Frequently Asked Questions about Workshops

Can a beginner take your workshops?

Beginners are always welcome at any of our workshops. Because the class size is limited, there is plenty of time for one-on-one instruction & demonstration of basic technique. Key to success: communication! Talk to me well ahead of time so that we make sure you come well prepared with the right tools. We have a mix of beginners, intermediate and accomplished painters in every class and we all benefit from seeing each other’s work. We’re a supportive group!

What is the most important thing to do to be ready for a workshop?

Once you learn how, always have your paper cut, stretched and ready to go.

Why do I have to soak and stretch watercolor paper before I can paint?

Paper buckles when it gets wet, creating hills and valleys that may be difficult to work around. Stretching the paper insures that you always have a flat drum-tight surface to work on. That said, I frequently paint on unstretched paper, but only on Arches 300 lb., heavy enough to absorb water from my brush or spraybottle without excessive buckling. Even then, I always flatten it down at the end of a working day by sandwiching it facedown between two layers of paper, lightly misting the back with water and covering the three sheets (painting in the middle) it with a board. Hand-weights go on top of that. In the morning, my painting is dry and flat and ready for anything I can throw at it.

If you are working on medium weight 140 lb paper, you’ll get better results by wetting and stretching the paper first. If you are working on lightweight 90 lb paper, don’t even think of trying to paint without soaking and stretching first! I also tend to soak and stretch oversized sheets of paper, regardless of the weight of the paper. More surface area means more chances to buckle. By oversized, I mean anything over the standard 22 x 30 inch sheet.

Taking the time to stretch your paper can be a pain, but well worth the effort. One drawback is that you eliminate the deckled edges of your sheet of paper (because it’s taped or stapled) and you either need to frame your finished piece with a mat which covers the edges or hand-deckled it yourself.

How do I stretch watercolor paper?

The paper needs to be submerged in lukewarm water usually between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the size of the paper. Some experts suggest leaving larger heavier sheets in the water for at least an hour until almost translucent. The longer you soak the paper, the longer it stays wet-damp as you paint.

Use plywood, a drawing board or Gator Board. If I use plywood, I’ll coat it first with several layers of a water-based or polyurethane waterproofing treatment and let it dry overnight. Avoid oil-based waterproofing fluids. If you are working on a painting 16 x 20 or smaller, you can tape the paper to the board with 2 inch tape – one inch on the paper and one inch on the board. Artists’ tape or plain old masking tape works – although masking tape will leave a residue. Assume you’ll be trimming the borders if you use masking tape.

The only way to deal with larger sheets of paper is to use a staple gun (I like an electric one) place a staple at 2 or 3 inch intervals around the edge of the paper.

What’s the difference between student grade and professional grade when it comes to buying paper?

Student grade paper is almost always made out of wood pulp, which means it will yellow over time. Paint on the surface of cheap paper behaves very differently from paint on the good stuff. The good stuff is 100% rag fibers and treated with a gelatin-like surface material that almost paints itself. Watercolor is one art where it pays to pay more for your materials up front, because your efforts will be so much more rewarding.

Brand? Size? Texture? Help me, I’m paper-challenged!

Arches makes a standard all-purpose watercolor paper and can be counted on for reliability. It’s also easy to find at most art supply stores. But you should really experiment with other papers, since there are many wonderful options to choose from. For most brands, the standard size sheet is 22 x 30 inches. This can be cut down into smaller pieces. Think ahead! Start with the finished painting and work backwards. Are you thinking about buying a standard frame with pre-cut mat? Then plan accordingly and cut your watercolor paper to fit so you don’t have to spend money on custom-cut matboard.

What are the advantages of blocks? Are blocks and pads interchangeable?

Blocks contain pre-stretched artist-grade paper “glued” to a sheet of cardboard with a latex-like adhesive. It makes it easy to paint outdoors, since blocks (which come in different sizes) are very portable. When you finish a painting, you simply slice it off the top sheet of the block with a metal ruler or palette knife, and reveal a fresh sheet of paper ready to go underneath. It’s best to let the painting dry before removing it from the block.

Pads feature a cheaper grade of paper and are best for practice, not finished paintings.

