Sav Scatola has an unconventional approach to watercolour painting. He is unafraid of stretching paper with blutac, adding more sizing to watercolour paper or making his own watercolours to achieve the effect he is after. Jackson’s sent Sav some Jackson’s Artist Watercolours and some artist-quality cotton watercolour papers to try out and along with other materials he created a lot of paintings and wrote a guest post for us about his journey of teaching himself to paint in watercolours.
Watercolours: Breaking Up, Making Up
I never liked watercolours. Or perhaps they never liked me. We fought a lot, but ultimately my creative urges leaned more towards spontaneous marks, paint overs, scrubbing out, drying out, scraping back, finding shapes, losing edges, building countless layers of opaque texture until finally after days, weeks or months, another painting was born.
Oil painting was always a worthwhile struggle, a wild, unknowable adventure that left me wanting more. In contrast, I perceived the traditional view of watercolour painting as something which required a sensible, measured approach. Meticulous planning followed by sequential execution in exactly the right order at exactly the right time; a one-shot method which did produce stunning gem-like results, but only when the rules were obeyed and perfected without deviation. Mess up at any stage and the painting was ruined. I ruined a lot of paintings.
So I gave up before really starting, but still treasured my well-thumbed books on watercolour painting, not least ‘Discovering Watercolour’ by Jack Merriott which features work of spellbinding clarity. Likewise a tome on Walter Langley, member of the famous Newlyn School. Decades passed without the slightest desire to re-engage until a couple of years ago while painting an image called, ‘Folly’ in acrylics on watercolour paper.
I had intended starting with thin washes before building up thicker layers as the painting progressed, but the sky wash came out almost fully formed so there seemed little point in developing it further. This got me thinking, what then were the differences between acrylic and watercolour?
Well, this year I was finally inspired to investigate further after coming across master artist James Gurney’s excellent ‘Watercolour in the Wild’ video. I was determined to make a point of not only engaging the auld enemy, but persevering with the struggle until we finally became friends. Perhaps not best friends, but centuries of watercolour artists can’t all be wrong, so it must be me.
I considered a few things before my attempt:
1. Realism is not necessarily the goal but representational art is an infinite fascination to me in all its forms.
2. I want to allow each painting to dictate its own direction rather than simply aping long established formulas, though I am not intent on avoiding classic techniques where appropriate. This is a beginner’s exploration so you will no doubt see images littered with wrong technique, bad choices and overworked passages. That’s okay, these days I’ve learned an open, relaxed approach is simply more pleasurable, often turning ‘accidental deviations’ into an asset. Besides if things go belly up I can always turn them into opaque body colour paintings!
3. If you really want to get to the guts of a medium, there’s no point in using entry level materials. Yes, they’re cheaper but usually fall well short when compared to artist quality kit, so you’ll never get a true impression of how the medium performs. Always buy the best you can afford.
To begin at the beginning then. I have a sketchbook and an eighteen half-pan tin of Winsor & Newton Watercolour, but start with just one – black. Right from the off my negative preconceptions of watercolours are all but blown away. ‘Eurasian Eagle Owl’ demonstrates that sketching with just black paint can be spontaneous, versatile and dare I say it, fun! Add a Zig Water Brush to the mix and the process becomes even more fluid. ‘Castle Rock’ introduces a little colour. It is still fun.
So despite years of enmity, by the end of session one I’m already hooked. A few more sketchbook exercises help build confidence to the point where I am now itching to move to the next level.
Paper is a vital facet of watercolour painting and before long I’m drooling at high end offers online. Among the usual suspects I come across a top-of-the-line paper at a reasonable price, ‘Strathmore 500 Series Gemini,’ 300lb (638 g/m2.) The numbers mean it is thick enough to skip the soak and stretch stage and it shouldn’t cockle when applying washes. The weight of the paper is beautiful and it does ooze a traditional quality, accentuated by the deckled edges and embossed thistle watermark. The surface is fuzzy to touch, almost like a soft felt fabric rather than paper, which is not entirely surprising as it is a 100% cotton product. The creamy colour is darker than expected, which is confusing given that tradition strictly dictates our only use of white should be that of the paper. I wonder if this will be an issue.
