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…

Inktober 2: A Study in Water Soluble Indian Ink

“Red Squirrel at the Water’s Edge”

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I am planning a colour illustration of a red squirrel, so I thought I would do a few studies first, to get to know the creature a wee bit better. This study was created entirely with Winsor & Newton’s Liquid Indian Ink, which (as I mentioned in my last post) is a suspension of traditional Chinese stick ink in water, so it has lots of texture and a tendency to granulate at the slightest provocation – which I like very much, though did not really exploit to any extent in this drawing.

I used the Arches Aquarelle cold pressed 140lb paper again, but on a smaller block, just 7″ by 10″. This paper is suprisingly yellow compared with a typical white piece of paper (as you can see in the final scan above), and it blends very well with the warm tone of this black ink. The study was drawn entirely with brushes, as I prefer to work that way when using ink. I have recently started using very lightweight (and cheap!) aluminium palettes for working with inks, and this has proved most successful. I reserve my ceramic palettes for watercolour paints, and the plastic palettes I used to use with ink never really came clean.

As I don’t happen to have a pet red squirrel who would be willing to pose motionless for several hours, I had to work from a photograph of course. This is never entirely satisfactory, but it’s more or less inevitable when drawing wildlife. The study got off to a fairly bold start, but there were lots of errors in proportion and form:

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It doesn’t look too bad if you only glance quickly (except for the missing legs!) but there’s quite a lot wrong. At this stage the unfortunate creature looks rather more like a chipmunk with a bushy tail than a red squirrel. Luckily this robust paper withstands almost anything, so it was possible to make plenty of corrections. For general reworking I use a combination of washing out with a clean paintbrush, lifting with a piece of moistened magic sponge (you can see small pieces to the right of the drawing in these photos), and, when absolutely necessary, scraping back with a scalpel blade.

I completed the legs and feet, using a scalpel blade to correct the toe nails where they were not sufficiently well defined by the actual drawing, and did some more work on the face, ears, and general structure of the squirrel’s body. Eventually, after a great deal more reworking each time I made a mistake, I achieved something resembling the representation of the squirrel in the source photograph. It still wasn’t quite right though:

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When I stood back I could plenty of errors, and so continued to fiddle with it for a while, until it got to the point where it was time to stop. The final result is shown (unaltered, straight off the scan) at the top of this blog post.

Although I would love to have such a light and accurate touch that I could convey an animal like this with just a few elegant strokes, one of the advantages of working into the drawing – and then reworking time and again – is that the layering process does build up an impression of depth and structure which a lighter, more elegant drawing would lack. This only succeeds if the paper has plenty of texture itself and is strong enough to withstand the treatment, of course… You can get some idea of the process and result in the detail below, where you can see stroked overlaid on strokes overlaid on strokes, and some of the granularity of the ink. Genuine Indian (or Chinese) ink, with its substantial body and texture, is ideal for achieving this kind of effect, whereas a lighter weight, dye-based ink would be no use.

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The final result is fairly dark, and may need brightening up a wee bit if it’s going to be used for reproductions on greetings cards, etc., but personally I like the naturally rich tones of this ink, and it’s a pleasure to work with – and an entirely different experience from working with the coloured inks discussed in my last blog post, although admittedly the result is much less colourful 😀

Inktober 1: An Illustration in Ecoline Liquid Watercolour Inks and Indian Ink

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“The Watcher” New Moon over Loch Sunart at Twilight

It’s quite a while since I last did any work with coloured inks (as opposed to black water soluble Indian ink for monochrome sketches), but as it is “Inktober” it seemed like an appropriate time to try them again, so I took advantage of the discounts offered by the art suppliers for “Inktober” 🙂

We were driving home along the shores of Loch Sunart on a calm autumn evening a couple of years ago when we saw this lovely scene. The setting new moon was reflected in the sea loch as it sank down towards the hills of Morvern, with the deep purple shadows of twilight stealing across the water while the sky was still lit up with the glowing colours of an autumn sunset. I photographed it as well as I could, although the light faded rapidly, and I have been trying to paint it ever since. I don’t suppose this will be the last attempt…

As it has a simple but glowing palette of sunset and twilight colours, it seemed like an ideal subject for coloured inks, whose transparency and saturated dyes are well suited to bright illustrative work. Compared with watercolour paints, the Ecoline liquid watercolour inks are brash and lacking in subtlety; they are also entirely lacking in body and texture, as I re-discovered.

I decided to use top quality watercolour paper, to give the inks the best possible chance, and chose Arches Aquarelle 140lb (300gsm) hot pressed paper, on a block, as the inks are very wet…

For the first stage, I masked out the new moon and its reflection with standard masking fluid, then laid down some basic colour washes with a little detail in the water. The result was certainly bright, but brutal.

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I left the work to dry overnight and pondered how best to proceed.

Unlike many other drawing inks, the Ecoline liquid watercolour Inks are water soluble, meaning that they are not waterproof when dry, and in principle you can re-wet them, blend them and to some extent wash them out. This is why I chose them, as I don’t like using materials which cannot be re-worked. However, they are made with dyes, not with pigments, and the extent to which they can be removed from the paper is limited as they are highly staining. I worked at the image for some time, adding in the silhouetted land masses with Winsor & Newton liquid Indian ink. This deep black, water soluble ink is quite different from the coloured inks (and from Winsor and Newton’s waterproof black ink), being a suspension of traditional Chinese stick ink in water and not a dye. (This means that it has far more body, and a fascinating tendency to granulation when used diluted, which I exploit when sketching, but not in this image, although you can see a hint of the effect in the lower right.) Once the details of the land were established, I proceeded to wash out and blend in the areas of sky and water until I was reasonably satisfied with them. It was lucky I had chosen such a good paper, as I doubt that an inferior paper would have stood up to this process.

