No Really, That's How I Do It

Watercolour Painting Using a Dry Brush Technique

By Lizzie Sanders

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 15, Issue 1

 

I use a full dry brush technique to create my watercolour paintings. I like the control this provides, allowing me to create surfaces and details that are just right. My method is:

Materials

Paper – Always use a piece of paper large enough to allow you to alter the composition during the painting process - adding to one side for example. Don’t try and work on a sheet that feels small and cramped. To achieve fine detail you must work on a very smooth surface, classified as ‘hot pressed or HP. I work on Fabriano 5, a 50% cotton sheet that is very white, Artistico is 100% cotton and is cream coloured. Arches is a little less smooth and cream coloured. 

I prefer not to stretch my paper. Stretching raises the grain and renders the surface less smooth. Fix the paper to your board – I use bulldog clips, some people use tape. Use a large soft brush to clean the surface of the painting, not your hand, and never blow to remove dust – it’s too easy to spit by mistake! 

Brushes – For fine detailed work you will need small, sable brushes. I find the best are Winsor & Newton Series 7 Miniature, sizes 000, 00, 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4. Miniature brushes have shorter bristles and don’t bend when pressed to the paper so you have considerably more control. However they don’t hold as much paint. Man-made bristles are never as good as sable. 

Paint I use Winsor & Newton artist’s watercolour in tubes. Be sure to check that the colours you buy are in the top two categories for lightfastness. Recent articles by Caroline Payzant in The Botanical Artist provide a wealth of information on lightfastness and properties of different pigments, and Winsor & Newton leaflet ‘Perfecting the Fine Art of Water Colours, 2005.’ 

The Specimen Choose a piece that accurately represents the species. Avoid any mutant growth or diseased areas. First I set up the plant as I want to paint it. I take photographs of the plant in position, trying to get the camera exactly where my eye level is, so the camera sees what I see. I always hope to paint without having to refer to the photos but sometimes the plant grows and changes too quickly for me, sometimes it dies, so having the photos is invaluable. 

Starting the painting 

On sketch paper, make a quick compositional sketch. Show habit (manner in which the plant naturally grows), rough position of flowers, leaves etc. Do several sketches moving the plant if necessary, until you are happy with the composition.

On tracing paper make an accurate drawing, using your compositional sketch as a base. Outline all parts of the plant. Don’t draw the fine detail at this stage, but make sure you include main veins. Be sure to measure and get any foreshortening right at this stage. Leave enough space around the edges to mat the work. 

Transferring Your Drawing

Check to confirm you are working on the correct side of your watercolour paper. The wrong side has a fine, even ‘square’ texture or grid of lines. The correct side has a more uneven, organic texture. The watermark is almost always readable from the wrong side. Transfer the drawing to the paper using a light box. If the plant or parts of it are very pale, especially stems, draw only a fine line on the darker or shadowed side. Leave the highlight without any pencil. It is almost impossible to remove all traces of pencil in a very pale area. 

Colour Matching

Next match the colours for whole painting – leaves, flowers etc. Test colors and keep notes of each mixture on a scrap piece of the same paper as you are using for the painting. 

Colour will appear different on each make of paper. As far as possible, use the same colours throughout the painting. Use the same blue you have selected for the leaves to mix with brown for woody parts, use the same red to add to leaf tips as you are using for the petals. In this way you will produce a painting where colours remain bright but which has an overall colour coherence. 

Mixing and Matching Greens

I use new gamboge, indigo, and Payne’s gray to mix the vast majority of my greens. I rarely use any other mixes and find I can match most plants with these colours. You can experiment with other colours, such as lemon yellow, Winsor lemon or cadmium lemon, aureolin, cadmium yellow, cadmium yellow deep, yellow ochre or raw sienna, Prussian blue, French ultramarine, and manganese blue. Use only one yellow and one blue to achieve the right green. Do not add any other colour. By selecting the right blue and the right yellow you will find you can get the right green and it will be clear and bright. The more pigments you add to the mix, the dirtier the result will be.

