Watercolor (American English) or watercolour (Commonwealth and Ireland), also aquarelle from French, is a painting method in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-soluble vehicle. The term "watercolor" refers to both the medium and the resulting artwork. The traditional and most common support for watercolor paintings is paper; other supports include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum or leather, fabric, wood, and canvas. Watercolors are usually transparent, and appear luminous because the pigments are laid down in a relatively pure form with few fillers obscuring the pigment colors. Watercolor can also be made opaque by adding Chinese white. In East Asia, watercolor painting with inks is referred to as brush painting or scroll painting. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting it has been the dominant medium, often in monochrome black or browns. India, Ethiopia and other countries also have long traditions. Fingerpainting with watercolor paints originated in China.Although watercolor painting is extremely old, dating perhaps to the cave paintings of paleolithic Europe, and has been used for manuscript illumination since at least Egyptian times but especially in the European Middle Ages, its continuous history as an art medium begins in the Renaissance. The German Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) who painted several fine botanical, wildlife and landscape watercolors, is generally considered among the earliest exponents of the medium. An important school of watercolor painting in Germany was led by Hans Bol (1534–1593) as part of the Dürer Renaissance.Despite this early start, watercolors were generally used by Baroque easel painters only for sketches, copies or cartoons (full-scale design drawings). Among notable early practitioners of watercolor painting were Van Dyck (during his stay in England), Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, and many Dutch and Flemish artists. However, Botanical illustrations and those depicting wildlife are perhaps the oldest and most important tradition in watercolor painting. Botanical illustrations became popular in the Renaissance, both as hand tinted woodblock illustrations in books or broadsheets and as tinted ink drawings on vellum or paper. Botanical artists have always been among the most exacting and accomplished watercolor painters, and even today watercolors—with their unique ability to summarize, clarify and idealize in full color—are used to illustrate scientific and museum publications. Wildlife illustration reached its peak in the 19th century with artists such as John James Audubon, and today many naturalist field guides are still illustrated with watercolor paintings. Many watercolors are more vibrant in pigment if they are higher quality. Some British market watercolors can be found in many craft stores In America and in other countries too.Materials
Watercolor paint consists of four principal ingredients:
pigments, natural or synthetic, mineral or organic;
gum arabic as a binder to hold the pigment in suspension and fix the pigment to the painting surface;
additives like glycerin, ox gall, honey, preservatives: to alter the viscosity, hiding, durability or color of the pigment and vehicle mixture; and
solvent, the substance used to thin or dilute the paint for application and that evaporates when the paint hardens or dries.
The term "watermedia" refers to any painting medium that uses water as a solvent and that can be applied with a brush, pen or sprayer; this includes most inks, watercolors, temperas, gouaches and modern acrylic paints.
The term watercolor refers to paints that use water soluble, complex carbohydrates as a binder. Originally (16th to 18th centuries) watercolor binders were sugars and/or hide glues, but since the 19th century the preferred binder is natural gum arabic, with glycerin and/or honey as additives to improve plasticity and dissolvability of the binder, and with other chemicals added to improve product shelf life.
Bodycolor refers to paint that is opaque rather than transparent, usually opaque watercolor, which is also known as gouache. Modern acrylic paints are based on a completely different chemistry that uses water soluble acrylic resin as a binder.
Watercolor painters before c.1800 had to make paints themselves using pigments purchased from an apothecary or specialized "colourman"; the earliest commercial paints were small, resinous blocks that had to be wetted and laboriously "rubbed out" in water. William Reeves (1739–1803) set up in business as a colorman about 1766. In 1781 he and his brother, Thomas Reeves, were awarded the Silver Palette of the Society of Arts, for the invention of the moist watercolor paint-cake, a time-saving convenience the introduction of which coincides with the "golden age" of English watercolor painting.