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The inks are nothing like as sophisticated a medium as watercolour paint, and their lack of body is disconcerting at first. (When working habitually with watercolour paints it’s tempting to think that watercolours are the lightest and most insubstantial of the painting media, but in comparison to these coloured inks, watercolours paints seem relatively heavy!) However, these inks do impart a nice glow to the work, and providing it is scanned quickly and used for reproduction, they are quite useful for illustration work. They are also extremely cheap compared with professional quality watercolours…

(Coloured inks are NOT lightfast and should never be used for original art work intended for sale. The colours can degrade surprisingly rapidly.)

So this image will be used mainly for giclée prints, which can be obtained from “The Watcher” collection in my Folksy shop, including very small prints mounted in aperture greetings cards:

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The image above is from a photograh, not a scan, and the colours are not true. You can get a better idea of the colours achieved in the giclée prints (including the one in the aperture card) in this scan of a mounted giclée print, below:

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Work in Progress: A Watercolour Painting of the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

The Ardnamurchan Lighthouse has recently started stocking some of my landscape greetings cards in addition to my wildlife cards, so I thought it only right that they should have at least one image of the lighthouse among their collection of my cards.

I began work on this new painting in mid-August. This subject involves an iconic building which needs to be recognisable and which will require some detailed drawing, so I started by sketching the outline of the lighthouse buildings and rocks very lightly, and then masked out that area completely with masking fluid before I started painting, because it was essential to keep that part of the paper clean. The apparent texture in the rocks area of the masking is an illusion. Everything that appears to be a light golden brown colour is entirely covered with masking fluid which has dried:

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As I wanted some texture and grain in the paper for the painting of the sea and sky, I used Arches cold pressed (NOT) paper for this painting, although I would normally use a smoother hot pressed paper when making images which involved drawing as well as painting. This will undoubtedly make the final drawing a wee bit more difficult, but the surfaces of the buildings are themselves textured and not smooth, so in that respect it fits well enough with the subject.

Once the masking fluid was dry I painted a fine line to mark the horizon, and then painted in the sky very quickly, wet-in-wet, leaving some areas more or less white. Rather than mask out the sea, I simply placed a thick layer of folded blotting paper across the lower part of the painting, aligning it carefully with the horizon line, to ensure that any wet paint from the fluid painting in the sky did not spill over into the sea. Where too much colour bled into the areas of sky close to the horizon, I simply lifted the paint off quickly with a clean, damp brush, to create the effect of the rain falling in sheets on the Hebridean islands which lie obscured on the horizon. This effect of rain falling in moving sheets across the horizon is something we see quite often in this area:

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It’s not a good idea to leave masking fluid on watercolour paper for longer than is absolutely necessary (in fact it’s better to avoid it altogether whenever possible), as it does compromise the surface structure of the paper to some extent when removed. In this case, however, I will mainly be using watercolour pencils to draw in the lighthouse buildings, so it was less important to maintain the surface of the paper in its original state than it would be for painting.

As soon as the painting in the sky was completely dry I started on the sea, with the masking fluid still in place. The sea is always complex and impossible to paint, full of colours seen through other colours: an ever-changing pattern of shifting hues, tones and of course positions. All that anyone can do in a still image is to create their impression of the sea, which can never come anywhere close to the reality.

I started the sea with a layer of rough underpainting, emphasizing the deep turquoise colours which accompany dark rain clouds in certain conditions:

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When that layer was dry, I worked in more detail on the surface of the sea, using small brushes with a range of mixed blues, and tidying up the light area in the distance, which is so often perceived just short of the horizon. Once the paint was dry I used a scalpel to gently scratch back the tips of the cresting waves, which were in that state known to meteorologists as sea state 4 or 5, with many white caps all over, and removed the masking fluid from the lower part of the picture, leaving the lighthouse and rocks as a clean white “silhouette”, ready to be completed in the final stages of the work…

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You can find out more about the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse on their own web site, or follow them on the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse and Visitor Centre Facebook page.

[The colours of the sky look different in the different photos, but actually they are exactly the same throughout all the stages. It’s simply that ambient light conditions in my studio changed between the times at which I took the various photos.]

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.

Work in Progress: Clouds descend on Ben Hiant at sundown (watercolour sketch)

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Work in progress: Clouds descend on Ben Hiant at sundown
Watercolour sketch, stage 1

9th May 2018

(Scottish Highlands artist’s studio series, no.3)

Stage 1 of a quick, wet-in-wet landscape sketch to loosen up a wee bit after the fiddly and protratcted work on the orca painting. Something like this only takes a couple of sessions to complete, at most, whereas a detailed wildlife image can take a couple of weeks… Of course it doesn’t always come out well enough to use – that’s the downside…

This one needs a fair bit of correcting yet, as well as the final details on the land masses.

Using NOT paper this time (Fabriano Artistico) for the slight grain and it’s amazing tolerance of continual lifting colour back off the paper… Very different from the hot pressed paper (also Fabriano Artistico) I normally use for wildlife drawings. However, it’s not so tolerant of unintentional finger nail scratches, I discovered to my regret 😞