Water Color Painting

The first colors with which men began to paint were water colors. The early fresco painters also employed a kind of water color-a tempera color-which was made principally of egg and a species of cherry gum. The technique made it necessary to put the shadows in with lines since the idea of gradation had not yet been developed.

I shall not linger over the history of water color, although it would be fascinating in some future article to trace the development and evolution of this interesting kind of painting which has today once more come into being as an independent art and, as in earlier times, has its own place side by side with oil painting.

George Grosz

I have for a long time been making an intensive study of this medium and will here set down a few of my own experiences. I shall confine myself to a few notes only as later on I plan to present a more detailed discussion in an exhaustive work. An appealing quality in water color painting is that there need be no. dependence on equipment … a little paper … half a dozen colors … one or two brushes … some water in a glass … that’s all.

And yet, although the material appears to be of the simplest and most primitive nature, it nevertheless requires a long, systematic, continuous training, approximating that of the ancient Chinese landscape painter, in order finally to attain a masterly technique.

Water color painting calls for accuracy and confidence … it does not require repeated working over because it thereby loses its transparency. In like manner, correaions and improvements are only made at the cost of spontaneity.

Therefore, everyone who takes up water color painting should first apply himself diligently to drawing in order that he may later on be able to express exactly what he wishes, and will not wander over the paper without rhyme or reason. Once he is able to draw satisfactorily, he should not at once commence with the entire color box. It is better to stick to three colors, cold-warm in quality … let us say yellow ochre, ultramarine and Indian red.

Before proceeding further with our lesson, something about materials. It is best to use a medium sized porcelain palette … also a sponge in order that the palette may always be kept clean. In order that the tints may always appear clear and fresh, it is necessary that they should be newly mixed on the palette from time to time. On a messy palette one can with the best intentions in the world produce only undesirable muddy gray tints. To many this may seem unimportant, even pedantic, but it nevertheless plays a part.

Three brushes are necessary; a broad flat one for large surfaces and washes … two middlesized sable hair brushes, and a smaller one for sharp details and for drawing. I use principally German colors, Schminke, Gumher, Wagner. I have, however, English colors in addition; Windsor & Newton and Reeves. I prefer pans to tube colors, because they are less trouble and I can, when desirable, paim quickly from the pan. I also find the old form of cakes practical. If one buys these lump colors it is possible to cover the lower part and the sides with tinfoil … so color . and fingers remain clean, the tinfoil here rendering the same service as the small porcelain pan.

lt is necessary to have sufficient water on hand, preferably twO containers which may be refilled from time to time, since clarity and cleanliness in mixing are the Alpha and Omega of water color. Dirty water has an unpleasant effect on mixture. An old piece of linen cloth is useful for hands and brushes … in addition a good absorbent blotter for removing superfluous color from the brush, or to lighten a spot that is too wet.

Now, something about paper. Naturally it is possible to paint with water on any kind of paper … I have seen small masterpieces which were painted with few water color tints on simple note paper. Nevertheless, beginners should not make their work more difficult by using poor paper. English papers are naturally very good, first of all the Whatman paper, usually sold in blocks. For many years I have worked on an Italian paper of the firm of Fabrian (Real Grande), medium rough. Here in America I have had good results with an imported French paper of Michelet’s which I bought at Macy’s. It has all the qualities of good water color paper, takes the color well and (an important feature) keeps wet sufficiently long, also does not warp so much as many better water color papers … and, last but not least, is cheaper than the well known English makes. When working with single sheets, it is enough to hold them with thumb tacks: I myself work mostly on single sheets and find that it is a waste of time to paste them down around the margins.

