Tackling Three Basic Painting Techniques

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Master these three watercolor painting techniques, and you'll know all you need to paint anything you want. These techniques really are all you have to work with. I have no idea why it took me 40 years to figure that out. Truly, the rest of this book is just refinement and details. Here are the basics:

1 Flat wash and hard edges: A wash is pigment in water. A flat wash is an even color with no variation in color value (light or darkness). A hard edge is a crisp, abrupt change, like a line.

1 Graded wash and soft edges: This wash is a gradation of color from light to dark. The soft edge is a slow change that may not even be perceptible.

1 Rough texture: You need a paper with some texture — a cold-press paper or one with a bumpy surface (see Chapter 2 for more on paper textures) — to stand up to the rough texture technique.

To achieve rough texture, use paint that is slightly dry. Make a quick stroke with the side of your brush so the paint just coats the paper's surface bumps and leaves the pockets between the bumps paint-free. You want white paper showing through. This rough texture can simulate sparkle on a lake or tree bark.

Make a chart to explore the three techniques on wet and dry paper. Figure 3-7 shows what you're aiming for.

1. Draw six 2-inch squares on cold-press or rough watercolor paper.

Make two 2-inch-wide columns that are 6 inches long. Divide each column into thirds. You have three rows of 2-inch squares.

2. Label the columns dry and wet.

The first column will be techniques on dry paper, so write dry at the top. Label the second column wet, because you're going to do the same techniques after you wet the paper.

3. Label the rows hard-edge, flat wash; soft-edge, graded wash; and rough texture.

Figure 3-7:

The three basic paint techniques on dry and wet paper.

Figure 3-7:

The three basic paint techniques on dry and wet paper.

4. Prepare your paint.

Use a paintbrush of your choosing to gather one color of pigment and mix it with water in the mixing area of your palette. I used burnt sienna, but any dark color works. You want a dark paint, but not so dark that you can't see through it. Add just enough water to make the pigment move like ink, but still remain dark.

5. Paint the top square in the dry column with a flat wash with hard edges on dry paper.

Fill in the square with the paint. Try to fill it in with even color. If you use a flat 2-inch brush, this could be one stroke. If the brush is smaller, it may take several strokes. If you get puddles, dry your brush with a paper towel. This makes the brush a thirsty brush that absorbs liquid from the paper instead of dispensing it. Or if you touch the top of a puddle with the edge or corner of a paper towel, it will absorb just water, leaving the heavier pigment on the paper.

6. Dampen the top square in the wet column with clear water and paint a flat wash with hard edges on wet paper.

Use your brush to paint clear water over the square. Try to make even wetness, no puddles, just a shiny surface. Absorb any excessive puddles with a paper towel. Apply paint as you did in Step 5. The object is to make an even tone throughout the square.

7. Paint the middle square in the dry column with a soft-edge, graded wash.

Paint at the top of the square. Rinse your brush and apply a stripe of clear water at the bottom of the square, leaving dry paper between the two. Dry the brush on the sponge to make a damp, not drippy, brush and use it to introduce the two stripes by painting a stripe of clear water between them. Your goal is to make a dark-to-light gradation from top to bottom. The transition is a smooth, soft edge. Here, the soft edge is in the middle of the square, as opposed to the hard edges on the outside edges of the square.

8. Dampen the middle square in the wet column and paint a soft-edge, graded wash on wet paper.

Paint clear water over the square as you did in Step 6. Then apply your pigment to the top of the square. Rinse the brush and move the paint down the square making the color lighter as it approaches the bottom of the square. Pick up unwanted puddles with a thirsty brush. Apply more paint if needed. Your goal is dark to light, top to bottom.

9. Paint the bottom square in the dry column with rough texture on dry paper.

Pick up some pigment in your brush and touch the base of the hairs near the ferrule on the sponge to absorb excess water. Use the side of the brush and quickly stroke over the square, leaving little valleys of white paper. Try again until you get some rough texture.

10. Dampen the last square in the wet column and paint rough on wet.

Dampen the square first (as you did in Step 6), then apply paint as you did in Step 9. This technique works better on dry paper and may not work on wet paper, but because you already have a square, you may as well try it.

Along with hard and soft edges, both of which you need in every painting to make it interesting, you may hear about lost edges. Who lost them? Where did they go? A lost edge is a type of soft edge that disappears into another area. A lost edge makes the viewer decide where the edge is because the artist doesn't spell out every detail. The viewer gets to participate in the painting experience. "Lose that edge" might be an artistic directive. To do so, gently nudge a hard edge with a stiff bristle brush to soften it. If you completely soften it so it disappears, you make a lost edge.

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