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Ways with Watercolor

Ways with Watercolor

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by Ted Kautzky

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In simple, direct language, accompanied by purposeful illustrations, teacher and master watercolorist Ted Kautzky shows beginners how to handle the medium. Widely regarded as the author's best work, the book discusses color pigments, paper, and other supplies; washes, strokes, and the use of accessories for special effects. Important chapters follow on the


In simple, direct language, accompanied by purposeful illustrations, teacher and master watercolorist Ted Kautzky shows beginners how to handle the medium. Widely regarded as the author's best work, the book discusses color pigments, paper, and other supplies; washes, strokes, and the use of accessories for special effects. Important chapters follow on the characteristics and techniques of handling limited and full palettes. Valuable instructions on composition and related subjects are interwoven throughout the text. In addition to many demonstrations, there is also challenging practice material.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Art Instruction
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Read an Excerpt

Ways with Watercolor

By Ted Kautzky

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13832-9



If you are going to paint in watercolor, the first thing you will obviously need to know about is the color pigments themselves—the mineral, vegetable or, rarely, animal substances that are to be dissolved in water and applied to the paper surface with your brush. Some of them have a long history, going back to the prehistoric periods when man first smeared colored earths on the walls of caves; others have been developed by modern chemical science—but we're not going into either history or chemistry. What we want to know is how to identify the colors by sight and by name, in what form they are available, how each one behaves during application by itself and in combination with others, and how permanently they will retain their original hues under the action of light and polluted air.

Such facts, set down in printed form, can be useful as a guide to beginners and for occasional reference later on. But the only way to really fix them in your mind is through experience extended over time. Understanding this, I am going to give you here only enough information to get you started. Later on, when you are ready for more detailed knowledge, you can consult one of the specialized books available which deal exhaustively with painters' colors.

The business of providing artists' supplies has grown in modern times into a big industry. There are now art materials stores in most sizable communities throughout the United States, handling the products of a number of reliable manufacturers. Even in small towns there is often some variety or stationery store that sells at least the commoner colors, and if what you want is not in stock, the dealer can always order it for you by mail or you can write direct to one of the many firms which advertise in art magazines. So I know you can get the colors you need.

My advice is to always buy the best colors you can afford. It does not pay to use cheap ones. Those provided by the best manufacturers do not vary greatly in price. Personally, I prefer colors made by Winsor & Newton or Grumbacher—two world-famous brands. But you may wish to choose some other reputable manufacturer, for each artist has his own favorite brand, which he has found by experience to give him best results.

The watercolor paints I use are of the sort classed as "transparent." I do not use "opaque" watercolors at all. Transparent colors come in cakes, pans, and tubes; I prefer the tubes as giving quicker solubility, an important consideration when working rapidly while washes are wet. Before beginning to paint, I squeeze out a plentiful supply of each color I am going to use into the wells of my color box or palette, where it is immediately available for mixing. In the event that I should run short during a big wash, it would take only a moment to squeeze out more. With cake or pan colors, which are solid and dry rather than pasty and moist, it would take so much time to dissolve enough pigment that my wash would dry out while I did it.

The hues available to artists in prepared watercolors number well over a hundred, but no artist I ever knew uses more than a fraction of the total. Many of the unusual colors are fugitive (liable to fade) and are shunned for that reason if for no other. The principal manufacturers commonly recommend that the painter make his choice from a list of fifty or sixty fairly permanent colors and it is rare to find a painter today who habitually uses more than twenty. In any single painting, he is likely to confine himself to ten or less. I often work with but three or four colors, as you will see.

When you come right down to it, all this great array of available pigments can, for the practical purposes of a working palette, be reduced to half a dozen small groups; the primary reds, blues, and yellows constituting the most essential colors, and the less vivid greens, browns, and grays the rest. With the primaries it is theoretically possible to mix the entire range of the spectrum, but for convenience, to save time and trouble, greens and browns are handy to have. The grays, including black and white, can be omitted entirely, since you paint on white paper and other shades of gray can be produced by mixing complements or triads. The oranges may be considered as reds or yellows, depending on which way they lean. For violets or purples there is ordinarily little use; when you do need them it is easy to mix red and blue.

For my own working palette, which is shown in orderly arrangement on page 13, I have two reds, four yellows (one is an orange), three blues, four browns, a green, and two grays (one warm and one cool). This does not mean that I never use any others; simply that I find these sufficient for most purposes.

Of the reds I have selected, the Alizarin Crimson is a deep rich red. The Vermilion is a lighter and more vivid color, approaching orange; in fact, I often use Orange Vermilion in its place. Some color-men and artists counsel against using the Alizarin, which is a coaltar derivative, because it is said to be affected chemically when mixed with some of the other colors such as the cobalts, the chromium-oxide greens, and the common "earth colors"—ochres, siennas, and umbers. I have not found any serious difficulty of this sort in my watercolors, perhaps because I do not use a great quantity of this red. If you have any fear of it, you can substitute one of the Cadmium Reds, but you will find it hard to match the hue of the Alizarin.

