Monday, December 26, 2011

Watercolor Memories

Early in my grade school years, I got a 100 Colour watercolor set for Christmas. I don’t remember who brought it, Santa or my Dad or either set of grandparents or one of a large group of aunts or uncles. It came from the UK and may have been made by Reeves. The hinged-lid tin, an actual metal paintbox, carried a jolly cartoon scene of a circus with elephants and other animals and a little British flag. It spelled Colour fancier than Americans did, something that charmed me. It seemed more artistic to paint with Water Colours than ordinary watercolor.

Inside, as advertised on the tin lid, it had 100 colours in small rectangular hollows about half the size of half pans. Some of them were opaque. Sea Green, one of my favorites, blazed out of its pan. They were organized by hue systematically although at first glance it had gaps because at least a third of them looked black in the pan. The glorious brush was a size 2 or 3 or 4 round with a beautiful point. I think it was decent quality synthetic rather than cheap sable because it didn't shed like the cheap sable brushes and held its point.

I could not understand how the brush makers had managed to make all the hairs curve inward toward the point instead of turning this way and that. It didnt wobble on the handle. It didn't shed. Most of the brushes I had then shedded as much as my cat, usually right on the painting. Somewhere that tweezing the hair out would wreck an important detail like an eye.

Many of the colors had pigment names. That was also my "Swallow the Dictionary" stage of life so I memorized Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna, looked them up in the encyclopedia and found out that pigments changed color when roasted. Also that “Dirt ground fine” was one of the main ingredients in paint and people would travel across several countries to find red dirt or green dirt.

I learned the difference between Vermilion and Viridian even if it took most of a year to be able to remember which was blue-green and which red-orange when I wasn't home to check the set. I’d write down my best guess during the school day when I thought of it, spell them right and check my beloved tin as soon as I got home.

I learned that Magenta wasn't just beautiful but essential. The color wheel mixtures worked if I used that for my choice of red. I learned that Sea Green was opaque while the "black" looking pans were very transparent colors. I learned that Alizarin Crimson used strong was exactly the color of those deep red roses I thought were so cool and could never paint properly. I learned that Ultramarine made violet with either of those and the blue-greens didn’t. I discovered Payne’s Grey was the color of storm clouds and giggled at the name.

I think back now and my joy wasn't just that my giant British monster set had 100 Colours. It taught me a lot more than I realized. I thought of it as silly for years, but writing about it now, that jolly tin with the elephants on it taught me so much about painting in any wet medium.

I also think that set was why I didn't give up on watercolor. All normal kid sets were immensely frustrating. Paper cockled, blunt annoying brushes couldn't get detail or work small and controlled, transparency stumped me, mud resulted even from simple two-color mixes. Opaque colors and white let me add light colored details after the dark areas dried completely. Combining them in the same set was brilliant on the part of that UK manufacturer. Up till then, I’d never even seen white paint in a watercolor set.

Between my good 100 Colour monster set and fine waterproof pen lines, I solved the problem of getting accuracy in watercolor by combining it with pen drawing. My dad gave me a Crowquill pen early on and eventually a real Rapidograph pen size 00 along with India ink that came in a bottle, dried waterproof and stained anything pure black. Once I looked at 19th century engravings and botanicals, I got hooked on pen and watercolor. Most of the giant 100 color set went into attempts at realism because I was small and had no interest in Modern Art whatsoever.

Today I can start out with a primary triad and produce a good painting. Back when my age was a single digit number, trying to do that resulted in unsatisfying browns and murky grays. I didn’t understand that sometimes gray grapes with brown leaves can be beautiful. That took much later practice and study.

I also got an actual wirebound watercolor pad with that lovely tin. It vanished rapidly even though I painted on the backs of ugly paintings. It cockled less and was wonderful to work on. I think that’s also where I got set in the habit of liking the sizing instead of stretching watercolor paper.

The last thing that gorgeous watercolor tin taught me was how to take care of pan watercolors. Up to that point I’d treated watercolor sets as badly as any kid. Lids broke and got cracked, colors mixed together inextricably, brushes got lost, I used them until they were unusable and then begged for pocket change until I could get another. The tin was special. It came from far away. It had colors that couldn’t be replaced even with birthday money. Sets with 16 colors were much more useful than the 8 color cheap sets with their orange cast reds but the grand British tin was something I’d never see again. When the Sea Green was gone, I’d never be able to use it again.

It took some practice to be able to clean out a pan watercolor set well enough that the staining colors scrubbed out of the palette surface and the spaces between the pans weren’t filled with mud. I paid attention to rinsing out the beautiful pointed round brush and for a long time carefully threaded it back into the little clear protective tube that slid over the hairs. I washed off the lid too, got everything as close to perfect as I could because that made it easier to use.

In the middle of one of the best holiday seasons I’ve had in my life, with a long holiday call to my family, art supply presents sent back and forth, surprise gifts from friends and a humble but incredibly self indulgent holiday feast eaten with pure laziness, something reminded me of that perfect gift. I left behind my full range set of 72 Derwent Inktense when I moved. I finally spent some birthday money on a bundle with a 12 color tin of Inktense and a big multimedia journal after checking that yes, Magenta was included along with Violet.

A friend of mine surprise gifted me with the 72 color full range tin again. I opened the package with no idea what it was and that giant tin was even more special than ever. I feel the way I did when I first tore off the wrapping paper and saw my "100 Colours Watercolour Tin." Maybe it's "Big range, British, Fancy, In A Nice Tin" that's always led to an explosion of creativity!

My friend knew how I felt about big ranges. She knew how often I use Inktense pencils in my journal and how much I love vivid, strong transparent colors. Her gift was completely unexpected, just like the 100 Colours UK Elephant Set was and it expanded my vision just as much again.

If large ranges confuse you, relax about it. They’re freedom to experiment. Each pigment or mixed-pigment convenience color reacts a little differently in texture and mixtures, it might be more opaque or make brighter oranges or greens or violets. It might mute them while creating fun effects when another that’s exactly the same hue gives no granulation.

I’m able to create a good painting with a primary color triad now that I’m grown. Having a big set lets me do that with a wider variety of primaries to choose from, or even work with a secondary triad and have few or no pure primaries anywhere in the painting. The example pen and wash pieces at the top of this article were done with a tiny 8 color pocket set I put together with Daniel Smith favorites.

As you rest up from the holidays, play with your new toys and digest all those treat foods, say hello to your favorite mediums. Try something you haven’t done before or choose a different combination from the biggest set you have. It’s one of the best ways to feel like a kid again - in a way that makes you a far better grown artist.

Happy Holidays!


  1. I've always be intrigued by watercolors and wished I could do something with them. (I love color) I so enjoyed your childhood memory. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it. The best thing I can recommend is to get good ones, at least good student grade like Winsor & Newton Cotman or Sakura Koi, and then play with them a lot. Try different things. Waterbrushes make them a whole lot easier. So do any watercolor pencils.

  3. Robert I wrote you a note...........but now it is gone
    into cyber space..........oh well I have subscribed to your wonderful blog. Dorian AkA/dor

  4. Thanks for subscribing. Sorry your long comment got lost, that gets so frustrating. I hope the article inspired you and gets you to working in watercolor or pen or the medium of your choice.

  5. Hope everyday is better than the day before. Wishing all good things, and happy painting.

  6. Thank you! Wishing the same for you!

    Ari has just spread out over my lap and looked at the screen, so he's purring at you too.

  7. Quite good points!Thanks for your share!I wish that in future such posting should go on.

    How to Paint With Watercolor