Modern commercial watercolor paints are available in two forms: tubes or pans. The majority of paints sold are in collapsible metal tubes in standard sizes (typically 7.5, 15 or 37 ml.), and are formulated to a consistency similar to toothpaste. Pan paints (actually, small dried cakes or bars of paint in an open plastic container) are usually sold in two sizes, full pans (approximately 3 cc of paint) and half pans (favored for compact paint boxes). Pans are historically older but commonly perceived as less convenient; they are most often used in portable metal paint boxes, also introduced in the mid 19th century, and are preferred by landscape or naturalist painters.
Among the most widely used brands of commercial watercolors today are Daler Rowney, Daniel Smith, DaVinci, Holbein, Maimeri, M. Graham. Reeves, Schmincke, Sennelier, Talens, and Winsor & Newton.
Thanks to modern industrial organic chemistry, the variety, saturation (brilliance) and permanence of artists’ colors available today is greater than ever before. However, the art materials industry is far too small to exert any market leverage on global dye or pigment manufacture. With rare exceptions, all modern watercolor paints utilize pigments that were manufactured for use in printing inks, automotive and architectural paints, wood stains, concrete, ceramics and plastics colorants, consumer packaging, foods, medicines, textiles and cosmetics. Paint manufacturers buy very small supplies of these pigments, mill (mechanically mix) them with the vehicle, solvent and additives, and package them.
Many artists are confused or misled by labeling practices common in the art materials industry. The marketing name for a paint, such as "indian yellow" or "emerald green", is often only a poetic color evocation or proprietary moniker; there is no legal requirement that it describe the pigment that gives the paint its color. More popular color names are "viridian hue" and " chinese white"
To remedy this confusion, in 1990 the art materials industry voluntarily began listing pigment ingredients on the paint packaging, using the common pigment name (such as "cobalt blue" or "cadmium red"), and/or a standard pigment identification code, the generic color index name (PB28 for cobalt blue, PR108 for cadmium red) assigned by the Society of Dyers and Colourists (UK) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (USA) and known as the Colour Index International. This allows artists to choose paints according to their pigment ingredients, rather than the poetic labels assigned to them by marketers. Paint pigments and formulations vary across manufacturers, and watercolor paints with the same color name (e.g., "sap green") from different manufacturers can be formulated with completely different ingredients.
Watercolor paints are customarily evaluated on a few key attributes. In the partisan debates of the 19th-century English art world, gouache was emphatically contrasted to traditional watercolors and denigrated for its high hiding power or lack of "transparency"; "transparent" watercolors were exalted. Paints with low hiding power are valued because they allow an underdrawing or engraving to show in the image, and because colors can be mixed visually by layering paints on the paper (which itself may be either white or tinted). The resulting color will change depending on the layering order of the pigments. In fact, there are very few genuinely transparent watercolors, neither are there completely opaque watercolors (with the exception of gouache); and any watercolor paint can be made more transparent simply by diluting it with water.
"Transparent" colors do not contain titanium dioxide (white) or most of the earth pigments (sienna, umber, etc.) which are very opaque. The 19th-century claim that "transparent" watercolors gain "luminosity" because they function like a pane of stained glass laid on paper – the color intensified because the light passes through the pigment, reflects from the paper, and passes a second time through the pigment on its way to the viewer—is false: watercolor paints do not form a cohesive paint layer, as do acrylic or oil paints, but simply scatter pigment particles randomly across the paper surface; the transparency consists in the paper being directly visible between the particles. Watercolors appear more vivid than acrylics or oils because the pigments are laid down in a more pure form with no or fewer fillers (such as kaolin) obscuring the pigment colors. Furthermore, typically most or all of the gum binder will be absorbed by the paper, preventing it from changing the visibility of the pigment. Even multiple layers of watercolor do achieve a very luminous effect without fillers or binder obscuring the pigment particles.
Staining is a characteristic assigned to watercolor paints: a staining paint is difficult to remove or lift from the painting support after it has been applied or dried. Less staining colors can be lightened or removed almost entirely when wet, or when rewetted and then "lifted" by stroking gently with a clean, wet brush and then blotted up with a paper towel. In fact, the staining characteristics of a paint depend in large part on the composition of the support (paper) itself, and on the particle size of the pigment. Staining is increased if the paint manufacturer uses a dispersant to reduce the paint milling (mixture) time, because the dispersant acts to drive pigment particles into crevices in the paper pulp, dulling the finished color.