While painting ‘Clouds Over Fife,’ the surface feels quite hard going and its creamy ground only exacerbates the problem. No doubt my inexperience is telling, but frustration builds until in desperation I add titanium white watercolour to the clouds and sky. Now the luminosity seems more pleasing, which is ironic really. Strathmore Gemini then, is a soft sized paper. It doesn’t appear to suit me (yet) but is superb all the same, so three adaptations immediately spring to mind: 1. An acid free PVA coating. I’m not entirely sure whether watercolour paint will be repelled by the PVA size. 2. While on Jacksons’ website I come across a product called ‘Watercolour Ground’ by Daniel Smith, a white ground for watercolour – just the ticket! 3. Opaque paints. Acrylic or gouache should turn that soft cotton surface into an asset and in the process enable such techniques as dark to light painting.
The Acid-free PVA is watered down so that it soaks into the paper rather than form a waterproof seal on its surface. Although no plein air painter, I venture out to try the new ‘hard sized’ Strathmore, eventually settling on a bench at Edinburgh’s botanic gardens. It is a flat, overcast day and using a simple palette I start painting, ‘Glass Houses.’ The paint is not repelled but doesn’t exactly perform like a classic paper either. I am happier with the firmer surface though.
Before long it becomes obvious the domes could be scaled up, so I scrub over the lines with clean water and to my great delight, find the pigment lifts completely. This is confirmed quite a few times along the way. Back home I scrub out and re-paint the spidery foreground branches a couple of times and significantly, lift out highlights along some branch edges to separate them from the background. Perhaps pigments like phthalo blue would have stained, but based on this performance, I can say the PVA size turned the paper into a versatile field sketching surface. Paint was easily and quickly scrubbed out with clean water and the paper’s weight meant no cockling occurred. Sweet.
The Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground is thick and touch-dries quickly, so I water it down just enough to avoid impasto build up on application. Once dry, it makes an appreciable difference to the flow and brightness of the paper. It seems to encourage a rapid sketching style rather than carefully laid washes and again, aids the lifting of pigment nicely. I like this combination a lot.
‘Eilean Donan’ is painted from my own references using a limited palette of homemade watercolours (more on that later). As an afterthought, a few detail lines are added with dark watercolour pencils to sharpen structure edges here and there. I like this enough to warrant further investigation.
I use Atelier Interactive acrylics by Chroma for the painting ‘Cake Stand.’ The scene is lightly sketched out with raw umber washes. As subsequent paint layers thicken, applying brush strokes becomes less fluid, so I instinctively switch to a stiffer bristle brush to force paint across the surface. It works well even in washes, so I make a note to try watercolours with bristles on this paper. The brush is old and frayed, which is good as it keeps the painting loose, but at the last pass I return to my Seawhite brush for detailing on the biscuits and other foreground elements thus bringing them into sharper focus. Interestingly, watercolour style washes still work nicely where necessary, especially in the less defined background. I like the mix of transparent and opaque. These acrylics perform well in washes and later I hope to do a simple like-for-like test dropping both watercolour and acrylic into wetted paper to see how they settle.
The sweet treats are absolutely delicious! This was a successful exercise. I don’t know how well regarded Strathmore Gemini paper is, but for me, some lateral adaptation has turned it into a very flexible surface I’d gladly use again. I found tips online by top watercolour painter Geoff Kersey and want to try some classic techniques such as lifting out paint for clouds and applying masking fluid to preserve the white paper.
‘Teepee on St Mary’s Loch’ is painted on a Daler-Rowney Langton watercolour block with a sky wash made with Winsor and Newton cobalt and cerulean blues. I immediately dab out some clouds with a paper towel but hmm, they do say practice makes perfect! The teepee, foreground sheep and fence posts are masked out before applying some pre-mixed pools of colour over the rest of the scene. I paint a couple of further layers wet-on-dry, softening edges here and there. The masking fluid peels off perfectly and a few finishing details are applied.
