Watercolor Magic!

Watercolor Magic! 1

by David Pyle

Art-making stuff

Finding joy vs. being ‘good’ (whatever that is)

I know this sounds trite, but it really IS all about the process. In my 40 years of active painting, I’ve gradually come to understand that the real joy comes when I’m fully ‘in the moment,’ working outside of anything that feels like space and time. Getting to that place means not caring if you’re making anything ‘good’ or if anyone will like the work.

I’ve made a whole lot of not-very-good paintings – but each time I feel challenged, it means I’m taking steps toward new skills, a wider awareness, and new ways to see and share my view of the world. Every step on my (and your!) art-making road is authentic and real – and that’s infinitely better any single ‘good’ painting.

For that reason, I believe it’s a good thing to share your work – whether it’s in person or on social media or wherever. It’s an authentic and tangible record of your process – which is always something to celebrate.

The real secret to getting good? Draw and paint. A lot. Every day when you can. All the instruction and tips and books and videos in the world can’t help as much as simply making lots of art. If you do so, you’ll find your own way in making magic.


For some, the primary ‘hook’ in art-making is color. For others, it’s gesture or line. For me, composition is where it all starts and ends. I find that a great composition will help point the way for coming choices about value, line, texture, and color. And a great composition will forgive a lot of other less-than-ideal elements.

Composition is really quite simple: it’s all about creating multiple pathways into your picture plane and then providing so much interest that your viewer can’t resist staying for a while.

Look at works of Degas, DeKooning, Kline, Homer, Sargent, Cassatt, and Wyeth (all four: N.C., Andrew, Jamie, and sister-to-Andrew, Carolyn) to name a few and pay attention to how they use partial figures, foreground/background, brushwork, line, and even light and shade to seduce the viewer into the painting…and then there’s so much great stuff going on inside the artwork that the viewers can hardly pry themselves away.


When I first started painting, I typically tried to lay in all the forms with a similar mid-tone value. I thought that would give me a clear sense of balance around how the finished painting could take shape. Over the years, I realized that it did nothing of the sort. Looking at everything with the same values was like looking a bowl of plain oatmeal – nothing stood out or pointed the way toward a great tasting bite.

I’ve since begun laying in what I know will be the darkest darks as soon as I can. Doing so forces me to think about how the coming relationships are likely to take shape. It immediately gives me benchmarks against which to make clear choices about color and other values. It’s likely that I’ll end up adjusting those dark passages further down the road…but having something solid against which to work (like a crucible!) inevitably helps move everything along.

Rhythm and musicality

This is virtually impossible to accurately articulate…but paintings inevitably have rhythm, line, and counterpoint. While I don’t know how to define how a painting acquires GREAT rhythm, line, and counterpoint, I DO know that it’s something that I can feel when it’s there – both as a viewer and when painting. A tip: look for shapes that can repeat or echo each other through the picture plane. Look for how line can balance and move fluidly throughout the image. Look at how colors can rhythmically move you through a painting. Most of all, be mindful of any sense of musicality that you feel (or hear!) when you’re working. If your process feels musical – or even like you’re dancing while painting – the odds are good that something pretty terrific is happening.


Here are some commonly-cited rules for good art-making: the compositional law of the thirds is always good. Except when it isn’t. Never place your primary figure in the center of the painting. Except when it’s better that way. Warm colors come forward; cool colors recede. Except when they don’t. Always vary your line weight – except when it’s better to keep it consistent. The point is that rules give you something against which to compare (which is good). They can help you find a starting point in your art-making – but they’re only a good life-partner when you realize they’re not always perfectly suited to every situation. Which is still only an imperfect rule.

Color Stuff

Color names, OR: “Why do artist’s’ colors often have those funny chemical-sounding names like ‘quinacridone’ and ‘cobalt’ and ‘cadmium’ instead of more descriptive names like ‘light purple’ or ‘sunset orange’ or ‘smoochy-face pink?'”

Artist’s colors are typically named for the pigment with which they’re made or for historical consistency. This means the artist can select and use the colors based on their known unique properties (like natural transparency or opacity or granulation and more) rather than on some marketing person’s poetical, mood-inducing interpretation in creating a descriptive name that has no relevance to what’s important to a painter!

