Friday 17 June 2011

Watercolour Painting on a Budget

Generally speaking  the advice given by nearly all professional artists is to use the best materials. By this they mean Artist Quality paints, 100% cotton papers and Sable or possibly Squirrel brushes. There are exceptions, Ron Ranson being someone who questioned the need to spend the large sums of money necessary to fulfill these recommendations. I suppose they are aiming their advice at either other professionals or serious amateurs but don't - largely - seem to recognize that there is a large - very large - number of hobby painters for whom such materials are either unaffordable or bluntly a waste of money.

As a start what did Ron Ranson paint with before he moved to the USA? With paints he used a limited palette of Winsor & Newton Cotman student quality, Paper was Bockingford, which is made from high quality wood pulp, and brushes comprised a hake and two or three synthetic rounds.

My reading of Ron's approach was to demystify some of the  things surrounding watercolour painting,  one being that you had to spend a fortune on materials. The very finest materials may be beneficial to the talented and experienced artist, who knows how to use them to the best advantage, but is this the case with many amateurs? It is also a fact that quite a few  professional artists paint with either Cotman or a mix of student and artists quality, Bockingford paper and synthetic brushes. The famous British landscape artist Edward Wesson used 140lb Bockingford paper exclusively, then switched to 200lb, which was initially produced specifically for him. He also used, and popularized, such was his influence, what were originally called `French polisher  mops', which I take to be the Isabey range widely used today. Isabey however are not cheap. Various  manufacturers have produced Isabey `equivalents' but in general the original is still thought the best.

Bockingford Tinted 11" x 15" sheet pack

There are some who will tell you not to use Bockingford because it isn't 100% cotton. I also notice on the Ken Bromley website that the artist Trevor Lingard is complaining about recent variable quality, but such complaints are made from time to time about other well-known makes, with claims that quality has deteriorated. Bockingford is available in a wide range of weights and also tinted sheets.

When I first started painting I mostly used the  16" x 12" Bockingford spiral pads. There are several other budget makes, one of the best being Brittania from Hahnemuhle, made from cellulose. I have tried it and thought it fine, especially the rough surface although I wasn't so impressed with the cold pressed. It is very hard sized and so the paint doesn't sink into the paper, remaining bright. I think a lot depends on how you paint. There are others so try them and see how you get on.

I have tried a wide range of papers and have reached a provisional consensus that Saunders Waterford and Fabriano Artistico are my favourites, taking into account cost and quality. I do like Fontenay but the price has suddenly rocketed well out of reach and the Great Art website now talks about it being `handmade'. In any event this is about budget materials so I'll leave it there. According to Ian Sidaway the Daler Rowney Langton is also Bockingford. For the best buy some of the mail order specialists, specifically Jacksons and Ken Bromley, sell special offer packs of Bockingford cut into either half or quarter sheets, 50 or 100, at very keen prices equating to around 30p per sheet for the 11" x 15". Any 100% cotton paper will be more than double that and if you buy blocks even more expensive. Try Bockingford and if you are happy with it why buy anything else? Many professional artists do. I have no knowledge of other budget papers available outside Europe either in Asia or the North American Continent but I'm sure they exist.

Comparison of Cotman Tubed paints (Top three rows) and W & N Artists quality pans (bottom three).

 Can anyone looking at the above say the Cotman results appear seriously inferior? I might add since I did this, several years ago, Cotman has been upgraded and are using better quality pigments, many being exactly the same as the artists range. Another thing we are often told is that it is a false economy to use student quality as the pigment concentration is so much higher in the artist paints. The pigment concentration may well be higher but  this statement is very debatable. A comparison of costs per ml ( Jacksons prices) taking the Series 1 Artists quality price 14ml tube and the 21 ml Cotman gives figures of 48p and 15p respectively. This means that Cotman is less than a third of the cost. Has the artists range three times as much pigment? I think not. Bruce McEvoy of Handprint says actual pigment content in paints varies between 20% to 50%. The differences are variable between different pigments and are not dictated purely by cost. The balance is made up with additives and fillers. A brilliant Chinese artist who uses Cotman paints is Guan Weixing  Have a look at his wonderful paintings. Michael Wilcox says, in one of his books on colours and pigments, if you wish to economize on paints start with the earth colours.

