No Really, That's How I Do It

Painting on Vellum

By Denise Walser-Kolar

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist

I love painting on vellum, not only because I can get intense, rich, luminous color, but I find vellum to be quite forgiving - corrections are so much easier to make than on paper. Since the paint sits on the surface, it is easy to remove should I need to. 
If you are new to vellum, you may want to order some “cuttings” from Talas to practice on. For less than $20, you get a couple of strips that are about 4” x 15” - perfect for tiny little practice paintings.
To get used to the feel of painting on vellum  before jumping in and doing a whole painting, I’ve included an exercise that I give to my beginning vellum students. Draw yourself 4 little boxes (no more than 1” wide by 1/2” high or you will never finish!). Then fill in the squares as shown in figure 1. Use a light touch and as many layers as needed to get solid color and smooth transitions. 
Before I start painting, I make sure that my drawing is as precise as I can possibly make it. I never let myself leave a problem area with plans to “fix it” in the painting stage. I have learned that my painting will never be better than the drawing. All my drawings are done on tracing paper.
I start by taping my vellum to a hard white surface - usually white mat board because I use the area around the vellum for testing colors and paint consistency. I use drafting tape to attach the vellum and leave it taped on the backing until the painting is done.
Then, I attach my tracing paper with my drawing onto the vellum using drafting tape. A sheet of hand made transfer paper (cover an ordinary sheet of copier paper completely with a #2 pencil and wipe off the dust with a paper towel before using) is placed under my drawing and I trace my image using a very sharp 6H pencil. After tracing, I will go in and refine details with an F pencil (again, very sharp) to make sure the drawing is as precise as I can make it. 
I only paint with colors that have a high lightfastness rating and are rated as transparent (and one or two semi-transparent colors that act like they are transparent!). It makes sense to me that if I want the light to come through the vellum, I shouldn’t be blocking that light with colors that are opaque. Some of my favorite colors are:  Daniel Smith:  New Gamboge, Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Coral, Quinacridone Pink, Rose of Ultramarine, Mayan Red, Moonglow, Green Gold, Winsor Newton:  Winsor Lemon, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Winsor Blue (green shade), and French Ultramarine Blue.
I use a white porcelain plate to lay out intense puddles of color (and use distilled water for all my painting). I don’t keep them all neat and separated, I tend to mix the edges of all the colors with the edges of all other colors to give me a large variety of colors to choose from when I start painting. I make the colors very intense because I can always water them down when putting them on my brush, but when I need intense color, it’s hard to get it from a watered down puddle of paint. figure 2
The brush I use for everything I do, from washes to the finest details, is a Raphaël Kolinsky Sable series 8408 in size #4. It comes to an amazing point (make sure you get the cream colored handle tip and not the orange tip). figure 3
I start my painting with pale washes to lay in initial color, remind myself where I see color, and to help me keep my place better. The main difference between working on paper and working on vellum is that your paint will soak into the paper. On vellum, it sits on the surface. So every layer after the first wash must be applied lightly to avoid disturbing the color below. Too much water will dissolve your paint all the way back down to the vellum! 
Almost all the rest of the painting is done in drybrush. For drybrush, you are not actually using a dry brush at all. You are using a damp brush and it is the paint that has dried on your palette. To pick up  your paint, dip your brush in water and holding it sideways, roll it to a point on a paper towel. Pick up the dry paint with the tip of your damp brush. This takes a little practice but you will start to get a feel for how much water and paint to use. Use the very tip of your brush to make tiny lines of paint - I compare it to doing hatching with a pencil.
I start in the dark areas and work my way into the light. I protect my highlights and don’t add color to them until the very end. Even if the color is going to be nearly black in the end (center of rose hip), I try to put a lot of color underneath to make a more interesting dark. My current favorite color for starting dark areas is Rose of Ultramarine. You can see a bit of it under the deep shadows in figure 6. 
Keep layering paint until you have the depth of color you want. If you have trouble adding yet another layer of paint, let your painting dry overnight. It seems to go much better the next day.
Should you need to remove color, there are two ways that I do it. If small areas need to be removed (see figure 7), I use my brush to put on a tiny dot of water. Let it sit for a few seconds, then press a paper towel firmly on the spot to absorb the water. To remove just the top layer of color, I use a Q-tip. Dip one end into very clean water, roll it on a paper towel to remove most of the water and to press the fibers into the Q-tip so they don’t end up on your painting. Then carefully dab or roll it across the paint, lifting as much paint as you need. figure 4
At the end of each painting session, I cover my work with tracing paper and store it face down with something heavy (like a book) on top. 
If you have always been intrigued by or have wanted to try vellum - there is no need to fear! Start small, practice, and enjoy the process.
  • figure 1. Box 1 - light wash (it won’t be as smooth as on paper), Box 2 - light wash, then drybrush (do as many layers as you can without disturbing the layers below), Box 3 - drybrush one color to another, Box 4 - build up an intense shadow color (I left the edges messy so you can see the process) then use water drops and blot to get some highlights
  • figure 2. use an old brush to lay out intense puddles of color on your palette
  • figure 3. keep a piece of paper under your hand to protect the vellum
  • figure 4.
  • figure 5. the beginning of the William Baffin Rose Hips x 3 (shown actual size of the painting)
  • figure 6.
  • figure 7. the seeds in the dark area were lifted out with water. I waited until it was completely dry, then added color to the seeds.