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by John Pike

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In this irreplaceable guide, award-winning artist and instructor John Pike shares with artists at all levels of experience the expertise gained through a lifetime of perfecting his craft. All the information watercolorists could possibly want is here — choosing a brush; selecting and composing subject matter; producing a variety of washes, brush strokes, and


In this irreplaceable guide, award-winning artist and instructor John Pike shares with artists at all levels of experience the expertise gained through a lifetime of perfecting his craft. All the information watercolorists could possibly want is here — choosing a brush; selecting and composing subject matter; producing a variety of washes, brush strokes, and textures; making corrections; and discovering the properties of common watercolor papers.
The author's personal style and his meticulously reproduced illustrations make this one of the best how-to guides available. Readers are led from the simplest still-life exercises to a series of complex landscape problems. The text is abundantly illustrated with the author's own famous paintings (many reproduced in full color) and analyzes each in detail for lessons to be learned and tricks of the trade.
"The text is brilliantly lucid, like Mr. Pike's own watercolors. It is difficult to imagine a more helpful guide." — William F. Buckley, National Review

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
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Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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By John Pike

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1973 Watson-Guptill Publications
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13690-5


Brushes and other painting tools

Despite the enormous variety of brushes available in the stores, you need surprisingly few tools to paint with.


First, let me say a word about sable. Sable, undoubtedly, makes the finest watercolor brush you can buy, but it's also the most expensive.

Sable has fine resiliency and yet has soft texture. It has the ability to snap back to its original shape even when very wet. The round brushes are numbered from # 1 up through #12; # 1 is the smallest and #12 is the largest. The round sables are for general painting. A fine brush if you can swing it financially.


Flat, or chisel brushes have some advantages over the rounds. With the flat, you can lay in a large wash and immediately put in a fine line by turning the brush sideways, using the sharp corner or the full width of the brush. With the round, it's usually necessary to shake out the brush violently to regain the point. Also, the round will eventually lose its sharp point through wear.

I prefer the flats, with one or two exceptions, explained under "Recommended Brushes." Flat brushes come in inch measurements. Common ones are ¼", 5/8", 1", 1 ½", and 2".


The oxhairs are my pets. I was a young student in the Depression years and the cost of a #8 or #10 sable was a month's room and board. So I found oxhair! In the years since that dreadful time, I've used an occasional sable, lent by a painter friend. But between you and me, the oxhair does the job every bit as well, and at one fifth the investment. (Art supply dealers aren't overly fond of me for saying this.)

As to their length of life, I have some oxhairs that I still use, although they were with me all through World War II, in the cold of the Arctic and in the heat and humidity of Egypt, India, and the Philippines. Sounds romantic, doesn't it? It wasn't, but the brushes stood up under all conditions, even if I didn't! Here's a photo of some of my old friends.

To me, oxhair brushes have all the sparkle and bounce of sables, but you have to pick oxhairs more carefully. Be sure, in your buying, that you test each one for springiness and bounce-back qualities. All brushes come with starch in them to hold the hairs in place in the store. Ask for a pan of water to wash the brush out. If he's a good art supply dealer, he'll have a container of water right beside the brush storage drawers. See if the brush holds its shape when wet.

Oxhairs, if chosen carefully, can be excellent companions for many years.


Bristle brushes are usually made of hog's hair, sometimes nylon. They're quite stiff and are generally used for oil painting, tempera, and the acrylics. In transparent watercolor, they're used to correct mistakes: to lighten small areas where the pigment is too dark; to soften an edge that has become hard when we wanted it soft or graded. This can happen; "goofs" in this medium are most common.

The bristle brush is a scrubber-outer. Dip your bristle brush into clear water and scrub lightly, so as not to harm the paper's surface. Have a rag or cleaning tissue handy to blot up water and pigment immediately. The sables and oxhairs will pick up some pigment, but not as cleanly as a bristle.

As in all cover-up tricks, don't depend on it too much. Try to do the job correctly the first time; but have a bristle scrubber-outer in your bag just in case. You can sometimes save an otherwise good painting. About a #5 "bright" is a good general purpose size.


Actually, all the flats were originally intended as lettering brushes, but were adopted many years ago by some of our finest watercolor painters and teachers. There are all sorts of lettering brushes on sale and the choice is a matter of personal preference, based on trial and error.

Be careful with your square ended brushes. Don't get mechanical with them so that you get squared effects (unless, of course, that's what you're after). Learn to twist the brush and turn it, drag it and squash it, to gain exactly what you want. Try a lot of practice exercises so you'll know exactly what the flat brush will do.


This basic list can be cut down to an absolute minimum. I've found that if I have a 1 ½" flat, a 1" flat, a 5/8" flat, a #8 round, and a #4 rigger, my brush equipment is quite complete.

