Watercolor Glossary

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Watercolor, or aquarelle in French, is in its resurgence – about every 40 years, mediums make a regular appearance in popularity, and right now, watercolor is just coming into its own worldwide!

Watercolor paints were being made by the late 1700s, at first as hard, dry cakes. “Moist colors” introduced in the 1830s were easier to manipulate. Working with this essentially liquid medium, painters can achieve a wide range of artistic effects by varying the composition of the paint, the manner of application, and the texture of the paper.

This collection of terminology will hopefully help you understand the lingo of watercolor and inspire you to try your hand at painting!

Paint

Paint

  • Binder – that which holds the paint together, such as linseed oil for oil painting, polymers for acrylics, gum arabic for watercolors and gouache.
  • Classic or True – watercolors characterized by a luminous transparency: no matter how many layers of color are applied, the paint allows the light to penetrate and be reflected from the paper beneath.
  • Filler or Inert Pigment – a powdered paint additive that does not change the shade or hue, but extends or otherwise imparts a special working quality to the paint. Fillers are used in lower and student grade paints as extenders, making the paint cheaper to produce, but of lower quality.
  • Fugitive Colors – colors that can fade entirely, change color, darken to black, or other results when exposed to light over time. Some colors are still manufactured deliberately even with these unfortunate properties, as they are “historical” – the colors used by the old masters. Some artists want to use the same colors as Michaelangelo did.
  • Lightfast Rating – a pigment’s resistance to fading on long exposure to sunlight. Watercolors are rated lightfast on a scale of I-IV. I and II ratings are the most permanent. Inexpensive paints and student-grade paint lines often sacrifice lightfastness for cost.
  • Gouache – opaque watercolor paints. (see Opacity). Some brands resemble gouache much more than watercolor.
  • Gum Arabic – produced from the sap of the African acacia tree, available in crystalline form or an already prepared solution. It binds watercolor pigments when used with water and glycerine or honey.
  • Medium (pl. media or mediums) – 1) Most commonly, an artist’s method of expression, such as ceramics,painting or glass. 2)   a liquid added to a paint to thin, aid or slow drying, or alter the working qualities of the paint, without affecting its essential properties. 
  • Mixability – the ability for two paints to be combined to create a third. True pigments have better mixability than do hues.
  • Non-staining colors – pigments that can be lifted cleanly (wet or re-wet) with little or no discoloration of the underlying paper fibers.
  • Opacity, Opaque – impenetrable by light; not transparent or translucent. Denotes how much or little of the painting surface will show thru a layer of paint. True pigments tend to be more opaque, where hues tend to be more translucent.
  • Organic – natural, or referring to nature in shape or form. Organic is the opposite of synthetic.
  • Pan, Full Pan, or Half Pan – A semi-moist solid watercolor sold in a metal or plastic pan. Lighter weight and more portable than tube colors. Tube colors can be squeezed into pans.
  • Pigment – Any coloring agent, made from natural or synthetic substances, used with a binder in paints or drawing materials. Pigments are derived from both natural and artificial sources. The earliest pigments were mined from colored clays of earth (ochres and umbers), but minerals and plants were also early sources for pigments.       pigment: dry coloring matter, usually an insoluble powder, that’s mixed with water and gum Arabic to create paint
  • Staining Colors – cannot be fully removed from paper. Staining colors permeate the fiber of the paper and leave a permanent tint. Some brands list the stain rating (I-IV), or check your hands after painting – the hardest colors to wash off are usually the staining colors.
  • Synthetic – man-made materials. In paints, many synthetic pigments come from industries like automobiles. Synthetic brushes are made to resemble properties of natural bristles.
  • Transparent vs translucent – both are penetrable by light; think of the difference between tempered glass and frosted glass – the diffusion of light through frosted glass is translucence.
  • Tube color – liquid watercolor or gouache sold in a tube.
  • Watercolor – paint that uses water-soluble gum arabic as the binder and water as the vehicle. Characterized by transparency. Also, the resulting painting.