How should I store my paper?

Lay it flat and keep it covered, to keep the dust off. This goes for unused paper and finished paintings.

What is the difference between 140lb. and 300 lb. paper?

A ream of paper is 500 sheets. The weight designation indicates what a ream of that paper would weigh. 300 lb. paper is thicker and heavier than 140lb. paper. It doesn’t buckle as much when wet, can often be painted on without stretching and of course, costs more.

I found some old watercolors at a yard sale; can I use them instead of buying the new stuff?

The chemistry of watercolor paint has changed (for the better!) so that today’s paints are more permanent and less likely to fade over time. Old tubes of paints – depending on how tightly capped – can be caked and dried or the gum Arabic binder may have separated. Finally, some colors are less toxic today than their counterparts from times past. It’s best to use high quality, fresh new paint. You can always start with just 3 colors and build your palette (and you color-mixing skills) over time.

What’s the difference between student grade and professional grade when it comes to buying paints?

Student grade paint is cheaper because there are fewer actual granules of color pigments suspended in the binder. Colors dry a little chalkier and less brilliant than professional grade paints.

What is Gouache?

The short answer is, “an opaque watercolor.” A better answer is that gouache isn’t bound with gum arabic, really “sets” when it dries – to the point that you could wipe it off with a damp sponge and brushstrokes maintain sharpness. You won’t get the drools, drips and backsplashes you can get with traditional watercolor.

There are hundreds of colors available. Should I pick ones that I like on the color chart or are there ones that are essential?

It’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store when you go to buy paint – so many colors, so little time. You’ll save money – and your paintings will look more unified – with a limited palette. There are a limited number of colors I’d recommend for a first-time painter just setting up a palette, or a more seasoned painter looking to streamline. First, start with Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue. Then I’d add Aureolin or Cadmium Yellow Light, Permanent Rose and Colbalt Blue. Once you’re comfortable painting with these colors, try adding Cerulean Blue, Viridian, Quinacridone Red, Cadmium Yellow Medium and Cadmium Red.

What’s the best way to clean my brushes?

I use a plain old bar of Ivory soap. Wet the brush and swirl it around on the surface of the bar of soap until sudsy. Rinse it well. Reshape the tip of the wet brush. I let mine dry flat on a rack.

What is “Plein Aire?”

En plein air is a French expression which means “in the open air”, and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors.

What is a “field kit?”

I use the phrase to describe easily portable equipment needed to paint with watercolor outdoors. My field kit consists of a folding chair (or camp stool), a water bottle for painting locations without a readily-available water source and a large plastic pencil box which contains all my paints and tools. I keep my kit stocked, packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, so I don’t have to stop and pull supplies from my studio. Your field kit items should include:

  • Paint: either my own tube paints squeezed into an inexpensive portable plastic folding palette or a travel paint box with small refillable cakes of watercolor like the Winsor Newton Watercolor travel set.
  • Brushes: Look for brushes with shorter handles that fit into small spaces like this set from Cheap Joe’s or brushes specifically designed to fit inside a field pan of watercolors like this Da Vinci travel brush.
  • Water Container: an empty tuna fish can works well, or you can find a collapsible travel brush washer designed specifically for outdoor painting.
  • Miscellaneous items: mechanical pencil, kneaded rubber eraser, small 6-inch ruler, natural sponge, travel-pack of Kleenex, a piece of cloth, a glue stick, a good-quality black drawing pen like the Sakura Pigma Micron.
  • Paper: I like to use watercolor blocks when out in the field. Here’s what “Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies” says about blocks: A watercolor block is really just like what it sound like, a block of watercolor paper that is attached together. The sheets of fine art paper are trimmed to some uniform size and stacked up. That stack of art paper is then attached to a backing board with a padding glue. This glue is applied to all four sides of the paper. If the glue is applied to just one side, that is called a watercolor pad. Because all four sides of the paper are glued into place, you don’t ever have to stretch your watercolor paper prior to painting.
    Other good paper options include blank postcards made from watercolor paper, and an Arches brand bound travel album of blank watercolor paper measuring 6” x 10”.