Many watercolourists will know of Jane Blundell because of her blog, that provides expert information on watercolours, and from her intricate wash and ink paintings. We caught up with Jane to find out how she got into watercolour, her tips for creating mixes and swatches, and how she “looks” when sketching.
Tegen: Could you tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education?
Jane: I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child. I’ve always loved colour, fountain pens, pencils, paints, brushes, details. I spent hours as a child exploring colour, warm versus cool, families of earth colours, various primaries, patterns and combinations. At school, I loved to draw and paint flowers and birds, though flowers were better since I could do them from life. I am largely self-taught. I could always draw and taught myself watercolours as a teen. I studied art and art history through school and completed a BA in Visual Arts majoring in etching since that was a technique I could use to really explore detail. I then went on to do a Graduate Diploma in Art Education to train as a secondary art teacher.
These are a couple of the pen and wash drawings I did when I was in my teens—the Strelitzia was from life, the Blue Wren from a photo. This is the sort of work I wanted to create as etchings.
Tegen: How did you get into making swatches and exploring the details of pigments and watercolour colours?
Jane: The watercolour set I bought as a teen were a student range with alizarin crimson – the fugitive PR83. It faded in the paintings I did back then, framed and on the walls of my parents’ house. When I switched to an artist quality a few years later I swatched out the colours to compare them, and continued to do the with each colour I tried. When I started using Daniel Smith in 1995, they included the pigment numbers on the tubes so I was able to start gathering more information about what I was painting with and so began a rather large study. Eventually, I had tried every Daniel Smith watercolour and created a book including all their pigment information and mixing notes. That led onto my plan to swatch out every brand and every professional watercolour variable. I haven’t quite finished but I am very close!
I started making mixing charts as samples for my students but I really got carried away with it when I found a large number of the Michal Wilcox swatch cards for $1 a pack as they were water damaged. I completed over 100 of these and put them on my website to share. I also created a book Watercolour Mixing Charts so they would be more portable. The work of Michael Wilcox and his book The Complete Guide to Watercolour Paints was very influential as I was able to work out which paints to avoid and which were worth trying, though I didn’t totally agree with his chosen ‘best colours’ 😉 I also found the website Handprint.com really helpful. I have wanted to add to what these gentlemen have done rather than replicate it.
Tegen: Do you have any tips for creating mixing grids and how to create a good swatch? Also any tricks for getting the perfect mix?
Jane: I have created some mixing grids, but I have found that more random mixes can be more interesting to create and can allow people to see more interesting colour harmonies and combinations. If you look at this example, it could have been done with three rows – the top full strength gold through to ultramarine, the second half strength gold though ultramarine and the third washed out gold through ultramarine. That is time-consuming and gets boring (I know – I’ve done it) but if produced like this, it is just a case of making each brush-strong different. And sometimes the three or four colours that end up next to each other can be an inspiration for a while painting or study.
For the perfect swatch, start by adding a little clean water to about a third of the swatch so you see how the pigment behaves in water. Add very diluted colour first, then gradually go darker and stronger. I have created a YouTube video showing this.
For the perfect mix, you need to know what you are aiming for. A blue-green? A golden green? Weak or strong? I try to set up palettes so that only two pigments are needed to make most colours. That way, once the previous questions are answered, it is just a case of deciding how much of each colour and how much water to add to achieve the desired hue. Three colour mixes require more colour understanding and I find people generally have more trouble with that.
Tegen: You use a wide variety of media, including pencils, markers, gouache, water-soluble graphite, ink, etching, acrylic and oil, so what draws you to watercolour so strongly and do you have a second favourite medium?
Jane: Watercolour is the queen of art materials as it is the purest way to work with pigment. No other medium allows you to explore all the characteristics of a pigment the way watercolour does. So I really use the variations – granulating, opaque, non-granulating, staining, non-staining and so on in my paintings, I choose the characteristics I want to work with, not just the colour. I also love the transportability of watercolour. I carry it everywhere in a tiny palette, with a basic sketching kit. That’s far more difficult to do with other mediums.
My second favourite would be pencil or pen. I love both – pencil, whether graphite in its many forms or water-soluble graphite or pen as in fountain pen with waterproof ink. I use either depending on the subject and which it would best suit. Perhaps it is simpler to say my second favourite is drawing 🙂
This sketch features a fountain pen and grey ink to represent the deep shadows of the cliff faces.
