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Learn the Lingo of the Watercolour Artist

Note: Some of the following terms and techniques are applicable to other media (such as oil or acrylic painting) but we will be focusing on the definition as it pertains to watercolour painting.

Atomiser:

noun:

Painting tool; manual (mouth operated) paint spraying tool that creates a fine mist and similar painting effect to an airbrush or aerosol spray can; sometimes referred to as a diffuser.

Atmospheric Disturbance:

noun:

Visual effect; the tendency for objects that are far in the distance to appear out-of-focus and muted in colour due to the natural occurrence of particulates in the atmosphere that mess with the way light refracts into your eye; a fancy way of saying that stuff far away is blurry.

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Backrun:

verb:

Painting technique; the mixing of colours in a semi-controlled way by adding new colour to a wash that hasn't dried; backruns can be an unwelcome accident, but are also deliberately created by some artists to represent abstracted clouds, foliage or flowers, or just to create a specific mood and for visual interest.

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Blotting:

noun:

Paper type; Blotter paper; a highly absorbent type of paper used to absorb an excess of liquid (such as ink or paint) from the substrate.

 

verb:

Painting technique; Blotting-off; the act of manually soaking up excess paint before it dries using a small sponge, piece of absorbent tissue or a towel

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Body Colour:

noun: 
Paint type; a slightly confusing term that simply means opaque water-based paint (such as Gouache or Tempera). Opaque colours can be used to add punches of solid colour to transparent watercolours, and opaque white is used to bring highlights back out of muddy or over-saturated areas.

Buckle:

verb:

An Unfortunate Occurance; the tendency for once flat paper (watercolour or otherwise) to warp into a wavy, uneven surface once water has been applied; can and should be avoided by stretching the paper prior to painting. (see; stretching

 

Although some aspects of painting once thought to be negative (such as backruns) can be used to ones advantage, buckling paper is never desired and never considered a happy accident.

Cat's Tongue:

noun:

Brush type; similar in shape to a Filbert brush, but with a pointed tip. The ideal tool for creating single-stroke flower petals and leaves.

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To help clarify the definitions of specialty brushes in this glossary, use this visual guide to basic brush shapes as a reference.

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Cold Pressed:

noun:

Paper type; the most commonly used type of watercolour paper; a heavy weight; absorbent paper featuring a pronounced toothy finish and sized to accept watermedia (see; sizing)

Highest quality cold pressed papers may be hand-made and will contain 100% cotton fibres; they're loved for their irregular rough texture and reliable performance and absorbency.

Cold pressed papers can also be labeled R (indicating a particularly rough finish) or they can be labeled NOT (meaning that it is NOT hot pressed, just a regular cold pressed paper ...confusing, I know).

(see: hot pressed)

Dagger

noun:

Brush type; similar in shape to an angle brush, but elongated to the extreme. The ideal tool for creating long curvilinear shapes with a varied line weight (such blades of grass).  Daggers will hold a lot of water/paint enabling you to draw out very long lines without having to reload the brush.

Drop-in Colour

verb:

Painting technique; the act of dropping colour into a still-damp wash; also the basis of wet-on-wet technique (see; wet-on-wet).

Ideal for creating soft-edged cloud-like effects, or mimicking atmospheric disturbance in landscapes. (see; atmospheric disturbance)

Dry Brushing:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of using a paint brush that is relatively dry, but still delivers paint to your substrate.  The resulting brush strokes will have a coarse, scratchy appearance, contrasting the smooth, uniform look of washes or blended paint.

Fan:

noun:

Brush type; uniquely shaped, resembling a handheld fan.  Ideal for blending edges, or mimicking the texture of many things such as fur, feathers, ripples on water, grasses, tree boughs... the list goes on and on.

Frisket:

noun:

Painting tool; a fluid composition of liquid latex and ammonia, or an adhesive film; used to cover (mask-off) areas of of your painting where paint is not wanted; excellent at preserving white space. (see; masking, white space)

Liquid frisket dries very quickly and can be easily peeled off waterclour paper (or rubbed off with an eraser) when no longer needed. Frisket adhesive film must be cut to shape and then applied to the paper; the low tack of the adhesive film allows it to be easily removed when no longer needed.