A rigger, by the way, is a long, slim brush. I choose the #4 as it's in between #2 and #6 and can do the work of both. It has hairs about 1" long and has a slightly magic, ouija board quality. You put the rigger on the paper and the brush almost guides itself. It's delightful for little tree branches, tall grass, and a thousand other places—it's a fun brush!

I can't see that you're going to need much more than the brushes listed here. They should be most adequate. I have a couple of dozen brushes in my kit, but these five are really all I use. Perhaps you may want to add a #4 and #5 round, and possibly a #1 or #2 round for fine work, but you can get along very nicely with the first five.


After a day of painting, you pack up your gear to go home and, very often, the wet brushes become jumbled up in the tackle box, or whatever you use to carry your supplies in. Then, the next time you take them out, they've dried in twisted, agonized shapes. There are both a preventive and a cure for sick brushes.

The preventive: buy one Hong Kong split bamboo table mat; a yard of ¼" garter elastic; a shoe string. Weave the elastic in and out through the bamboo, leaving loops for the number of brushes you use, and sew firmly at each end. Double knot the shoe string around the last two or three strips of bamboo. Then slip your brushes under the elastic loops, roll up the mat, and tie. This brush carrier takes up very little more room than the brushes themselves, and they'll always remain straight.

The cure: when you find your pet brush all bent and twisted, wet it, rub it on a cake of soap until the brisles are quite saturated. Then, with your fingers, model the brush back to its proper shape and allow it to dry over night. The next day, wash out the soap and you'll find the brush well again.

But try the preventive; it makes life easier.

Clean your brushes once in a while, particularly after you've been using any of the Thalos (dye colors). At the art supply store, you can buy something called "brush cleaner." The bottle contains about 2½ ounces and will do the job perhaps twice. At the supermarket, for the same amount of money, you can buy a full quart of liquid kitchen detergent, which is every bit as good and will last you for years.

Pour a little detergent into a cup–or into the corner of the sink–dip the brush into it, work out the suds and dirt in the palm of your hand, then rinse several times in warm water to be sure all the detergent is out. Then shape the bristles and let the brush dry. I think you'll find this far better than the old method of scrubbing holes in bars of soap.


My poor brushes somehow never get a chance to be stored. They seem to be in use most of the days of the year. As I look at my side table, I see a cigar box with a lot of little upright cardboard partitions that once held some fancy cigars in glass tubes; I see a copper and silver Egyptian coffee pot that I bought in the old market place in Cairo years ago; and I see a Mason jar. I simply drop my brushes, handle first, into whichever one is closest. They all work.

However, if you do wish to store brushes not in use, particularly in the summer months, there are several methods. Remember, in a moth's evil mind, there's no greater delicacy than your favorite, most expensive brush. You can lay your brushes flat in plastic silverware trays, put in a moth ball or two (flakes are just as good), and seal with self-adhering plastic, or aluminum foil. Any jar with a screw or clamp down top–if the jar is tall enough—will do. So will the lacquered metal brush containers available in art supply stores. But always toss in a moth ball or two.


There are all kinds of sponges on the market: chemical or artificial sponges that come out of plastic factories across the land; and natural sponges that come from the East and the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean.

But I must be unromantic and again go back to the kitchen for my source of supply. I find the artificial sponge more than adequate for my uses.

Its first purpose, to me, is to wash down a big piece of paper to remove the starch or sizing. (For explanation, see Chapter 3 on paper.)

Its second purpose is to pick up excess water, particularly where it's puddled along the rough deckled edge of your hand made paper. By removing this excess water, you avoid the chance of its working its way back into the painting, causing unattractive rings or flowers.

Third, the sponge is used to take out the big wash that you got too dark. Although this village is well over 9,000 feet high in the Andes, the surrounding mountains rise upward for many more thousands of feet. Their tops always seem to be shrouded in clouds.

To gain the clouds' softness, it was necessary to keep the whole upper area wet. After this was painted and allowed to dry, clear water was added to the underside, and the dark mountain tops were dropped in and allowed to flow upward, giving a soft edge.

The yellow-greens of the rolling cultivated fields were painted around the building at the right and around the church spires, leaving the distant town buildings white. Next came the silhouetting of the spires and the middle ground structures. I returned to the texturing of the distant fields with brush strokes following the contours of the mountains. The smoke at the right (from the cookhouse) was a blue-gray wash; the darks above and below it were dropped in while the wash was still wet, for a soft edge.

Next came the underpainting of the road, the grass to the right and left, and the pale blue underpainting of the tile roof, leaving the white paper for sparkles. Finally, I added the many small details: the tall eucalyptus trees, the textures on the tile roof and buildings, the figure, the sheep, doors, windows and the cobblestones of the road.