Tegen: You do a lot of sketching, what is the most important thing to you in a sketch and how do you choose what to paint?
I am a realist so for me a sketch will capture what I actually see. That isn’t true for everyone and need not be, but I love the challenge of capturing the look of the sky on the day, or the texture of the stone or the colour of a flower. I like to keep a record of where I have been so will sometimes give myself a checklist of what I want to sketch. Recently in Melbourne, I decided I wanted to sketch Flinders Street Station, as it is a wonderful and distinctive building and where I entered the city by train; a bridge, as there are many and the wonderful colour beach houses on Brighton Beach in the suburbs. So that was what I did!
Sometimes I am surrounded by buildings, sometimes with flowers. It may be Autumn so there are beautiful leaves around. I’ll look for what I can draw and paint to represent where I am in the time I have. I also take a photo of what I have chosen to sketch in case I don’t have the time to finish it on the spot, or in case a van parks in front! I love to capture the beauty in the ordinary, or the elegance of decay—rust, dried out flowers, fungi—just as much as I enjoy beautiful blooms or pristine churches.
Tegen: How does working from observation affect your practice? Do you have any tips on how to “look”?
Jane: Working from observation is much richer than working from a photo. The colours are not distorted but the camera and again by the printing process (if printed) so they are true to life. It is more of a challenge as the light will change, the clouds will move, the shadows will change, but it is also more rewarding as you will look back on the sketch and remember all that went on while creating it. When working from life you need to translate a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface so there are many things you can do to help that transition. The simplest is to shut one eye to flatten the image. Squinting will also help you to notice the tones more clearly.
Tegen: The paintings of your sketching tools are gorgeous, could you describe your ultimate sketching kit?
Jane: My sketching kit contains the items that I may choose to use in a sketch – which won’t be everything every time, just as I’d never use every watercolour in one painting. As a realist, I might choose a light pencil for a botanical subject or a grey ink pen for a metal bridge – whichever will best depict that subject. So I have a fountain pen with brown, with grey and with black waterproof ink, a pencil and a water-soluble graphite pencil, a few travel watercolour brushes, some brushes for removing colour and a good range of watercolours in a very compact palette. It all fits into a small leather pencil case and lives in my handbag. The best kit is with you when you need it!
Tegen: A hard question, but, could you choose your favourite three colours and explain why?
Jane: Depends. Favourite three for mixing the greatest range of colours? Ultramarine, Quinacridone Rose and Hansa Yellow Medium (Daniels Smith names – PB29, PV19 and PY97 pigments). While phthalo blue GS would be closer to a CYM palette, I prefer ultramarine as it is a liftable colour rather than staining. This triad is incredibly versatile and beautiful. You could paint almost anything with it.
Favourite for the characteristics or usefulness? Buff titanium, Goethite and Jane’s Grey. Buff titanium creates a wonderful granulating texture for sandstone and marble, Goethite is a gorgeous granulating pigment for sandstone, beaches and buildings and Jane’s Grey is so useful for shadows and for darkening other colours. These three are the colours I have to refill most often.
Add Burnt Sienna and you’d have 7 of my most used colours.
Tegen: If you could use any no longer available pigment, (whether discontinued, toxic or no longer ethically viable) what would it be?
Jane: PO49. Quinacridone Gold. Though actually, I can use it as I bought plenty before it disappeared.
I think we are very lucky to have access to an incredible range of beautiful pigments. But ones to look out for that have been recently discontinued are PY153 (New Gamboge or Indian yellow in some brands) and PB33 Manganese blue.
I would really like to try a sample fo the original mixes of Willian Payne’s ‘Payne’s Grey’, Davy’s ‘Davy’s Grey’, ‘Hooker’s Green’…the current versions are nowhere near the original pigment mixes.
Tegen: How does being a teacher and instructor affect your work?
Jane: A lot of my work is created while away teaching workshop somewhere so I am working in sketchbooks rather than large paintings and creating images for myself rather than for sale. Often I will work on a more detailed study before and after class, returning to the same spot to add more each time. This sketch of Pulteney Bridge in Bath was created over about 5 days, working sometimes before and sometimes after class. Sometimes having to demonstrate how to do something I have never done before creates a great challenge I may not otherwise have tackled.