As an aside, you may have noticed staple holes around the edges. I assumed the block would act like a stretcher but when first wet, the paper cockled severely. In a panic I tore it out and secured it to a board with the first thing to hand, not gummed tape but a staple gun. This worked really well, though I later learned paper in a watercolour block does flatten back out when completely dry.
By now some half pans are running low and as I’d read rave reviews on Jackson’s Artists Watercolours, purchase a few to try out. Artist quality materials aren’t usually so affordable so I’m not expecting much, but what a treat, these colours turn out to be laugh-out-loud brilliant.
Jackson’s paint handles beautifully. It is particularly intoxicating to watch the sky washes dance around each other before settling.
‘Fettes Clock Tower’ is painted to test four of the colours purchased – cobalt blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna and Naples yellow (cerulean blue not used here.) Jackson’s paint handles beautifully. I don’t yet have enough experience to expound on the technicalities, but can compare them to those I’ve already used, Winsor and Newton Artist and the budget Cotman ranges. Jackson’s paints are much more reactive than the Cotman and easily on a par with W&N’s Artist watercolours. They seem highly pigmented, well ground and extremely responsive. It is particularly intoxicating to watch the sky washes dance around each other before settling. Now I’m beginning to feel the hold watercolour has over many artists.
Cotton Watercolour Papers
I try some different all cotton watercolour papers: Saunders Waterford High White, Fabriano Artistico Extra White and Arches Aquarelle , all rough, 140lb. I also try Jackson’s Icon sable and synthetic mix brushes, one round size 8, one 1/2 inch flat and one round quill, size 2. And I get some more colours: a twelve half pan tin and five further 21ml tubes of Jackson’s Artist Watercolours: Jackson’s Yellow Light (PY154), Yellow Ochre (PY43), Burnt Umber (PBR7), Quinacridone Red Orange (PR209), French Ultramarine (PB29) and Permanent Sap Green, which is a convenience mix of PB29 and PY154. According to the excellent online watercolour resource by Bruce McEvoy on handprint.com, yellow PY154 is very lightfast unlike those used in some convenience mixes.
I quickly sketch out a tugboat passing before Inchkeith Island on the Arches Aquarelle paper. I applied a wash and immediately the combination of paper and paint screams quality, but I bring proceedings back to earth with a bump by fluffing attempts at using the roughness of the paper to make a wake and white choppy peaks. I consider dragging opaque paint across the surface but prefer to leave it this time. Pencil marks still show through, which I love, but feel the tugboat lines could be bolder, maybe even black, so I finish with a Rotring pen.
Museums are an infinite source of inspiration for the doodling classes. This collection of bovine bones is curiously situated in an alcove halfway up the entrance stairs to the National Museum of Scotland. It looks like an interesting exercise, I like the cast shadow. The piece is 1/8 imperial, 28 x 19cm. Instead of pre-stretching I simply blu-tack it to a board in twelve places along the edges. Some papers tear when the blu tack is removed but 100% cotton papers do not, or rather have not in my experience so far.
I want to try watercolour pencils but first take my new Icon Sable quill brush and give the whole surface a wash of quinacridone red orange, burnt umber and raw sienna. The brush performs great with just the right amount of spring for me. It holds lots of colour and does feel like natural hair. The centre of gravity is at the brush head. I may have preferred it a little higher up the handle but suspect this design deliberately helps keep the brush more upright. I adapt soon enough. Once dry the skeleton silhouette is lightly drawn in. Next a Faber-Castell Watercolour pencils in ivory is dipped in water and directly applied with the side of the lead rather than the point. Rolling the pencil as I draw deposits small impasto clumps of pigment. I like that the rough Fabriano surface creates really interesting ragged edges as I spread the colour. Umbers, ochres, siennas, turquoise, grey and white pencils are applied to the scene both wet and dry. In places a Zig water brush is used to activate and blend the pigment.