Glazing:

verb:

Painting technique; a technique common to all paint media; painting a thinned-out/watered-down layer of transparent colour over an already painted area.

Granulating:

adjective:

Paint characteristic; the tendency for some colour pigments to precipitate (or settle out) when water is added, resulting in a granular, speckled effect; also commonly referred to as Sedimentary colours; it's a natural effect, not indicative of poor quality paint, or technical misuse. Only some colours will granulate. 

Gum Arabic:

noun:

Paint medium; a natural non-toxic gum made from the sap of various species of the acacia tree used as a binder in watercolours; gum arabic fluid can be added to colours to thicken inks and watercolours, increasing the viscosity of the paint film and also intensifying colours. Gum arabic can also be diluted with water and applied directly to watercolour paper as a sealant, making it less absorbent, or over top of a finished watercolour painting (much like a varnish).

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Hot Pressed:

noun:

Paper type; a heavy-weight, slow-to-absorb paper featuring a very smooth finish; manufactured using steam, heat and/or pressure to to help the fibres (wood pulp and/or cotton) nestle very close together, making the paper very slow to absorb; sized for water media. (see; sizing)x

Impressing:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of pressing plastic wrap or fabric into a still wet application of paint; capable of creating a vast array textured effects.

 

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Indenting:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of scoring the paper (using a stylus or the end of a paintbrush) directly after an application of fresh paint; the scored marks are recessed into the paper so pigments will naturally settle in the lines, showing off the scored details.

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Lifting:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of removing colour from an area of wet paint, or re-wetting an area of dried paint and removing colour; a painting technique in it's own right, not just a correction method; the basis of subtractive painting.

Lifting creates soft edges and can diffuse or modify colours, reducing their intensity and leaving only the undertones. Strategic or detailed lifts can be done using a slightly damp paintbrush to wick up the colour.

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Liner (Rigger):

noun:

Brush type; similar in shape to round brushes but with hairs that are twice the usual length; ideal for drawing out long, thin continuous lines; available in small sizes only (#3 is generally the largest size).

It's debatable whether there's any difference between Liners and Riggers. Brush manufacturers don't seem to differentiate; one will call it a rigger, while the other calls it a liner, yet the brush is identical for all intents and purposes.x

Mop:

noun:
Brush type; similar in shape to a cosmetics blush brush; made of soft and exceptionally absorbent goat or camel hair; the ideal tool for applying washes of colour covering a large area

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Opaque:

adjective:

Paint characteristic; the ability of certain paints and/or certain colours to cover completely, not allowing you to see through to lower layers; the opposite of transparent & translucent; ideal for over-painting.

Over-painting:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of "cleaning up" muddy or over-saturated areas, restoring white space (see; white space), creating highlights, or making blurry edges crisp again; generally speaking, over-painting is done with an opaque white water-based paint (such as Titanium White Gouache, or Chinese White Watercolour).

Some traditionalist folks consider over-painting to be cheating, however it's a widely practiced technique and can be artfully done.  Over-painting is often a much better solution than chucking out an otherwise successful painting.... Besides, who cares what some folks think! Art is not meant to be perfection.

Ox Gall:

noun:

Painting tool; yellowish fluid from gall bladders (usually obtained from cows) mixed with alcohol and used as the wetting agent in paper marbling and watercolor painting.

If a watercolour wash is not covering the paper evenly, is beading up, or failing to absorb into the deep texture of the paper leaving tiny white specks, add a drop of ox gall to improve flow and even out the absorbancy.

Resist:

noun:

Painting tool; any substance that can be applied to watercolour paper that will repel water and therefore paint pigment as well; wax crayons and oil pastels are commonly used resists: resists are generally a permanent addition to your painting (unlike frisket which is removed).

Rigger:

noun:
Brush type; see liner

Sedimentary:

adjective:
Paint characteristic; see granulation

Sgraffito:

 

verb:

Painting technique; a fancy Italian word for the act of gently scraping paint off of the substrate (paper, in this case); scraping usually takes place after the paint has dried (or at least partially dried); results in subtle details and irregular textures and can help in restoring white space (see; white space)

Literally anything scratchy will work; a razor blade or craft knife, sandpaper, a piece of cardboard or a cut up credit card... anything scratchy.