Start by trying to select the closest yellow and blue - warm or cold. Mix a small amount of green and paint a small square. If this is not close, start again. If it is quite close, change either the yellow or the blue, using a colour only slightly different. 

When the plant has leaves of different tones – old and young leaves for example, it is likely that all these greens can be mixed using the same two colours in different percentages. If the green parts of the plant have a red tinge, I would add this afterwards as a wash or as a fine textured stipple. 

Take into account the translucency or opacity of the paint. Aureolin and new gamboge are transparent, the cadmiums are opaque. Opaque colour will give a chalkier surface, which is suitable for some plants. Transparent colours, especially yellows, give a ‘glow’ to the surface and allow the white paper to show through, which makes the surface sparkle. 

Now you are ready to paint. Spend some time working out how you will paint this plant (you can practice on your scrap sheet). Each plant is different and often needs its own technique. Use tiny strokes with a small brush, as if drawing. Use very little water. Don’t rush. The better you get at this, the slower you will be! 

Carefully build up the strokes to create seamless smooth colour. The direction of brush strokes should follow the direction of growth, following the direction of veins or of texture on the surface. Don’t paint an outline, work towards the edge and allow it to form itself. If the plant has a ‘line’ around the edge, paint this last. Develop form as you progress by adding successively darker tones of your hue. 

Start with a leaf in the middle distance. Closer leaves will be a stronger colour, those further away will be paler. Work first on parts of the plant that will change fastest, leave all stems till last. Never leave a half-finished leaf or stem – it’s very hard to match it when you come back. 

Observe shadow areas – how dark are they? Try to use the same colour for shadowed areas as for the rest of the leaf/flower, but stronger. Only put in a distinct cast shadow where necessary to make sense of the form. 

The Finishing Touches

When the painting is finished (or rather when you first think it is finished) if possible, lay it aside for a day or so without looking at it. Then take it out and give it a good hard examination. Start with overall effect - is it well balanced? Does the composition please or excite? Move on to check botanical accuracy, especially in the small details. Look carefully at highlights, hairy edges, texture on petals, veins, etc. Now is the time to make small adjustments, add a few speckles or soften an edge. Occasionally you will decide to add another leaf or another bud to better balance the whole. 

Ionly sign a painting when I have the mat cut and the work ready to be mounted. This means I can carefully choose exactly where to place the signature in relation to the painting and its mat. Sign your work in pencil – F or H is suitable. You can add the date if you wish. The signature should be small and unobtrusive. Having a large, dark signature that draws the eye away from the painting spoils many fine pieces of work. 

Write the name of the plant, the date and any other detail you wish to record, along an edge of the paper where it will be under the mat. There are several reasons for not putting the name inside the mat: botanists often re-classify a plant giving it a new name; even specimens from a well-run nursery or botanical garden can be wrongly labeled; specimens from florists or a garden are often known by an incorrect semi- scientific name (‘japonica’ is frequently used for several species) and lastly, by naming the work within the mat, it is clearly an illustration. Leave out the name and it becomes a painting. 

Store the finished painting carefully, completely flat and covered with a clean sheet of white paper or glassine. Keep it out of the light and away from damp. 

 

  • Regular W&N series 7 above, miniatures below.
  • Color notes from a painting of a persimmon that included branch, leaves and fruit with sepals intact.
  • Shows fine hairs on edge of petal. The brush was size 1 but is very worn. I use it for the finest details such as hairs. You can see how tiny the strokes really are in this image.
  • Brush size 2, used to ‘stipple’ colour onto dry paper, building up colour to create form. NOTE- there is no base colour, dark purple goes straight onto dry paper. This leaves tiny spaces of white paper showing through, creating sparkle. If there were a wash underneath the white would not show.
  • Finished blossom. All individual strokes have been smoothed, and the sparkle of the paper provides heightened form and interest.