Testing Holbein Acryla Gouache: Stage 2

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When the first stage of my Holbein Acryla Gouche test  had dried, I was disappointed to find that the Acryla Gouache looked rather dull and lifeless compared with other types of paint. The photo above is not very accurate, but you may be able to see that – even allowing for the unusual ground of a primed canvas – the overall effect clearly lacks the vibrancy of a watercolour painting such as the one below (which is on watercolour paper):

Blue-Day-in-May-finalThis is not entirely surprising, as the Holbein Acryla Gouache paints are, after all, gouache, which is intended to be opaque and will never compare favourably with artists’ watercolours for techniques depending upon transparency. However, these Holbein paints do not compare very favourably with Winsor & Newton Designers’ Gouache either. I don’t know whether the Holbein paints contain fillers, but they are not quite of the quality which I had been led to expect by their advertising, and some of the colours are particularly disappointing. Some colours are also not what their names lead you to expect (Crimson, for example), which is confusing although not serious in itself.

This is a pity, as the Holbein Acryla Gouche paints are particularly easy to work with, remain wet for a decent period of time, and clean up well too, but ease of working is not a sufficient basis for choice of paints: the resulting painting is of course the primary concern.

Before investigating the very wide range of acrylic paints now available – to see whether any might be better suited to my purposes than the Holbein Acryla Gouache – I decided to make a quick comparison between the Acryla Gouache and some very old Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylics (now called Professional Acrylics) which I must have bought at least 10 years ago. My feeling was that all the Winsor & Newton paints I have in my studio (watercolours, gouache, acrylics, oils etc) have better pigmentation and more life than these Holbein paints.

So I created some quick colour swatches for both the old Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylics and the Holbein Acryla Gouache on cheap watercolour paper. The photos do not represent the colours and brilliancy accurately, as there is very little light here at present in the dense Scotch mist, and even daylight bulbs distort colours, which of course are further distorted by their representation on the screens of diverse computers and mobile devices. I had to adjust the photos to try to arrive at a reasonable representation, but with only limited success:

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It’s not dificult to see that the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylics (on the left), which are still in remarkably good condition despite their age, are capable of greater transparency than the Holbein paints when diluted, even though this is not the purpose they are intended for. By comparison, the Holbein Acryla Gouache colours on the right are indeed much more opaque, and cannot easily be washed out thinly, although this does vary from colour to colour as you can see in the Viridian on the far right. You may also be able to see that in most cases the Holbein paints seem generally less vibrant, despite some bright colours, and look as though they include fillers as well as the pigments and binder. (All these colour swatches are straight out of the tube, unmixed.)

Here are some closeup photos of the Holbein Acryla Gouache:

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And here are the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic paint swatches. (The Lemon Yellow in the closeup is not accurate, but in reality is much more vibrant. I had difficulty with the lighting for these photos.)

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There is no question that the colours of the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic paints are superior in clarity and brilliancy, and they are also capable of considerable transparency when used diluted on paper, as well as some attractive granulation, which was only present in some of the Holbein paints, and to a lesser extent.

However, when I want to paint with watercolour techniques on paper, there is no need to look any further than my Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour paints. They are considered by many to be the best watercolour paints in the world; I’ve worked with them for many years and have no reason to look for an alternative.

My problem is what to use for watercolour-like techniques on other supports such as canvas and board. The Winsor & Newton Artists’ (now called Professional) Acrylic paints range has an excellent choice of colours made from top quality pigments, but as you can see from swatches above, these are heavy bodied, high viscosity paints which do not mix readily with water. The thick paint in the top left-hand corner of each swatch shows how these paints are quite difficult to manage for this kind of technique: they are not amenable to painting out smoothly, although you can produce a very thin wash quite easily and the result has plenty of vibrancy –  but if diluted too far with water the result will be a paint film which will not be physically robust and stable. If used more thickly, on the other hand, they have a typical acrylic shiny and plastic-looking surface when dry, which can only be avoided by adding mediums. But that is not really a criticism of the paints per se, because these high quality paints are just not intended for this kind of use.

It would be possible to use Winsor & Newton acrylic mediums to reduce the viscosity and make the Winsor & Newton acrylic paints easier to work with in the kind of way I am hoping for, but the necessity of doing this in itself indicates that this is probably not the right answer, although it will be worth trying before I invest in a different brand, especially as many of the top brands are missing some of the colours I am used to, owing to contemporary concerns about using traditional but toxic heavy metals, especially cadmium…

In the meantime I should perhaps test the Holbein Acryla Gouache paints further, but so far – compared with other paints – I am not very happy with anything but their ease of working.

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…

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:

Lighthouse-work-in-progress-stage-1

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:

Lighthouse-work-in-progress-stage-3

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 😞

Leaping Orca: Watercolour Painting

Leaping Orca (orcinus orca), 8th April 2018

Despite the misleading popular name “killer whale”, the orca is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. Orcas are quite often seen in the Hebridean waters off the west coast of Scotland, and more frequently off the north coast and around the islands of Orkney.

The art work is finished, but the masking or extension of the edges for reproduction in different formats is not yet finally resolved, as always…

Original art work created with Winsor and Newton professional water colour paints, supplemented with body colour (white gouache), Faber Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolour pencils and Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils, on Fabriano Artistico HP watercolour paper.

All illustration work © Jenny Chapman, MacAvon Media

This painting ©2018

Leaping Orca: Work in Progress 2

Work in progress: Leaping Orca

5th April 2018

(Scottish Highlands artist’s studio series, no.2)

Things tend to get a wee bit messy as work advances, especially for a subject as dynamic as this one 😀

Compare with the relatively calm earlier stage of this work…

Note to budding artists: this is no way to treat your paintbrushes, unless you can afford to buy new ones frequently…

And there is still plenty more work needed – I underestimated the time it would take to finish this painting.

The final illustration will be posted soon… I hope!