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What Do You Want to Paint?

TheCopperheadDSC_0084_107 18 x 22 image                                The Copperhead  watercolor 18″ x 22″

I want to share a bit of a story about some of my paintings. I have been painting Indians for about 20 years or more. These are not made up characters. Rather, they are friends and relatives who hold deeply to their traditions. They are living human beings that I have known for many years. We have laughed and cried together, we have faced challenges together.  A lot of folks don’t understand because they don’t have similar experiences in their life.   I’ve had some who would often say, “Oh no, are you painting ANOTHER Indian?”  Well,  yeah I am.  I’ve had occasions when I have asked myself, what is the point?  Sometimes it gets hard to continue on a road. This is true when you get a lot of questions about why you are following a given path.

About 3 years ago a dear lady named Mary Whyte took a look at some of my paintings of my relatives and friends. One  of her comments was, “Hey, I think you are on to something here.  Keep it up!”   Well, I have and now I am looking at a possible traveling exhibition that will record a little known portion of America.

Why am I telling you this?  I have a motive. I can write reams about watercolor technique or the do’s and don’ts of just about any technique. You must remember one thing.  Technique is only a part of the equation.

What is in your heart? What drives you to paint? What are you willing to continue to paint even if no one else understands?

Perhaps better stated what is it that you can’t avoid painting?  What draws you, what drives you to pick up that brush and try one more time?  What ever that something is; that is your passion.

I do paint other subjects.   I recall listening to Raymond Kinstler urging us to not only paint figures but paint landscapes, paint still life. Get outside and paint. Leave the fear behind.  Certainly learn some techniques. Find the best instructors you can and above all paint.  The more you paint, the more you learn.  I hope my words don’t make it sound too simple.  No, it is hard work.

However, it is work that brings joy.  

Every one of you who reads this has a still small voice inside of you.  You have your likes and your dislikes.  Find your path and travel it. Listen to your heart.

What about technique?

Yes, technique is important.  Make your brush strokes count. Do you merely want to render a surface or do you want to use strokes that help build the sense of form.  Think about this. Do you know what your colors can do?  Mix them to find out. Write  notes so you will remember. Pretty soon it will become a part of you.

If you have read this post you know that I have produced a new on-line watercolor course. I designed it with a method in mind. It is one thing to demonstrate or show finished watercolors.  It is quite another thing to share principles. I developed several easy exercises. Nothing complicated.  Just simple exercises that will help build confidence and share knowledge. The tutorials cover fundamental elements like paper, paints and brush handling; it is these things that build competence.  Nothing fancy, at first.  It helps you plant a seed.  Nurture it with thought and work.  Watch it as it grows.   You can analyze this foundation below.  the copperhead2DSC_0012_99 22x30 image

Under painting: this is the foundation.   Two colors; Holbein Marine Blue and Winsor & Newton Permanent Magenta were used. Note the areas of concentration. Both colors are staining colors which means they are not likely to be lifted or disturbed by additional washes applied over them. Also note  that in some areas the wash is applied directly to dry paper. How can you tell?  Look at the edges. If they are sharp and crisp it is a light wash applied directly to dry paper. At the end of the arm and around the back of the head you see soft edges. Some are wet ‘n wet while other areas were applied in a direct manner and the edges were softened with clear water. The colors were chosen for their staining ability to help create transparent washes but also because they can help amplify the effect of flesh.

What is the point?

Use the technique to create an effect. Use your brush to suggest form not to just merely color in an area.  Even a pointed round red sable has the ability to create interesting texture by dragging the side of the brush across the paper. Experiment, explore.

Want to know more about watercolor?  

Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume 1 by Dr. Don Rankin


DVD: The Antique Shop, 56 minute tutorial selecting and painting a site

On-line  watercolor course, by Don Rankin  lifetime access. Watch the lesson, do the lesson, learn the lesson. Review as often as you like.  Regular price $49 .There may still be some reduced coupons available at $20 off the regular price. MGTIWa.  Slots limited!

Comparing pigments

Do the paints I choose make a difference?

Absolutely! As I begin this discussion I  want to clarify that all comparisons on this page are being made with high quality watercolor paints.  To clarify or to be precise; in this section I am demonstrating such brands as American Journey, Grumbacher, Holbein, Maimeri, Winsor & Newton, Sennelier and Stephen Quiller.  This is not to imply that all other brands are inferior. These just happen to be the colors I use most often in my studio.

Experiment with your own colors:

You should gather your own colors and arrange them in some orderly sense that works for you. The objective will be to compare several qualities in your chosen paints. If you wish to work with glazes you will need transparent colors.  How can you tell which ones are more transparent?   Two choices come to mind immediately.  The first one is to study the chemistry of watercolor paint ingredients.  You can make it as involved as you like.  Most major paint manufacturers have web-sites and they will tell you a lot about the basic ingredients in their paint.    This will help you become aware of some of the most often used ingredients. There are a number of guides that have been written that will offer their opinion regarding various colors.  All of this is good. You should care enough to learn as much as possible about the materials you use.  The second alternative is to experiment with the colors. In reality you should combine both approaches.  After all experimentation is wonderful but you do need some structure as you conduct your investigations otherwise how will you make use of  what you learn?

Conduct your own tests:

To get started make use of waterproof black india ink.  You want waterproof ink and you want to let it dry thoroughly before you begin to pull watercolor washes across it.  You can paint a straight line or you can do circles, triangles what ever makes you happy.  I use circles because they work better on a book page.

What to do:

Ok. Your ink is dry.  Now it is time to apply your washes. As you look at the two charts below you will see that some colors disappear as they cross the black surface. Others do not. The ones that disappear more fully are the most transparent colors.  Now if you labeled your colors then you know which ones will work best for you in the first washes you apply to produce a glaze.  As you experiment with your colors you will learn several things.  For example some washes will become more transparent as you dilute the strength of the wash.  You do this by simply adding more water to the paint.

Two charts below:

The first chart is an excerpt from my book Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I which is a revised edition of the original publication.  It is available at various outlets but you can order direct at or  By the way, the colors are labeled in the book but the copy is too small for this illustration. The second chart will be in Volume II.

Chart I contains what I call more traditional colors. Colors like some cadmium colors and ultramarine.  Do note that many of these colors are no longer made with traditional substances. That is, modern chemistry has found ways to produce similar effects with either less toxic or often less expensive components.  Several years ago the rule of thumb was that the traditional names were retained in order to inform the experienced artist that the paint was made to perform much like its original counterpart.

Chart II is primarily made up of Quinacridone colors that I have mentioned in earlier posts. A careful examination will reveal that the colors on Chart II are more transparent than some of the more traditional  colors. You will note that the outer ring has washes that are applied pretty much full strength while the inner ring has received diluted washes.


If you go back to an  earlier post you can see some of the difference in the quality of paint between the piece entitled Dragging Canoe and Young WarriorYoung Warrior was painted primarily with quinacridone colors while Dragging Canoe was painted with colors found on Chart I.

Chart I

Quinacridone colors and other staining pigments

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