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…

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 😀

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: “A Blue Day in May” Studio Watercolour Sketch

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Out at the lighthouse on Saturday afternoon everything was blue except for the clouds: blue sky, blue sea and blue islands. The view from this most westerly point on the British mainland is expansive; the weather was fine but rather hazy, and at times white or even grey clouds blocked the sun, but the scene remained strikingly blue though the hues shifted as the clouds passed by. As the wind was too cold to remain on the rocks long enough to make a proper sketch, I took a set of photos to work from and started that evening on a studio sketch, while the scene was fresh in my memory. Stage 2 of the work is above, stage 1 (still wet and so slightly buckled) is below. This painting needs to remain light and airy, so another couple of short sessions should be all that’s needed to finish the sea and add the islands on the horizon. (The top and right-hand borders are handy for testing but will be cropped from the final painting.) Although this paper has its merits, the grain does not run in an appropriate way for the artist to be able to exploit the texture for the sea in the way I would like. Possibly I should have turned the block through 90 degrees before I started, but it’s too late to think of that now 😀

Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolours on Arches Aquarelle cold pressed 140lb (300gsm) paper, in a very limited colour palette using Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Blue Dark and French Ultramarine, with a little Paynes Grey and a touch of Scarlet Lake for mixing shades of blue and greys. These are mainly non-staining and more or less granulating colours, and although these “traditional” blues can’t really be beaten for purity and quality of colour, they are a wee bit tricky to handle. Winsor and Newton seem to be putting too much gum arabic in their cobalt blues, at least in the tubes, which makes them even harder to control; it may be time to try a different brand with a slightly different formula…

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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: Work in Progress 1

Work in progress: Leaping Orca

25th March 2018

(Scottish Highlands artist’s studio series, no.1)

The early stages of a new watercolour painting, intended primarily for reproduction on greetings cards, posters and prints. At least another two sessions to do on this one before the final scan and preparation for print – needs plenty more work on the spray, then final drawing on the orca itself.