Monday Morning Art School: neat lines in watercolor

Sampler on Arches natural cold-pressed paper: a straight-edge was used for the straight lines, and the curves were drawn freehand. An ultramarine blue wash was laid over the mask, and a glaze of cadmium yellow was added after the mask was removed. Where it is still pink, the masking fluid is still in place. (All photos courtesy Michael Prairie.)

I have an aversion to frisket, or masking fluid, for watercolor. I’m unable to apply it elegantly. It wrecks brushes, leaves lumpy marks, and in general always seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, I wet my paper carefully around the items to block out and then apply the paint using capillary action to direct it. That has its problems as well, so when Michael Prairie shared this method of applying frisket using an old-fashioned ruling pen, I was gobsmacked. (Mike’s an engineer, so it’s no surprise that he found a solution to this technical problem.) Without further ado, I’ll let Mike explain it:

Masking fluid mixed with a dab of quinacridone magenta

I had my father’s old ruling pen (he was a machinist and did some mechanical drawings). It was beat up a bit, so I tuned it up. Here are a couple useful links that I found, one of which really helped me tune the tip:

 How to use a ruling pen

 Steel ruling pens 

I can tint the fluid with a bit of watercolor pigment, and it hasn’t stained the paper. Some fluid is available in blue, but this lets you use different colors if you want.

The ruling pen works well with the watercolor paint itself. It is a great way to paint long lines of uniform thickness.

Ruling pen dipped in masking fluid, and the outside of the tines wiped dry.

Dipping the tip in thick masking fluid and wiping the excess off outside of the channel works well, but with thinner watercolor paint it tends to wick out of the channel. For that, I found I can load the pen with a loaded watercolor brush by scraping it across the edge higher in the channel. I also got an eye dropper to load the pen, and that works well.

For using a straightedge to draw lines, the edge should be lifted above the paper so the fluid or paint does not wick under the edge. Some straightedges are designed with a notch (or a rabbet in woodworking parlance) for “inking,” but a couple layers of masking tape set back from the edge will do the trick.

Ruling pen filled with juicy ultramarine blue with an eyedropper (to keep the outside of the pen dry).

The ruling pen can be used freehand as well. With the tips tuned so they are sharp and parallel, the line will follow the direction of the two edges on the tip. If the pen is held without rotating the handle, the line will be straight, but if the handle is rotated while drawing, it can be steered to make smooth curves.

Some people use nibs (from fountain pens). I haven’t tried that, except for a crude nib I made with a plastic drinking straw. It worked okay for scrubby applications of masking fluid.

I ruined an old paintbrush by not dipping it in Dawn dishwashing soap first-and I don’t know what the soap will do to the paint if residue is left behind.

I also tried some silicone brushes and found that they were good for dropping small semi-controlled blobs of masking fluid and moving it around into desired shapes, but they don’t come close to what I can do with a ruling pen for straight lines.

Sampler on Strathmore Bristol smooth sketchbook paper, i.e., hot-pressed.

You can get a ruling pen at Dick Blick, or a cheaper one at Amazon, but not all drafting tools are created equal. I didn’t want a cheap knock off, so I went to ebay where I found a used Staedtler Mars one for eleven bucks including the shipping. That means I will find my old one shortly, right?

My workshop schedule can be found here.┬áThat includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: activate your paints

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor full sheet, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I give new students a protocol sheet. On one side it lists the steps for a good oil painting, on the other side, the steps for a good watercolor. (Acrylic painters can follow the oil painters’ lead.) Then I tell them they no longer need me, and laugh.

Last year, I realized that there was a step missing on the watercolor side, a step that seemed so basic that I had failed to include it. It was to wet the paints on the palette before starting painting. I expected that everyone knew that. Silly me, because it’s critical for clean, bright color.

The deck of the schooner American Eagle, from which I teach watercolor twice a year. 8X5.5 sketch.

Watercolor can be purchased in pans or tubes. If the latter (which I far prefer), it’s generally squeezed into a palette and allowed to dry. (There are a few painters out there who squeeze out new watercolors every time they work; that’s an expensive and unnecessary practice.) In either case, the paint needs to be activated. That means wetting it down to approximate its consistency out of the tube.

The easiest way to do this is with a small spray bottle; you can also use a syringe or drop (clean) water from a brush. It should be done 10-15 minutes before you start painting, and might need to be redone as you work, depending on environmental conditions.