Pigment vs. dye

This is pretty simple: a dye is intended to run and bleed (hence it’s use as colorant for fabric). Pigments are intended to stay where you put ’em. That’s good for a painter (so you don’t have to worry about your carefully placed brushstrokes running amok)! Dyes also tend to be less stable when exposed to light energy, meaning that they’re more prone to fading. That’s less likely with pigments (although it’s not a hard and fast rule).

Opacity vs. transparency

When well-milled with a minimum of additives, the true ‘personality’ of each pigment will shine through (just like puppies + babies, every pigment absolutely, positively has a unique personality!) and can be employed by the painter to powerful effect. Some pigments (like Cadmium) are naturally opaque, allowing the watercolorist to use those colors for coverage over other colors OR to create mixes that take on a brown or gray tonality that closely matches shadows in natural light. Naturally transparent pigments (like Quinacradone) are like small particles of stained glass, allowing the painter to create brilliant glazes or mixes that are bright and clear.

Granulation + flocculation

These are unique and powerful properties for watercolorists. Granulation typically happens with large, heavy pigment particles. Those big ‘chunky bits’ settle to the surface and create a textured appearance when the color dries. Flocculation is similar except that it’s due to the electrochemical properties of the pigment. These qualities make for deeply interesting and varied washes of color. And, when one of these pigments is mixed with one that doesn’t granulate or flocculate, the resulting mixture can have a unique and richly variegated tone (like my favorite mixture of Brown Madder and Cobalt Blue Deep)!

Mass-tone + undertone

Mass-tone is the hue of a color at its most opaque, in a thick layer. Undertone describes that same color when thinned in a wash or in a thin layer. Some colors are dramatically different in mass-tone vs. undertone – and it’s in the undertone where you can most commonly see where a color may lean toward a particular shade (like Ultramarine red-shade or green-shade). Those ‘shadings’ are created through how the raw pigment is processed (either with heat or some other treatment that leads to a unique optical property) BEFORE it’s milled into paint.

How do you know what colors will give you each of these properties?

I’m SO glad you asked that! A quality manufacturer will include information on their tube labels that list the pigment, its expected lightfastness and its relative opacity/transparency. An even better resource can be found with manufacturer’s color charts or online references.

Paper stuff

“What’s it mean when it says ‘mould-made’ on the package? Was it made with mold?”

Argh! Nope! No mold involved! Here’s the simple story…Paper is typically made in three different ways:

  • Hand-made by dipping a screen (called a mould) with a detachable rim (called a deckle) into a vat filled with cellulose pulp and water. The resulting sheet is then pressed to expel the water, then dried and treated in a variety of ways to create unique surfaces and personality. (NOTE: that’s how it’s done in western-style papermaking; there are some differences in Eastern style papermaking but it’s fundamentally the same). Working on expertly-made hand-made paper can be an extraordinary experience. Transcendent!
  • Machine-made on a stunningly fast-moving screen (the fourdrinier machine invented in 1799) over which cellulose/water pulp is distributed and formed into very uniform sheets.
  • Mould-made, which is a happy middle-ground. Typically, a screen is wrapped around a large rotating cylinder. Pulp is taken onto the surface of the rotating mould (moving much more slowly than the fourdrinier machine) which allows for greater variety and stronger internal structure of the sheet as the fibers interlock with each other. Mould-made sheets are typically more costly than machine-made and less costly than good hand-made papers. And the slower process allows for the development of significant personality and quality.

Hot press, cold-press and rough

Once the paper sheets are formed, they can be ‘calendared’ or pressed to make a supremely smooth surface (hot-press), moderately textured (cold-press) or rough, leaving the impression of the drying felts in place with lots of pronounced topography. These topographies can play a profound role in your painting process, allowing for tight detail (hot-press) or looser, more expressive texture (cold-press and rough).

