Archive for the ‘My way of doing it’ Category

Making the most of what we’re given

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

In mid-December, while on a cruise in the Caribbean, my husband and I found ourselves in the custom-designed cruise port of Costa Maya, Mexico. This port, far distant from any major town, was designed specifically for cruise lines to use as a jump-off point for tours to the sites of several Mayan ruins. But for those of us who had already taken such tours or who didn’t look forward to spending several uncomfortable hours driving back and forth on a tour bus, our alternative options for ways to spend our day were to stay on shipboard or to browse among the gift-shops and bars in search of something revealing a bit of the Mexican “flavor” we’d presumably come to experience. We chose to wander.

Living in Florida, an easy drive away from Port Everglade, cruises and land tours are no longer a novelty to my husband and me, so my goal on this trip was to paint, or at least to make sketches of some of what we would see. In Costa Maya, the Mexican ambiance is as carefully designed and manufactured as in a theme park to entice tourists to “buy local.” This approach is not one that stimulates my creative imagination or inspires great artistic concepts. So I narrowed my focus, looking for individual features that might catch my eye—a heavily laden coconut palm, perhaps, or …

1912---Costa-Maya-FlamingoI had never had the opportunity, before, to really study a live flamingo. So when I saw a small flock of birds (no doubt with wings clipped to ensure their continued presence in their picturesquely designed setting), I took the opportunity to sketch one—or more accurately, an amalgamation of several, since they kept repositioning themselves.  I also took a number of photos for future reference in regard to overall proportion, various angles, attitudes, coloration, and neck and leg convolutions.

1912---Costa-Maya-Coconut-CSimilarly, a cartload of coconuts had been positioned outside a shop in a consciously staged arrangement. It was indeed picturesque, and I liked the variety of colors represented.  Fresh green nuts filled the cart, many with the “wild hair” of the inflorescence, like umbilical cords, still attached. Older, more dried nuts lay stacked on the ground.

But as I sat on a nearby bench to set to work, a continuous stream of cruisers meandered by, often blocking my view. So I simplified the scene, studied it sporadically when the human parade occasionally split to permit a clearer view, and freely edited the literal scene to establish a credible impression of it in my sketchbook.

I began each study with a light, exploratory pencil sketch. In the case of the coconut cart, I then restated it with pen, adding some hatching to mark shaded areas in case impending rain moved in before I could add any color. A few quick strokes of color with a waterbrush captured my basic color impressions.

Only after I was well into the second sketch did I realize that I’d been holding my sketchbook up-side down for both studies! Ha!

Ah well. The sketches still serve their purposes, reminding me of the experience and supplementing my written journal of the voyage, as well as providing plein-air (on site) reference material for future paintings I may make in the studio.

Through this coming year, I wish you, too, a fresh outlook when prospects may at first appear dim, insights into “old news” that enliven and enrich your outlook, and the ability to laugh at and find hope and enjoyment in your circumstances even when everything seems topsy-turvy!

Trying out QoR Lift Aid

Friday, November 1st, 2019

Having decided to focus on watercolors for the time being, I’ve narrowed down my watercolor paints primarily to two brands—Winsor-Newton Professional and Golden’s QoR Modern.

I love the QoR colors for use in my studio work because of their vibrancy and strength, with minimal fading as the paint dries.  The downside of this is that these paints tend to stain the paper considerably more than the Winsor-Newton paints do, so they are very difficult to lift off the paper to adjust values after the initial application has been applied.

On the other hand, I use Winsor-Newton paints mostly for teaching purposes because of the consistently high quality throughout the line, and the pricing and availability that make it feasible for beginners to buy.  I also use it in my travel kit because I can apply it quickly, with minimal fuss, and no concern about washing on overly strong colors in my sketchbook when I just want a subtle reminder of color – a potential problem with QoR.

Fortunately, I discovered recently that Golden has introduced a Lift Aid medium for their QoR watercolors.  Could it really help me lighten areas of my paintings?  How well would it work?  Would applying it mean I wouldn’t have to tape off the edges of my paper to ensure a clean border, but merely sweep my brush around the outside to clean up the overlaps?  And would it require any special application technique, as frisket does?  I decided to put it to the test. 

I began by applying a single layer of Lift Aid to four different brands of standard, cold-press watercolor paper—Arches, Strathmore (series 400), Fabriano, and Joe Miller’s Kilimanjaro—and allowing it to dry.

Using colors in the QoR line—both typically “staining” and “non-staining” colors—I applied several stripes of color to each of the papers.  On all except the Arches paper, I used both treated and untreated paper to illustrate the difference between using the Lift Aid and not using it.  The QoR colors I used were quinacridone gold, burnt sienna, permanent red, dioxazine purple, cobalt blue, indigo, and hookers green.

In lifting the color, the first attempt was made by dampening and blotting or wiping to lightly lift a little color (though this method often removed more than “a little”).  The second attempt was made by scrubbing to remove as much of the remaining color as possible.

