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Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting

Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting

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by Edgar A. Whitney

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The author of this superb guide was not only a renowned watercolor painter but also a brilliant teacher with an unmatched talent for conveying to his students the techniques and aesthetic philosophy underlying great paintings. Years after becoming award-winning painters themselves, his students still quote his "Whitneyisms" to remind themselves of all that is most


The author of this superb guide was not only a renowned watercolor painter but also a brilliant teacher with an unmatched talent for conveying to his students the techniques and aesthetic philosophy underlying great paintings. Years after becoming award-winning painters themselves, his students still quote his "Whitneyisms" to remind themselves of all that is most important in creating art. This fine guide, the distillation of Edgar Whitney's teaching, is one of the most useful, comprehensive, and popular watercolor painting books every published — almost a cult classic.
Starting with the nuts-and-bolts basics — including choice of paper, colors, palette, and brushes — and with exercises to give the beginner experience in using washes on both dry and wet paper, the book presents a full course of watercolor painting. The author gives specific, detailed instructions for creating landscapes and for painting portraits and figures — instructions that come vividly to life in two 16-page full-color sections showing the steps involved in creatiang seven of his own watercolors. Other chapters focus on drawing; the principles and elements of design; and matting, framing, and selling completed works of art. Beautifully designed and illustrated, this invaluable book will be treasured by all watercolorists — from complete beginners to experienced painters looking for ways to improve their own paintings.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
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Product dimensions:
8.32(w) x 10.72(h) x 0.36(d)

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Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting

By Edgar A. Whitney

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1974 Watson-Guptill Publications
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13448-2


Tools for Watercolor

THERE ARE two reasons for putting paint on paper. One is to communicate an idea or an emotion. The other is to decorate a surface. Either objective, or the more interesting and more important one of contriving a synthesis of both, has as a prerequisite a knowledge of and facility with the tools used. These are our concern in this chapter.


Watercolor has three glories or virtues: (1) Faster rhythms—one stroke three-feet long if you wish. (2) Lovelier precipitations, the truth involved here being that substances obeying their own laws do beautiful things. Look at tide marks on a beach, or auto tire marks in snow. Coil two ropes and cast one on the floor, then your arrange the other. A glance at them proves my contention. Look at a Rorschach ink blot. This is the truth Jackson Pollock added nothing to. He poured enamel or paint on the floor and framed the area that pleased him most. Watercolor is trying to help you every stroke you make. (3) Its white paper showing through a transparent wash is the closest approximation to light in all the media, and light is the loveliest thing that exists. All of these virtues have to do with the nature of watercolor, which is that it is wet.


The nature and essence of watercolor is its spontaneity, the swift seizure of a single impression, not the careful building up of design and inclusion of carefully defined detail. That is oil, gouache, or casein painting. Taste is questionable when there is a too arbitrary extension of the natural province of the medium.

In the first edition of my book on a page in this chapter, expressing enthusiasm for aquarelle with my penchant for dramatics, I contrived a very stupid word sequence that read as an indictment of gouache, casein, and tempera. I did not mean it the way it read. I greatly respect the work of many men painting in these media. Aron Bohrod, Arnold Blanche, John Pellew, Hardie Gramatky, Warren Baumgartner, and Joseph Di Martini come to mind. As a matter of fact, I have a Pellew and Di Martini in my private collection.

"Art is emphasis on essence" is a precept to be aware of when being selective as to subject matter. A portrait of Cyrano de Bergerac with a small nose would not be a portrait of Cyrano. This truth is relevant to any medium. A so-called watercolor which does not emphasize, make capital of, its wetness, is not an artful watercolor.

A liquid quality in watercolor is important. Understanding of this is your first long step in the direction of facility with watercolor, which is mostly control of washes. Abstract lessons—similar to chromatic scales for the piano student—together with suggested tools and the reasons for their use, follow.