Paper fibers

Hoo boy. We can go on and on about this. Fundamentally, paper is made from interlocked cellulose fibers that are derived from a variety of plants. The variability that comes with different fibers is virtually infinite (much like bread-making is astonishingly diverse even though it’s made from only a few simple ingredients). A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • The longer and stronger the individual fibers, the more resilient and long-lasting the paper. Also, long/strong fibers allow for the greatest potential for creating paper surfaces with remarkable personality.
  • Some long/strong fibers used in western papermaking include those from: cotton, hemp, and linen (among others). Eastern papermaking uses bast fibers (taken from just inside the bark) of woody plants like mulberry, gampi, kozo and more. If you’re looking for paper surfaces that can have great personality and allow for heavy working, look for papers made from these fibers
  • Fibers that are NOT long/strong are taken from wood pulp. Not only are these fibers short and not very resilient, they also include ‘lignin’ in their chemical structure (NOTE: lignins are the chemical glue that allow plant cells to stick together). Lignins are GOOD for living plants/trees because, without them, the mighty redwood would lay about like giant strands of over-cooked pasta. However, when the plant dies, lignins break down into acid, which is the evil-enemy of paper. Inexpensive papers like newsprint or bond will acidify and disintegrate over time as lignins break down and the resulting acid quite simply ‘unzips’ the cellulose structure. More stable wood-pulp papers and boards are made from alpha-cellulose fibers (look for that on the packaging) and are buffered with a compound that will neutralize the acid as it develops. (But they’re still not as stable long-term as a great paper made from a long/strong fiber like cotton or linen or mulberry)

Brush stuff

The three benchmarks for a great watercolor brush:

  • The point. Does the brush come to a great point when wet, allowing for accuracy when laying down color?
  • Snap and spring. Does the brush quickly come back into shape (and the resulting point) as you work the surface?
  • Flow control. Do the fibers or hairs of the brush allow for even capillary action and consistent flow of color from the point – or does it dump uncontrollably?

Brush filaments (or hair)

Sable hair

This is the holy-grail of great brushmaking, particularly hair taken from the Kolinsky Sable variety that’s native to Siberia. Even better when it’s taken from the long guard hairs on the tail, harvested in the dead of winter. I realize this raises some uncomfortable questions around ethical animal treatment as a by-product of the furrier trade. That said, there’s no question that those long guard hairs from the kolinsky sable – when well-made by a skilled brushmaker – create a brush that holds a rapier-like point and snaps to attention over and over like a young Marine recruit. Those hairs also are ringed with scales that – when loaded with watercolor – create stunningly consistent flow AND that act as a reservoir, holding a great deal of color that can flow on and on and on when painting.

Synthetic fibers

Both nylon and polyester are used in making synthetic filament brushes. Both can be produced with a point at the end of the filament (which can make for a reasonable point of the brush). They also have LOTS of snap and spring. But, when extruded, the filament is glass-smooth, which means poor capillary action and a tendency to dump color (instead of even flow). Brush manufacturers have found a number of very creative ways to mitigate those issues, sometimes mixing a portion of natural hair with the filament (called a ‘blend’) and/or treating the synthetic filaments to create an uneven perimeter surface which delivers a measure of capillary action and better flow control. Well-made synthetic brushes and synthetic/natural hair blends can be a perfectly viable tool for painters on a budget.

Other natural hairs

Squirrel, pony, badger and more have been used with a variety of watercolor brushes. Of those, well-made brushes from squirrel hair have a number good qualities, including a good point and terrific flow control. They don’t, however, offer much in the way of snap or spring. That said, they make great wash brushes and are terrific when looking to carry and lay down large volumes of color.

9 mins

Stay up to date with the latest news from Sketchbook Skool!

Did you enjoy this blog post?  
It helps us a lot if you share it!

Watercolor Magic!

by David Pyle Art-making stuff Finding joy vs. being ‘good’ (whatever that is) I know this sounds trite, but it really IS all about the process. In my 40 years of active painting, I’ve gradually come to understand that the real joy comes when I’m fully ‘in the moment,’ working outside of anything that feels

Read More »
creative habits

How to Start

I could start with a humorous anecdote, maybe something self-deprecating —I’ve been doing a fair amount of that sort of self-flagellation lately. Maybe about the time I fell asleep in the library in college and was so embarrassed when I was awoken by another student that….

Read More »

Everyday Matters – Profile of Catherine Youngren

Welcome to a new series from Sketchbook Skool about what making art means in our lives, as told by members of our Spark community.  “Making art gives me balance.” When life became turbulent, Catherine Youngren found stability in her sketchbooks. Art by Catherine Youngren I just retired from my work as a commercial interior designer

Read More »