Friday, 13 June 2008

More watercolour hints and tips

Well, last time I said I would go into more detail about starting off with watercolour - or watercolor as my American friends would write - so lets get back to basics with the paper.

As I wrote before, I use Saunders Waterford 140 lb NOT as it is a nice middle of the road sort of paper. I would suggest that as a beginner to watercolour painting, you should find your local art shop and spend a nice hour browsing around just getting a feel of the place. Most art shops have very helpful staff who are often artists themselves and can be a mine of useful information. You will find that watercolour paper is sold both in pads and in large sheets. I recommend that you buy a few of the large sheets in different finishes, weights and makes. Not too many as otherwise you will become overwhelmed but enough for you to have fun trying them out. These large sheets measure 22" x 30" and I certainly wouldn't recommend you try and use a whole sheet straight away. With most of my paintings I use half a sheet, but I think to begin with, that a quarter sheet is a nice size to get acquainted with the paper's characteristics, and give you enough pieces to experiment with.

Now - soaking the paper. You may wonder why this is necessary. Well, you only have to think of a sheet of paper which gets wet - how it crinkles and dries anything but flat. By soaking the paper ourselves, and then sticking it to a board, we end up with a lovely flat surface. When you buy your watercolour paper you will need to buy a roll of sticky brown tape - the type you have to wet to get it to stick. I buy the 2" thick rolls and I get mine from the art shop as well, rather than a stationers, as it makes sense to buy the really large roll which they sell - you will use it quickly enough!

So, you get home with your paper - let them roll it up in the shop. Don't worry too much about it being damaged as you are going to stick it in the bath soon! Fold it in half and cut it and then either use that size or fold again and cut to use the quarters - which I would recommend. Don't put it in the bath yet though as now you need to make a board on which to stick your paper. My board is made of plywood - a quarter of an inch thick and measuring 19" x 25" (I have a larger one as well). The photo above shows it as it is right now - with a nearly finished Boxer on it. Make sure that the surface is completely smooth - including the edges as you don't want your first dabble in watercolour to end with splinters! It is even more important though that the surface has no lumps or bumps on it at all, however small, as when your paper dries on your board, these small bumps will show right through and ruin the painting - I speak from experience!

To recap, you have your paper, cut and ready, you have your roll of sticky tape and your lovely new board. To action! It's probably easiest to cut the sticky tape (not sticky until you wet it otherwise it won't work) while your paper is dry. Cut it the length of the four sides and overlapping each end about an inch or so. Take your chosen piece of paper and put it in a bath of cold water - as little as possible remembering to be eco-friendly! - but covering the paper completely. At this point I usually go away, get on with something else and completely forget it for absolutely ages! I wouldn't suggest you follow my example but probably wait about 5 minutes or so, but don't worry if you're as forgetful as I am!

Take your piece of paper out of the bath and drip off the excess water, then take it to your board and lay it down in position. Get a piece of kitchen roll and lay it flat over your paper and gently mop up the excess water - don't take ages over this, it's just a quick dab. Then I very quickly run the damp kitchen roll over the edges of the paper to take up just a little more water at the edges. Now get a sponge - not a huge one but a small kitchen sponge size - wet it, and run it along the length of one of your pieces of tape but only wet half the tape - so you go along the full length but half of the full length is dry and half wet - do however wet each end (where it will overlap onto the board) completely. This means that you can stick the wetted half of the tape to your board and the dry half to your damp paper. You will then need to spend half a minute or so, running the back of your fingernail along the dry side of the tape to get it to absorb the water from the paper. Repeat this for all four sides. By doing this instead of wetting the whole of the tape, you avoid the common problem of paper not sticking to the tape properly. If this does happen, you really just have to take the paper off the board again, as when it dries, it shrinks and becomes tight like a drum and unless stuck firmly to the tape, will pull away from it and dry in a most peculiar fashion! Don't be scared to try - the worst that can happen is that you have to throw the paper away (recycle of course) and start again.

Once your paper is firmly stuck to your board, put it aside to dry. You can hasten the process with a hairdryer but I've had more problems with the paper pulling away from the tape when I've done this, so generally try and avoid it. Of course, if you want, you can get your paints and find out what it's like to put 'wet in wet' ie watery paint onto wet paper. I can tell you - it spreads! One of the challenges with watercolour is that it can be difficult to control. Wet in wet washes are an instance where you really don't have a huge say in what happens with the paint - well that's perhaps an exaggeration but makes the point. On the other hand, some wonderful accidents can happen this way and a lot of artists use the results as a starting point for inspiration. Depending on which mixture of colours you use, you can get granulation which I really like. However, that is for another day and I shall leave you now with your lovely watercolour paper and I suggest that to begin with you just 'mess around' with your paints to see what happens with a fully loaded brush, an almost dry brush, working on dry paper, wetting the paper (with clear water) and then puddling paint into it. Some things you can only learn by hands on experience so you mustn't think that you are wasting your time, or that because the result looks a mess, that you can't paint. This is a valuable learning experience and your first step in learning about how watercolours work. Everyone can paint - but some people need to rid themselves of their preconceived notions that they can't - so go on - enjoy! Let me know how you get on - I'll be really interested.
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