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Friday, April 8, 2011

Watercolor: The Subtractive Technique Tested


Sadami suggested I should "take it easy" with theThree Women I was painting in watercolor. Her comment got me thinking: the ability to make corrections with a medium is very important. Oils dry so slowly, you can scape off the offensive spots and turp them down to the canvas if need be. With Acrylics, you can "white out"; you can totally remove the paint with alcohol. What can you do when you've been heavy handed or your shadows are too dark and you wish to lighten them up when working in watercolor?

Actually, I wasn't really heavy handed with Three Women. The deep shade cast on the ground by the unseen tree had been painted, the women's clothing had not. In the painting's unfinished state, the contrast between the clothing and the tree's shadow was too strong, (fig. 1). As luck would have it, I had lost interest in the painting. The women do belong on canvas by themselves without landscaped background or foreground. Knowing I wasn't going to finish it, I thought it would be a perfect piece with which to experiment.

I first lifted the tonal value of the tree's shadow with a not-to-wet, hard bristle oil paint brush and a piece of toweling--a subtractive painting technique. I was pleased with the results. For finer line paint removal, I tried a q-tip, and a pointed detail brush. Wetting, then wiping, I was able to scribe into the paint blades of grass, twigs, whatever. The Strathmore 140lb paper did very well with all the rubbing that was going on. The surface stayed in tact.

Then, since I didn't care about the painting at all, I went further and put the whole thing under full pressure, running water for two or three minutes. When I lifted it out, the only colors that remained were the staining pigments, (fig.2).

Experimenting with the subtractive technique was important. None of us is that perfect that screw-ups won't happen during the paint process and we won't want to redo. I just read someone's blog post who was chastising herself for making her shadows too dark; she had forgotten that shadows appear darker in photographs than they really are. She was working from a photograph,as was I. This bit of info also pushed me to test how subtractive watercolor is. Pretty subtractive was my conclusion after yesterday's studio session. Below is the painting as it is.


  1. Dear Linda,
    I'm not familiar with technical terms at all. In my eyes, you did, "wash-off" and "lifted up."
    Depends on a style, a watercolorist's spending time in work is vary. But I do it in a very short time and fast. As far as I know, watercolorists who show washes make work in a short time. Just have fun. Me, too, make "tons of messes."
    Kind regards, Sadami

  2. Dear Linda,

    Watercolor definitely lends itself to experimentation. Wonderful effects crop up when you do what you are trying out on this piece. Reapplying color to those scrubbed out areas creates a luminous effect and tonal depth that's hard to achieve with washes alone on unbruised paper.

    Sadami's spot on. It is a matter of individual style and finding a method of manipulating watercolor that works for you.

    Thanks for showing how the painting looks as you experiment. There are lots of interesting colors developing.


  3. The subtractive technique is often connected to pencil (graphite), charcoal, pastel. I use it rarely with acrylics. (There is a risk of weakening the adhesion of surrounding paint layers, so alcohol must be used sparingly and the area cleansed afterward).

    When the subtractive technique worked with watercolor I was pleasantly surprised. My experimenting also revealed that some watercolor pigments stain and can only be lifted up in value so far. Others do not stain and can be lifted off entirely. My paper did real well too given all the abuse it went through.

    You should know acrylics is my medium of choice. I was just playing around while my back was out. (I can sit with watercolors. I can't with acrylics; I must stand and dance). Cheers Sadami. Have a great weekend with your watercolor club. Your sketches always delight.

  4. My experimentation was an eye opener Nanina. I didn't say in my post but I also went into the piece with some semi-soluble markers. They lifted too but not as much as the watercolor pigments. Thoroughly drying, masking, and painting again has now occurred to me. Such fun fooling around and pushing the envelope as they say.
    Have a lovely weekend--hopefully the weather is better where you are than here.

  5. Interesting post. I must say that whenever I try to lift off colours - I am not gentle enough, and my paper suffers. Practice will help, I suppose. I apprecite your experiment and seeing your photos. Happy Weekend, Ev

    ps. Spring will be there soon :)

  6. Dear Linda,
    "My experimenting revealed that some watercolor pigments stain and can only be lifted up in value so far. Others do not stain and can be lifted off entirely." So, watercolorists use different paints that have the same color to get different results. Sink fast? Stay firmly? What else? --experiments reveal. Then, artists make their own palletes. So, it's very interesting to look at demo and check other artists' palletes. I know a famous waterclorist who has 3 or 4 blues and uses differently to make washes. Have fun and find your colors.
    Cheers, Sadami

  7. Beautiful, I love what you have left. I recommend that you accept as advised by Sadami, I know his watercolors and are excellent.

  8. I want to talk about the paper. I bought Strathmore--five sheets 140lb cold press for twenty something dollars. I told my watercolorist friend who also teaches and she poo-pooed the quality of the paper--liked Reves best. I felt badly, but the paper had felt good, (sturdy, nice tooth), the price was not eighteen dollars a sheet like the 300lb, and who was I, but a stumbling know-nothing novice?
    Meanwhile with all my heavy, stiff bristol rubbing, I haven't damaged the surface at all. When I used the brush the paper was dry. I only wet the brush and went after the areas I wanted to lighten. Then I ran the whole paper underwater and rubbed it with my hand for a couple of minutes--if I had left it soak for longer, I'm sure the surface would have become softer and softer and more vulnerable. How long before that happens, I don't know--but I'm curious. Afterwards, I took the dripping wet paper, slapped it on my board, wiped it nearly dry with toweling and taped it down. Then I let it dry completely overnight. And that's how it is now--waiting for me to decide what's next?
    In one watercolor book I've read, the woman advised testing each of the colors in your palette for their properties. She said it was important to know which colors stained. Now I know why. She suggested making a chart. I'm a little impatient to do that, but maybe it's a good idea. I'll look that up and let you all know.