Aqua Brique from Cretacolor

February 27, 2009

Left: Painting of a pelican made using using Cretacolor Aqua Briques on gesso-coated paper. This image is cropped from an 11 x 14 inch image. As often happens with my paintings I don't like the full image. I'm interested in something closer. The height here is about 11 inches. I prepared watercolor paper with two coats of gesso, allowing my brush strokes to show (this creates interesting texture when paint is applied later) and then sketched (with light graphite) a pelican taxidermy specimen that was hanging from the ceiling of the Mississippi Wildlife Refuge building. (That's not really fun for the neck.) Color was added with strokes of the Aqua Briques which were blended with a large synthetic watercolor brush and water and sometime my thumb (see yellow portion at top left of bird's head). Click the image to view an enlargement.

In the summer of 2006 I picked up a 10-color can of a new product: Cretacolor Aqua Briques. I enjoy experimentation, especially when I can report back to students and friends and maybe help them find a tool they can really enjoy. But I am also always looking for a way to get the texture I want in  my paintings.

For several years I wrote product reviews on a Yahoo list that I had for friends and past students. I stopped keeping this list when I started blogging in 2008. Since that time a number of new students in my classes, as well as readers of my blog, have asked me about Aqua Briques.

This interest and the fact that there many artists who like to draw and paint led me to think readers of this blog would enjoy hearing about my field tests of a tool that functions both ways. What follows is a revised version of my original review.

Cretacolor Aqua Briques

In 2006 I experimented with this new art "medium."

Basically these are small rectangles of paint, approx. 1 x 2 inches that can be used as crayons for direct drawing or used as a palette of colors to wet with a brush. (Can't give you the actual size as I gave my set to someone else, more about this later.)

Wet Paint is carrying them locally for $35.20 for a 10-color set (listed as a 12-piece set because the manufacturer counts the pencil they include AND the palette!!! More about this later) and $70.40 for the 20-color set (labeled 22 pieces). Open stock is also available for $3.40 each.

The colors are listed below and an immediate problem can be seen:

The 10-brique (12-piece including Aquamonolith and palette) set includes:

•Cadmium yellow
•Permanent dark yellow
•Carmine extra fine
•Sky blue
•Prussian blue
•Sienna natural
•Ivory black

The 20-brique (22-piece including Aquamonolith and palette) set includes:

•Permanent white
•Yellow light
•Cadmium yellow
•Permanent dark yellow
•Vermilion dark
•Carmine extra fine
•Mars violet dark
•Sky blue
•Prussian blue
•Turquoise dark
•Light green
•Olive green
•Ochre light
•Siena natural
•Red brown
•Ivory black

The colors are rated with high lightfastness levels.

The problem I have with the color range is as follows: the small set (which I was using) has no good dark blue. Both blues in the "starter" palette shift to green and this causes issues with the way I see things (since I don't use black). You can get an Indigo (which is my favorite watercolor color) in the larger set (though I don't know which pigment they use to create their indigo). At the time I was testing this product single colors were not available so I have no idea if their indigo is a delightful color or not.

In general I found the mixing of complementary colors provided in the small set was muddier and less satisfying then the pigments I typically use.

Next there is no WHITE in the small set. This is a huge omission. While you can certainly use these paints transparently and wash them out to a thin wash, there is a thickness to them that will be familiar to people who've worked with watersoluble crayons and watersoluble oil pastels. Because of that thickness you want a white on your palette, it comes in useful. I put a dab of white gouache in the box before heading out.

There is one nice thing about the colors in the small box. If you like to use red and green in complementary color compositions the magenta and the emerald blend nicely to a rich neutral that people who like using various rose and turquoise watercolors will enjoy.

Here's the scoop, handicapped with the color selection and lack of white I nevertheless took the set into the field.

1. The plastic "palette" that the manufacturer is so quick to count as one of the set's "pieces" is GARBAGE. It's a weak, thin, molded plastic that with any mildly active use will break up and fail. There are also too few wells to mix colors comfortably.

2. Next the set is messy. If you want to draw directly with the briques you have to wrestle them out of their "palette" holding places; good luck with that—they are a snug fit. By the time you get them out you'll have pigment all over your fingers. This might not be an issue when you're in the studio and you have ample access to water and wipes, but in the field where everything is at a minimum or a premium this is very frustrating. You have to keep checking your hands before you reach for other tools or items. Or swat at that mosquito! If it is a warm day (not even hot, just warm) the problem is magnified. These briques start to get soft and melty. A one hour drawing session with my friend Diane as we sat on a floating dock working on landscapes left us both with totally filthy hands. And we are both pretty tidy artists! The website mentions a "Brique Clip" to hold the pieces, but one didn't come with the set and I have no idea about cost. Getting the pieces out of their holding places to insert into the clip will still be an issue. Take a lot of paper towels or water and a towel, to clean your hands!

