PAINTS – g) Watercolour: 1. Paint


“Watercolours are so sexy. Take a pool of blue, drop in a little yellow, and slowly the two bleed into each other in a kind of marriage. It’s awfully fecund; it ought to be banned really” so says John Olsen and… I totally agree with him!

To begin, a bit of history….
To celebrate and colour the body, ochres and clays are all that was and is needed. Mixed with water, these will -for a little time at least- stick to bodies, to hair. To increase that bond, they can easily be mixed with fat, resin, blood… all sorts of glues, Nature offers generously and were probably easily discovered by men. That simple mix is pretty close to a watercolour, i.e. pigment + a sticky binder. The prehistoric cave artworks were made thus and Egyptians decorated with a simple watercolour paint or wash- a sort of secco fresco painting- all their mud-plaster walls, engraved stone walls and artifacts. That same “watercolour” was used, in combination with a black ink, to write the elaborate signs of hieroglyphs unto papyrus. The precise nature of the binder in the Egyptian watercolours is uncertain: gum, size, or some similar material was used, or perhaps all of them, and the colours were applied with crude fibre brushes. It is assumed that gum arabic, a slightly acidic watersoluble gum from the acacia tree, was in greatest use (still is by the way). These watercolour paints have survived well in the dry climate and sealed tombs of Egypt but are still watersoluble and may be entirely destroyed by passing a damp sponge across the surface!
To obtain a transparent watercolour (what we refer to as watercolour these days), you actually need to grind your pigment ultra fine so that little clutters of pigment don’t explode on your page! Gouache, on the other hand, is an opaque watercolour made in pretty much the same way, but the paint is opaque by the addition of precipitated chalk to the vehicle. Because extremely fine grinding is not necessary to produce a good gouache that covers well and can be applied smoothly, it is much more easily home-made and probably what was used from antiquity to the 19th century.
And so although gouache is probably the oldest “paint” in the world, true watercolours are a rather recent invention… they appeared at the same time as machines capable of grinding that fine (although a few dedicated artists like Durer did that by hand) but also when rag paper became easily available. Transparent colours need the light of paper to reveal their true nature…

To read more about the history and binder in Gouache/Watercolours, please go here

Watercolours come in the most surprising presentations… the traditional one is in pans, or half pans. These you usually slot into tin boxes that sometimes double up as a palette. Any leisurely English lady in the 19th century would have had one of these to colour her drawing of flowers and landscapes because, of course, these are great for field work as they are so compact and light!

Some companies like Blockx do a giant pan, and the full range of these fill a seriously large paint box so probably more a studio paint but they are fab for producing a large quantity of paint to fill, say, a large mop brush. (Also, as the paint dries again and is endlessly reusable, you are hardly wasting any.)

A much more recent presentation is in a tube. Depending on your technique and size of our artworks of course, but if you work relatively small like most watercolourists you’ll use so little paint that the 5ml might be just the go and I find these great to travel with too (I usually then use as ‘palettes’ the top of glass jam jars which I stack and get rid of before I take the next plane). If you a serious about any colour, go 15ml though as they are usually much better value.

When I was a kid I use to paint a lot with Ecoline, the only ready-made watercolour, as it is liquid. These are not considered totally lightfast however so… be warned BUT if you want your little girl to have the same exact orange dress on each page you paint, these are your best friends because mixing time and again the same dilution of colour is not that obvious. As a result, Ecolines are often used by illustrators and graphic designers who might not care too much either about them not being 100% lightfast. This range is quite extensive and comes in a cute 30ml square bottle with a wide neck (no dropper though) with a gold which is quite frankly the most luscious of any brand of any paint.

My latest “coup de foudre” however is for a totally new tool… Windsor and Newton’s watercolour markers and matching watercolour sticks… check them out they are divine and give you both a precision never experienced before and a looseness hard to match (I either wet the paper or simply dip the sticks in water and… go quite wild!).


So what is the binder in watercolour? Some companies have a recipe unique to them… Blockx’s traditional recipe has evolved around a pure clover honey mixed with a small amount of glycerin for example. Most artist quality traditional ranges however have used high quality Kordofan gum arabic for centuries with an addition of honey sometimes to increase the longevity of the colours but also their radiance and luminosity. These combined with the pigment are slowly ground to get rid of any impurity which would simply ruin you work! Some even wet the pigments first in purified water (no mineral salts) to further improve the bonding. Watercolour is by far the most “precious” paint as any defect will show. It is also probably, by far too, the most expensive paint per mg!

Watercolours ranges were, for a long time, quite traditional in their colours but this has begun to change!! Older brands have kept most of  their older colours but introduced some more modern pigments, like Sennelier, for example, in their new l’Aquarelle range.

(Sennelier, Winsor and Newton, Smincke, Holbein)
Blockx : 47 colours available in Giant pans
Blockx’s extra-fine watercolours with honey still maintain secret splendour and are composed of the finest ingredients, blended today in the same deliberate manner as did craftsmen of the past. Rare, tough pigments are thoroughly crushed, then and unlike any other brand of watercolour paint,  The honey acts to disperse the pigment better in water, especially in thin washes, whilst the glycerin slows the drying. This unique combination has for decades given European artists the advantage of high workability in the wet, especially when placing one light veil over another. These watercolours have long been sought after by museums and art galleries throughout the world for art and book restoration, establishing the pigment quality as highly respected and one which has already stood the test of time in circumstances of critical assessment.
Holbein : 108 colours Available in 5ml tubes
For the past 100 years Holbein has developed and produced its moist transparent watercolor as an industry leader in brush handling qualities, light fastness, physical permanence, colour vigor and a full range palette that retains its clean, crisp and brilliant characteristics.
Sennelier : “L’aquarelle” 98 colours available in 1/2 pans
Sennelier is to France what Winsor and Newton is to England, the main supplier of watercolours since the 19th century. Ranges are similar but quality and price made us choose Sennelier. Made from specially selected gum arabic and honey, the prewetted pigments are ground in the original porcelain machines used till the present day to offer incomparable quality of application and superb washes. The range has recently been revamped and extended to 98 strong colours.
DANIEL SMITH : 247 colours Available in 15ml tubes (including the widest range of quinacridones and earth colours I have ever seen in any range of paint!)
Dan Smith started his business in the US in 1976, dedicated to bringing the highest quality inks to the print-artist community. Then, in 1993, he set out to create a line of  watercolors with one goal in mind: to create the very best watercolor available. His pigments come from every continent except Antarctica and the sheer range of possibility they offer is endless and unparalleled in the industry. Their diversity is amazing, from the subtle earth tones of Hematite, Zoisite, Tiger’s Eye and Minnesota Pipestone to the exquisite jewel shades of Rhodonite, Purpurite, Amazonite and Lapis Lazuli Genuine, and an extensive range of Quinacridones, the brightest and boldest colors modern technology has to offer… to try them is to want them!

If you would like to go directly to the related sections, please click on the links below (only the underlined pages are done yet… sorry!) And if you have an interest you might also enjoy reading about my visit to Daniel Smith.

III. g) Watercolour

  • III. g2) Sticks
  • III. g3) Markers
  • III. g4) Mediums
  • III. g5) Varnishes

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