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!