Black and white challenges

     One of the biggest challenges of watercolor is how to handle areas of black and white.   Although there are tubes of black and white watercolor, they don’t behave as you might expect them to.  Here are some questions we’ve heard at the Wassenberg Art Center, along with answers.

     Q.  I heard that it’s not good to use straight black, that I should instead mix other colors to make black.  Why, and how?

     A.  First of all, you can use any color you want. There are no rules!  The problem with black is that sometimes it will deaden a painting if not used carefully.  Beginners who aren’t sure how to mix colors might use black to darken everything.  I did the same thing because it seemed logical.  However, using straight black can give your painting a flat, uninteresting look.

     You can mix a lively black by combining ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.  Other combos that work are alizarin crimson and Winsor green, or Van Dyke brown and Payne’s gray.  Using these instead of black right out of the tube will help make your painting look richer.  And if you don’t have black handy, now you know how to make it.

     Q.  Okay, if I DO want to use black, what shall I use?

     A.  Lamp Black is opaque and on the cool side, with a flat, lusterless look.  Ivory Black is semi-opaque and warmer than Lamp Black with a tint of brown.

     Q.  I heard that I should use the white of the paper for white in a watercolor, and not use the white watercolors that come in tubes.  Is that true, and how do I do this?

     A.  This is really up to you.  Some purists are absolutely committed to “saving” the white of the paper to make the whites.  Others will use anything, including white watercolor, gesso, or white acrylic, to get the effect they want.  One of the great beauties of watercolor is to leave areas of blank paper as whites, as well as letting white paper glow through transparent pigment to create the effect of light.  Just remember, once you paint over the white paper it’s gone.  To “save the white” of your paper, plan light areas before beginning and mask or carefully paint around them. 

     If you use the white watercolors out of the tube, keep in mind that white watercolor is opaque, not transparent.  It can muddy up your painting.  Experiment carefully with it, and also try white gouache or white acrylic to add highlights if you don’t want to use the white of the paper.

     Q.  What do you mean, mask it?  I’ve heard of masking fluid, how does it work?

     Masking fluid, used in watercolor painting, is a liquid “resist” that you can use to preserve the white of your paper.  First figure out where the whites are going to be and paint the masking fluid on these areas with a no. 2 or 3 synthetic brush with a good tip.  Some masking fluids are colored so that you can see where you put them. 

      When the masking fluid is dry, you can paint without restrictions.  It will reserve your whites.  Let the fluid dry naturally (never in the sun).  When your paper is thoroughly dry, peel it off with your clean fingers.

     A couple of cautions about working with masking fluid.  Don’t leave it on the paper too long, or you might not be able to get it off.  Remove it as soon as all paint is thoroughly dry — don’t let it sit overnight.  And don’t use a hair dryer to dry it, or you will bake the fluid right into the paper and your watercolor will be ruined.

     Q.  I masked something and when I peeled it off I found that some paint had seeped under the masking fluid, and it didn’t cover in other areas.  What happened?

    A.  This shouldn’t happen if you apply the masking fluid correctly.  Be careful, make sure you have applied it evenly and exactly where you want it.  Also, be aware that shaking a bottle of masking fluid will put bubbles into it that will later break, making pinholes where paint can leak through to your paper.  If you must, stir the masking fluid — don’t shake it.  Masking is an art, and you have to think about the results you want before applying it.

     Q.  What if I don’t have masking fluid? 

     A.  You can use masking tape in a pinch  Lay the tape down on the paper and use an X-acto knife, very lightly, to cut through only the tape to fit the area you want to mask.  Some masking tape brands will leave a residue, and some are difficult to peel off when the painting is dry.  Experiment on scrap paper first.

     Watercolor is a lot of fun, and I hope these tips will help you enjoy it more!

Published by on February 2011. Filed under Archives, HowDoit PB dept. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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