Here we have a rather subtle play of cool color against warm, making a good example of the rule: the colder the blue, the more it retreats into the distance. Although the blue shadows on the mountain are not too much deeper in value than the sky, they come forward because they are warmer, but still a blue.

The transition from distant mountain to foreground is achieved by the warm green on the rolling, middle distance hills. The very dark middle and foreground lead up to the viewer and, at the same time, push back the hills and mountain. The warm browns of the marsh grass also help to achieve a feeling of distance.

You may even want to wash off the entire painting. (At this point it might be best to turn the sheet over and start again.) The sponge can lift out large areas, as the bristle brush lifts out the small.

Keep two sponges in your kit: a clean one for sponging down the clean white paper at the start, and another for the bad judgments. A sponge is a very handy item to have, either on a field trip or working in your studio.


The first function of a knife is to sharpen your pencil. It then comes into play on the painting itself in a very reserved manner.

After the painting is dry, little twigs, branches, and highlights may be lightly scratched in to give a sparkle and zing that can't be gained by any other method I know. (See the demonstration painting, "Fox in Snow," in Chapter 11.)

Again, let me caution you: this is only a bit of frosting on the cake and should be used sparingly.


The primary use of all these is clean-up. There are times when your palette is overloaded with dirty, pigment filled water, and you wish to work a light, clean wash. Clean off the palette; blot it all up! Sometimes a section of a wash is too dark; while it's wet, quickly pick it up with one of these clean-up agents.

Some brands of absorbent paper towels or tissues are more fibrous than others and will leave little particles on your painting; these particles will turn dark or mottled when you paint over them. Check any blotter, tissue, etc., to be sure it's lint-free.

Keep a few rags, paper towels, or tissues in your gear. You'll know what to do with them when the emergency comes.

One caution: don't get into the bad habit of holding a cloth or towel in your left hand, then dragging the brush (filled with water and pigment) over or through the absorbent rag or paper just before you make a stroke. You destroy the mixture you've just made up. If there's too much water in your brush, give it a good healthy shake and the devil take the wall-to-wall carpeting!

The entire background and the soft trees were put in at one time, leaving the white, snow-covered roof of the building. The middle distance trees are in a blue-gray to give them a sense of remoteness. When the lighter trees were dry, the dark trees were painted. Then the building was rendered, as well as the large mass of snow in shadow to the left. The round snow shapes in the foreground were modeled and allowed to dry. Finally, I did the reflections, always remembering what causes them.

This painting was a class demonstration to show our usual "three steps forward" treatment: (1) background, (2) middle ground, and (3) foreground. Note how the values correspond to these three planes.

In this picture, the center of interest was created by the intense back light. The sky and soft clouds were put in delicately, as well as the reflected light on the ice. A blue-gray wash was put over the snow in the foreground and up into the smoke to establish its pattern. The value of the snow on the roof of the covered bridge was studied carefully, to make the contrast between snow and sky count. To achieve the soft edge of the smoke, clear water was dropped in so that the dark of the bridge would run into it slightly. Where the willow trunks go behind the smoke, the pigment was thinned out, not scrubbed out. Finally came the dark mass of trees to the left behind the bridge, plus the figures and the little branches, to complete the painting.

The entire area behind the building (with the soft trees) was washed in at one time, leaving a few of the tree trunks white. The snow and ice in the foreground were taken down in value to emphasize the sky reflection in the water. Then came the shadows on the snow, the building details, the rendering of the trees and figures.

Night pictures are much more complicated than the comparatively simple sunlight paintings. In the latter, you have the basic light source, the sun; the object, which is a building, a tree or a rock; and the cast shadow of any of these. As simple as 1, 2, 3. In a night painting, you have many light sources coming from all directions. Added to that, you may have wet pavement, which complicates things no end. This is the time when you must carefully consider all the influences of all these lights, as well as the reflective surfaces.



Of all the tools you'll use in transparent watercolor, by far the most important one is your paper. Watercolor paper must be of good quality and have a permanent "whiteness."


Good watercolor papers are 100% rag content. Bleached or unbleached fibres are made into a "soup," poured over a screen and, by the magic process of the individual paper maker, transformed into a sheet of paper with a surface that's a delight to paint upon.

Most machine made papers have a surface that seems too mechanical, often like a grid. I prefer good hand made paper for my particular work.

Some cheaper papers are made with a combination of wood pulp and rag, and so on down to the 100% wood pulp content of the construction papers that children use in early school. Papers containing wood pulp are absolutely no good for transparent watercolor. They take paint badly and will yellow –and finally crumble–with age.


Excerpted from Watercolor by John Pike. Copyright © 1973 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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