Granulation refers to the appearance of separate, visible pigment particles in the finished color, produced when the paint is substantially diluted with water and applied with a juicy brush stroke; pigments notable for their watercolor granulation include viridian (PG18), cerulean blue (PB35), cobalt violet (PV14) and some iron oxide pigments (PBr7).
Flocculation refers to a peculiar clumping typical of ultramarine pigments (PB29 or PV15). Both effects display the subtle effects of water as the paint dries, are unique to watercolors, and are deemed attractive by accomplished watercolor painters. This contrasts with the trend in commercial paints to suppress pigment textures in favor of homogeneous, flat color.
Commercial watercolor paints come in three grades: "Artist" (or "Professional"), "Student", and "Scholastic".
Artist Watercolors contain a full pigment load, suspended in a binder, generally natural gum arabic. Artist quality paints are usually formulated with fewer fillers (kaolin or chalk) which results in richer color and vibrant mixes. Conventional watercolors are sold in moist form, in a tube, and are thinned and mixed on a dish or palette. Use them on paper and other absorbent surfaces that have been primed to accept water-based paint.
Student grade paints have less pigment, and often are formulated using two or more less expensive pigments. Student Watercolors have working characteristics similar to professional watercolors, but with lower concentrations of pigment, less expensive formulas, and a smaller range of colors. More expensive pigments are generally replicated by hues. Colors are designed to be mixed, although color strength is lower. Hues may not have the same mixing characteristics as regular full-strength colors.
Scholastic watercolors come in pans rather than tubes, and contain inexpensive pigments and dyes suspended in a synthetic binder. Washable formulations feature colors that are chosen to be non-staining, easily washable, suitable for use even by young children with proper supervision. They are an excellent choice for teaching beginning artists the properties of color and the techniques of painting.
As there is no transparent white watercolor, the white parts of a watercolor painting are most often areas of the paper "reserved" (left unpainted) and allowed to be seen in the finished work. To preserve these white areas, many painters use a variety of resists, including masking tape, clear wax or a liquid latex, that are applied to the paper to protect it from paint, then pulled away to reveal the white paper. Resist painting can also be an effective technique for beginning watercolor artists. The painter can use wax crayons or oil pastels prior to painting the paper. The wax or oil mediums repel, or resist the watercolor paint. White paint (titanium dioxide PW6 or zinc oxide PW4) is best used to insert highlights or white accents into a painting. If mixed with other pigments, white paints may cause them to fade or change hue under light exposure. White paint (gouache) mixed with a "transparent" watercolor paint will cause the transparency to disappear and the paint to look much duller. White paint will always appear dull and chalky next to the white of the paper; however this can be used for some effects.
A brush consists of three parts: the tuft, the ferrule and the handle.
The tuft is a bundle of animal hairs or synthetic fibers tied tightly together at the base;
The ferrule is a metal sleeve that surrounds the tuft, gives the tuft its cross sectional shape, provides mechanical support under pressure, and protects from water wearing down the glue joint between the trimmed, flat base of the tuft and the handle;
The lacquered wood handle, which is typically shorter in a watercolor brush than in an oil painting brush, has a distinct shape—widest just behind the ferrule and tapering to the tip.
When painting, painters typically hold the brush just behind the ferrule for the smoothest brushstrokes.
Hairs and fibers
Brushes hold paint (the "bead") through the capillary action of the small spaces between the tuft hairs or fibers; paint is released through the contact between the wet paint and the dry paper and the mechanical flexing of the tuft, which opens the spaces between the tuft hairs, relaxing the capillary restraint on the liquid. Because thinned watercolor paint is far less viscous than oil or acrylic paints, the brushes preferred by watercolor painters have a softer and denser tuft. This is customarily achieved by using natural hair harvested from farm raised or trapped animals, in particular sable, squirrel or mongoose. Less expensive brushes, or brushes designed for coarser work, may use horsehair or bristles from pig or ox snouts and ears.