Where you do tend to lose out is in expensive pigments like the Cadmiums,  Cobalts, Cerulean and Viridian. They are replaced by `Hue' equivalents. In the Cadmiums many manufacturers offer additional  `hue' versions as the toxic and opaque qualities of the true Cadmiums are anaethema to many artists. With blue one of the Phalo Blues or Ultramarine is used with added white to make `hue' equivalents of Cobalt and Cerulean Blue.  Viridian is replaced by a  `hue' version based on Phalo Green. Nothing to stop you buying a few Artist Quality as several good professionals use a mixture of the two. See my post on Paul Weaver, a very fine up and coming Bristol artist

I also think two other student quality paints are worth consideration. Van Gogh from Talens (Rembrandt) and Venezia from Maimeri. Maimeri is not easy to get in the UK but Van Gogh can be found with a little searching. Both are available in the USA. In each case, as with Cotman, the range is 40 paints and the same remarks apply regarding the Cadmiums and expensive blues. There may be others but these are the only ones I have experience with. St Petersburg and Shin Han paints come (in my opinion) into a different category - perhaps a halfway house, although both lines have question marks against them, particularly in the use of fugitive pigments, especially St Petersburg, while Shin Han have many multiple pigment paints, with white in quite a number. 

Keynsham Park 16" x 12" Bockingford 140lb Not

This painting was done using Van Gogh paints several years ago. My style was different then or probably more correctly still in a state of flux. Still is to some extent. I think Van Gogh paints are excellent, highly pigmented and a very good budget alternative to the eye wateringly expensive top ranges. Bockingford paper also. I don't present it as a good painting but not a great deal wrong with it. The same comments apply to Van Gogh as Cotman in that you might want to supplement them with a few tubes (or pans) of the expensive blues and/or Cadmiums only sold  in Artists Quality, although in the USA and Canada they are available in Cotman - 10 additional colours in all, slightly more expensive than the normal 40 colours but still very well-priced. Memo to Winsor & Newton. Why not in the UK? No more spurious excuses please.

We now come to brushes and the choice is plain, either animal hair or synthetic. With sable there is a choice of either Kolinsky or Red Sable, the latter generally cheaper. This is simplified because there are several different grades of sable and they vary in quality, depending on gender of the animal, time of year when harvested and also what species the hair comes from. Buy from a well-known source and beware cheap offers of `Kolinsky Sable' brushes. See my post on Rosemary and explore her catalogue online. Red Sable is the budget sable choice and then we move to synthetic/sable mixes. All the leading brushmakers offer a range and they are only slightly more expensive than pure synthetic. Rosemary, Stratford and York and  Pro Arte all make them. The SAA (Society of All Artists) now have a full range of own label brushes and have recently introduced a sable/synthetic. You need to be a member or know someone who is to buy at members prices. Jacksons are gradually increasing their own label brushes and there are some good buys amongst them. I think the Da Vinci Cosmotop Mix B is well worth a look being a mixed hair brush. Rosemary says that both Mongoose and Shiraz are suitable for watercolour. I have a Mongoose fan and it works well for tree  foliage although I don't use it much - perhaps I should. New synthetic brushes are coming onto the market all the time and are getting closer, so we are told, to emulating sable. Certainly some artists prefer the firmer feel of synthetic compared to the softness of sable. Yvonne Harry is one. The Internationally acclaimed Australian artist Robert Wade uses synthetic brushes exclusively, although they are his own signature brand made by Neef.

