The Right Equipment
To avoid disappointment at the end, I have learned to plan ahead and get the right equipment.

The Right Equipment

January 1, 2024

A good watercolor looks like it was dashed off easily, on a light summer day. The soft feeling of the blends can turn even a bleak urban scene into a sweet, nostalgic tableau. Thus, the art appreciator might never guess that watercolor is an extremely difficult medium that demands patience and planning. Over time, the watercolorist can learn to plan instinctively, so that their work appears effortless, but inside, they are carefully trying to control every brush stroke. I say “trying” because no watercolorist is really in control. The water has its own agenda, and can either add unique, natural beauty or ruin the whole picture, depending on which way it flows. 

This blog post is about having the right equipment to achieve an effect. In this case of a fairy forest scene, I was trying to capture the light that existed in my original source photo. For the base of the artwork, I took a picture of this beautiful, sunlit tree on the grounds of the LaVelle Winery in Elmira, Oregon. As you can see, there is plenty of dappled light, and tiny holes of sunshine poking through the tree.

To achieve this dappled light in watercolor, you have to think in reverse. The paper is the light source, not the paint. Every place that is white light in the source photo needs to be white paper in the watercolor. Now, there are some true masters who can preserve their whites without any tricks, but I am not one of them. The equipment I use to protect the white paper is called masking fluid. There are many kinds, but I like Winsor & Newton brand because it goes on light yellow, which is close to the color it is preserving.

Winsor & Newton Masking Fluid

I overlaid the fairy on the source photo and made a tracing to use as a guide for the whites. Then I used carbon paper to very lightly apply the outlines to the 300-pound watercolor paper. As you can see in the following photograph of the tracing, I applied the yellow masking fluid in all the white areas. Masking fluid is sticky, gross stuff that destroys good brushes, so you have to have a spare set of brushes that you only use with the fluid.

Tiny lines are the most difficult thing to mask in watercolor. Often tiny lines provide all the delicacy and nuance in the image you are trying to produce, so they are very important. If you don’t have a tiny brush, you will fail to get the effect you want. To make tiny lines of masking fluid, like the ones needed for the grass highlights in the picture, I use a Kafka 0/5 scriptliner brush, as recommended by my teacher Debbie Claussen. I start my brushstroke at the thickest part of the line and move toward the thinnest, for the fluid globs on at first touch and then gets thinner. I have to clean the brush with Gamsol frequently, as the fluid gums up.

Kafka Scriptliner Brushes

I applied the masking fluid, let it dry and left it on for the entire time that I painted everything else in the picture. I was worried about preserving the glow in the fairy’s face, arms, and wings, so I was grateful for the fluid when I was painting the dark branches next to her face. Even when my hand slipped and the brush full of green touched her face, the fluid protected the paper.

Here is a photograph of the painting, right after I removed the masking fluid before I made the final touch ups in the light areas. As you can see, it looks a little raw and shocking, because the whites have a harsh edge from the fluid. A few more rounds are required to soften the transition from light to dark.

So, in summary, a lot of planning went into this fairy, even if she looks light and carefree. You can be the judge of whether I succeeded in making the white light look “natural” in all areas, but I tried my best! As someone who enjoys painting more than planning, it has been hard to develop the patience to do this intense prep work. I would much rather just sketch in the drawing and paint away with gusto, regardless of the consequences. However, I have been bitterly disappointed in the past when I obliterated the whites with careless brushstrokes and lost the sparkle of the scene. Thus, to avoid sorrow at the end, I have learned to plan ahead and get the right equipment. A life lesson, from watercolor painting.