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Using Watercolor Flats and a Bit on Back-Runs

May 22, 2019
Solid-tipped brush pen and watercolor washes on Canson Heritage watercolor paper.

In this experiment on Canson Heritage Hot Press 140 lb. watercolor paper from the end of 2018 I used only a 1 inch large flat watercolor brush. 

I’ve written other posts about how you can use the edge of the brush to do more linear bits, like the creases in the forehead, but in the hair here it’s fun to se the way you can twist the brush and make your shapes so much more than simple wide strokes.

I also enjoy the way I wasn’t concerned to keep my strokes within the outline of the head while applying my first quick washes.

This sketch was begun with washes of green gold pretty much everywhere, except in the central area of the face.

I work around the painting building up different areas of color while waiting for other areas to dry sufficiently to add more color in them. Sometimes, especially when testing a paper new to me like on this day, I end up with some balloons of color. 

I love these here because they add texture and I wasn’t going for even washes.

Some Thoughts on Back-Runs

But how can you avoid back-runs (which is what most watercolorists tend to call them)?

Besides “back runs” “blooming” is another popular term. As a child I used other names I can’t even remember, but which were probably pet names my childhood art teacher used—cauliflowers?

Dick could explain the science of it to you, but all you really need to know is that blooms happen because of all the factors of the wetness of the brush, the wetness of the paper, the level of pigment that you have on the paper, and the level of pigment you load on the brush at any given time.

Whew. But it’s simpler than that if you pay attention as you paint. And you’re paying attention right?

If you lay a wet wash on your paper AND by the time you go in with another load of paint on your brush the paper’s wash is dryer than the wash on the brush, the wash on the brush will rush down to the paper and push the pigment from the first wash out of the way.

When it does this it leaves those areas of lighter color that look like balloons or blooms, because all the pigment from the first wash (that was still floating over the surface of the paper because that first wash was still wet), was pushed out of the way by the incoming wash.

Those pigments the brush wash carries away align wherever the wash deposits them; they fall out of suspension onto the paper. That’s how you get those hard edges that look like the edges of carnation petals, or cauliflower florets.

If, instead, you try to lay in a second wash while your first wash is still very wet, AND you have more pigment than water on your brush, you’ll be able to deposit more pigment in the very wet first wash, and that pigment will blend out nicely on the paper.

Detail of today’s painting.

So the key to all this is to watch your washes. Know how wet or dry they are on the paper by look (paper surface glinting in the light), and later by feel (how cool to the “touch” they seem as you hover your hand just above the surface of the paper.

And learn your brushes’ capabilities. Know how much water they take up, and how much water you load them with in relation to how much pigment.

Realize that your working conditions will also effect your results. High humidity will retard paper drying time. Hot temperatures typically decrease drying time. But combinations of heat and humidity can sometimes fool you. 

Know your paper’s sizing as well. When working with a new watercolor paper realize that the timing for wash mixing to avoid back-runs will vary from brand of paper to paper, and from texture of paper to texture. (Some cold press and rough watercolor papers can hold more water on their surface than hot press versions of the same brand).

Most important, if you don’t want back-runs, resist all urges to fuss, all urges to go back in.

Frankly, watercolor doesn’t want you to go back in. It wants you to work quickly, and intentionally, with one thought in mind, make that thought on the paper, and then get busy with something else. You do this by becoming expert in mixing your colors and values at one go.

The only sure way around back-runs, while you work on that mastery, is to work in glazes.

Glazes are successive washes of color, each of which is allowed to dry COMPLETELY before additional washes are added. The application of transparent watercolor washes in this manner builds up color and value in a stunning way. 

Most watercolorists work with a mixture of considered wet-in-wet mixing in some areas of their painting and with glazes as needed in other areas of the same painting.

In my painting for this post you’ll see me working in glazes on the face and in the hair.

Don’t Be Afraid of Back-Runs

Don’t be frightened. Think of something else you learned like playing an instrument. Getting the notes right was just part of the process. After that there were all sorts of levels of nuance to tone and vibration and loudness etc. that you needed to master. You also had to work on your timing. By paying attention to all these factors you kept adding strength to your performance.

With painting remember that sometimes there are situations in which you don’t care about back-runs. Or there are situations in which you cared so much about something else that you forgot to check yourself about the conditions pertaining to back-runs before you put brush to paper.

On any given day you could be painting and concentrating so much on modeling a certain area of your sketch that you forget to look at how wet other washes are; or perhaps your subject is leaving the area and you want to darken a value before you forget what light you’re looking at.

If this happens and you get back-runs where you don’t want them, make some notes to yourself about what value you actually wanted in that area.

But most important, remember to enjoy all the other bits of the painting that did work— where your timing was spot on for your intent.

And when you test a new paper, don’t worry if  things aren’t working in the same way as they do on your “regular” choice of paper.

Pause, look closely at the factors you’re juggling, take a breath, and then jump back in determined to push things and see how that paper works.

Remember that the whole reason you’re trying new papers is to learn what they can do for you and how much more fun they can bring to your process. Practice will illuminate these differences for you.

And also remember in ten minutes or two hours or tomorrow you’re going to do another painting right? Learn from this one and go on.

Two Washes Next to Each Other?

Keep in mind that if you have a very wet wash on your page and you put another wash adjacent to it but not touching it, but the washes shift on the paper, perhaps because you tilted the paper, the washes will run together.

In that instance the wetter wash will flood into the drier wash, pushing the pigments of the drier wash away. When the wetter wash reaches its resting point it still deposits pigments at its edge.   

Many watercolorists place adjacent washes quickly, leaving a breath of dry paper between the washes, because this style of approach removed the waiting time for paper to dry. Experiment with this approach in your repertoire.

Painting Live Animals

Realize that even when painting live animals you can juggles all these thoughts about washes in your mind and get them to work for you.

Check out this linked post of a Guinea Fowl I sketched from life at the Minnesota State Fair. There is even a detail blow up in that post.

I began that sketch with a couple ideas in mind—I needed to work fast because it’s a live subject in a chaotic environment—it could get up at any moment or be taken off for judging. I wanted to experiment with suggesting the pattern of its feathers in both my line work and in the brush strokes.

As you can see from the time stamp on the image I’d already been sketching for at least an hour. (I tend to arrive at 10 a.m. and start sketching right away. This sketch took under 15 minutes so that brings us to 11:25.) This means I’m warmed up, but not fatigued. I’m thinking about experiments that would be fun to try. I’m in exploratory mode.

I’m not going to let any oddness that occurs in the experiment push me off my path of experimentation. You can see this in the color wash at the center of the body. It went down too dark, and too neutral. I quickly swiped it with a paper towel. You can see that I did this by noticing the swipe marks at edges of that wash.

You keep on going. Working from one area to the next, knowing how your paper and washes dry in the temperature and humidity you’re facing that day. And having fun.

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