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Wax On, Wax Off!

29 May 2012

I now have my own range of watercolor painting brushes and while going through the process of choosing their design, fond memories came flooding back to me from my time living and studying art in China. There I was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful artist from Shanghai who taught me all she could about Chinese brushwork.

Jean Haines watercolor painting brushes available from Rosemary & Co.
I needed a fine Kolinsky sable brush that would load well with color, release well to flow, and curve or move freely over paper, but I also wanted a round brush with a good point for my Asian influenced brushstrokes. All in one brush! Jean Haines watercolor painting brushes available from Rosemary & Co.

Under my mentor's guidance in Asia, my watercolor art improved and the way I paint today is very much from her having given me such a sound foundation as to how I use and move my brushes. I also gained many bruises on the back of my hands because if I didn't hold my brushes correctly I would get a rap from a bamboo stick to reinforce what she was telling me to do. How many teachers today could do that to get their point across?

Friends at the time thought I was crazy to put up with such treatment but they had no idea how much I was learning. I smile when I think of my studies because I felt like very much like the character in the Karate Kid movies. Learning from my master was not always easy, nor were her teaching methods what I would have expected when learning how to paint. But now I can instinctively move my arms correctly to gain movement and visual excitement in my work. I can also use any size brush and gain a million brush marks from it purely by the angle it is held and by the pressure used to release color.

Wax On?

Asian influenced brushwork creating beautiful carnations in a simple composition.

Asian influenced brushwork creating beautiful carnations in a simple composition.

Things I once took for granted in my work I now consider carefully. Mainly because now I know what will happen with brush marks and that knowledge helps me make my watercolors interesting and successful.

Holding my brush near the sable at an angle for fine detail work.
Holding my brush near the sable
at an angle for fine detail work.
Holding my brush at the correct angle helps me to gain curved or straight lines but I use my whole arm in larger marks, not just my wrist or hand, which I often see Western artists doing!

My mentor also taught me to close my eyes and see what I was painting long before I picked up my brushes. And if the subject happens to move? In that case, use soft flowing brushwork with more water added to the pigment. If a subject didn't move? Use stronger pigment and more pressure when applying color.

Wax Off?

When and where my brush leaves the paper makes a huge difference to my results. It is vital to know what will happen to the pigment when removing the point from a wet section.

Most importantly, my master taught me to always hold my brush in the right place, which is the furthest end for movement and near the sable for detail. Her voice still plays in my mind when I work. I can hear her say, "Why you stand up your brush?" She would remind me of this if the brush was supposed to be laying down at an angle for depicting a branch or twig mark of a tree.

Lifting and removing my brush at the right time creates watermarks that I can later use to add brickwork effects for an old canal bridge.

Lifting and removing my brush at the right time creates watermarks that I can later use to add brickwork effects for an old canal bridge.

Some memories stay with you for a lifetime and good lessons always play a huge part in your success. I will never forget studying brushwork in China but I am often amazed at how little time new artists take to understand how brushes move--how they feel and react with different pressure on paper. How easily the load or don't load with pigments and vary in release of color by timing of application.

A collection of my Chinese brushes.
A collection of my
Chinese brushes.
For an experiment, try placing a dry watercolor brush on the back of your hand. I was taught that if you can feel it, you are using far too much pressure on your paper when you paint. Keep placing this dry brush on the back of your hand until you feel a slight whisper of sable. Then paint with that whisper and notice how your colors sing because you haven't pressed them onto a surface. Instead you have given them permission to shine.

All this thanks to a little lady who taught me so much. Happy painting and take a second look at how you hold and use your watercolor brushes!

--Jean

Jean is the author of Atmospheric Watercolour, released in May 2012. Full details of Jean's brush sets and new book are available on her website.

 

 

 

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