I feel silly writing about tools. Hundreds of pages in watercolor books have already advised you on this subject; furthermore, the tools used by the best watercolorists have little to do with the qualities in their works. The color and value chords of each painter, the way he divides space, where his interest lies in the gamut between illustration and decoration, would be his own even if he painted with a sponge and a shaving brush.

I work on the ground, seated on a small folding stool. I have reasons for doing so. It gives the same free arm swing the Orientals get painting on their knees, and the angle of vision at that distance encompasses all of my watercolor, so colors and thrusts can be related. But, no matter how much you like my pictures, if you have a big stomach, or are rather broad astern, you will not work on the ground from a small folding stool.

When I use a pencil, a 2-B makes a mark dark enough to be seen under a wash without furrowing the paper. You may prefer a harder or softer pencil. I frequently draw directly with a goose quill, with a ballpoint pen, or with a brush. Marin used charcoal. A few times on location will enable you to make your own decisions. I have reasons, however, for using the tools I do. I will give you my reasons.


There is no argument here. Tube colors are best. Anything but one hundred percent all- rag paper makes a tough job tougher. 140 lb. is a good all-around weight —heavy enough to permit corrections—and it can be used on the other side when you get a "stinker." I no longer mount paper, though I will tell you how to do it. The cost in time and effort, and loss of paper at the edge is not compensated for by the elimination of an occasional bulge— which experience enables you to handle anyway—and if you are fussy, use 300- or 400- lb. stock. I clip 140-lb. paper to a piece of Masonite, one strong clip at each corner. A bulge can be pressed out and the clips readjusted in a second.


Here is a stretching procedure for the half-size imperial sheet. Soak 140-lb. paper (completely immersed) in cold water for one-half hour; hold it perpendicular until most of the water has run off; lay paper on board one end down first, so that no air bubbles are underneath; take strips of gummed paper previously cut to the right length and measuring from two and one-half to three inches in width. Fasten paper to board—about two inches on the board and one inch on the paper. The two inches on the board should be dampened with a sponge; the remaining one inch should go on paper dry—there is enough water on the wet paper. Now, with a hard, smooth tool (the back of a comb or a toothbrush) squeegee the water from under the gummed paper; then, with an absolutely clean sponge, absorb all the excess moisture from the paper, including the squeegeed gummed paper. This cuts drying time in half. For a full-size sheet, which has much greater drying tensions, reinforce first gummed paper with a second strip on all four sides, overlapping on the paper by about a half inch more. Keep paper horizontal while it is drying.


More experienced watercolorists usually prefer cold press paper because subtler nuances of color can be obtained. The rough paper granulations being higher, they cast more shadow on colors, but make rough brushing on surf and close-up foliage a much simpler technical problem.


There are gains and losses involved in the use of any paper. Smooth paper has virtues, but its use requires greater technical ability. The novice will lose control of washes, and get dry edges where he does not want them, because he does not work fast enough. Brilliancy and subtlety of color, impossible on rougher paper, are two of the merits of cold press and hot press, there being none of the shadows cast by the rougher stock. If you want more "tooth" to the hot press paper, wet it to raise the fiber, then let it dry. Re-wet to work. A good time to start painting is when it begins to lose its glisten. "Lifts" on smooth stock are very successful. Use a clean, damp brush. Effects can be obtained by tilting the paper. For a real dark, use thick body color. Clean water in still moist areas gives a nice, textured watermark.

The papers I prefer are Arches, Crisbrook, R.W.S., Fabriano, and A.W.S. The imperial size, 22½ x 30½ inches, divides into two or four nice proportions. Why manufacturers continue to make sketch blocks or pads, I do not understand. Glued on four edges, the wet, expanding paper has nowhere to go but up, creating undulations in which control of washes is lost.


I use an O'Hara palette, upon which the color is a mound on a flat surface. The reason for this is that sullied color runs off and leaves pure color available on the top of the mound. A dinner plate or enameled tray has the same advantage. Any palette with color in a depression is mechanically inferior. Contaminated color becomes a constant problem. Water stays in declivities and when paper is wet you cannot get dry color to put into wet areas. Masterpieces have been painted with color in little holes, but they were made in spite of this handicap.