QoR-Lift-Aid-TestThe Kilimanjaro paper showed minimal difference in lifting, whether the Lift Aid had been applied or not; only the (typically non-staining) cobalt blue lifted out to any great extent.  The surface of the Fabriano and Strathmore papers “pilled” (balled up) with scrubbing on the untreated side, damaging the surface, and to a lesser degree on the treated side of both.  The Lift Aid was most effective on the Arches surface, allowing every color to lift with the least difficulty, and almost entirely, with little or no damage when scrubbed.  Runners-up were clearly the Strathmore Series 400 and Fabriano, … if you don’t need to scrub back to near-white.

It is evident that the paper used is critical.  There was a considerable difference in the lifting ability on the various papers.  Apparently, the Lift Aid works in conjunction with the existing sizing (applied on the surface or incorporated into the paper by the manufacturer) to help seal the surface, minimizing how deeply the pigments can penetrate the paper.  The Lift Aid might be more effective on some of these papers if more than a single coat were applied before painting.

"Vermilion Cliffs," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" watercolor, #191005w)

“Vermilion Cliffs,” by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ watercolor, #191005w)

Here is a completed painting, for which I pre-treated portions of the Arches paper with Lift Aid.  I have been finding the Lift Aid a considerable help in adjusting the values and achieving the subtlety of colors needed for my recent compositions.  I wouldn’t trust even a pretreated paper, though, to allow me to entirely clean up the border edges, so I’ve still been taping off the desired dimensions for most of my recent studio compositions.  It’s important to keep in mind that it does not do the same job as frisket in reserving the original white of the paper.  It simply makes it easier to reduce the amount of pigment left on the paper.

I also feel a need to immediately rinse and then thoroughly wash the brush I have used to apply the Lift Aid so it doesn’t become compromised with the dried medium.

Would I recommend Lift Aid?  Absolutely, if you love the strong QoR colors but want the option of lifting some of the color after the original application.  Just test it yourself on your chosen paper before undertaking a critical composition.

Under the umber-ella of experimentation

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

Last time I showed a couple of my early experimentation with raw umber, using it for the basic dark tone on my palette, in lieu of the colder black.  Those paintings were done over a pre-applied imprimatura to lend an undercoat of color to the three-primary-color palette (plus raw umber and white) that I had limited myself to.

My third study was on a white-gessoed but unpainted canvas.  I sketched in my areas of darks using the raw umber and allowed it to dry overnight as I evaluated any changes I thought it might need. I realized that I should have given the entire canvas a light coat of the alkyd medium to make it easier to adjust the sketch.  Fortunately, there was little that needed adjustment!

The next day I covered the entire surface with a light coat of the medium and began the work in earnest.  Once again, the pre-applied dark areas guided me through the design, helping me to adhere to the original notan structure.  I altered details somewhat as I proceeded, identifying features I wanted to take advantage of or eliminate, and recognizing that some of my earlier ideas could be improved to enhance the focal concept or the overall design.

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz  (7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz
(7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

This composition was suggested by a scene I had enjoyed at Yellowstone, but as I worked with it, the “music” in my mind began to shift into another season, a variation on the theme, so I took some artistic license as it developed.


From umber beginnings

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

This summer I have been working primarily in watercolor and oils.  However, the oils I have at my summer studio are made with slow-drying linseed oil and remain tacky after several weeks of drying time.  I realized that if I want to have them dry before we return home, I would need to use a faster-drying medium.  So I set aside the old paints, reserving only my three basic primary colors, which I supplemented with alkyd medium (since alkyd works well with oils but dries much more rapidly than the more widely used linseed oil-based paints), alkyd titanium white (to replace my slow-drying titanium white), and a raw umber, with which I had been wanting to experiment.

So my new palette for September would now consist solely of raw umber, the original primary yellow, red, and blue paints, and all the value variations available by incorporating the alkyd white.  The alkyd medium would serve as my thinner and only medium.  It was time to play!

I dug out some small pieces of canvas on which I had already applied and dried a monochromatic imprimatura (with leftover paint from previous palette scrapings) to seal the surface.  Then, referring to old photo files, I found a few images that I thought would work with two of the underpaintings—one green, the other a muted rose.

The first, “Lakefront Morning,” shown below, was worked over a green imprimatura.  Although the base color, in its original hue and chroma, does not appear anywhere in the finished painting, it contributed to the atmosphere when modified with the palette colors.

"Lakefront Morning" by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" oil, #190901-o)

“Lakefront Morning” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190901-o)

Focusing on the umber-and-white combination in various values, and incorporating the primaries to provide appropriate variations in temperature and hue, I was astonished at how much easier it was to create and maintain a strong notan structure.  It was also easy to maintain a sense of color harmony in both my paintings.

I realized that the reason for this new sense of ease was that my focus was on value first, since the raw umber (warmer and more transparent and lively than black) provided the necessary dark tones, while the white produced the lighter values.  Hue was of much less concern and required little more than a suggestion from any of my primary tubes to provide the necessary temperature bias and warm or cool variation from that provided by the underpainting.  A few spots of lightly blended or entirely un-diluted tube color were all that was required to provide some chromatic contrast, as well.

