Colorado artist Dale Russell Smith spent years developing a range of techniques that allow him to balance free expression with tight control. Among those procedures is coating his watercolor paper with gum arabic.
by M. Stephen Doherty
|North Rim, Black Canyon
2004, watercolor, 20 x 25.
Courtesy Surface Creek Winery &
Gallery, Eckert, Colorado.
Gum arabic is the natural, nontoxic gum used as the binder in watercolor paints; and it is also sold separately as one of several mediums that can be used to adjust either the properties of the paint or of the watercolor paper. For example, it can be added to a watery mixture of paint to give it more body and prevent the paint from dripping; or it can be brushed directly on the paper to make it less absorbent and therefore able to hold crisp, hard edges. “After playing around with every conceivable technique imaginable, I came up with a way of sealing my graphite drawings with a diluted mixture of gum arabic, allowing the surface to dry, and then painting controlled, clean, colorful washes of pigment,” Dale Russell Smith, an artist in Cedaredge, Colorado, explains. “I also developed other ways of adding interest to my watercolor paintings.
“I start by soaking a sheet of 140-lb rough Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper, stapling it to 3/4" plywood, and allowing it to dry flat,” Smith says. “I soak the paper so it will expand, and then, after being attached to the board, it will contract into a perfectly flat surface. As a consequence, however, the soaking washes away some of the sizing that limits the amount of moisture the paper will absorb. Spraying diluted gum arabic on the surface of the paper will restore the hard surface.
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison
2006, watercolor, 28 x 18.
Courtesy Surface Creek Winery &
Gallery, Eckert, Colorado.
“Referring to photographs I’ve taken in and around Colorado, I make a fairly detailed graphite drawing on the stretched paper before I apply the gum arabic,” Smith says, indicating that throughout his painting process he looks at a slide of his subject while it is projected inside a black Fome-Cor box he constructed in his studio. “As my step-by-step demonstration indicates, the drawing is fairly light and only indicates the placement of all the major forms and the outlines of the shadows. Once I am satisfied the drawing gives me enough information to move ahead, I seal it with a solution of Winsor & Newton gum arabic (3 parts water to 1 part gum arabic), using an atomizer to spray a generous coating over the entire sheet. I prefer the atomizer over a brush because I don’t want friction from the movement of a brush to smear the graphite or lighten the lines to the point that I have trouble seeing them. Those lines are important to the initial stages of the painting process because they help me determine which shapes need to remain unpainted and which ones will receive the first washes of light color.
“The gum arabic seals the drawing, making it impossible to adjust any of the lines once the coating is dry, so I don’t apply it until I’m absolutely certain the drawing is accurate and that extraneous marks have been erased,” Smith emphasizes. “Once the coating is completely dry, I apply brushstrokes of Incredible White Mask to cover shapes that are to remain pure white. Even though I like the way this brand of masking fluid performs, when I first began using it, I had trouble with the stark-white color because it was hard to distinguish the masked shapes from the white paper. Now I mix a small amount of colored gouache into the bottle of Incredible White Mask, and I have no trouble seeing the shapes I’ve reserved. I clean my brushes immediately after using the Incredible Mask by dipping them in soapy water periodically, but after many applications they can become clogged and difficult to use. I clean the stiffened brushes by dipping them in a small amount of rubber cement thinner and wiping them off with a clean paper towel.
21 x 29. Courtesy Fredericksburg
Art Gallery, Fredericksburg, Texas.
“Once the masking agent is completely dry, I begin painting the lightest washes of color and then move on to the midtones and the darks,” Smith adds. “In the early stages, I try to think in terms of the overall painting, not isolated areas, because the most important thing is to judge the relative value and color temperature accurately in terms of the overall composition. Once in a while I can see the finished picture so clearly in my mind’s eye that I can start painting at the top of the paper and work my way down; but most of the time I have to move around the entire sheet, laying in the light yellows, greens, and blues here and there, following up with slightly darker mixtures, and then reinforcing the illusion of three-dimensional form with a second or third wash of color over those initial light shapes.
“I have two palettes of colors I work with simultaneously,” Smith continues. “One holds the earth colors and the other the bright cadmiums and synthetics. I do that because earth colors work well together and can swim around in the mixing area without losing their warm, rich tones; but they have a way of making the bright transparent colors turn dull and semiopaque on a palette. I prefer to keep them apart until I’m ready to layer them or let their edges blend on the paper.
21 x 29. Courtesy Redstone
Art Center, Redstone, Colorado.
“All combined, I have quite an extensive array of colors available, but I seldom use more than 10 or 12 on any one painting,” Smith explains. “When I first started painting in watercolor I read a number of good books that illustrated how various color combinations could work for or against the success of a painting; and I bought almost every tube color available and tried various mixtures. In the process, I developed an instinctive sense of what I need for each area of the picture I am working on—the combinations that will help push the shapes back in space and the mixtures that will create brighter, more luminous colors that bring shapes forward.
“I also read an article in American Artist on Stephen Scott Young that revealed his use of casein white in situations where other artists might use gouache or Chinese white,” Smith adds. “I bought a tube of casein white and found that it dried flat without a glaring sheen, and it dried permanently so it wouldn’t be disturbed by subsequent washes of color. All of those qualities made the casein perfect for adding bright highlights, correcting small areas of a painting, or adding my signature over a dark passage.”
|Collegiate Range II
21 x 29. Courtesy
Fredericksburg Art Gallery,
Smith reveals that in addition to the materials and techniques that are part of his standard repertoire, he tries new products and procedures that challenge him to find new forms of expression. “Every painting should present an opportunity to explore different subjects, adjust your standard compositional schemes, introduce a new color, experiment with techniques, or rethink procedures,” he says. “For example, I sometimes spatter clear water all over the surface of a painting and let the spots dry so they add a random texture to the picture; or I blot some of the spattered droplets in order to lift paint off the paper. I’ve dampened areas that have previously been painted and remixed the layers of colors; I’ve scrubbed areas with a wet bristle brush to lighten a value; and I’ve applied broad washes of a transparent color to add warmth to a sunlit area or to cool down a shadow shape. Ruining a painting is not the worst thing that could happen to an artist, but getting stuck in a predictable rut is.”