However, as with paints, modern chemistry has developed many synthetic and shaped fibers that rival the stiffness of bristle and mimic the spring and softness of natural hair. Until fairly recently, nylon brushes could not hold a reservoir of water at all so they were extremely inferior to brushes made from natural hair. In recent years, improvements in the holding and pointing properties of synthetic filaments have gained them much greater acceptance among watercolorists.
There is no market regulation on the labeling applied to artists’ brushes, but most watercolorists prize brushes from kolinsky (Russian or Chinese) sable. The best of these hairs have a characteristic reddish brown color, darker near the base, and a tapering shaft that is pointed at the tip but widest about halfway toward the root. Squirrel hair is quite thin, straight and typically dark, and makes tufts with a very high liquid capacity; mongoose has a characteristic salt and pepper coloring. Bristle brushes are stiffer and lighter colored. "Camel" is sometimes used to describe hairs from several sources (none of them a camel).
In general, natural hair brushes have superior snap and pointing, a higher capacity (hold a larger bead, produce a longer continuous stroke, and wick up more paint when moist) and a more delicate release. Synthetic brushes tend to dump too much of the paint bead at the beginning of the brush stroke and leave a larger puddle of paint when the brush is lifted from the paper, and they cannot compete with the pointing of natural sable brushes and are much less durable. On the other hand they are typically much cheaper than natural hair, and the best synthetic brushes are now very serviceable; they are also excellent for texturing, shaping, or lifting color, and for the mechanical task of breaking up or rubbing paint to dissolve it in water.
A high quality sable brush has five key attributes: pointing (in a round, the tip of the tuft comes to a fine, precise point that does not splay or split; in a flat, the tuft forms a razor thin, perfectly straight edge); snap (or "spring"; the tuft flexes in direct response to the pressure applied to the paper, and promptly returns to its original shape); capacity (the tuft, for its size, holds a large bead of paint and does not release it as the brush is moved in the air); release (the amount of paint released is proportional to the pressure applied to the paper, and the paint flow can be precisely controlled by the pressure and speed of the stroke as the paint bead is depleted); and durability (a large, high quality brush may withstand decades of daily use).
Most natural hair brushes are sold with the tuft cosmetically shaped with starch or gum, so brushes are difficult to evaluate before purchasing, and durability is only evident after long use. The most common failings of natural hair brushes are that the tuft sheds hairs (although a little shedding is acceptable in a new brush), the ferrule becomes loosened, or the wood handle shrinks, warps, cracks or flakes off its lacquer coating.
Natural and synthetic brushes are sold with the tuft shaped for different tasks. Among the most popular are:
Rounds. The tuft has a round cross section but a tapering profile, widest near the ferrule (the "belly") and tapered at the tip (the "point"). These are general purpose brushes that can address almost any task.
Flats. The tuft is compressed laterally by the ferrule into a flat wedge; the tuft appears square when viewed from the side and has a perfectly straight edge. "Brights" are flats in which the tuft is as long as it is wide; "one stroke" brushes are longer than their width. "Sky brushes" or "wash brushes" look like miniature housepainting brushes; the tuft is usually 3 cm to 7 cm wide and is used to paint large areas.
Mops (natural hair only). A round brush, usually of squirrel hair and, decoratively, with a feather quill ferrule that is wrapped with copper wire; these have very high capacity for their size, especially good for wet in wet or wash painting; when moist they can wick up large quantities of paint.
Filbert (or "Cat’s Tongue", hair only). A hybrid brush: a flat that comes to a point, like a round, useful for specially shaped brush strokes.
Rigger (hair only). An extremely long, thin tuft, originally used to paint the rigging in nautical portraits.
Fan. A small flat in which the tuft is splayed into a fan shape; used for texturing or painting irregular, parallel hatching lines.