Before activating your paints, make sure they’re clean. Any color that’s migrated into another pan is best removed when the underlying color is dry. You can do this very easily with a damp brush. And if you didn’t clean your mixing wells earlier, this is a good time to do it.

Penobscot Bay sunset, from the deck of the same schooner. 8X5.5 sketch.

How wet should your paints be? Wetter than you might imagine. You need to lay a solid film of water over the top of the paints and let it soak down into the pigments. That takes more than a few seconds. If you go several days between painting sessions, expect it to take at least fifteen minutes.

Most of my watercolors are dashed off between oil paintings, but they still need activated paint. 8X5.5 sketch.

The proof is in the pudding

My old pal, watercolorist Stu Chait paints deep, intense hues in his abstract paintings. He gets them by working with suspensions of paint in little square cups. Bruce McMillan, master of clean color, paints on a big butcher’s tray with paint cups around the center.

The best way to achieve a prissy, old-lady look in watercolor is to start with dry paints. Even a wet brush can’t pick up enough pigment to give saturated color. To compensate, the artist starts to glaze colors, over and over. Eventually he has something so delicate, so refined, so dull, that it looks like it was done by a minor British noble’s maiden aunt.

Watercolor is shockingly durable. I have a palette given to me by a retired artist. It contains the paints she used back in art school in the 1970s. They awaken with a sheer misting of water. This is one reason for the perpetual love affair of painters with watercolors-they’re patient. You can slip them in a backpack and ignore them for months between uses.

Rocks along the Pecos River. How I miss teaching in New Mexico!

One more thing

There are a few slots open in my critique class, starting tonight.

My workshop schedule can be found here.┬áThat includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

A game-changer for watercolor?

It's a danger when you come to visit; I probably will make you work.

It’s a danger when you come to visit; I probably will make you work.

Watercolor painters have several options for transferring their sketch to paper. They can hope they get it right without guidelines at all. That has never worked for me; I’m far too impulsive.

Or, they can sketch in light pencil lines. Pencil can be very charming under watercolor, but make the marks too dark or numerous, and they’re jarring. Excess erasing will damage the surface of the paper. As soon as you’ve painted over pencil marks, they’re fixed in place forever.

Underdrawing done with Pilot FriXion pen.

Another solution is to paint in guidelines with a very dilute solution of Neutral Tint and a tiny brush. This is a technique I learned from the late painter James Asher, and it works very well with his meticulous, carefully-realized style of painting. I’ve found it works better in controlled studio work than in loose plein air work, however.

My daughter Mary recently bought herself a Cricut machine and in the process of fiddling with it, learned about the Pilot FriXion pen. It comes in .7mm or .5mm and a variety of colors, and it erases with the heat given off by friction. For a watercolor artist, this has tremendous potential, if it means we can erase drawing lines using a hair dryer.

Diane’s watercolor before erasing the line drawing.

As I live in the deep woods, I was able to buy only a .7mm point; it was fine for my test, but I’d probably buy the finer point if given a choice. According to the package, the usable temperature range is 14-140┬░ F.

My student Diane Fulkerson is visiting, so I asked her to test it for me. (I’m telling you the specific materials she used so that you, too, can do your own scientific tests). I gave her a sheet of Strathmore 400 watercolor paper. Starting with a quick drawing of a pitcher, a pear and a towel, she limned in the colors with QoR paints.

At this point the painting looked like a basic pen-and-wash exercise, and therein lies the danger of forgetting that these marks will completely disappear. When we hit it with the hairdryer, the marks really did vanish, leaving some lack of definition. “After the lines disappeared, I was left with just basic shapes,” said Diane. She then went back in and added shadows and a few details.

Diane’s watercolor looks a little barren without the pencil lines. Nothing a bit of painting won’t fix.

Will the lines reappear over time? I can’t say, but as an experiment, we tossed it in the freezer (around 0┬░ F) for about two hours to see if the lines reappeared; they did, ever so slightly. Don’t store your finished artwork in your unheated north-woods cabin over winter and you should probably be okay.

After she erased the lines, she added more marks.

I bought a few more and I’m taking them and my hair dryer to Acadia to see how my Sea & Sky workshop students like working with them. If you try this, let me know what materials you used and how it worked.

“I thought it was cool,” said Diane, and I can’t disagree with her.