Paints, paper and brushes are the most expensive materials in painting although you can spend considerable amounts on other items like easels but again the range is vast, both in choice and price. I have previously posted on plein air equipment and admit that I have wasted a lot of money overall  on stuff I use only sparingly, or not at all, so be warned! Unfortunately I'm something of an impulse buyer although I have bought a lot of good stuff  at bargain prices. Art shops and mail order catalogues are full of interesting items but buy only what you really need and don't be seduced by siren voices saying you need this or that, all of which will make you a wonderful painter in a week or two. One tip is to get on the e-mail list of the mail order suppliers who regularly have special offers. When items you use appear buy! If you belong, and it is a good idea, to a local art group buy together to avoid paying carriage charges. I buy for my AVA group and  monitor  special offers.

The same general comments apply to books and dvd's which appear in ever increasing numbers. You can spend a fortune on them if not careful. From the many to choose be selective and buy only those that will be of use, although this is easier said than done. You really have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Having said all this I will now don sackcloth and ashes and admit I buy (mostly) Kolinsky sables, 100% cotton paper and artists quality paints. I do shop around and buy at the best prices, also special offers which are frequent. For example prior to the January price increase Great Art were offering Fabriano Artistico paper at half price. I bought a shipload. Amongst artists quality paints Daler Rowney are often the best priced. Lukas via Great Art are well priced and so is Maimeri from either Jacksons (only on the website) or Turnham who are cheaper. With Turnham you have a fixed carriage charge regardless which has to be added. In the UK Winsor & Newton are very well priced and cheaper than the American imports Graham, Daniel Smith and Da Vinci. These latter are all very good but expensive in the UK. Jacksons offer well-priced own brand paints, made I'm told by Sennelier. And so on. Watercolour painting is an expensive hobby but you can cut corners and work within a limited budget so don't despair. Unfortunately local art shops tend to sell at full price. Some will give a 10% discount to students and members of local art groups. It is a fact that you can save considerable sums of money, at least 20-30% and sometimes up to 50%, buying from the mail order specialists, of which there are an increasing number. Jacksons, Ken Bromley  and Great Art, all waive carriage charges over a certain amount. Some of the others now seem to be catching on to this. In the USA there are many excellent internet suppliers like Dick Blick, Cheap Joes, ASW, and Jerrys Artarama to name just four. On the continent you obviously have Great Art, who are German, but I don't as yet know of any others. The language barrier is a problem as are carriage charges. I also point out once more that countries outside the EU can order from UK suppliers and the 20% VAT is deductable. Carriage charges will be higher but they will give you a quote and you might be surprised how competitive some of the prices are.

The question of what to buy, especially that between  `best' materials and budget ones never stops. The consensus leans towards the best but as I've said this depends on circumstances. Brilliant paintings have been and are being produced by some very fine artists using cheaper materials.. I think the key thing here is the `very fine'. Their skill enables them to overcome any deficiencies which might be insurmountable to the lesser talented. 

I shall be taking a weeks holiday at Lake Garda in Italy starting tomorrow so no more posts for probably ten days. Comments (and corrections!) welcome. 

Friday 10 June 2011

William H Macy

This is William H Macy the well-known actor pictured in his new role as `Frank' in the American TV version of the British soap Shameless. No I don't watch it. This photograph was on the cover of the Weekend Guardian colour magazine. I immediately thought he would make a great subject for a watercolour portrait.

Initial drawing.

This was my second attempt. I rejected the first painting because the resemblance to Macy was not good enough and I also realised I was beginning to tighten up, something I'm always fighting against. For the outline drawing I used a Shorty  Propelling pencil. This is a tool I first read about in Robert Wades last book  and on perusing the Great Art catalogue I saw and ordered one. It is unusual in that the pencil is short and stubby 10.5cm long 1.5cm wide, hence the name, with a quite large 7B 0.3mm lead. It is soft being a 7B so I was careful not to press too hard. It's in the latest Great Art catalogue if anyone is interested. I've not seen it anywhere else in the UK mail order specialists. Robert Wade said he bought his in an art shop in Venice and that he believed it was called a `Stumpy' in the USA. Code number is 28391/2 black or white. It costs £6.95 and comes with three leads. I presume you can get replacement leads although they aren't listed in the latest `small' GA catalogue, possibly on the website. Note Added 13/06/11.Yes they are available.