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Shader:

noun:

Brush type; a flat, wide brush with shorter hairs, exactly the same shape as a Bright brush; ideal for creating hard edges and square fields of colour; great for street-scapes and other architectural subject matter.

Spattering:

verb:

Painting technique; the act of dipping a very coarse bristled brush (such as a toothbrush or stencil brush) in paint then running your finger or a stick across the bristles, thereby distributing minute particles of paint all over the place; resulting in a coarse airbrush/spray paint effect.

As the description indicates, controlling the spatter is challenging.  The first time you try it, you'll likely paint your own face by accident.

Sizing:

noun:

Painting tool; a substance (such as hide glue, gelatin, or acrylic polymer) added to watercolour paper during the manufacturing process, serving several key purposes:

  • to reduce the absorbency of the paper (helping paint sit on the outer surface of the paper, as opposed to soaking into the interior of the sheet)
  • to maintain the structural integrity of the paper (so the paper can be soaked with water without falling apart)
  • to reduce paper buckling and warping once dry (encourages paper to shrink back to it's original shape; flat)
Sizing can be internal (added to pulp during manufacturing) and/or external (added to the paper's surface after production).  The highest quality watercolour papers have both internal and external sizing.

    Staining:

    adjective:

    Paint characteristic: the tendency for certain colours to sink into and chemically bond with the fibers of the paper making it difficult to lift or remove colour; not an indicator of paint quality as some pigments are inherently staining, and some are non-staining.

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    Stipple:

    verb:

    Painting technique; the act of creating imagery through a series of dots made with the point of a paint brush; dimension is achieved by slowly building areas of light and shadow with dots in various hues, enabling the colours to mix in the viewer's eye (known as optical mixing); a traditionally ideal method of working on miniature scale paintings.

    Stretching:

    verb:

    Painting technique; the act of laying a sheet of watercolour paper on a rigid support and taping all sides down to the support in order to avoid buckling and warping; paper stays relatively flat while you paint (avoiding unwanted and uneven pooling) and the finished painting dries perfectly flat.

    Any paper of less than a 300lb weight will warp if not stretched; the amount of warp is dependent on the amount of water absorbed in the painting process.

    Here is an article describing four different ways to stretch paper.

    Stretching is not necessary if you're using synthetic papers (which are not prone to warping) or if you're using a watercolor block (as long as the painting is left on the block to dry).

    Transparent:

    adjective:

    Paint characteristic; the tendency for certain paint colours to allow light to pass through the paint film enabling layers beneath to be distinctly seen; the opposite of opaque. 

    Underdrawing:

    verb:

    Paint technique; the act of sketching out the intended composition on your substrate prior to applying paint.

    Pencil lines can be lightly erased after the composition has been blocked-in with paint, or pencil lines can be left as they are.  Some people (like myself) feel that visible underdrawings add a lovely sense of whimsy and visual interest to a painting.

    Wash:

    verb:
    Paint technique; the act of applying a dilute solution of paint and water over a large area; creating a smooth field of colour without visible brush strokes.

    Washes can be just one colour, or they can gradate from a light to a dark shade of a single colour, or they can graduate from one colour to another; in any case, the goal is to have seamless blending devoid of brushstrokes.

    Wet-on-Wet:

    verb:

    Paint technique; the act of applying a new colour to the painting without waiting for earlier applications to dry first; colours blend together without leaving of any hard edges or sharp transitions; a technique that is only partially controllable.

     

    White Space:

    noun:
    Visual effect;
    the important consideration of white (the colour) in a watercolour painting composition.

    This effect is usually achieved by preserving the natural white of the paper with masking fluid, or by careful planning of the composition prior to painting. Opaque white paint can be also added after the painting is complete to create more crisp white spaces (see: overpainting)

    White space helps a painting to live and breathe; even in a dark, dramatic piece, white space is essential (see examle below). Without the sacred white space a piece can look heavy, muddy or oversaturated.

     

     

    July 29, 2017 — Karen Bullaro

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