Acrylic. A flat brush with synthetic bristles, attached to a (usually clear) plastic handle with a beveled tip used for scoring or scraping.
A single brush can produce many lines and shapes. A "round" for example, can create thin and thick lines, wide or narrow strips, curves, and other painted effects. A flat brush when used on end can produce thin lines or dashes in addition to the wide swath typical with these brushes, and its brushmarks display the characteristic angle of the tuft corners.
Every watercolor painter works in specific genres and has a personal painting style and "tool discipline", and these largely determine his or her preference for brushes. Artists typically have a few favorites and do most work with just one or two brushes. Brushes are typically the most expensive component of the watercolorist’s tools, and a minimal general purpose brush selection would include:
4 round (for detail and drybrush)
12 or 14 round (for large color areas or washes)
1/2" or 1" flat
12 mop (for washes and wicking)
1/2" acrylic (for dissolving or mixing paints, and scrubbing paints before lifting from the paper)
Major watercolor brush manufacturers include DaVinci, Escoda, Isabey, Raphael, Kolonok, Robert Simmons, Daler-Rowney, Arches, and Winsor & Newton. As with papers and paints, it is common for retailers to commission brushes under their own label from an established manufacturer. Among these are Cheap Joe’s, Daniel Smith, Dick Blick and Utrecht.
The size of a round brush is designated by a number, which may range from 0000 (for a very tiny round) to 0, then from 1 to 24 or higher. These numbers refer to the size of the brass brushmakers’ mould used to shape and align the hairs of the tuft before it is tied off and trimmed, and as with shoe lasts, these sizes vary from one manufacturer to the next. In general a #12 round brush has a tuft about 2 to 2.5 cm long; tufts are generally fatter (wider) in brushes made in England than in brushes made on the Continent: a German or French #14 round is approximately the same size as an English #12. Flats may be designated either by a similar but separate numbering system, but more often are described by the width of the ferrule, measured in centimeters or inches.
Watercolor pencil is another important tool in watercolors techniques. This water-soluble color pencil allows to draw fine details and to blend them with water. Noted artists who use watercolor pencils include illustrator Travis Charest. A similar tool is the watercolor pastel, broader than watercolor pencil, and able to quickly cover a large surface.
Most watercolor painters before c.1800 had to use whatever paper was at hand: Thomas Gainsborough was delighted to buy some paper used to print a Bath tourist guide, and the young David Cox preferred a heavy paper used to wrap packages. James Whatman first offered a wove watercolor paper in 1788, and the first machinemade ("cartridge") papers from a steam powered mill in 1805.
All art papers can be described by eight attributes: furnish, color, weight, finish, sizing, dimensions, permanence and packaging. Watercolor painters typically paint on paper specifically formulated for watermedia applications. Fine watermedia papers are manufactured under the brand names Arches, Bockingford, Cartiera Magnani, Fabriano, Hahnemühle, Lanaquarelle, The Langton, The Langton Prestige, Millford, Saunders Waterford, Strathmore, Winsor & Newton and Zerkall; and there has been a recent remarkable resurgence in handmade papers, notably those by Twinrocker, Velke Losiny, Ruscombe Mill and St. Armand.
Watercolor paper is essentially Blotting paper marketed and sold as an art paper, and the two can be used interchangeably, as watercolor paper is more easily obtainable than blotter and can be used as a substitute for blotter. Lower end watercolor papers can resemble heavy paper more while higher end varieties are usually entirely cotton and more porous like blotter. Watercolor paper is traditionally torn and not cut.
The traditional furnish or material content of watercolor papers is cellulose, a structural carbohydrate found in many plants. The most common sources of paper cellulose are cotton, linen, or alpha cellulose extracted from wood pulp. To make paper, the cellulose is wetted, mechanically macerated or pounded, chemically treated, rinsed and filtered to the consistency of thin oatmeal, then poured out into paper making moulds. In handmade papers, the pulp is hand poured ("cast") into individual paper moulds (a mesh screen stretched within a wood frame) and shaken by hand into an even layer. In industrial paper production, the pulp is formed by large papermaking machines that spread the paper over large cylinders—either heated metal cylinders that rotate at high speed (machinemade papers) or wire mesh cylinders that rotate at low speed (mouldmade papers). Both types of machine produce the paper in a continuous roll or web, which is then cut into individual sheets.
