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Sometimes You Need a Bigger Brush: Sketching the Grizzly Bear at the Bell Museum

March 10, 2014

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Above: 16 x 12 inch sketch on Fluid Hot Press watercolor paper, of the Bell Museum's grizzly bear. Pilot Lettering Pen and M. Graham watercolors with a Niji Waterbrush (large round)—that just wasn't large enough.

Last Thursday night I went to hear my friends Ken and Roberta Avidor talk at the Bell Sketch Night. You can see my warm up sketch of this bear in that post—I was testing light washes on Wave paper.

This is the sketch I did next, spending about 30 minutes on it. (People kept stopping by to chat so I ran out of time, but I actually was working on developing the darks a bit more as time was running down. Sometimes that's a good thing too because with the small brush I had it's starting to get fussy.)

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Left: Ken Avidor came to check up on my progress and took this photo of me and my paint-covered hands while we were both talking with someone else.

I don't know what's going on with me these days but my sketches just seem to get bigger and bigger. That means they are a pain to scan, but it also means I get more opportunity to be messy. (I had to make 4 scans of this painting and knit them together in Photoshop.)

Conventional wisdom dictates that you paint with the largest brush possible when working with watercolor. Typically I paint with a 12 or 14 Round brush (or a large filbert) in the studio, even when I'm doing small studies (which for me is something on a 6 x 6, 5 x 6, or 6 x 8 inch sheet). I have large brushes that come to nice points and it all works out.

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Left: Detail of the eye section so you can see what the strokes look like on the hot press watercolor paper. The eye highlight is just the white of the paper.

So for this piece I probably needed a 20 or larger! Of course they don't make waterbrushes in that size! (I wish they would: hint, hint.) Since my sketch went so large (I really was right at the edge of the paper for the nose and the bottom of the muzzle) I made use of my paper towel to push paint around in the underlayers and even used my fingers in places, and the side of my hand. (In the studio I will often use a 2- or 3-inch flat brush on sketches this size.)

I brought my Whiskey Painters Palette which happened to contain a small set of somewhat oddball M. Graham watercolors squeezed into the half pans.

I say oddball because the colors were part of one of the little limited edition sets that M. Graham sells from time to time. (I just got a Cobalt set the other day.) I don't remember what the set was called, but I think it had something to do with fall colors. Anyway the paints in the palette were Celtic Green (Oxides of Cobalt and Titanium—PG 50), Anthraquinone Blue (my beloved PB 60—why hasn't Art Brought this out in his Gouache line!), Maroon Perylene (PR 179), and Cobalt Violet (PV 14). To those colors I added Aso Yellow and Sepia. (I've been doing some monochromatic sketching with sepia and so it was on the palette.) I also filled a pan with Titanium White (Schmincke Horadam Gouache), but didn't use it on this sketch.

The great thing about these colors is that the Anthraquinone Blue and Maroon Perylene make a fantastic range of dark neutrals when mixed, skewing warm or cool depending on which pigment you let take the lead in your mix. You might look at this sketch and think there's a lot of sepia in use but in fact the only place I used sepia was to underpaint and dull down the yellow.

At various times I spattered over the bear because I wanted more "color on the muzzle but didn't want to use the brush. The fact that it went everywhere else was just fun.

As to spattering I was surprised at the number of people who came up to me while I was sketching (and in a spattering lull) who didn't know how I got the spattering done. If you are new to spattering it's really simple: I had a dark wet wash in the lid of the small palette. I pulled the wash over to the lip of the lid by tilting the palette. I ran my Niji Waterbrush across the puddle of color, across the lip of the lid, and stroked out into space over the drawing while pushing the brush down on that lip. That caused the bristles of the brush to release a couple at a time and send spatter to my paper.

You can also just load your brush with color and then stroke the tip against your finger, over your painting. Some people pull the bristles back with their thumb (that's easier to do with a stiffer brush than the Niji Waterbrush). Really prepared people go everywhere with a toothbrush because they make the best impromptu spattering tools because of their stiffer bristles. You get the idea, there are lots of ways to do this.

If I'm being careful and don't want spatter everywhere I'll take one of my paper towels and tear a rough mask to cover the areas I don't want splatter to reach. That works pretty well. I didn't do that on Thursday.

Oh, you can also flick paint, but you can't do that in a museum, so I didn't do that on the day. If you want to flick paint you need to fill your brush fully with your very wet pigment. The paint should just about drip off the brush tip without any help if you just hold the brush suspended. Then you take the brush in your hand and with a loose wrist or a huge arm movement or both, you snap downwards towards your painting in a flicking motion of course. For very dramatic flicks you want to follow through with an upstroke of your arm.

You'll get some spatter, but you'll also get (depending on the liquid medium you're using: paint, ink; and how full the brush was) some lines and squiggles of paint. You can see the linear spatter, curving about in this dog sketch here, which was made by whipping the brush. And in this dog sketch you can clearly see the flicked lines curving below the dog's chin (blue) and within his body you can see some rust lines that are pronounced near his abdomen. There is spatter in both of those sketches, but the linear effects were from flicking. And both dog sketches were done at home where my wooden floors testify to my penchant for flicking acrylic paint and not getting it cleaned up before it dries!

Oh, I just thought of a better example and it's on the covers of my books. Check out the very clear splatter lines on the back left and center covers in this batch of books. That was done by flicking acrylic paint. I used a Sumi brush. The cool thing about such brushes is that they have long limp hairs but hold a ton of ink or paint. When you whip one of those puppies you actually can see the line of paint come off the brush in the air and settle down onto your paper (well just about—and you could if you had some slow-motion video).

Well after today's post you know why I always have paint on my clothing. I wouldn't change a thing.

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