In the yellow segment, I have chosen a set of four, which graduate in their paleness from the Cadmium Orange, which is slightly tinged with red, through the Cadmium Yellow and the Aureolin (or Cobalt Yellow ) to the delicate Cadmium Lemon, commonly called Lemon Yellow. They are all reliably permanent and fairly transparent.

For the blues, I use French Ultramarine most often. It is a rich, intense blue which mixes well, gives a good range of values, and has a certain degree of opacity when used heavily. It has another interesting property—that of lending itself to the production of "settling washes," either alone or combined with some other pigment like Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber, usually on rough or medium-rough paper. The Cobalt is somewhat lighter, also settles, and is useful in painting summer skies, etc. Winsor Blue is a cold, heavy, clear blue, and I often use it or the similar Antwerp Blue for painting cool skies and mountain scenery. Other colors are of course mixed with any of these blues to produce a large variety of related hues as needed.

Among the oldest pigments known are the so-calmed "earth colors," which are made from heavy mineral oxides found in the natural soil. Most painters throughout history have used them and they have a high degree of permanence. Of these, I like to use a good deal of the two siennas and the two umbers, all of which I class as browns, though the Raw Sienna might be regarded as a dull yellow. For landscape painting they are highly appropriate and useful. Most of their pigment particles lie on the surface of the paper, consequently they can be more easily washed out or "lifted" than colors that penetrate into the paper. In heavy washes the umbers and siennas are opaque.

I only use one green, Hooker's Number 2, mixing it with yellow or blue to lighten or darken it. It is a fairly bright green, much more so than the Viridian and Terre Verte favored by some because of their greater permanence. You could, if you wished, substitute the recently developed Phthalocyanine Green, sometimes called Thalo Green or Monastral Green, which is similar to Hooker's Number 2. Other greens can be produced, as you probably know, by mixing blue and yellow.

This brings us down to the grays, of which I use two. Davy's Gray is the warm one; Payne's Gray the cool. They lend themselves to mixing into sky washes, foggy effects, etc. Occasionally, I employ Sepia—one of the very few animal colors, made from the protective secretion of a cuttleflsh—for special purposes. It is a very warm gray, almost brown, and is excellent for monochrome painting or value studies. With it you can make any value from pale gray to black.

Most of the colors I use in my palette create their effect by the deposit on the paper of a sediment made up of small particles of solid matter of varying degrees of fineness, depending on the grinding that was done by the makers. A few, however, are dye colors, which penetrate into the pores of the paper. The Alizarin Crimson and the Winsor and Antwerp Blues are of the latter type. In general, the sediment colors are easier to remove from the paper after they have dried on it, either by erasing or by rewetting and lifting off with brush, sponge, or cotton rag. The dye colors are hard to lighten or remove. There are certain places where these peculiarities may be taken advantage of to produce interesting effects. For example, if I apply a mixture containing say Burnt Umber and Winsor Blue in painting a tree trunk or a rock, I can use strokes of a knife blade, held tilted against the wet paper in a way that I will demonstrate later, to remove part of the heavier brown pigment and leave lighter areas where the contrasting dye color will show through. With these knife strokes I can model the surface and indicate reflected light.

Most public schools teach the rudiments of color mixing, so you probably already know that in pigment mixing, pairs of the primaries (red, yellow, and blue) give the secondaries (orange, green, and violet), and that each intermediary (yellow-green, blue- green, etc.) is made by mixing a primary and a secondary. You also probably know that if these hues are arranged in a circle in the order in which they appear in a spectrum, the pairs diametrically opposite each other are called complementaries.

However, to refresh your memory, you may wish to make a color wheel similar to the one shown below. Draw the circles on a piece of white drawing paper; from a piece of cardboard cut out the triangle and projecting pointer. Place the cutout on top of the drawing, in the position shown, and pierce both with a thumbtack, flattening the projecting pin against the underside. Now fill in the small circles with the colors indicated—the primary colors first. Then mix and fill in the secondaries (yellow and blue makes green, blue and red makes violet, red and yellow makes orange); and finally, mix and fill in the third, or intermediary colors (yellow and green makes yellow-green, green and blue makes blue-green, blue and violet makes blue-violet, and so on around the circle).

As the cutout is turned, the three corners of the triangle will always point either to the primaries, as shown below, to the secondaries, or to three of the six intermediaries. The two C's, which are diametrically opposite each other, will always point to complementary colors.

