Calico Art - Carol Vaage

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Techniques and Reflections

Scared Stiff!


The desire to express, to paint was so strong, but the fear of starting to paint was stronger. When you grow up believing you are not an artist, it is easy to convince yourself that is a truth.

Art for me started only after I had retired - when I had unlimited time and the yearning to learn. Watercolour paintings fascinated me - with the fluidity, delicacy, blossoms, and back runs. I loved it all.

I walked into a Daniel Smith store, the question was "Where do I start?" And so this blog post is dedicated to that scared stiff feeling of picking up a paintbrush and having a blank piece of expensive paper watching me, waiting for the first mark.

Some advice?




Experiment by yourself, where you're free to try things out. Invest in better quality paper, and good, artist quality paints. Have 2 or 3 excellent brushes versus a quantity - bargain variety.

Break/cut/tear your paper into 5 x 7 size. And play. Use one side of your paper, and when it's dry, use the other side.

Puddle Play

Drop a puddle of water, add some watercolour paint with your brush. Watch the movement, try leading the front edge of the puddle down, or across. Try sweeping marks on the puddle - upwards, across, down. Make the puddle stronger by adding more pigment. Let these experiments dry, so you can see what watercolour will do.

Brush Play

Get to know your brushes and what they can do. Dip your brush, so it's very wet and soak up colour. Make dots, lines, swirls, sweeps. Now try a drier brush, by dipping in water then wiping it on a towel to take off the bead of water. Now make dots, lines, swirls, sweeps.

Colour Play

Document the qualities of your colours so that you know if they will disperse and travel, or stay put. Are they opaque or transparent? Will they granulate? See the blog post for a more complete description on documenting colour.

Play with Mixing Colours

Some colours should never mix and some make the most beautiful combinations in surprising ways. Until you experiment and get to know which colours work well, you will face the danger of creating mud when you paint. Hint: Use a colour wheel to help.

When you've played with these four elements, you will have experience and knowledge and will be yearning now for technique. Now is the time to begin a new phase of learning.

Knowing your Paints

As a beginning watercolourist, it can be daunting to go into an art store and be faced with an entire aisle or at least several sections of watercolour tubes to choose from. How do you begin? Which ones are the basics?

Every artist has their favorite colours and their favorite brands. I've listened to YouTube artists declare you must have "these" colours in your palette. Or, you register for a class, and are required to bring "these" tubes of paint by this supplier brand. Even comparing art stores, you'll find different brands are featured and recommended. The art store staff will have their favorites to recommend. How will you know what to get?

I started my journey of art in a Daniel Smith store, and so selected my paints from their line. Each tube has a colour band on it to give you an indication of the colour family it belongs to. More details are given on the backs of the tubes. Most stores have samples of what that pigment looks like when activated with water.

So, as you are probably thinking, from reading the above, I believe there are NO ABSOLUTES when choosing your first tubes of paint. My recommendation, though, is that you always choose an artist grade tube of paint. You will see less expensive student grade options, but using these will soon frustrate you. Quality versus quantity. If you start with the 3 primary colours of yellow, blue and red, you'll get hours of play and experimentation. But choose the colours that appeal to you!

I bought a coil bound watercolour book to document my paint colours so that I would have a visual reference to go by.


As you can see, I made a good, intense colour swatch (small circles on the left). I then made a water puddle line to the right of the circle, and then made the smallest touch of a bridge with my brush, and watched to see if the pigment would travel over the water. After things dried, it enabled me to see which colours had the most dramatic impact, for example the very bottom left orange sample. The edges were strong, and had small frills, so it might be used for flowers or dramatic clouds, etc. Some of the samples granulated, as you can see on the third bottom on the right side. That Bloodstone colour left small pockets of texture. Some pigments did not travel over the water, some flooded and then backwashed, like the bottom right blue sample.

My next step was to create a page for each hue, so it would be easy to compare the shades later on, to find the just right pigment for my paintings.

Document the name of each pigment, make your own codes and shortcuts. You can see I added T for transparency, a Y or N for granulation, and wrote whether it was opaque or staining. You have to find a system that works for you. You can find ideas on the web, see charts, etc. but those will come later. First get to know your own paints. Choose the colours you like!

My first palette was of my favorite paints, the ones that had the most dramatic impact from my testing play. However, as I gained more experience, I knew I needed paints with different qualities, so I developed a very comprehensive system and and Excel that broke down every aspect of my paints. That will be in a future blog! 

Think it, Believe it, Dream it, Dare it

Think it, Believe it, Dream it, Dare it is a quote from Walt Disney. I saw it on a billboard as I was driving yesterday, and had a moment of recognition. It applies exactly to my journey in art! And perhaps it might apply to you as well.

I had been thinking about art for many years, as my sister, my daughter, sons were all artists - so skilled and imaginative. It wasn't until I took that next step to believing that I could then try art, buy art supplies, take art courses. That believing stage took a year or two to take hold, and I felt the transition to dreaming that I could actually be an artist. I dreamed about what kind of art I would like to do - nature/abstract/landscapes/prairie... I dreamed while studying other artists' styles. I dreamed as I saw growth in my painting skills and techniques. I dreamed as I joined an Art Society. 

This past spring I transitioned into the daring phase. I could feel the difference as I began to risk saying to people (other than my family and close friends) that I paint watercolours, to actually say the words, "I am an artist." I submitted 5 of my pieces to the Art Society to be juried to be recategorized as an Exhibiting Artist. I walked through the Whyte Avenue Art Walk asking questions about selling art, techniques used - I conversed as 'artist to artist.' I joined a Summer Watercolor Challenge and posted my first piece as Calico, and received my first 'like' from someone in Europe. And I began my public artist identity by beginning to develop this Calico Art website.

Walt Disney had it right! Think it, Believe it, Dream it, Dare it!