3. If you decide that you are not going to draw directly, but are going to use the briques as "pans" of color and touch them with your brush, you very quickly get a messy, soggy brique—the water seeps under the brick into its molded holding area and starts to dissolve the brique from the bottom up. Too bad if you later decide to pick a brique up and color directly with it. Now you've really got a mess on your hands. If you're lucky enough to get the whole brick out of that tight space in one piece you'll find you have paint all over your hands and under your fingernails. And it's a sticky thick paint that is going to use up your ration of paper towels! You could try to finger paint the paint into one of the palette wells or onto your paper, but that was a bit problematic while I was balancing on a rock!

4. The case, a thin metal box, does not close SECURELY and if you're in the field you had better have a rubber band or some tape!

5. The sun is hard on them. They get soft when you are sitting on a rock by Lake Superior, in the sun, sketching! (See also item 2.) This further complicates removal from the palette and creates additional mess on the hands.

6. If you do elect to work with these in your journal and you don't dissolve the strokes of paint they will smudge onto the opposite page. (But by that time you've got fingerprints of color all over your journal cover, fore edge, and spine anyway because the paint is all over your fingers so maybe it doesn't matter!)

So what is good about these briques if anything?

If you like to do quick sketches with bold lines and then have the ability to wash that line and dissolve some of the line into color these would be great. I would recommend them for people going to life drawing sessions for this reason.

They are in a relatively small case for travel and can be used OPAQUELY, so if you like to use gouache but don't want to take all your tubes into the field this would be a nice alternative. (But you would be using them as pans of color in this scenario, NOT as drawing tools. In this way you would avoid the sticky mess of trying to get them out of their container.) BE SURE TO TAKE WHITE gouache however, if you have the small set.

If you enjoy working with watersoluble crayons like Neocolor II you'll enjoy these for their ability to run the range of drawing and painting, sgraffito, rubbing, and (according to their box text) monoprinting! They also make a lightfast alternative to crayons of lesser quality.

I used them on paper and on gesso-coated paper. If my usual color range had been available I might have been happier, but overall they performed only OK on those surfaces. And because they only performed OK I can't see investing in the larger set, or buying colors open stock, as I already have tools which work like these, without some of the drawbacks.

Because of the negatives listed above I just can't recommend them. I have had better results and more fun working with  Stabilotones, or Neocolor II, Neoart (which I can't find a link for so they may be discontinued), or Faber Castel's Albrecht Durer Aquarelle sticks. I've used all of these in the field with great results, and a whole lot less mess! (I've been told that Stabilo has discontinued the full 60 some color range of their product and only sells the small set. If true, this is really sad, as there are some great colors in the full range, and I have enjoyed using them.)

Note: the above links aren't meant to endorse suppliers, but only provide you with a visual image and cost idea. Please search for a supplier you are comfortable working with. With the exception of the Neocolor II these alternatives are not available at my favorite local store, Wet Paint, so I will be forced to buy mail order when making replacements.

Bottom line: The makers of Aqua Brique clearly didn't test it in the field and seem overly proud of the shoddy packaging as a positive selling point.

Instead of adapting to the messy drawbacks of this "medium" I recommend you spend your money on additional tubes or pans of your favorite watercolor, throw some watersoluble colored pencils and wax-based colored pencils into your satchel and head out into the field.

If you've got extra cash you want to splurge with and you basically work in the studio and have access to lots of paper towels and a quality palette for mixing you might enjoy these. If you enjoy getting broad strokes on a large surface when you are at life drawing having one or two briques in your tool box could be fun.

I passed my set on to a landscape painter who works with pastels. Like me she found them interesting, but too messy (and remember this is someone who works with pastels!).

As for a disclaimer on me, remember that when I am in the field I typically use a portable pan palette of gouache that is only about 1 x 3 inches!

Note: In 2006 I shared my original review with the manager of Wet Paint who chose to pass it on to his suppliers (I was fine with that). Wet Paint has since expanded their coverage of this product line with the open stock. I'm assuming it is selling well. I'd rather they use the space to carry Schmincke Gouache again, but I guess there are fewer gouache enthusiasts than Aqua Brique fans. Maybe it's just cynical Roz who thinks that significant others and friends and family see these sets and think they'll make a nice gift, maybe people really enjoy using these briques and having their fingers covered with paint (actually my fingers are often covered with paint and ink but not sticky paint like this). Ultimately I just hope you can find enough information here to decide whether or not you need these. 

  1. Reply

    What a coincidence! I also blogged about the Aqua Briques yesterday. Your review is much more thorough and informative though, so I have taken the liberty to direct my readers to this post. Regards.

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