Paper

Paper

  • Acid Free or Archival – 100% rag , cotton, or linen watercolor paper with neutral or slightly low ph, alkaline (base) vs. acidic, and pure ingredients when manufactured. (High acidity papers degrade quickly.)  Some synthetic papers are archival in nature but have unique working properties.
  • Block –  a pad with a number of sheets of watercolor paper which has been glued on all four sides and attached to a stiff backing board. These pads do not need to be taped down. Sheets tend to flatten when dry, eliminating any need for stretching.
  • Buckling – the wrinkling and bending caused by expansion which occurs with watercolor paper when wet (also called cockling)
  • Cold Pressed (CP) or ‘Not’ Pressed (NP) Watercolor Paper – mildly rough texture. It takes color smoothly but the tooth allows for slight irregularities and graining in washes.
  • Grain – The basic structure of the surface of paper, as in fine, medium and rough grain.
  • Hot Pressed (HP) Watercolor Paper – pressed flat through hot cylinders; it is the smoothest texture available and preferred by artists who use much detail in their artwork. Excellent for detailed rubberstamping.
  • Paper weight – The weight of a stack of watercolor paper expressed in numeric values; the higher the number, the heavier the paper. Generally the lighter weights like 90lb buckle more and should not be used with large wet washes; 140lb is typical, and 300lb is often used by professional artists as it generally will not buckle at all.
  • Rough Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper –  a coarse, rough texture, allowing for maximum graining of washes and texture.
  • Tooth – the surface texture of paper.
  •  YUPO – a synthetic paper that does not easily absorb paint and water.

Brush care and use

Brush Care and Use

  • Dry/Store Brushes – Never leave a brush 1) in a water jar or 2) upright for storage before they completely dry. Dry brushes flat!  Water inside the ferrule will cause bristles to fall out, and can also destroy the brush handle.
  • Blot a Brush – remove the excess watercolor or water from by pressing it down on a folded paper towel.
  • Bristle –
  • Blot a Brush – remove the excess watercolor or water from by pressing it down on a folded paper towel.
  • Ferrule – The metal cylinder that surrounds and encloses the hairs on a brush. Customarily made of nickel or nickel-plated base metal.
  • Load a Brush – slide a clean brush along the bottom of your puddle of mixed color, then lift. Brush hairs should be so full of watercolor that the excess watercolor will drip from the tip. Remove some of the excess by sliding just the tip of the brush against the rim of the palette.
  • Rigger Brush – a brush with long hairs and a fine point originally used to paint the rigging on ships often used for detail work and fine lines such as tree branches, twigs, grasses, cracks in rocks etc
  • Rinse a Brush – in clean water, completely remove all color from the brush. Thump the brush lightly on the bottom of the container to spread the bristles to remove the paint. In a second water container, rinse again in cleaner water, and possibly a third if needed.
  • Round Brush – Most commonly used watercolor painting brush. Must come to a nice point when wet and hold lots of paint and water.
  • Sable Hair Brush – made from hairs of an animal about the size of a weasel. These brushes are quite expensive, so many artists use brushes made of synthetic material such as nylon. Some brushes mix sable with nylon for a compromise between the two.