"Niagara" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x7" oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” was painted over a rose-toned imprimatura.  Once again, although little of the base color actually appears in the finished painting, it definitely contributed to the rich lighting effects of the low-angled sunlight, while the umber provided the critical range of value needed to suggest atmospheric perspective.

It’s not easy painting green

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy painting green.”  Not because it’s a boring color but because there are so many permutations of it, and most green paint pigments do not simulate the most common variations found in nature.  But greens are also difficult to avoid because they are so prevalent in most landscapes.

Unfortunately, the most common (single) green pigments, such as terre verte, viridian, and the phthalocyanine greens may mislead us into thinking that, because they are “green,” they are automatically right for the job.  That is rarely the case.  So what’s an artist to do?

Phthalo green (PG7, the somewhat bluer version, or PG36, the slightly yellower version) is an extremely strong stain, with a cool bias, and a hue not normally found in natural foliage, though it could prove useful in depicting the strong, deep greens of stones like malachite or emeralds.  Because the staining power is so strong, very little is needed to blend with most other colors. But because of that, it can be difficult to control, especially for inexperienced artists.

Viridian (PG18) is also a cool green, with a similar hue, but it has a weaker strength so is easier to control.  It can prove useful for some blue-green foliage or for sky-lit reflections off warmer foliage greens.  (Be careful–paints labeled “viridian” or “viridian hue” are sometimes actually made with the less expensive PG7, phthalo green. Check the pigment number on the packaging.)

Terre verte (PG23, also called green earth) is one of the weakest green pigments, with a somewhat warmer temperature bias than viridian.  Because it is an earth pigment rather than a stain, it is one of the few green pigments that can easily be lifted off a painted surface.  But it may be difficult to obtain a dark value with this pigment.

Additional single green pigments include the cool cobalt green (PG19) and the warmer but dull chromium oxide green (PG17).  Fortunately, any of these pigments may be mixed with other hues to vary the color.  And they frequently are, to create more usable “convenience” green paints, such as Sap green, Emerald green, and Hookers green.  But why limit ourselves to those?

It will help if we recognize that “green” is a secondary hue, derived from a combination of some variation of the primary hues yellow and blue.  So if we begin with those primary pigments instead of with a single green pigment, we may have better success finding a version of green that we really want.  Or we can blend one of the green pigments we already have with one of those primary pigments to change its temperature bias, making the green appear either warmer (yellower) or cooler (bluer) than the original green pigment, and moderating the chroma as well.  (It’s usually easier to dull a color down than to brighten it up.)

I will not attempt to reproduce a color wheel here because the colors may not show accurately on every screen anyway.  I recommend obtaining a color wheel if you don’t already have one to refer to (preferably a Munsell-based color wheel as the color positioning is more accurate for color mixing than on the more familiar triadic color wheel).  Although printed wheels might show hues as discrete blocks of balanced color, the color wheel is actually a continuum of hues, flowing from one into another, each balanced hue also having both warmer and cooler variations.

Hues close to each other are called “analogous.”  Hues across from each other on the wheel are called “complementary.”  The more analogous two hues are, the less radically they will change each other when they are mixed.  The more complementary (distant on the wheel) they are, the more the color will change and the grayer or more muted they will become.

The amount you use of each hue will depend on the degree to which you want to adjust the colors.  If you want just a little change in temperature bias, look for an analogous hue.  If you don’t want to change the temperature at all but do want to mute it, choose a little of the complementary hue.  If you want to change both the temperature bias and lower the chroma (gray it down), select a hue that’s analogous to the complement.

The method is to find the wheel location of the hue with which you’re beginning the mixture, decide whether you want to warm it or cool it, and how much you may want to gray it down.  Then locate a hue you think might be appropriate to mix it with to create the desired color.  Test it and see.  If it’s too warm or cool, or too gray or not grayed enough, try again.  It may take several tries before you find the variation you want, but don’t get discouraged.  With practice, you’ll soon develop a knack for being able to guess more accurately the first time.

However, you will need to be aware that blending is not a question of the amounts of the colors but balancing the strengths of the colors being blended.  For instance, you would need a LOT of yellow (which tends to be weak) to change a LITTLE phthalo green (which is extremely strong).  Try to start with the weaker color and add the stronger color to it, a little at a time, to find the desired balance.  (If you start with the stronger color and add the weaker one to find the desired variation, you could waste a lot of paint, winding up with a lake instead of a puddle before you achieve the color you want!)

Try blending each of your green paints with small amounts of your other colors to see what results you get.  Then try blending all your yellows and blues (yes, all the variations of them) in various proportions to see even more results.


Here’s part of a chart I made to explore some of the greens available to me in my existing watercolor palette, using just various blues and yellows.  But the technique isn’t limited to watercolors, nor to those hues alone.

You, too, can create reference charts using the colors in your own palette.  Be sure to make note of the name of each pigment so you can recreate the blend as needed in the future. Don’t forget to experiment with combinations of your existing green pigments with browns, oranges, reds, and purples as well as with yellows and blues.  You may be surprised at the usable outcome.