Sunday, June 28, 2009

Solving a watercolor staining problem

Watercolor is a particularly unforgiving medium. I have often wondered why it is valued so much less than oil or acrylic, since I find it takes more skill to control. As with all paint, but particularly with watercolor, each hue and brand has particular characteristics, which a painter would do well to know. Success in mixing colors, making glazes, or correcting mistakes depends on this. Paints can be transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque; staining or non-staining; granulating or smooth. Different brands produce different hues, strengths and degree of staining as well. For example, I like Terre Verte (an earthy green.) Windsor & Newton Terre Verte is light, clear, granulating, toned and very blue. Holbein Terre Verte is much richer, nearly staining, much greener, brighter color with virtually no granulation.

Of particular interest to me right now is how to deal with an area I have painted with Windsor & Newton Paynes' Gray, a staining color.

As you see, I painted Paynes Gray (a blue- black) on the top and down either side, meeting with a sea of French Ultramarine at the bottom. Afterwards, I didn't like the starkness of the contrast. I want blue at the bottom to slowly rise into a blackish sky. Unfortunately, Paynes Gray is a staining color, so lifting it off the page completely is impossible.

I spent last evening (one movie's worth) painstakingly lifting the blue-black off my painting by re-wetting the paint, delicately scrubbing the area, then blotting with tissue. The difference is miniscule and didn't show up well in a photo, so I can't show you. The result is a duller area which will absorb another color just enough to show up as different.

Possible remedies:
To test what works best, I have paited several patches of payne's gray on a blank piece of watercolor paper. When dry, I lifted the paint to produce test patches identical to what is on my painting. Now I will try the following:
  • Glaze over several patches with various colors to see if anything looks good. I will try cerulean blue, cobalt blue, manganese, perhaps a light yellow and some pinks (to produce green or violet - although these may come out too muddy.)
  • Cover the stained area with an opaque gouache in the color I desire (although if the gouache is heavy it tends to scan and photograph differently than watercolor and may prove unsatisfactory when printing.)
  • Cover with colored pencil, which can produce a nice effect on a dark underpainting. This solution is risky because the areas of colored pencil will be permanent. Also, the paper is a rough cold-press instead of a smooth hot-press and the area to be painted is very tight so blending may be a problem.
  • Cover with a light layer of pastel and blend in. This would have to be done as a last step, as the pastel could smudge onto other areas unless it is fixed.
It will be interesting to see how close I can come to the solution I envision. If I were working in acrylic, I could simply paint over it all.

PS. I have decided to share everything with you, not just my masterpieces. The reality is that not every painting is successful. Learning from mistakes is useful, yet few artists share that side of the process.


  1. Looking forward to the results of your experiments. I too find watercolor to be unforgiving but sometimes that is what makes it the most interesting.

    Have you ever tried chromacoal? The liquid form goes on like watercolor but is fully erasable when dry. (& must be heat set) The company, D'Uva, seems to have vanished but you can still find it on the web here & there.

  2. Thank you for the tip. No, I haven't ever used chromacoal. I enjoyed seeing an example of it on your Etsy site.