Watercolour Art Questions & Answers: By Nita Leland

state - of - your - art - solution

Artist's Web,
1970 - Nita teaching herself to paint

Nita Leland is an artist, author, teacher, lecturer and juror of art exhibitions. She has guided artists of all levels through what may be one of the most extensive art related websites I have ever seen

Journey through Nita's many art related topics, products for artists, information, art books, art videos, color wheels, palettes and her brand new artist coloring book.

Resource books and videos such as Exploring Color, Creative Collage Techniques, The Creative Artist, Basic Color Mixing, All About Paint, Bridging Time and Space and Nita Lelands Exploring Color Coloring Book have been created by Nita to share with fellow artists.

Nita Leland has taught workshops throughout Canada and the U.S. since 1986. Her workshops include Watercolor, Watercolor for the Terrified, Exploring Color, Creativity, Collage and Color for the Fiber Artists. is proud to showcase Nita Leland's Exploring Color Web Site for Creative Artists at all levels.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. Is it safe to put my acrylics in the freezer to keep them moist?

  2. Which is the best brand of paint to use?

  3. What does all the information printed on paint labels mean--and does it make any difference to an artist to know these things?

  4. What's the difference between artist-quality and student-grade paints?

  5. Why do you use Alizarin Crimson, which is a fugitive color?

  6. Are colors with the same name alike in different brands?

  7. Is it okay to use black or white in watercolors?

  8. In watercolors, how much water and how much paint do you use to load your brush?

  9. How do you achieve a "luminous glow" in a painting?

  10. What is paper sizing in watercolor papers?

  11. What is a 4x5 transparency?

  12. What is a taboret?

  13. What is "cold press" watercolor paper?

  14. Which is the right side of watercolor paper?

  15. How can I remove colour stains from my watercolour palette?

  16. Is it better to use brushes made of natural hair or synthetics?


Q. Is it safe to put my acrylics in the freezer to keep them moist?
No! Paints of any kind should not be subjected to freezing temperatures in the freezer or in your car overnight in the winter. Freezing might affect the chemistry and handling properties of the paints. It won't hurt your paints to be stored in the refrigerator, though, if they are tightly sealed.


Q. Which is the best brand of paint to use?
When I compare paints (for me, watercolors), here are some of the things I look for:
  • Does the pigment compare favorably with that of other brands that have the same pigment name? For example, if it is named "Burnt Sienna" does it look like I expect or want that color to look?
  • Is the paint adequately pigmented with high tinting strength? Or weak and pasty?
  • Is the pigment lightfast?
  • Is the pigment transparent (like phthalocyanine) or opaque (like cadmium); is it consistent with what I expect of this pigment? If it's named Cerulean Blue and is transparent, then it isn't true Cerulean Blue.
  • Are there any unusual handling characteristics; for example is it grainy or clear? Settling or spreading? What is the paint consistency, fluid or heavy?
  • Which brand has more of the colors I like?
  • Is the brand easily available in area stores or by mail order?


Q. What does all the information printed on paint labels mean--and does it make any difference to an artist to know these things?
The information might vary depending on the medium and the manufacturer, but here are some significant numbers and symbols I find on my Winsor & Newton artists' watercolors:
  • Paint name, given in five languages, followed by manufacturer's stock number
  • Series number, designating the price level from 1-4 with 1 as lowest price
  • Permanency rating AA, A, B, with AA highest and B lowest (moderately durable, 3 colors only in W&N) N/L means Not Listed--most of the newer colors haven't as yet been rated by ASTM, although manufacturers claim they have been tested by ASTM standards during manufacture.
  • Lightfastness I, II the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) rating shown on newer labels
  • Weight--given in milliliters and fluid ounces
  • Health label--ACMI (Art and Craft Materials Institute) rating for safety of use
  • Pigment name and Color Index Number--an international classification designating the chemical composition and a code number for the pigments used in the paint

All of this information is important, but artists have different criteria for paint selection. One might be more interested in toxicity, another in lightfastness and another in size of tube and price level. Not all manufacturers have this much info on their tubes, but you can usually find what you want to know in their sales literature or by calling customer support or checking their web sites.


Q. What's the difference between artist-quality and student-grade paints?
As a rule, the student grade will have a considerable amount of filler or extender added to the paint, which lowers the amount of actual pigment in the color. The result is a color that is weaker in tinting strength than the same color in artist's quality. It may also make the paint more opaque or chalkier than the better quality of paint. With some student colors, the original pigment has been replaced by a synthetic substitute that may not be an accurate replication of the true color, both in appearance and handling characteristics. For example, if Cobalt Blue is made with the less costly Phthalocyanine Blue, it will be much greener and have staining properties that true Cobalt Blue doesn't have. It's easy to understand why people begin painting with student colors (and there are some good ones on the market), because of the big difference in price, but it's usually advisable to upgrade as soon as possible, if you really want to get good results from your paints. One way to tell the difference between them is in the pricing structure: student paint tubes will usually be priced the same throughout the line, while artists' colors are priced according to the cost of the pigment materials and manufacturing processes that go into making the paint.