Pairs of complementaries have interesting interrelationships; in mixtures they neutralize each other, producing grays; in juxtaposition they intensify each other, sometimes dazzlingly. Painters take advantage of these and many other fascinating facts that you will have to learn as you proceed. I am not going deeply into the matter here; if you wish to delve into the optical and psychological effects of combinations you can refer to one of several good books that are available in most libraries. For present purposes, however, you will learn better by doing and observing, rather than by reading.

You cannot get too well acquainted with your pigments, and I advise you to spend some time thoughtfully trying them out under different conditions. Observe how each one behaves by itself, when applied in light, medium, or dark values. Note its degree of transparency and remember at what value it seems to be most intense in hue. Then try mixing pairs with a view to finding out the range of colors possible for each combination. Be as systematic about all this as your nature permits and make pencilled notes to help you remember the things you observe.

As you proceed to paint, you will of course learn more from each picture you do, but it is mighty handy to know beforehand just what colors to pick out of your palette to give you a certain effect in mixture. Study juxtapositions of color and see what one does to another when you place them side by side. Which pigments settle in washes, and which dye the paper most strongly? There are thousands of things to learn if you will take the trouble. Other painters have learned them; so can you!



Before the colors you have bought can be transformed into paintings, they must be spread upon a surface. What kind of surface will be most suitable? Generations of painters have experimented with all sorts of materials, so their experience is at your disposal. They have collectively found that paper of certain controllable qualities furnishes the base best adapted to the peculiar needs of watercolor painting.

First, our paper should be of the best linen-rag stock, so that it will not deteriorate with age and will keep its color and strength permanently. For the present, at least, we will want it to be white, so that the transparent colors we place upon it will show up without distortion. Textures of several degrees of roughness or smoothness should be available, to lend themselves to a variety of desired effects. The roughest of these should still be smooth enough to draw on legibly and comfortably with a pencil; and the smoothest should have tooth enough to hold the particles of dissolved pigment so that they will not slide along with the wet brush as we make our strokes. Our paper should also be absorbent to just the right degree, so that it can draw water from the wash into its substance—but not too rapidly for convenient manipulation of the wet color. When wet, paper will stretch, for that is its nature. It must, therefore, be heavy enough to resist buckling when subjected to large washes. Finally, it must be strong and durable, both when wet and when dry, for it must stand a certain amount of abuse during painting, especially when corrections or erasures are to be made.

There are several brands of paper which fulfil these requirements. They are all handmade, and most of them are imported. Consequently, they are fairly expensive; but, as with the colors, it pays to get the best. Whatman and D'Arches are my favorite makers, for I have found that I get the best results with their products. But some painters prefer other brands, such as R.W.S. (made in England for the Royal Watercolor Society), Fabriano, or A.W.S. (American Watercolor Society). The D'Arches, because of its good absorptive quality, is particularly excellent for outdoor painting. You will probably try out different kinds as you continue to paint, and will decide for yourself what suits you. You may find that the papers vary in color, even within the same brand, so pick sheets as white as possible.

I prefer to work on a rough or medium-rough surface and to have the paper heavy enough to prevent buckling. The 300- or 400-pound weight is ideal for my way of working, though I sometimes use a lighter weight for smaller pictures. The sheets come 22" by 30" and can be halved or quartered, if you like, to give well proportioned sizes. Mounted Whatman's is available in several degrees of roughness. It consists of a thinner sheet backed up with stiff cardboard, which completely eliminates buckling. A drawback is that it has only one side to work on; you cannot turn it over and begin again in case you have made a bad start. Also, several together are heavy.

To give you a rough idea of the way the color acts on different surfaces, I have made some washes and strokes, reproduced opposite. Number 1 is a flat wash on rough paper; you can see its pleasant texture. Beside it, at 2, I have shown how various brush strokes look on this same paper. The glittering effects are known as "dry-brush strokes," although the brush was fairly wet when they were made. Later, you will learn how to make them, for they are very useful.

At 3 and 4, I have made a graded wash and some strokes on cold-pressed, mounted Whatman's, which is not so rough but still has a good texture. The gradation of the wash was accomplished smoothly, with no trouble from wrinkling or buckling. Contrast this with 5, where I worked on a lighter weight, smooth paper and found that buckling made it hard to get an even result. Papers of 140 pounds or less must be stretched in some way if you are going to do washes of any size on them. One method commonly used is to wet the paper thoroughly and mount it on a regular canvas stretcher, folding back and fastening the edges with thumbtacks as shown in 6. When it dries, it will be tight and should not buckle. Be careful not to strain the paper as you tack it in place, for if you get it too tight it may break when it contracts. There are other ways to stretch paper, but this one is practical.


Excerpted from Ways with Watercolor by Ted Kautzky. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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