUDENT” GRADE PAINT! In any medium! This is cheaper than the other stuff because it’s been thinned down. You need to use more to get the same effect you get from pro grade. Grit your teeth and resolve to stick with the non-student grades.


Also be advised that watercolors dry lighter than the color you apply. Acrylics dry darker. Oils stay the same. Don't know why; it just is.

Be advised that the cheap plastic (and very portable) palettes will make your colors bead up when you’re trying to mix them. The expensive (and heavy) porcelain ones will allow the colors to sit in a nice puddle. Both will get the job done.


With watercolor you’ll need watercolor brushes. Make sure they’re made for WC. These brushes will usually have shorter handles than oil/acrylic brushes. I think that’s because you’re expected to work up close with WC, but that’s not necessarily the case. WC brushes also need to be able to hold a lot of paint so you can get large areas of washes in. People will tell you to go with the expensive ones that use animal hair, but a lot of the new artificial stuff will do just fine, especially for a beginner. Plus there are animal hair/artificial mixes that are terrific and won’t completely drain your wallet.

Don't mix your WC brushes with your oil brushes. You get a little oil on 'em and you'll never be able to use them for WC again.

You'll need a large brush to do large washes. What size paper are you using? Use a size that'll go with that. And you'll need a rigger (buy more than one), which has really long, thin bristles that make for doing details and SIGNING YOUR NAME a lot easier. Note: brushes will be your biggest cost in WC. Look for specials.


Watercolor paper is what you paint on, for the most part. It comes with two things to look for: “press” and weight.
• Hot-pressed paper is really smooth, almost slick. I find it hard to control. Definitely not for beginners!
• Rough paper is exactly that: really rough. Try some of both after you get the hang of watercolor.
• Cold-pressed paper has a moderate “tooth” to it, and is something I prefer, certainly best for a beginner to use.

PAPER WEIGHT (no, not paperweight)

WC paper that comes in 140 pound or thereabouts weight will need to be stretched, which means that you soak the paper and tape it to a board while it’s still wet so it won’t buckle up as you’re painting.

Now, I know the modern thing is merely to clip the dry paper to a board, but I still have my doubts about that. Instead, if I get 140 lb paper I get it in “blocks” that are glued on all 4 sides, which is sorta pre-stretching. It still buckles a bit, but not badly. To release the paper (after everything’s bone dry), you take a palette knife or some thin, dull metal something like a clean butter knife, and insert it in the tiny section on the side that is NOT glued. Then you carefully run the metal around the paper, freeing it from the glue. Ta dah!

If you go for the heavy paper, like 300 lb, you won’t need to stretch anything.

And oh dear, everything’s going metric. A 140 lb paper may be labeled 300 gsm (that’s grams per square meter). That’d make 300 lb paper something like 542 gsm or such.

Make sure your paper is archival quality, so it won't yellow on you as the months go by. "100% rag" used to be the standard to get, but these days they're developing new materials from the oddest things. At the very least, look for "acid free" and a major brand.

If you buy WC paper by the sheet, you’ll find it usually comes in 22x30” size. You can use a half-sheet or even a quarter sheet and be considered “standard” area. Store the paper flat and away from water and dirt. Don’t let anything hard rest on it, or you’ll see those creases appear like magic the first wash you apply. (There are even artists who insist on doing washes by pouring paint rather than brushing it on because the soft bristles will leave marks on the paper.)


Nowadays we even have watercolor canvas. This is primarily for ease in selling your painting. If you do a watercolor on canvas and use the new varnishes that work with WC, the theory is that the buyer won’t have to then mat and frame the painting under glass, which makes things heavy and the process convoluted. I’ve heard one WC canvas proponent swear that you can wash all color off a WC canvas and be able to start again like it was new. This claim is absolutely false. But it is easier to correct mistakes by washing off color on a canvas than paper, though it can certainly be done on paper (the heavier the better).

There are also watercolor boards. These are pretty neat. Consider them pre-stretched paper that has a solid back. Used with a suitable spray-on UV varnish (check your label!), they can also be plunked into a frame without glass. Or with. (These days a lot of people are saying that EVERYTHING should be under glass to protect it from pollution!)

Note: NEVER clean a watercolor painting by spritzing cleanser on the glass that covers it! The cleaner can seep under the glass and dissolve the color. Spritz the cleaner on a rag, and then use the rag to clean. Or do as I do, and never clean anything. It lets others feel superior and makes the world a better place.

Whew! A lot of info for this first column, and I’ll make it worse by saying that I’m not going to teach anything about actual WC painting, at least until I get back into it more. There are lots of videos and books out there that are outstanding. Hm. I think I’d start with Tom Lynch’s Watercolor Secrets. Oh, and his 100 Watercolor Workshop Lesson Charts are a great add-on. He’s also got a bunch of videos. He’s a very good teacher and has a lot of experience teaching on TV, plus he’s one o’ them Big Name Watercolorists so he actually knows what he’s doing. Start with him and then discover others.

Happy painting!


StevenW said...

I haven't had a chance to read this thoroughly, but I'll definitely take the time soon. As a painter myself I always love to hear/read how other artists create their magic. Also, one is never too old to learn something new. The looks great, Carol, thanks for posting!

Carol A. Strickland said...

I do hope you'll like the series. I planned on starting acrylics next, again with the materials, but if there's any specific subject you'd like to hear about I'd be glad to tackle it if I'm knowledgeable in that area. (If I'm not, I probably can point you to someone who is!)