Sunday, September 25, 2011

Experimenting with fixative layers

Giving something a shot that I've been meaning to try for a very long time. If you've worked with watercolors, you'll know that one of the quirks of watercolors is lifting. This can be used to advantage in numerous ways:
  • smoothing edges between one color and the next
  • creating a very gradual graded wash
  • pulling out small areas of soft highlights
  • correcting minor mistakes (sometimes you can lift and pull enough color out that you can almost get a fresh start for a small area)
  • blending of tones from one layer to the next

Of course, lifting also has many disadvantages that can be incredibly annoying as well:
  • when trying to get a very rich dark tone with layers, subsequent layers keep pulling color up, and so you reach a saturation point sooner than desired where you can't get darker.
  • layering on top of a smooth wash sometimes will pull up spots and irregularities
  • textures with particularly sensitive colors (blues and purples which are more prone to lifting) get smoothed out or obliterated when a second layer is brushed on top

You learn to appreciate the advantages, and to know and work around the disadvantages after a while. I had an idea however, of trying to spray workable fixative onto a piece in between layers, in order to try to work up to a really nice rich dark tone in areas, and also to maintain texture across layers. I'd lose a lot of the blending qualities that occur with lifting, that naturally happens every time you layer, but it would be interesting to see what results I could get if each glaze was fixed and made permanent.

So, using one of the sketches I did for a keyword card a while back, I penciled it onto a board and decided to give it a try tonight.

Going to use my Elderflower purple as the main color, as it is usually one of the most easily lifted colors I have, and one of my favorites.

* * *

First glaze of purple. About 5 minutes (plus the half hour of laying out the initial sketch) into this however I get a nasty surprise. I'm using my usual Strathmore illustration board 500 series, which I usually love. But on very rare occasion, (3 times in the past 11 years of many MANY paintings, so not often at all) I've gotten a bad sheet that has these weird speckles in it that only appear once I put water to the board. They seem to absorb the water differently and puff out. I get really annoyed, but it only seems to be on the lower half, with a little bit in the middle. And I really don't feel like re-sketching the piece.

I almost toss it, but decide to forge on ahead with the experiment. Maybe the fixative spray will help. Or maybe the fixative spray will do other weird things. I haven't ever tried fixative and then continued working on a piece. The only time I've ever used it is on pencil drawings when I was absolutely finished, even though I buy the "workable" version just in case I need to do corrections or additions.

* * *

Oh yes! The fixative has seemed to work quite well, and the paper is still taking liquid and pigment fine. I don't know if this will hold up well for multiple sprayings. We shall see.

But so far it is working as I had hoped. The second layer is MUCH darker than it usually is with this particular pigment, and I'm still keeping the textures from the first glaze.

Second layer is more purples, some burnt umber and paynes grey thrown into the mixture as well. The weird mottle texture on the paper seems to be less obtrusive now as well, so I'm glad I decided to continue instead of prematurely chucking the whole piece and starting over.

One major downside is that the spray is stiiiiiiiiiiiinky with fumes. Might need to wait a bit longer between spraying and continuing to work so that I don't get lightheaded with fumes.

* * *

Another sprayed layer. Still looking good. I'm a little concerned with whether I'll reach a point where it's too many layers of spray. Already the liquid kind of rolls around a little bit on the surface, rather than being absorbed by the paper immediately. But so far it still seems okay.

Added more purple to the corners, and started a bit of naples yellow glow on the left side. Started on some finer details using mixtures of reds and blues. I'm really happy with how rich the purple tones are getting, with so few layers applied. It doesn't usually reach this saturation of color very easily.

Stopping point for tonight. Will have to wait til tomorrow to have more fun with this.

Part 2 can be found -by clicking here-.


