Are You Painting with Tea or Butter?

Are You Painting with Tea or Butter?

When painting with watercolor, understanding consistency of paint is critical.   There is a method of thinking about it that I use and would like to share with you.

 

Basics of Watercolor

So, what do I mean by paint consistency?  This is the term I use for the ratio of water to pigment.  So, either lots of water compared to pigment OR lots of pigment compared to water.  There is also a range in-between.  I think it is very important to have a range of paint consistency within a painting.  Why?…you may ask.  Because, the more water to pigment ratio, the lighter the value and the more pigment to water ratio, the darker the value.  I think it is important to have a good range of values in a painting for greater impact.  So, if you are not using enough pigment, you can not get a dark enough value.

Let me explain it this way, watercolor is different than oil painting in many ways.  But, one very important way is that with watercolor you don’t lighten a color by adding white, you lighten a color by adding more water.  The transparent nature of watercolor allows the white of the paper to show through the pigment, lightening the color.  This is important to understand because the reverse is true, if you have too much water white paper is showing through and it is hard to get dark colors.  Many beginning watercolor students (myself included when I started out) use too much water and not enough pigment.  So, their paintings end up looking anemic…  or too light.  There is not enough value contrast.

To get good range in value, you need a good range of paint consistency!

 

The Tea to Butter Method

In a watercolor workshop I took years ago, the instructor taught me about the “Tea to Butter” method for thinking about paint consistency and I have used it ever since.  Think of the consistency for the following foods to help you with understanding paint consistency…

Tea – This is the lightest and so has mostly water with little pigment.  However, you should have enough pigment to see the color.  When mixing a puddle on your palette, the paint should flow easily.  Think of good steeped tea.  Watery.

Coffee – The next stage is coffee.  Just as coffee has a thicker consistency than tea, there should be more pigment but still enough water to flow on your palette.  Washes are best done with “tea” or “coffee” because there is enough water for the paint to flow.

Milk – Now we are getting even more pigment to water.  The paint doesn’t flow as easily on the palette now.  Think of how milk has more “body” to it than coffee does.  That is what you want… more pigment.  But this is not all…

Cream – Oh yummy!  Now we are getting real color.  Pigment with just a little water.  It should not flow on your palette at all!  This is where most your darkest darks should come from.  The main reason that I prefer tube paints to pan paints is that I can’t seem to get “cream” with pan paints.  You need pigment and not dried up pigment!  Watercolors can be reconstituted, but they do eventually die.  When they are so dry that you can only make “tea” or “coffee” than throw them away!

Butter – We all know everything is better with butter!  Butter is basically straight out of the tube.  Hardly any water and maybe no water.  However, butter should be used sparingly.  I use this constancy for highlights with white paint.  Small areas where I want a splash of bright, opaque colors.  I don’t use much, but I like to use some because I like the range in paint thickness.  I should say however, that my darks are mixed to “cream” constancy, not “butter”.   That would be too thick for me.  However, I have seen it done!  Christopher Schink uses watercolor this way to great effectiveness!

 

Try It Out!

Now the best thing for you to do is try it out!  Practice!  It really won’t make total sense until you put it into practice.  I would suggest drawing 5 squares on a sheet of watercolor paper.  Choose any color except yellow, yellow will only ever get so dark.  Try making tea, coffee, milk, cream, and butter.  Pay attention to how the paint flows on your palette.  Another tip is to use new paint out of a tube, not dried paint.  The example below shows what it might look like.  However, the photo doesn’t say it all.  You can tell that the color is darker as it goes from left to right, but it is also about the texture and consistency of the paint which is hard to see in the photo….   Good Luck!

 

 

Let me know how it goes!  I would love to hear!  Thanks everyone for following my blog and I hope this is helpful!  Happy Painting!

26 Comments

  1. This is an excellent article Brienne. I have found the “Tea to butter” analogy really helpful in working with value.

    Reply
    • Thanks Gene! Yes… I think the “Tea to Butter” analogy is very useful. 🙂 It still helps me a lot!

      Happy Painting!
      Brienne

      Reply
  2. I am sharing this with everyone I can today. This is super information. This is “gold” . Why was this never articulated in a way I could understand and use before?
    I want to scream it from the roof tops! Thank you so much! Brienne.

    Reply
    • Thanks Jo!! So glad that this was useful information! A light bulb went off when I first heard it as well! 🙂 Brienne

      Reply
    • It was articulated before like this – it is actually copied from Joseph Zbukvic book “Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients that Turn Paintings Into Art”

      Reply
      • Thanks for letting me know, I have never read Joseph Zbukvic’s book, but would love to… 🙂 I learned about the tea to butter method from a teacher of mine about 7 years ago and it has helped me a lot.

        Reply
        • In reference to the JZ book, it can be ordered through your library. Since its out of print the price of a copy on Amazon may be $350! I just checked it out and read it twice. I am trying to do as many of his exercises as time allows. He has a great visual with explaination of his watercolor clock, as he calls it. One side being wet to dry paper and the other tea to butter. The demos in the book refer to his clock. It’s genius.
          I love your blog, and I’m reading over all your old posts! Hoping to catch a workshop with you someday.