We shall in general have to distinguish between two methods in the use of water color … the older illuminating method, and the constructing of a picture from the washes themselves. The first method uses the water color only for painting over lines which have been carefully drawn beforehand … in other words, filling in. It is the same method which later prevailed in coloring engravings. I strongly advise the study of such colored sheets, for they demonstrate an excellent tradition and a correct handling of cold and warm tones. I wish to draw special attention to the popular engravings of the English master of caricature, Thomas Rowlandson, and his contemporaries. It is by no means so easy to color a line drawing as might appear at first sight. For the potential water colorist there is no better exercise than the coloring of drawings in order to learn tone relationships.

The second method is to paint with the water color … red with grayish green, black with white, blue with yellow, gray with violet, etc … the structure of an object being revealed by colors and values, not by the mere drawing of lines and filling them in.

Every effect is then based on contrast and it rests with the feeling for color in each student to bring out this contrast … for example, under certain conditions the shadow tone on a red dress will appear dark green, or possibly incline toward a gray mixed of violet and yellow … certainly not simply the original red color so mixed as to become darker and deeper. I advise a study of the best old wall papers with this in mind. It is astonishing how much life and form these designers of wall papers, working with a few contrasting colors, were able to express … flowers landscapes, etc. Study carefully the middle tones; they reveal, especially in the variety of gray mixtures, a remarkable gift for blending and for plastic art.

For practice, let us commence with a few colors … suppose, for example, we desire to paint a small landscape. First of all, we wet the paper with a sponge or a large washing brush … this enables the colors to blend more softly into one another and gives somewhat the effect of a pastel. We shall use for colors: cobalt, Prussian blue, light ochre and Indian red: cobalt for distance and sky gray, mixed of cobalt and Indian red for distance ochre, darkened with Indian red for foreground Prussian blue with Indian red for shadows in foreground.

I cannot paint a theoretical picture … naturally not … I can only say that it is necessary to commence with few colors and lay particular stress on two foundation tones in warm and cold. Study the different mixtures and tones; lay a ground tone in ochre, and shade into the half wet color with Prussian blue, Indian red and a touch of cadmium. While the shadow tones are still half wet add a touch of Indian red with cadmium . . . (observe the effects where light and shadow tones run into each other).

In like manner, it is possible to introduce a dark Indian red tone into a light Prussian blue tone … etc., etc. One must tryout for oneself the innumerable variations and tone relationships. This is not intended to be a detailed article but rather a challenge to try dithgs out alone. Oh … I had almost forgotten the most important thing, namely the colors! The following colors will suffice. Blues: Prussian blue, Cobalt blue, Ultramarine blue and Cerulian blue (Cerulian blue mixed with Madder lake and a little Indian yellow is- a good shadow tone for flesh). Reds: Madder lake (the darkest will last longest), Vermillion, and Indian red. Browns: Burnt Sienna and Raw umber. Yellows: Yellow ochre, Naples yellow, light and dark cadmium, Indian yellow (possibly also chrome yellow). Greens: Permanent green (with madder lake this makes a beautiful gray; otherwise green may be mixed from Prussian blue and ultramarine blue with cadmium yellow, etc.). Black: Ivory black.

Truly, water color painting demands patience and practice … often even the dexterity of a juggler, for one must work on many parts of the painting at the same time, especially when working wet colors into each other. If one works at home and from memory, it is desirable to work on two pictures at a time … in order that one picture may be worked on while the other is drying.

One should not be afraid but should rather start quickly and confidently: the fresher a water color, the better. Each color should be put o~ a little darker than intended because it lightens up slightly when it dries … this is typical of water color. It is also possible to go over a color again with water and add still another tint … only one musn’t do this too often … otherwise the most beautiful tone will become gray and muddy.

In the design one should only lightly indicate the outlines, this may be done with the brush and a thinned water color … as desired, natural umber or cobalt blue.

I hope to have aroused a bit of interest by this discussion. As I have said, in water color painting, practice is everything … but, once the technique has been mastered, one can make genuine small paintings without any of that bulky apparatus essential for oil painting. So, diligently to work!

From “The League,” Volume 5 Issue 1, Fall 1932