Friday, March 26, 2010

Painting on watercolor canvas

Painting on "watercolor canvas"

I have always wanted to try that "watercolor canvas" sold by Fredrix, because I thought it might produce some interesting surface characteristics, especially a nice "woven" look. Painting watercolor on canvas didn't make much sense to me, I admit, but I am always looking for unusual textures. So I bought a bunch and had my classes experiment with it. It cost about $5.00 for a 12x16 inch piece, and comes with a nice brochure explaining its use.

At the same time, I have been painting a lot of portraits lately, and have always wanted to paint from old-fashioned photographs of ancestors, etc. One nice thing about watercolor canvas is that the paint wipes off with water extremely easily, so it lends itself to my favorite technique of putting the paint on and then taking it off! That is, selectively removing the paint to get the light areas of the picture without laboriously having to paint around them or mask them out. I like to use this technique for portraits and have been doing a series of paintings in this style.

So we all brought in old black & white or sepia-toned pictures and had fun selecting. We discussed the importance of painting from your own photographs first, though. In this case, we did not take the photos, but it seems like they should be fair game because after all, they are pictures of our own family members and we should have a right to paint them. I am referring to the dilemma of borrowing subject matter that has been gathered by others before us. This is a tricky subject in the art world. Generally, you would not be able to submit a painting based upon someone else's photo to a juried show, where the premise is that the artwork is completely your own, from start to finish.

There is a large "gray area" here though, in my opinion. Of course, for your own painting, you can paint anything you like. For the sake of your integrity, though, you shouldn't try to pass it off as your own if it is based on someone else's photo. It is not just a matter of copyright, but of the fact that a lot of creative effort goes into choosing the subject matter and circumstances of shooting that photo, and you had little to do with that creative effort except in choosing the photo as a reference for your painting. What about cases where you incorporate just a little bit of someone else's material, or abstract it a lot? A rule of thumb is that if a non-artist should look at your painting next to the source material and be able to say that "this is a copy of that", then it is too close. All artwork is derivative to some extent. We are all influenced by other work and subjects we see, but our work must not be so derivative that it is obviously a copy.

That being said, however, I chose to paint a picture of Charles Dickens as a demonstration of painting a portrait on watercolor canvas. I would not submit this painting to a juried show. But I think the image, which I obtained from the web, is fair game for a painting. The image is about 150 years old and Charles Dickens died in 1870. Why can't I paint him? What do you think?

The other painting is of my great-great-grandmother, Lydia Hurlbut Loveland. How do you like that name? She was married in 1850 to Robert Packer Brodhead, I believe, and they lived in Kingston, NY. The painting on the wall in the picture is one of my paintings of my son Paul. So it is my great-great-grandmother sitting in front of a painting done by her great-great-granddaughter of her great-great-great-grandson! How's that for time travel?

The paintings were both started with a wash of burnt umber, and then paint was both removed and applied after that. It is a fun process and the surface is highly re-workable, similar to an oil painting. I think I really like this watercolor canvas! Let me know what you think...



  1. Sue, I am having a ball with this "New"(to me) painting surface. My painting is that of my mother based on a photograph taken when she was about 9 - 10 years old. The painting is on 9 x 12" canvas. While I find it difficult to get her expression exactly (something that happens when you know someone very well), the painting itself seems to be turning out well. Thanks for introducing this surface to us.

  2. Sue, This is a wonderful blog ! Sure that you haven't done this before ? The tips are great. You are a wonderful painter and I'm going to enjoy working with you. I've passed over the watercolor canvas before but may have to rethink it. Thanks !

  3. Sue, I am really impressed with canvas painting. As long as you done with drawing (which is a bit cheating from my point of view, because I directly copied a contour from the photograph to the canvas) the rest is pretty easy and the result is amazing. I did my father portrait in a couple of hours on Saturday (to his 80th b-d). My family is impressed and I am either. Thank you for introducing us to this neat technique.

  4. Thanks for your appreciation, you guys, and thanks for commenting on my blog! This is a great way to communicate with all my students, as well as who-knows-who? Yes, I agree, painting in this manner on watercolor canvas is really pretty neat. I love being able to remove paint so easily and being able to completely re-work the surface if so desired. You do have to be careful, though, that the pigments you use are not too extremely liftable. Otherwise the paint comes off everytime you try to put new paint down. For the portraits done above, I used burnt umber (Winsor & Newton) and found that it wasn't too liftable, whereas the raw umber I tried in another painting came off too easily. So, it's trial and error... --Sue

  5. Sue, I couldn't wait to check out your blog! I was not disappointed!! The themes you chose to weave together are thoughtful and timely. Only two paintings of your g-g-gma came through my browser (Safari). I don't know how to download all of the images (I'll have to ask Steve). Congratulations Sue for being "out there" and sharing your process with fellow artists! Your college friend from Syracuse University, Emily

  6. Hi Sue,
    I have visited the Arthouse and live nearby, I love your blog. I have not painted before but love watercolors. Yes, I need to take the step and take a class. The watercolor canvas painting and portraits are awesome.The gessoed board is great also. Your blog is informative and I feel your excitement. Keep it going.
    Have a great day on Purpose,

  7. Hi Emily! Wow, it's great to hear from you! And you, too, Veretta! Stop by again some time! Sorry about some of the pics not coming through. I just discovered that problem this morning, and don't know what's causing it, because they are not big files... I removed one of them that seemed unnecessary. Need to figure out why that happened. Anyway, I will post again in about a week. And thanks, Sue

  8. Susan WittenbergApril 1, 2010 at 7:20 AM

    Hi Sue -
    I am trying to do the portrait on watercolor canvas and am not having much success. I have lifted the wash I did in burnt umber and it lifted almost too easily. When I went to paint a new color my brush lifted the wash and it ended up being white with just a tint of the new color. I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I'm thinking that I didn't prepare the canvas properly, but you said it didn't matter that much. It's almost as if the wash I did is not adhering properly to the canvas. Has anyone else had this problem (probably not)!!! HELP!!! Thanks.

    Susan Wittenberg

  9. Hi Susan--
    Thanks for your question! I used burnt umber by Winsor & Newton for my underpainting, and it sticks fairly well. I found, though, that subsequent layers would come off too easily when I painted over them. You have to use a very light touch. I think it may depend on choosing staining-type pigments instead of the really liftable ones--look at the color list I gave out in class several months ago for a list of staining colors. It is a problem, with this canvas, and there are pros and cons to using it.

  10. I haven't given up - yet!!! Thanks for your suggestion.