Tegen: I’m fascinated by your handmade palettes, such as those you’ve made in lockets, cigarette cases and old cosmetic cases. How do you choose what to make them for and where did you get the idea of creating them from?
Jane: I have always loved small and compact items – mini staplers, tiny sewing kits, pocket knives. I like to be prepared! So when I see an object that might be turned into a watercolour palette I love to create something new and functional. Round tins lend themselves to segments, square tins may fit pans of some sort. I use a combination of cut up plastic, recycled lids, glue and plumber’s Polymer clay to create palettes, sometimes spraying them with an enamel coating to finish them off. It’s fiddly, but fun. I should have a sale – I have too many!
Tegen: How do you start to explain pigment characteristics and how do you use your circle palettes in demonstrations??
Jane: I explain pigment characteristics by painting out samples of the same colour in a range of characteristics. So Hansa Yellow medium next to cadmium medium to show the difference between a more opaque and a more waterproof mid yellow; Goethite next to yellow ochre to show granulation. I paint samples over a black line and after they have dried, I show how easily or readily the colour can be lifted off again.
The circle palettes hold about two full pans of watercolour in each well so lots of paint. But there is not mixing room so I wouldn’t want to use them for painting. I use them purely to demonstrate different characteristics of different pigments. So I have yellows together – a cadmium yellow deep next to a New Gamboge to show the difference between a semi opaque and a transparent pigment. I have one for yellows, one for oranges, two for reds, purples, blues, turquoises, one and a half for greens, one for yellow earths, orange earths, red earths (mostly PR101), Darks and lights/blacks and whites, greys etc and another for primateks that I rarely use, (as well as two iridescents and pearlescent that live at home – I don’t have much use for these but they come out if a student is painting shells!). So about 157 pigments in total I suppose, mostly single pigment. Maybe more. I do sometimes use them in my study as well but much more when teaching about watercolour and colour mixing or when demonstrating Daniel Smith. Brands include Daniel Smith mostly, since they have so many different pigments, plus special colours/pigment by Schmincke, Winsor & Newton, Da Vinci, Old Holland, M.Graham, Blockx.
Tegen: Your blog is so informative and has a massive reach. Does this affect how you work or what you write about / test?
Jane: I started my blog (www.janeblundellart.blogspot.com) in 2012 with a number of goals in mind. Like my website, also started in 2012, I wanted it to be informative, useful, a reference. I wanted to show the whole range of every available (and some discontinued) professional watercolour in the world. I have also started to include gouache brands and coloured pencils, and a few other materials have then come up. I’ve done posts on inks, fountain pens and sketchbooks. My attitude is that if I find it interesting then others may also.
On my website, (www.janeblundellart.com) I set out to create a resource that could be added to. I want to show every single watercolour available in the world, arranged by colour and pigment. I have painted out most of them but not added them all yet – that takes such a lot of time. It is also a gallery of my paintings, sketches and colour mixing charts, and includes details of my classes and workshops.
I actually use my own blog when teaching to show colours in a range of brands as it is faster than trying to go through a manufactures website!
I try to be completely honest about what I test, but with the understanding that I am judging by my own criteria. I try to show every colour/paint as well as I can, and be positive even if it is not something I would choose to use. It is a difficult area if I have been sent something that I don’t actually like, so I have to choose whether to add it with little comment, not add it, or add it and be honest about why I don’t like it. I think that those reading it know my preferences – lightfast pigments, easily rewet, single pigments were possible etc.
It takes a lot of time to build up and maintain the information I have been producing, which leaves less time for my own paintings, but that’s the choice I’ve made. There are so many rabbit holes – some of the most popular posts are the comparisons, and I am planning to extend these, doing posts showing every ultramarine available, or every PV19 paint etc. Another rabbit hole I haven’t fallen down yet is making my own watercolour. I have some pigments and the tools but just haven’t gone there yet. I may never come out!
Tegen: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art and experiments in the flesh or online?
Jane: I’ll be teaching in Bathurst, 3 hours west of Sydney, for a week in July, then I fly to London for a few days on my way to Amsterdam to teach at the Urban Sketchers Symposium. I’ll be sketching in London again and exploring Amsterdam in some detail as I’ll have 10 days there. I tend to post on Instagram most often, under Janeblundellart. Here’s one of St Paul’s from my last visit.