Trying out QoR Lift Aid

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.

The subject made me do it!

October 15th, 2019

Despite my recent resolution to stick with watercolor for a while, first thing this month the subject and atmosphere simply cried out for pastel.  So I heaved a sigh, collected the few pieces I’d set aside “just in case,” and some precut papers (ditto), and set out on a brief jaunt before the humid atmosphere should clear in the Florida heat and talk me out of working en plein air.

"Orange River Etude," by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" pastel, #191001-sp)

“Orange River Etude,” by Charlotte Mertz (5″x7″ pastel, #191001-sp)

I suppose it could be justified as a study, not intended to be displayed.  And it could serve eventually as the basis for a watercolor studio painting.  (I’ve long avoided using pastel in my studio, due to the dust it creates.)  But after all, drawing on the claim of “artistic license,” I shouldn’t really need to justify it at all, should I!

It was fun to use pastels again, just for a change.  But they still don’t call to me full time, as watercolors do.

Under the umber-ella of experimentation

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

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.

Value key vs. value dominance

September 1st, 2019

I have noticed some confusion about the difference between the concepts of “value keys” and “value dominance.”  It is easy for beginning artists to confuse the two.

Value dominance means that most (usually more than half) of a painting is within a designated (high, middle, or low) value range.  A full-value-range painting may have high-, low-, or middle-value dominance.  But when a painting shifts from a full range of values to either high or low key, the values are compacted into a narrower range, usually at either the high or low end of the value scale.

That means that in a high key painting virtually all the lowest values will be in the middle or low-middle range, with very few exceptions because even  “black” objects and dark shadows will be influenced by the atmospheric effect of so much apparent ambient light.

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

This beach scene by the Russian Impressionist Bato Dugarzhapov is high key but shows a wide range of value within the high- and middle-value levels.  Even the lowest values in this composition, however, are strongly influenced by the ambient light so remain in the mid-value range, which keeps this dominantly high-value composition in the high-value key.

In a low-key painting, virtually all the highest values will fall into the middle or upper-middle range (with the exception, perhaps, of a “pure” light source such as the sun or a lit light bulb, which begs the question of why the artist tried to establish the scene in the lower key to begin with).  The rare high value appearing in a low-value image is more common in a photograph than in a painting, and even then, the points of light, like stars in a nighttime sky, normally appear quite small and neither obtrusive nor very influential to its immediate surroundings.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night”

Vincent VanGogh’s “Starry Night,” shown above, shows low-value dominance rather than low key because the points of light in the sky are crucial to the concept: Their brilliance is exaggerated rather than subdued within the otherwise low-value field.  If, on the other hand, the composition had been limited to the lower right corner, showing only the village, with minor and subdued points of light in the windows of the buildings (see detail below), it could have been described as being low key.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night" (detail)

Van Gogh, “Starry Night” (detail)

Alternatively, mid-key paintings rely only on the middle range of the value scale, with very little in either the upper or lower range, which limits value contrast.

Loren MacIver’s “Morning Cart,” below, is an example of a mid-key painting.  The lowest values are no lower than mid-value and there is very little in a higher value range (compare it to Dugarzhapov’s high-key painting above.  The narrow value range severely limits the value contrast available.  In this case, the low contrast served the artist’s purpose to suggest atmospheric effects.

Loren MacIver, "Morning Cart"

Loren MacIver, “Morning Cart”

On the other hand, Winslow Homer’s “Fog Warning,” below, has middle-value dominance.  The mid-value grays and browns and overall low saturation are critical to convey the concept of the threatening fog, but the low value of the shadows and the high value of the fish and whitecaps provide a contrast to the scene that help to express the narrative by not only suggesting greater detail but also emphasizing the important overall grayness of the atmosphere.

Winslow Homer, "Fog Warning"

Winslow Homer, “Fog Warning”

The viewer’s (often unconscious) desire for value contrast is probably the main reason that full-range paintings are generally more appealing than strictly mid-key compositions.   But, as illustrated here, any key or value dominance can be applied effectively when used with planning and forethought to serve the purposes of the artist’s concept.