The `Shorty' compared

William H Macy `Frank' - Waterford High White 140lb (300gsm) 11" x 15"Not

I've just compared this with the actual painting and the painting is better, not quite so truncated (my ad hoc photography!). I also think the values are better in the actual painting.Note Added 11/6: I have rephotographed the painting, using a tripod and different settings and removed the original. Still far from perfect. Overall I'm pleased with the result. I first did a loose drawing making sure the proportions were correct by using the variscaler and just putting dots in which I then used as guides for the drawing. I used the Shorty for all the intial drawing but switched to a normal B pencil for the  eyes etc.

Paints used were a mix of Cadmium Red Light or Pale, Cadmium Yellow Light and Cerulean for the features but in order to get the darker shades, especially around the eyes, I mixed Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna. The eyebrows and moustache are a mixture of mainly Gold Ochre with some Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna and a little of the dark mix. Touches of Ivory black for the dark areas above the eye and corners and also the pupils. The hair is mainly Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Gold Ochre partially mixed on the paper. Touches of Hookers Green in the corners of the eyes. The shirt was a mixture of Cerulean and Cobalt Blue, with the jacket mainly Raw Umber. I think that's it.

Brushes used were the Isabey No 6 retractable for the eyes, nose and mouth and Rosemary No.6 and 9 series 33 Kolinsky for the rest of the face. I used the Da Vinci 44 Kolinsky Mop No 2 and Rosemary No 9 for the hair.

This was also another trial of the Waterford High White paper and I'm beginning to change my opinion and becoming more positive about it.

Monday 6 June 2011

Time to Experiment

I decided to chance my arm yesterday and made an experimental painting from the photograph below.

This is down Manor  lane near my home and I went through the gate this morning on my daily walk, down on the edge of the farmers field and into the Community wood. Saw a deer, a doe, she was only about twenty yards away, standing stock still until I walked off.  Since I took the above photograph, some weeks ago, the foliage growth has increased and looking at it from close up it seemed quite different. For one thing the detail in the rear was visible and the darks were not so dark.

 The Gate - 18" x 14" Not Canson Acquarelle.

I decided to experiment and move towards `realistic abstracts' a la Victoria Prischedko - well partially at least. The gate is the key feature and I have used colour in a far more vibrant way than the dullness one gets with greens. Although we are only at the beginning of June the weather here has been so warm and mild that everything is beginning to have a mid-Summer look.

I first made a loose drawing without much detail and then painted using a No.14 Sable brush labelled Simonart. This is one I bought in my early days when I was studying at Mary Shaw's studio by the River Avon. It was from a wholesale catalogue only for professionals. The head is quite large more like a 16 when compared to some other makes and it has a sharp point. The only other place I have seen them on sale was at a framing gallery in Bath.  I should have said I first applied Winsor & Newton masking fluid to the gate, parts of the trees and various other places. After this had dried I splashed paint! The paper is Canson Acquarelle, not one of my normal choices by any means but I just happened to have some. In fact this was painted on the back of another experimental painting that I did at one of my AVA sessions. When I removed the masking tape some of the paper came with it.

The darks were various combinations of Permanent Carmine (W & N PR n/a), Cyan Blue (Maimeri PB15-3), Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna. There is some Viridian in there somewhere and I mixed the greens with combinations of Hansa Yellow Medium (Daniel Smith PY97)  and various blues. Gold Ochre (W & N PY43), was used on the tree trunks and parts of the wall and touches of Ultramarine Violet (Rowney PV15). Greys were mostly a mix of Cyan Blue and Cadmium Orange (Maimeri PO20). I think there are touches of Raw Umber and Raw Sienna as well. Comments welcome.