  1. How do you get the neat bubble texture? Alcohol?

  2. very interesting, I think I'll give it a try too sometime. The color saturation is amazing!
    Did you use regular Pencil fixative, or is it special watercolor fixative?
    Did the fixative alone (before adding the other layers) blurr out some of the texture because of it's moisture?
    It might be more effective to paint the painting regularly, once it's done spray it and then just add one more layer to deepen the colors at the right places while still keeping the softness of your regular work in other parts. :)
    I guess that's the approach I'll try to take if I try it out, because spraying after each individual layer seems a bit too messy to me, especially because many fixatives can change the colors into a slightly greenish/yellowish hue after a few years.
    That purple looks simply amazing... :)

    love xxx

  3. It`s funny you should bring this up Steph, I`ve just started following your Dreamscapes book. I order a sheet of "Strathmore illustration board 500 series" and love the way it takes washes, especially using salt, and alcohol, and that it does not warp, and it`s surface is very resilient, and will take any amount of brush work. But once I started layering paint(water colour) I started getting problems. I try using Gouache which help a little, also consider using acrylics, but have not done so yet ...I will experiment with your technique of using fixative spray though. One silly question Steph, is there a right side to paint on with the 500 series...?

  4. What do you think about adding a little soap to the later washes (from here out)? Maybe it'll help ease the repellency...

  5. This is an incredibly exciting post. I can't wait to hear how today goes with it. Love reading and seeing the thoughts behind choices.

  6. There is no right or wrong side for the 500 series. BOth sides should be exactly the same.

    And I haven't tried soap before. What does that do?

  7. Oh, and it's just a general type of fixative. I believe it says it works for pencil or watercolor. But make sure it is "workable". There are fixatives that are final.

    I know this is a little extreme, doing it now between layers so much, but that's why this is an experiment. :) I want to try to push it to see the capability for the moment, and then use it more selectively perhaps in the future too.

  8. Thanks Steph, I appreciate you taking the time to reply ... LOve this piece of ArtWork, that you so nonchalantly, through together as an experiment...:)

  9. Stephanie,

    Lovely work, as always. Just curious, as the progress pics from one wash+fixative to another? Is that purple pigment really that rich and vibrant with just 3 washes, or do you think the addition of the fixative might have changed how the pigment reacts?

  10. Yes, that really is from just 3 washes. It doesn't change how the pigment reacts. But normally if I did three washes on top of one another like that, waiting for each layer to dry, the additional moisture and passing of the brush over the surface would lift the pigment and so there would be darkening, but not so drastic. By fixing each layer, there is no lifting at all, and it's just building up much faster.

  11. Thanks for the info about your experiment! I've used workable fixative on chalk/pastel/charcoal drawings before, but never with watercolour. I'll have to give this a go!

  12. I always had that problem with the illustration board, which is why I haven't used it as much as I'd like. Ink lines won't stick to it and I couldn't get it as dark as I'd like. Sometimes lifting paint up is a problem on arches as well. What worked for me was to use liquid acrylic inks like watercolors over it to darken get darker paint in areas that would have lifted out.

  13. I had that same exact problem with a piece of Strathmore once! It was like there were invisible scratches or scrapes in the surface of the board, or areas where the paint wouldn't absorb right. I thought at first maybe it had just been scraped at the store where I bought it, but it didn't seem like a physical defect.

    Thank you for posting this about the fixative. I've always been wondering how I can get my color darker and richer on the illustration board - that seems to be a drawback of the board vs. watercolor papers. I find colors dry lighter and almost 'faded' compared to the Fabriano paper I use, despite the amount of layering I do. I'll definitely have to try this out.

  14. Keep the fixative very light. It's easy to take too hard a hand with it and then the water-resistance will build up much faster. I'd recommend testing it out before really using it. It took me a few smaller paintings to get used to, and the current large painting I'm spraying in selective areas, and cutting out rough paper masks to protect parts.

  15. Thanks for the suggestions. I'll definitely test it out on a test piece first. I was going to ask you if you masked areas, so I'll try that out too.

  16. This is a great inspiring .I am pretty much pleased with your good work. You put really very helpful information. I am looking to reading your next post.

  17. Good job I enjoyed reading your post thanks for sharing.

  18. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again - taking you feeds also, Thanks.

    Ready-Made Jewelry Logo

  19. I have been really glad after reading this blog as the knowledge which has been given via this blog is simply tremendous.

    Logo Design

  20. Thank you Stephanie.

    If anyone in this discussion doesn't have Stephanie's book "Dreamscapes Myth n Magic", you don't know what you are missing. This is one of the best books ever.