The basis weight of the paper is a measure of its density and thickness. It is described as the gram weight of one square meter of a single sheet of the paper, or grams per square meter (gsm). Most watercolor papers sold today are in the range between 280gsm to 640gsm. (The previous Imperial system, expressed as the weight in pounds of one ream or 500 sheets of the paper, regardless of its size, obsolete in some areas, is still used in the United States. The most common weights under this system are 300 lb (heaviest), 200 lb 140 lb, and 90 lb.) Heavier paper is sometimes preferred over lighter weight or thinner paper because it does not buckle and can hold up to scrubbing and extremely wet washes. Watercolor papers are typically almost a pure white, sometimes slightly yellow (called natural white), though many tinted or colored papers are available. An important diagnostic is the rattle of the paper, or the sound it makes when held aloft by one corner and shaken vigorously. Papers that are dense and made from heavily macerated pulp have a bright, metallic rattle, while papers that are spongy or made with lightly macerated pulp have a muffled, rubbery rattle.
All papers obtain a texture from the mold used to make them: a wove finish results from a uniform metal screen (like a window screen); a laid finish results from a screen made of narrowly spaced horizontal wires separated by widely spaced vertical wires. The finish is also affected by the methods used to wick and dry the paper after it is "couched" (removed) from the paper mold or is pulled off the papermaking cylinder.
Watercolor papers come in three basic finishes: hot pressed (HP), cold press (CP, or in the UK "Not", for "not hot pressed"), and rough (R). These vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Rough papers are typically dried by hanging them like laundry ("loft drying") so that the sheets are not exposed to any pressure after they are couched; the wove finish has a pitted, uneven texture that is prized for its ability to accent the texture of watercolor pigments and brushstrokes.
Cold pressed papers are dried in large stacks, between absorbent felt blankets; this acts to flatten out about half of the texture found in the rough sheets. CP papers are valued for their versatility.
Hot pressed papers are cold pressed sheets that are passed through heated, compressing metal cylinders (called "calendering"), which flattens almost all the texture in the sheets. HP papers are valued because they are relatively nonabsorbent: pigments remain on the paper surface, brightening the color, and water is not absorbed, so it can produce a variety of water stains or marks as it dries.
These designations are only relative; the CP paper from one manufacturer may be rougher than the R paper from another manufacturer. Fabriano even offers a "soft press" (SP) sheet intermediate between CP and HP.
Watercolor papers are traditionally sized, or treated with a substance to reduce the cellulose absorbency. Internal sizing is added to the paper pulp after rinsing and before it is cast in the paper mould; external or "tub" sizing is applied to the paper surface after the paper has dried. The traditional sizing has been gelatin, gum arabic or rosin, though modern synthetic substitutes (alkyl ketene dimers such as Aquapel) are now used instead. The highly absorbent papers that contain no sizing are designated waterleaf.
Most art papers are sold as single sheets of paper in standard sizes. Most common is the full sheet (22" x 30"), and half sheets (15" x 22") or quarter sheets (15" x 11") derived from it. Larger (and less standardized) sheets include the double elephant (within an inch or two of 30" x 40") and emperor (40" x 60"), which are the largest sheets commercially available. Papers are also manufactured in rolls, up to about 60" wide and 30 feet long. Finally, papers are also sold as watercolor "blocks"—a pad of 20 or so sheets of paper, cut to identical dimensions and glued on all four sides, which provides high dimensional stability and portability, though block papers tend to have subdued finishes. The painter simply works on the exposed sheet and, when finished, uses a knife to cut the adhesive around the four sides, separating the painting and revealing the fresh paper underneath.
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