Color

Color

  • Analogous colors – related colors next to each other on the color wheel. Example: Yellow, Yellow Green, and Green.
  • Complementary colors – hues directly opposite one another on a color wheel (for example, red and green, yellow and purple) which, when mixed together in proper proportions, produce a brown or neutral gray depending on proportions. These color combinations create the strongest possible contrast of color, and when placed close together, intensify the appearance of the other.
  • Chroma – The purity or degree of saturation of a color; relative absence of white or gray in a color.
  • Hue – The pure state of any color or a pure pigment that has not had white or black added to it. Hue: The color of a pigment or object. Not relating to tone or value.
  • Intensity –  a color’s saturation, brightness or strength
  • Muted – suppressing the full color value of a particular color.
  • Primary colors – three colors (red, yellow, and blue) that are the basis for all other color combinations. Theoretically, pigment primaries can be mixed together to form all the other hues in the spectrum.
  • Secondary colors – One of three colors created by mixing equal parts of two primary colors (red, blue, and yellow); the secondary colors are violet, orange, and green.
  • Temperature –  the warmness or coolness of a color, depending on where the color is situated on the color wheel
  • Tertiary colors – those between a primary and secondary on the color wheel
  • Tint – created by adding water or white to the original color; the more water added, the weaker the intensity
  • Tone – a hue with gray added.
  • Value – The lightness or darkness of tones or colors. White is the lightest value; black is the darkest. The value halfway between these extremes is middle gray.

Art terms

Art Terms

  • Background – 1) the area within a composition that appears further away from the viewer – smaller and with less detail; or 2) a flat color filling in between objects
  • Cast Shadow – The dark area that results when the source of light has been intercepted by an object.
  • Form Shadow – The shadow created due to the rounded shape of an object as it moves further from the light source.
  • Landscape – 1) subject matter is natural scenery. 2)  orientation of a rectangle, wider than it is tall.
  • Linear  – a composition in which line is the dominant element in defining form as opposed to mass;  the opposite of painterly. This would describe most rubber-stamped cards.
  • Motif – A term meaning “subject.” Flowers or roses can be a motif.
  • Negative space – 1) the area around an object or 2) the areas of an artwork that are NOT the primary subject or object.
  • Nonrepresentational – art that does not depict recognizable figures or elements of the natural world. Nonrepresentational art can be abstract, non-objective, and decorative.
  • Painterly – 1) a loose, fluid or textured style or 2) objects are defined by shadow and light rather than line. (ie “no line coloring” in cardmaking terms.)
  • Portrait – 1) subject matter is human, or 2) orientation of a rectangle, taller than it is wide.
  • Realism, Representational –  The depiction of figures, objects, or scenes with minimal distortion or stylization. Realist artists depict subjects with objectivity and accuracy, rather than interpretation.
Supplies

Other Supplies

  • Backing board – Board on which to tape a watercolor painting while working on it. Can be made from sealed plywood, perspex, or other waterproof (and preferably light) surface.
  • Kneaded Eraser  a kneadable eraser, often used for removing pencil lines from watercolor paper. ( in England its also called Putty Rubber)
  • Masking Fluid, Frisket –  latex gum products that are used to cover a surface to protect it from receiving paint. Some have nozzles to dispense lines of product, and others use a brush to apply (use an old brush, this will destroy nice ones). Also referred to as liquid frisket.
  • Palette – 1) the selection of colors an artist chooses to work with or 2) the surface on which a painter mixes his or her colors. 

 

