Testing Holbein Acryla Gouache: Stage 1

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Owing to an unusual period of ill health I have been off work for several months and have not been able to contribute to this blog, but at last I am able to continue…

For some time I have been considering how to create relatively quick works on canvas – that is, quick to paint, and quick to offer for sale. Although I would love to paint in oils, it isn’t practical when work needs to be ready to sell without much delay. Oil paints need to dry out really thoroughly, and even then the canvas cannot be varnished for another six months. It’s a slow process.

Many artists use acrylic paints as a substitute for this reason, but I have never been able to get on with acrylics. I’m sure the fault is mine, but I just don’t like them, and I don’t like working with them either.

Looking into different types of acrylic paint very recently, in the hope of finding something which would provide a different approach, I happened upon acrylic gouache. I’m still not quite sure exactly what this is, but it’s some kind of compromise between gouache – an opaque water-based paint which is resoluble when dry – and acrylic paints, which are not resoluble when dry and can thus be overpainted with impunity, but cannot be blended with the layers beneath.

Intrigued, I bought a small selection of the highest quality acrylic gouache paints I could find in the UK – the Holbein Acryla Gouache range, which is manufactured in Japan. Holbein only make artists’ quality paints, and they are highly pigmented.

I had intended to try the acrylic gouache for illustration work, especially in cases where fine details need to be added over a scene painted in traditional watercolour – for example, when creating illustrations of animals and birds.

But at the same time I was starting to think about whether it might be possible to use watercolour techniques on canvas, though of course not with watercolour paints. Looking around online I discovered some tutorial clips by the American tutor Charles Harrington, who has produced both books and video tutorials on how to use watercolour techniques with acrylics.

Intrigued, I decided to try this out with the Holbein Acryla Gouache, rather than with acrylics proper in the first instance, and this is my preliminary experiment.

It’s too soon to draw any definite conclusions – those will follow in a future blog post – especially as the work was still wet when I photographed it this evening, but I certainly formed some immediate impressions…

As this was a test, I just used a relatively cheap canvas board (a pre-prepared sheet of thick cardboard covered with primed canvas), and it quickly became obvious that a much finer grained support would be required for these relatively delicate paints.

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However, I was very pleasantly surprised by the ease of working with these paints, and their “sympathy” for wet-in-wet techniques. They are much more forgiving in some ways than traditional watercolour, and you can mess around with them on the canvas for quite some time providing you keep it wet.

I actually used a layer of clean water on the canvas to start with, as I would on paper – a technique which is hardly conventional when painting on canvas! However, it worked remarkably well, and unlike traditional acrylic paints, these Acryla Gouache paints did not dry out on either the plastic palette or the canvas during a session of about 45 minutes. Had I been using traditional acrylics I would have needed to add a retarder to stop them drying, and even then I’ve found they dry much too quickly. But these Holbein paints stayed wet and workable in a most impressive way, even allowing me to lift them back off the canvas with a clean brush quite a long time after the paint had been applied. In fact, by using this wet-in-wet technique on the non-absorbent primed canvas, the work stayed wet and workable for much longer than watercolour paints on paper, providing new possibilities for blending and reworking which watercolour doesn’t offer.

The colours, despite conventional names in most cases, were not quite as I expected, and I will need to adapt my mixing techniques to suit them. But despite being gouache, and acrylic gouache at that, they are evidently capable of considerable transparency, as you can see in the photos. All the white areas and pale areas are the white primed canvas support showing through.

These paints have very little body, however, and ultimately may prove unsuitable for works on canvas unless the ground is very fine indeed. A fine linen canvas is likely to be more suitable than a coarse cotton one, and would be worth trying if the rest of this preliminary experiment works out well. But at present that remains to be seen…

Flying Home, September Light: The Stages of a Watercolour Painting

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I completed this new watercolour painting very recently, and hand mounted or framed giclée prints and greetings cards are now available to buy in my Folksy shop.