          Reply
          • Thank you for the idea Peggy. I will see if my library can get it. That would be great to read it. I am sure I could learn a lot, Joseph Z. is truly a master!! Thank you for reading my blog and I am glad that you enjoy it! 🙂 That would be great to meet you in a workshop someday.

            Happy Painting!
            Brienne

  3. This is really helpful! Thank you so much. I had heard a similar idea expressed as tea – milk – honey, but in my relatively short experience with watercolor I felt there were missing levels with only three. You explanation makes more sense and puts the idea clearer in my mind.

    Reply
    • Hello Rachel… I am so glad to hear this! I am glad that this has made more sense. It is such a useful concept with watercolor and helps to when you understand! I wish you the best with your continued efforts in watercolor!!! Happy Painting! Brienne

      Reply
  4. I love how you explained the different watercolor consistencies! I also read about these terms by another great watercolorist quite some time ago, but to be honest, how you explained it was more understandable and right to the point! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Good Theda!

      I am glad you found the watercolor consistency useful and understandable. It has helped me a lot once I really understood it. 🙂 I would love to know how it goes as you do it! Let me know!

      Happy Painting Theda!

      Brienne

      Reply
  5. Thanks for this chart, and the information, Very helpful.
    What would be mid-tones, the middle of chart.
    I sure have a hard time with this.
    Thanks for any info.

    Reply
    • Hello Lois… You are welcome. Your light tones would be tea and the mid-tones would be coffee to milk. The darks come from cream. I use butter for highlights, not my darks…

      I hope this helps, if you need more clarification, let me know. It is a difficult thing, but once you grasp it, it will help tremendously. Good Luck and Happy Painting!

      Brienne

      Reply
      • Hi Brienne, Thanks for the reply. Yes, this helps
        so will practice.
        Lois

        Reply
  6. Hi Brienne, Is there anyway you could tell the water to paint
    to mix this chart. I can get the lightest, mid-tones kind of,
    But the Darks, never come out dark, I always get to much water.
    Do you start with a special color first, say Ult. Blue+ B.Sienna,
    or would you start with the B.Sienna, and add the Ult.Blue.
    Any suggestions,
    Thanks,
    Lois

    Reply
    • Hello Lois… Thanks for the question. Ultramarine + Burnt Sienna make a great dark, but you should be able to get dark with just Ultramarine Blue. Would you please tell me what kind and brands of watercolor paint you are using? Are they pan or tube paints? This can make a big difference.

      Thanks.
      Brienne

      Reply
  7. I have M.Graham paints, and Daniel Smith.
    I’m trying to make Triads, to paint like Jo Mckenzie, and she
    mentioned you on her site.
    I think I just need to practice, mixing the colors.
    Thanks,
    Lois

    Reply
    • Those are great paints! I work a lot in triads as well. 🙂 Yes, Jo is a great artist. It definitely does take practice! I first heard about this “tea to butter” analogy years ago and it took me a while to really put it into practice. Keep trying! Try it with different colors. For the cream consistency (which will be your darks), get most of the water out of your brush and don’t use a brush that holds a lot of water, like a brush with natural hair. It is just enough water to paint easily on the paper. The paint should not flow freely on your palette.

      If it will help, I will soon be posting a video explaining and showing how to do this… I will let you know!

      Happy Painting and Keep It Up!
      Brienne

      Reply
      • Thanks Brienne…
        Look forward to the Video.
        A question, on Triad, can it be any 3 colors, on the c.wheel
        in the Triangle. I guess, it’s a little confusing.
        Or is it just yellow,blue and reds?

        Thanks for all your help.
        Lois

        Reply
  8. Thank you so much for that explanation. I knew it, but, needed another reminder. I didn’t realize the difference between tube and pan watercolors either, so that helped too. I have tube watercolors and was thinking that pan might be more economical in the long run, because it would supposedly last forever, just add water. I guess not, after reading this article.

    Reply
    • Glad this was useful Nancy! That is at least my take on pan paints. I know artists that love them though. But, I like to get good contrast and I find that hard to do with pan paints. Best of luck with your paints! Happy Painting in 2016!

      Brienne

      Reply
  9. So glad I read you tea to butter advice. I totally understand this and will keep it on my mind for my future watercolor paintings

    Reply
    • So glad this was useful Toby. It was helpful for me when I first learned about it… Happy Painting!

      Reply
  10. Great article. I believe the instructor you mention in your article who introduced you and many other fine artists to the paint consistency concepts is watercolor master Joseph Zbukvic author of “Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor” (out of print). These concepts enable us artists to identify and better understand the physical characteristics of watercolor paint.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment David Savellano…love your watercolors BTW. 🙂 I love Joseph Zbukvic’s work as well, of course. I have not read his book, but would love to! I actually learned this from a teacher I had named, Jana Winters Parkin (http://www.janaparkin.com/). But, I am sure she learned it somewhere too. Wherever it originated, it is a great way to visualize paint consistency and something that I see many starting watercolor artists struggle with. I know I did when I was starting out.

      I really need to try and find a copy of Joseph’s book. I know it is out of print and so very expensive…

      Thanks again and happy painting!
      Brienne 🙂

      Reply

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