Techniques

Techniques

  • Blending – Fusing two color planes together so no discernable sharp divisions are apparent.
  • Blocking in – The simplifying and arranging of compositional elements using rough shapes, forms, or geometric equivalents when starting a painting.
  • Blotting – using an absorbent material such as tissues or paper towels, or a squeezed out brush, to pick up and lighten a wet or damp wash. Can be used to lighten large areas or pick out fine details.
  • Charging – mixing two or more colors directly on the paper instead of premixing on a palette.
  • Chiaroscuro – 1) The rendering of light and shade in painting for dramatic effect. 2) The style of painting light within deep shadows. Carravagio and Rembrandt are considered masters of chiaroscuro. (Carravagio is my hero!)
  • Damp painting – 1) Using a brush that is moist enough to make a mark on paper but will not drip. 2) Damp paper is limp from being moistened, but when held at an angle the water will not run or drip.
  • Dry brush – a textured application of paint where the brush is fairly dry (thin or thick paint) and the hairs of a brush, angle of stroke, and the paper’s surface texture combine to create broken areas of paint. The paint remains almost exclusively on the high points of a textured paper, creating a broken, mottled effect. This is essentially the opposite of a wash, where the pigment settles in the “valleys,” or hollows of the paper, leaving the high points white. Used for rendering a variety of textured surfaces — stone, weathered wood, foliage, lakes and rivers, bark, clouds.
  • Feathering or Soft Edge – fading or disappearing edge
  • Flat or Solid Wash: a wash of single color and value is painted in a series of multiple, overlapping stokes following the flow of the paint. A slightly tilted surface aids the flow of your washes. Paper can be dry or damp.
  • Glazed Wash, Glazing: a transparent wash of color laid over completely dry, previously painted aresa. Used to adjust color, value, or intensity of underlying painting.    
  • Granulation: speckled effect when coarse pigment settles into the paper indentations as the paint dries. Some paints deliberately exploit this property, but other times granulation can indicate impurity in a lower quality paint. Granulation is neither good nor bad, unless it shows up unexpected when the desired effect was a more flat color.
  • Graded or Graduated Wash – a wash that smoothly changes in value from dark to light. Most noted in landscape painting for open sky work.
  • Grisaille –  painting a highly-modeled, black and white monochromatic base painting and then glazing it with transparent colors.
  • Lifting –  removing paint from a surface with a brush, paper towel or tissue in order to correct mistakes, develop textures, create highlights or change values.
  • Lost and Found Edges, or Broken or Inferred Edges – used to create and suggest movement of elements of a painting into each other, where soft edges blend to appear to rise up out of color behind it.
  • Monochromatic – painting with a single color (hue) and its tints and shades.
  • Painterly – 1) a loose, fluid or textured style or 2) objects are defined by shadow and light rather than line. (ie “no line coloring” in cardmaking terms.)
  • Polychrome – Poly = many, Chrome or Chroma = colors. Having many colors; random or intuitive use of color combinations as opposed to color selection based on a specific color scheme.
  • Pre-wet – wet an area of the painting with clean water before painting.
  • Shading Off – blending edges to fade out to white
  • Scrubbing – a dry-brush technique used to lift paint from or add color to an area of the surface
  • Scumbling – dragging or “dancing” a brush with a dense or opaque color across another color, creating a rough texture.
  • Splatter – flicking drops of paint or water
  • Texture – actual or virtual representation of different surfaces, paint applied in a manner that breaks up the continuous color or tone.
  • Underpainting – the first, thin transparent laying in of color in a painting.
  • Variegated Wash – a wet wash created by blending a variety of discrete colors so that each color retains it’s character while also blending uniquely with the other colors in the wash.    
  • Vignette – a painting which is shaded off around the edges leaving a pleasing shape within a border of white or color. Oval or broken vignettes are very common.
  • Wash – a thin, translucent layer of pigment.
  • Wet-on-wet – painting wet color onto paper that has been wet with water or paint. Looks strong and vibrant while wet but loses intensity when the colors dry.
  • Wet-on-dry – a wash that’s applied to a dry surface, either plain paper or already painted and dry; also known as a glaze or layering wash.

 

Troubleshooting

Troubleshooting

  • Blossoms or blooms  are fractal-looking marks created when extra moisture creeps back into a damp or partially dry area of a painting. As the excess water rests, it will “push” the tiny pigments of paint to the outside edge of the watermark. Also called “back runs” and can totally ruin a smooth flat area of a painting – or can be used with skill to create interesting effects.
  • Buckling or cockling – the wrinkling and bending caused by expansion which occurs with watercolor paper when wet. Many quality papers will dry flat afterward, some will not. Taping papers to a board before painting, using heavier weight papers, or painting using blocks (pads of paper sealed on the edges) can solve buckling.
  • Mud:  Brown, dull colors or textures caused by disturbing a wash while it is in a barely damp stage, just before it dries. #letitdry!