Not Your Grandmother’s Watercolor

I started a new watercolor class yesterday. It’s called Not Your Grandmother’s Watercolor and it meets once a week for five weeks. When I saw the course description I got really excited, because it’s all about experimentation and seeing what the medium can do. The teacher, Serena Cole, does interesting work, and she brought in fun stuff for us to play with in class. Basically, we spent more than two hours just doing self-directed experimenting, using our watercolors (three colors only), two kinds of paper (hot press and cold press), and some other media (coarse salt, ink, concentrated watercolor, acrylic ink).

Watercolor experiments on cold-press paper

Experiments on 11" x 22" cold-press paper (Arches 140lb)

The difference between hot and cold press papers is how they’re made, which results in a difference in texture. The hot pressing flattens the paper out completely, so it’s very smooth. The cold pressing doesn’t make it so flat, so it has a rougher feel. I usually use cold press, because that’s what I was first introduced to, plus it feels nice for making cards and things like that.

Cold pressed watercolor paper

Cold press: see the texture?

The main thing Serena wanted us to do was to try out some wet-on-wet techniques. She demonstrated putting water on the paper first, then adding wet paint to the water. Because all the pigments come from different materials, the paints don’t all behave the same way in water, and it’s fun to see what they’ll do.

She also brought in other media for us to experiment with. Below, the green is watercolor and the vivid blue is concentrated watercolor. I dripped the blue into a puddle of water, using an eyedropper, but swirled the green in with a brush. Then I dripped some white acrylic ink into the edges of the blue. I like the stormy effect.

Concentrated watercolor and acrylic inkIn this next one, I dripped red ink into a puddle of water, then added red watercolor too. You can see the watercolor forms a smooth gradation and follows the water out to the edge of the puddle, where it ends in a thin pink edge. The ink, on the other hand, contains shellac and behaves differently — it makes these creepy bleeding veins. It makes me think of the way ink spreads on skin.

I also tried sprinkling some salt on the ink, but it didn’t do much. More on that later.

Ink and waterAs I said, I don’t usually work with hot-press paper, so I tried to spend more time with it last night. I still don’t feel I got to know it very well, but I’ll keep working with it.

Watercolor experiments on hot-press paper

Experiments on hot-press paper, about 11" x 22" (Arches 140lb)

I’m always amazed at what can be done with only a few colors. Everything I painted last night was mixed from three tubes of paint: cerulean blue, alizarin crimson, and cadmium yellow. Serena also said that different brands and grades of paint will yield different interpretations of those colors, so what I mixed wouldn’t look the same as what she’d mix from her paints.

Green green!

Blues and greens and pinksIn the above section, the “scales” of color were applied dry, while the hazy section in the center was wet paint dripped into a puddle of water.

Here’s a look at the hot-press texture: see how it’s all flat?

Smooth-textured paper

I used the inks and concentrated watercolors on the hot-pressed paper too, to see what they’d do there, but I didn’t apply them in quite the same way so it’s not a very scientific experiment. Here, I dripped the concentrated watercolor directly onto the paper, then used a fine long brush to draw it out in long tendrils. You can see how it blotted where it met a wet section of red paint, and how it moved differently on top of the red ink. Then I dripped some white acrylic ink onto the blue while it was still wet.

Concentrated watercolor and acrylic inkOne of the most interesting patterns emerged when I used salt. I had heard of watercolor artists applying coarse salt to their work before, but I’d never tried it myself. Turns out the salt absorbs the wet paint in funny, lichen-like shapes.

Watercolor with salt appliedNext week Serena tells us we will be making “narrative paintings,” which is to say, paintings with a story. We’re supposed to bring in something to generate the narrative, like a photo or some objects. Hmm. As you know, I can spin a narrative out of anything (remember the pears?), so I’m not sure what I will bring. But I’m sure I’ll think of something by next Monday!