Eighty percent of my painting is done with a two-inch camel's-hair flat brush and a one- inch red sable flat. In many pictures no other brushes were used. This may be because demonstrating to classes everyday—committed to one hour of drawing and painting, and talking while I paint (students cannot sit still longer)—I find these brushes faster. The large flat brush, however, has the following undeniable virtues: (1) A ready-made straight edge—most expedient; (2) it holds more color and covers areas faster; (3) it is an infinitely better "lifting" tool, because its thousands of hairs at the end, squeezed dry, are "thirstier"; (4) it is the best known antidote for "hemstitching," breadth of effect being aided mechanically; (5) holding the brush perpendicular to the plane of the paper, with its end touching the paper, gives to small parts the beauty of a "tool mark." Any calligrapher knows what I mean. In elementary school art exhibitions, the graphic arts are always superior to the paintings, because the dig of a tool in linoleum blocks or the scratch on scratchboard contains the beauty of the unmolested mark.

There are fine watercolorists who paint with very few brushes but, confronted with specific problems in specific areas, I prefer having available the one best tool for the solution. What other brush can do certain jobs as well as a number 4 rigger, for instance? Its long hairs hold enough water to complete the stroke of rigging on ships, cables on derricks, or branches in foliage; they also absorb the trembles of a hand and make easy the essence of a rope or cable—its absolutely smooth curve. So, I have a two-inch "silvering brush" of camel's-hair and a rigger as help. I want all the help I can get.

Standard equipment would include red sable round brushes. I have numbers 14, 10, 6, 3, and 2 (the big brushes lose their points), and a one-inch red sable, flat. My students and I find my "Whitney Rotary" brush of value—a double-ended brush. With water in one brush and color in the other, an edge can be treated or softened instantly by a flip of the hand, then back to the color-filled brush; this method is used as opposed to that of a stroke, shaking the brush clean in the water, softening the edge, then picking up more color with the brush. To construct this double-ended brush, join the two brushes where the diameters are equal—a wedge on one and a "V" that fits the wedge in the other—bind with fine thread, a little Duco cement, and cover with waterproof adhesive.

Before leaving the subject of brushes, I want to agree with George Ennis who said "one brush only is necessary" (the italics are mine, and I would add the word "absolutely" before "necessary"). He suggested a number 12 round red sable.


To students who are concerned with costs, I say, "It takes a specific quantity of paint to paint a given picture or get a required effect. The quantity of paint you have in your box has nothing to do with the cost of the picture." In fact, if you have a large palette, you can mix your paint with less waste. As to the phrase "disciplined palette," the discipline should be in the artist, not the palette. Arranging them from hot to cold, I use vermilion, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow deep, strontium, viridian, phthalo green, Prussian blue, cobalt, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson. Those are my brights, kept at the top of my slightly tilted palette, so that the sullied color does not run into them. In a lower row I have Indian red, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, Payne's gray, and ivory black. All these colors are reasonably permanent. With them any color can be obtained. I know their characteristics. I use strontium in preference to cadmium pale because it is more opaque, and yellow ochre instead of raw sienna for the same reason. Sufficiently diluted, they are not obvious between you and the paper, and when in small areas you need a light over, or in, a dark, you have it. Incidentally, opacity in small areas does not seriously compromise transparency, in fact, it complements it—keying the large areas and making them look more transparent by contrast.

Indian red, another opaque color, is splendid with Prussian blue for dark grays. Ivory black makes the most glorious silvery neutral washes in high key. It is sooty and should not be used for middle or low values. However, if you do use it, flavor it with a color put on top of it.


A flat water can is preferable to a deep one, so that all the color can be rinsed from the brush by banging it against the bottom. It is also a smaller bulge in your bag or tool kit.


The knife is a splendid tool but use it with restraint, especially in first washes where it is apt to have a raw, monotonous aspect. In second washes, the knife mark or mutilation of too pure areas is less dangerous.