The painting depicts a late afternoon scene at Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan in early September, which I photographed as an image sequence a couple of years ago. Because cameras typically produce a “contre jour” effect when photographing directly into the light (if you don’t use special settings or filters), the photos showed the sand dunes and Marram grass in the foreground silhouetted against the sea… which was not what the eye actually saw, though it adds an attractive mood and framing to the image. The camera always lies 🙂

The light effects and rays were visible, however, as well as the typical pool of light flickering to and fro on the surface of the water – a phenomenon which we see quite frequently in this part of the world. The bird, too, was flying exactly as shown here; in fact, I have a sequence of photos capturing its progress across the field of view, with different wing positions, but chose this one for the painting.

Although watercolour paintings are usually built up in stages from light to dark (unlike oil paintings),  I did not proceed in quite that way with this one, because I wanted to allow the blues and greys in the sky to bleed and blend into one another, and it was also necessary to wash out the rays of light with water at an early stage.

For that reason I did not start with the pale yellows in the sky as a background wash, or the yellow would have become blended with the blues and greys as I created the clouds and rays, resulting in a green sky… The first stage, therefore, was to paint the clouds and touches of blue in the sky, wet in wet, leaving areas clear for the brightest parts, and then quickly wash out the rays of light with a clean, wet brush and a light, fast stroke. This was deliberately done in a fairly rough and loose way, to capture something of the dynamic nature of the ever-changing light. (Although a painting is necessarily static, I like to try to convey a little of the energy and movement of  the real world.) By chance, after completing this painting, I saw a demonstration of a “watercolour eraser” on YouTube which also created rays by washing out areas of paint – but those were hard, white, regular rays, and bore no resemblance whatever to anything I have ever seen in real life!

I didn’t use masking fluid to cover the lower part of the painting, as it’s best to avoid it when possible, but I did protect it with a sheet of blotting paper  held carefully to the horizon of the sea, to “catch” the washed-out colour that brushed out of the rays, because I needed to keep the lower area clean:

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Once this first stage was completely dry, it was possible to add the warmer yellows to many of the lighter parts of the sky to make them glow with the light of the late afternoon sun, which was concealed behind those clouds. This had to be done with a very light touch, as most of the cloud colours in the sky were “lifting” colours – a deliberate choice, so that the rays could be created. This meant that the blues and greys would blend quite easily with the yellows and touches of red in an undesirable manner if I wasn’t very careful.

In the lower part of the painting, however, I did need a wash of pale gold to glow through the rest of the sea and foreground, so once I had touched in the yellows in all the appropriate parts of the sky I laid a light wash across the lowest third of the paper, with some added deeper golden tones on top of the paler wash when it was dry:

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It remained to provide the sea with some tonal effects and character, and to add the details of the foreground and the bird which would bring the whole image to life. With the exception of the larger dark masses of land and rocks, all of this stage of the painting had to be executed with extremely small brushes, intended for miniature paintings. First I added the shadows to the almost-calm sea with many tiny strokes of greys, and painted in the sand and larger areas of rock etc. Next came the bird, and finally the many stalks of Marram grass, each one a single stroke with a miniature paint brush. If you look at the right-hand side of the image below, you can see a size “00000” brush lying against the slate rest. The tip is so tiny that it is far smaller than the ferrule, and almost invisible. It’s not easy to work with a brush of this minute size, especially with long strokes – it tends to hold either too much paint, resulting in too thick a stroke, or too little, resulting in no stroke at all. I had to test it time and again on scrap paper to make sure it was loaded correctly, and even then there were some errors, which have mostly been concealed by further strokes 😀

This final image shows the Marram grass part-painted on either side, but not yet completed:

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The finished image (see top of page) is now available as a giclée print in a range of sizes, and as a landscape format greetings card. My online shop is now in development, but unfortunately it is not yet ready, so if you don’t live locally and would like to buy prints or cards of this or any other painting, please contact me.

This watercolour painting is of medium size, approximately 14″ x 11″ (requiring an A3 scanner to capture the whole image), and is painted with Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour paints on Fabriano Artistico Hot Pressed watercolour paper.