Fabriano Artistico is a superb paper. It handles the wash impeccably and though I didn’t make use of it, seems to keep the surface damp for longer than the Langton. I suspect colour lifting for clouds would have been more successful on this paper. I try a little sample and the pigment lifts really well quite long after the surface is soaked. It also handles rough pencil treatment well without falling apart, an asset of 100% cotton papers I guess.
In ‘Posing and a Pouting’ my wife is just swinging round before striking a particularly silly pose that I photograph. Behind her sits a line of trees that leads to the Loch Lomond golf course at Rossdhu Mansion. Behind the tree line across the loch sits Ben Lomond in a haze. I use Jackson’s paints in naples yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, quinacridone red orange, cobalt and cerulean blues and sap green. The paints are all exquisite and the other Icon Sables are just as good as the quill. For me Saunders Waterford’s high white surface only improves on what many consider the best watercolour paper available anywhere. I overdo a few passages but like those that only took one shot, which is ironic given where I started. Perhaps we can say after all these years, I’m finally getting to grips with watercolours.
Making your own paint is not so difficult these days. I used two tubs of Sennelier binding medium: watercolour and gouache. Jackson’s sell the binders and pigment powders. Some powders are fairly toxic, so it makes sense to wear Disposable gloves and a safety mask, but with a little care there’s not much danger in such small quantities. It is best not to consume food or drink while making paint. I prefer to first pour binder onto a glass plate and then gradually add pigment until the consistency is right. This traps powder quicker than doing it the other way round and ensures each small amount added is ground properly. For small quantities grinding with a palette knife works fine.
‘River Tweed from Abbotsford’ is painted with homemade watercolours on a lovely 250lb (535gsm) Not surface Bockingford paper. A little white gouache is used for highlights in the water and trees. Having never tried Sennelier watercolours, I can’t make a direct comparison, but if this is the very same vehicle they use, then my home made paints should be comparable. They do feel like the real deal in use, displaying all the properties one would expect in quality watercolours.
In this quick comparison test I smear a similar sized blob of watercolour, acrylic and gouache paint on some paper. Beneath them I brush a column of clean water before dragging a similar amount of each pigment into the water. The watercolour is Jacksons, the acrylic is Atelier Interactive and the gouache is my home made paint with Sennelier binder, all French Ultramarine PB29.
To me this small sample precisely shows some defining properties of each medium. The watercolour spreads rapidly and evenly. The Acrylic resists dragging, trying to stay in impasto clumps until it hits the water where it does spread, but not as vigorously as the watercolour. The gouache barely spreads at all and evenly retains its rich, opaque velvety appearance well into the water column. No one wants to irretrievably mess up a watercolour painting but part of me was hoping for just that, and the inevitable happens when I bite off more than I can chew in the painting, ‘Do Not Feed The Birds.
Some may still call this a messy failure. I won’t disagree, however the point was not necessarily to produce a finished image, but to use it as a comparison exercise. The painting begins with the background trees in watercolour. I’m already unhappy on completing the first pass and know things are not worth pursuing. After leaving it to dry out though, I decide to plough on with opaque paint rather than waste a perfectly good piece of paper. The paints are not mixed together but split into three sections. That watercolour tree line remains, but I choose to paint the path in acrylic and the water in gouache. Oddly, this feels like a very natural process, perhaps because they are all water based, yet each changes the way paint is applied. Acrylic does dry with a slight sheen but is easily turned into acrylic gouache with the application of matte medium or matte varnish.
I’ve learned a huge amount during all these exercises but know this is only the beginning of what can be achieved with mixing media: watercolours, acrylics, gouache, pencils and ink.
Sav Scatola’s website is boxy.co.uk
Some notes on the materials that Sav mentions in this article:
We stock other Strathmore Watercolour Paper but we don’t have the Gemini anymore.
We stock a wide range of heavyweight watercolour paper that, as Sav mentioned, there is no need to stretch.
Atelier Interactive acrylics are a new product for us and will be with us in the next few weeks.
Click on the underlined links to go to the current offers on the Jackson’s Art Supplies website. Postage on orders shipped standard to mainland UK addresses is free for orders of £39.