“Painting” white

One of the challenges of using watercolor is that, unlike the opaque white paints that oil and acrylic painters use, white in a transparent-watercolor painting is not applied as paint at all. Any white that appears in a transparent-watercolor painting is the white of the paper itself. It is that same underlying white that makes transparent watercolors seem so lustrous.

Once any paint is applied, the paper is stained to some degree and the color can never be entirely removed from it, however carefully the artist may attempt to lift it out. So the purest whites must be reserved from any application of paint.

Reserving the white of the paper can be done in any of several ways. The first, most basic method is to simply paint around the area that is to be left white. The artist must be able to visualize the finished painting before it has even begun in order to know where the whites must be preserved. This visualization must be maintained through the entire painting process to avoid misplacing a brushstroke. Color and shadow are added sparingly, allowing the reserved white to act as highlights or to represent the local color.


Variegated Ginger

The white of my “Variegated Ginger” (#100301) was reserved using this method. I only used light pencil outlines to remind me where to reserve the white paper.

Another method is to cover the area to be reserved. A paper or adhesive mask, called frisket, is used to protect most of a large area from unintentional paint application. But with this method there can be leakage and wicking of the paint, especially around the edges and anywhere the covering may be torn or not tightly pressed against the watercolor paper.

I sometimes use liquid frisket, a third method, to preserve the paper’s white in very small areas. Liquid frisket is similar, in both behavior and odor, to rubber cement. The fluid, also called masking fluid, or masque, is applied something like a paint, typically in a very limited area, to keep paint pigments off the paper. It can be lifted or gently rubbed or rolled off and brushed away after the surrounding paint is thoroughly dry.

This last method does have some drawbacks of its own, however. The fluid can have a slight yellowing effect on the underlying paper, and erasure (to lift the dried frisket) can lighten the surrounding application of paint when the frisket is removed. The surrounding paint also tends to collect as it dries, to form a fine, dark line at the edge of the frisket, which leaves a hard appearance when the frisket is removed. This edge can be softened by gently lifting some of the concentrated color with a damp brush, but the softening process tends to carry some of the color over the edge into the formerly reserved area of white, thus compromising the purity of part of the white space.

Another problem with using frisket is that the larger the area over which the frisket is applied, the more likely it becomes that the underlying paper will be damaged when the frisket is removed.  In an upcoming entry, I’ll give some hints about using liquid frisket.

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