I find a large synthetic sponge adjacent to my palette helps me maintain a precise degree of wetness in my brushes, wiping the too wet brush on the sponge. A natural sponge has many uses. It is invaluable for wetting paper, for instance.

Someone has said that an artist is a craftsman in love with his tools. I go along with this to the extent of being frequently called a gadgeteer. I have a rubber sink scraper that with one stroke (remember the toolmark eulogy?) makes very finely lit planes on rocks. A rubber heel, cut at different angles, makes smaller rocks and mutilating marks in too pure areas. By too pure, I mean too pure texturally, or with too little interest in them—dead areas. A kitchen knife with its curved sharp-edge squeegees marks of varying widths.

A carpenter's pencil, 6-B, used in wet areas does not shine. It helps definition and textural reports.

I watched Dong Kingman, a virtuoso, condition values and textures with Kleenex always in his left hand. It is a very useful tool. It picks up color faster when squeezed dryish after wetting. However, wet or dry, it helps vary edges in cumulus clouds and surf. An infinite number of textures can be obtained on other surfaces by creasing, folding, crinkling in different ways, and by tamping and dragging. It can change a value readily, easily, with just a touch.

Rubber cement is used (never by me) to block out areas (in a large wash) that are to be treated or painted later. It has a function but you are stuck with the edge which usually has a hard quality. A razor blade used as a flat scraper removes paint from the tops of the grain for snow effects, sun "bead" on water, etc. Sandpaper has a few uses. It creates a snow effect on dried washes by taking the tops off the paper's high spots; or rain, when dragged on wet areas. Crayon and pastel can add interest to "dead" darks. A toothbrush is good for textural spatter. A small bristle brush is useful for cleaning and dislodging paint from areas: (1) wet scrub; (2) tamp with tissue repeatedly until the paper is clean again or is the lighter value you desire. Eraser—unless you are deliberately molesting the paper's surface, use only Artgum. I rarely use a tube of Chinese white. I am an aquarellist —a purist, but I have sometimes saved "stinkers" by a thin wash of opaque white and then rearranging my value and color chord. A piece of shoemaker's leather cut so that different size marks can be made, and with one edge nicked, is helpful in order to obtain old board and tree textures with one or two strokes.

Tricks? Of course they are tricks—found in all trades. The result is what you will be judged by. How you get the results is your business. And these "tricks" all subscribe to the nature of watercolor—its immediacy—its partial-statement character—its demand that you think in simplest terms.

Watercolor is the witty medium. I know of no thing that cannot be used to create textural effects. I drop sand in sandy foregrounds, use twigs and stones I find at my feet with which to mark too pure areas. I use indelible, graphite, grease and wax pencils, pieces of wax, chalks, fingers and finger nails, and several times have spit into areas (and successfully) to drive the truth home to students, that any cause creates an effect.


I carry all of my tools in a strong canvas bag with a zipper top and two handles which my arm can go through, slinging the bag from my shoulder. One compact unit contains everything, including plenty of half-sheets of imperial size watercolor paper.


The Drills

EXERCISES for the beginner in watercolor have been described so often and with so few variations that I am reluctant to include them, but do so in order to be thorough.

The virtue of the abstract exercise is that it allows one hundred units of attention to be focused upon one subdivision of the total problem at one time. For instance, eliminate consideration of color, drawing, and design. Take just black paint and several brushes and experiment, mixing water and paint in the brush and pushing the brush around on paper, acquiring information about different values, how to change them, effects obtained with different degrees of wetness, qualities of strokes and textural effects. Make small rectangles, say two-inches high and six-inches wide of ten different values graded from black to white, with equal value intervals or differences between each.


Excerpted from Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting by Edgar A. Whitney. Copyright © 1974 Watson-Guptill Publications. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I learned more from this one book than from four different college studio are courses. For the first time, I feel confident in my understanding of design principles. Not to mention, there is so much to learn regarding watercolor technique. This is the fifth watercolor book that I have read, and it might be the last that I will ever need to purchase.
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