Q. Why do you use Alizarin Crimson, which is a fugitive color?
Alizarin Crimson isn't rated "fugitive" by most manufacturers--it's "moderately durable." I tested several brands of Alizarin Crimson in a south-facing window for three-and-a-half years and noticed a barely perceptible shift in color after nearly three years, hardly worth mentioning. In this same window test there were colors that faded noticeably within two weeks and eventually nearly disappeared. Others began to show fading in about two months and then stayed about the same for the next couple of years. I have never noticed a change in the paintings I've done using Winsor & Newton watercolors, although I've heard that some student brands are less reliable. I recommend all artists conduct their own tests and decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable using certain colors. (One of the least fading colors in my test was Holbein's Opera.)


Q. Are colors with the same name alike in different brands?
Colors may differ greatly from one brand to another, even if they're made from the same pigments, because the formulas and other ingredients, as well as the manufacturing processes, are probably not the same. Ask your dealer to show you painted chip charts, rather than printed charts, so you can compare the actual paint colors.


Q. Is it okay to use black or white in watercolors?
There used to be strict taboos against using black or white, but like a lot of other rules today, things are a lot more relaxed now. My personal preference is "purist" watercolor, without either black or white, but I've seen marvelous paintings that have both in them. The trick in watercolor is to make these neutrals look like they "belong," and this can be tricky, as they have a tendency to come off pretty opaque and may contrast too strongly with the transparency of the transparent watercolors. Keep in mind if you do use them that there are exhibitions that accept only pure transparent watercolors, and you can't enter a painting that has acrylic black or Chinese white in it.


Q. In watercolors, how much water and how much paint do you use to load your brush?
If I had a formula for this, I would patent it and get rich quick! Unfortunately, there isn't one answer to this question, just, "it depends." It depends on the paint you're using: if it's richly pigmented, you can use more water without losing the intensity of the color. If it were a weak color, less water would be the rule, if you want strong color in your painting. This is where beginners have a problem with student-quality paints--they have to pile on the color, and the paintings get muddy and chalky very quickly. It also depends on what kind of "finish" you want in your picture. If you want delicacy and transparency, use more water and transparent pigments. If you want a velvety, rich surface to the painting, use less water and paint that has less transparency but lots of pigment in it.


Q. How do you achieve a "luminous glow" in a painting?
Use high-key, pastel tints, very clean and bright, surrounded by middle-key (not dark) low-intensity (gray) neutrals. In the illustration I've surrounded yellow and pale red with a grayed violet. Because the violet is complementary to the yellow, the glow of the center is enhanced. This was J.M.W. Turner's method. Avoid hard edges and let the colors blend to enhance the effect of the glow.


Q. What is paper sizing in watercolor papers?
Unsized paper absorbs paint like a blotter, preventing manipulation of the paint. Sizing allows paint to flow over the surface, improving washes and permitting the lifting of some colors. Manufacturers use different methods and materials for sizing watercolor papers. Internal sizing is mixed with the paper pulp and external or tub sizing is applied to the finished sheet of paper. Some papers have both. A heavily sized paper may resist paint a little too much, so sometimes I lightly sponge a sheet of paper before I begin to paint to soften the sizing. If you stretch your paper, you probably won't have this problem.


Q. What is a 4x5 transparency?
A 4x5 transparency is a film positive just like a 35mm slide, only larger. It is made using a larger 4"x5" format camera. Transparencies make better reproductions than photos printed from negatives and larger reproductions require larger transparencies. If a 35mm slide is enlarged too much, the image is degraded. For magazine or book illustration, 4x5 is adequate, but for art print reproduction, 8x10 is preferable for larger-size prints. Making a 4x5 enlargement of a 35mm slide is not acceptable for reproduction.


Q. What is a taboret?
Artists sometimes refer to the cabinets they use to store materials as a "taboret." These are often lower in height than the usual drafting table surface or easel and can serve as a convenient surface to place your palette on.


Q. What is "cold press" watercolor paper?
Watercolor paper has three main surfaces: hot press, cold press and rough. Hot press is very smooth, rough is highly textured, and cold press is somewhere between the two. Cold press is probably the most commonly used because watercolors are harder to control on smooth paper and rough tends to create more texture than many artists prefer. Paper surfaces will differ greatly from one manufacturer to another, so you may find a cold press that seems more like hot press or a rough that is extremely heavily textured.


Q. Which is the right side of watercolor paper?
The side you like best. Actually, there is a watermark and/or an embossed logo which can be found on most quality papers by holding to the light. You will be able to read the company's name correctly on the "right" side of the paper. However, most paper surfaces are different front and back, so choose whichever you prefer.


Q. How can I remove color stains from my watercolor palette?
I know of two methods. Rub the palette with a soft cloth that has been moistened with either mineral spirits or Goo Gone cleaner. Then wash it thoroughly with soap and water.


Q. Is it better to use brushes made of natural hair or synthetics?
Depends on what you're trying to do. For most watercolors, I like kolinsky rounds and sabeline or light oxhair flats because they hold so much water and paint. If I'm working really wet, synthetics seem to give me more control without flooding the paper. There are a lot of brushes available now that are blends of hair and synthetics, but you do have to be aware that some contain more synthetic fibers than hair. For acrylics, I use synthetics and bristle brushes, because I don't want to ruin my good watercolor brushes, which are generally too soft for use with acrylics anyway. Oil painters can use all three, according to their preferences.

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