Saturday, October 2, 2010

Is it wrong to use white?

 "Autumn Pond", watercolor, 26" x 32"

At the beginning of each new class session, I discuss basic techniques we will be using and the lessons I hope to cover. I like to make sure the students in my class are familiar with my style of painting and hope no one is disappointed with my liberal approaches toward creating a successful watercolor. My focus is on patterns and impressions in nature rather than realism. I mention there will be times when I feel using white paint is necessary even though there is an ongoing debate amongst fellow watercolorists as to whether using white paint is appropriate or not (this topic comes up when I am reviewing everyone's supplies).

“The classical way to produce a white passage or line in a watercolor is to “reserve” the white paper for it, that is leave the paper completely untouched.  This can be done by carefully painting around the area.  And the classical way to lighten the tone of a paint is to dilute it with water and let the white paper show through the wash.  There are some artists who consider themselves purists who would only support reserving paper or diluting with water in watercolor.” 
(taken from

I use Holbein's antique white when I need to add whites and lights to smaller areas in the painting. It sometimes is a solution for me when I have a heavy, dark area that needs to be broken up. The antique watercolor is not a gouache but is more opaque than traditional watercolor paint. When I am working in a small area (ex: brittle tree branches) I prefer responding with detail after the paint washes have flowed onto my paper rather than tightly controlling them ahead of time.

Above is my initial paint wash from the first class, I had established a general sense of composition and mood based on the placement and colors I chose.

I did not mask out areas where I wanted to show dense tree branches but instead I choose to use white paint after creating a greater sense of depth with layered washes.

Crispy burnt orange and yellows were my primary focus, combined with the impression of the dried out white branches, help me to convey the feeling of full autumn foliage. The linear use of white is my way of adding depth and pattern to the composition. Fall is my favorite color time of year.

This painting will be an addition to the Pathways and Transition series.


  1. geez Robin, If I were you and someone asked me if white was wrong in a watercolor painting I'd say "welllllll I have a Master's degree in art and .....I use white." haha. We oil painters quibble a lot about black. It's funny.
    Your painting is very effective.

  2. Beautiful Robin! I really think the addition of white as opposed to using the white of the paper completely works here. It provides a great layer of color.
    If I were in your class, I think I would be relieved to know using white paint is acceptable.

  3. Hi Celeste,
    Thanks for the vote of confidence, I am still my own worst critic but the bottom line has to be either a painting works or it doesn't, right? and fyi, my master degree is in education of art, not studio art and I am still learning "stuff" in my studio.

    Pam my motto is, rules are meant to be broken, and so we should do anything we need/want to do when we paint. The only problem is, there are still traditional watercolor organizations that don't think that way. I shared this painting with a few artist friends online last night and one thought the water needed more detail... grrrr... that's what I get for asking for a critique. I am leaving this painting as is, white paint and all.

  4. I think I'll get some antique white before I try watercolor again. I remember your autumn painting from last year; I really like this one.

  5. Hallie, it's called Holbein "idori" antique white, and I usually have to get it from Dick Blick because my local art supplier doesn't care the idori (antique) watercolors. Let me know if you try it how you like it. I will probably do a few more autumn paintings before the season ends, the autumn palette inspires me so much.

  6. Robin, I like your painting. In today's world the accepted is usually what works for you. There is no right or wrong only if you are painting for a group of transparent watercolorists. Some watercolor societies don't allow opaque paint or any other medium such as pencil, collage, etc. to be added to the work. I often scratch into the paper to achieve small branches. There is something called liquid paper, which I have not tried that is suppose to restore the look of the paper. For me I do what I like and forget the rules. Nothing new and unique was ever achieved by following old rules :O)

  7. I always appreciate your expertise and comments, Eva. I think the fact that there is a big watercolor society show opening this afternoon, and that I was not accepted to the show, and that the group is considered prestigious and "transparent" bothered me and haunted me when I was choosing to use white paint in this autumn landscape. I really need to practice what I preach more and just do what FEELS right without the guilt. TY for your comment.

  8. Hi Robin, this works! When I first saw the picture I was sure it had some sort of 3D element to it. The more I think about it the more I think that white as paint is better than leaving the paper to show. I've just ordered a big pile of watercols so I'll give it a try.

    Sorry to hear that you weren't accepted for the show, but most societies are conservative and boring in their art. It's better to be different!

  9. Mark, I think the watercolor "do's and dont's" still exist, but you are right, it's better to be different and remember why we make art vs. how to make "correct" art. My art has been therapeutic and the way I find balance in my every day life. I just need to remember daily. Thanks for your comment.