I was recently asked by a student why white was not included on the supply list for my watercolor class. There seems to be a huge debate over whether white and also black are “allowed” in watercolor. Watercolor very rarely uses white. For many artists, using white is a BIG NO NO! It is often frowned upon if an artist uses white in a painting. Depending on the pigments used, watercolors are mostly transparent. So let me back up a bit and give you a brief history of pigments. 

The beauty of watercolor is allowing the white of the paper to come through, taking advantage of it’s transparent properties.

Historically the first record of humans creating paintings are cave paintings. The pigments were mostly earth tones of iron oxide and other natural minerals. They used them in the form of a paint-like paste consistency on cave walls. The reason they are still visible today is they have never been subjected to severe weather or sunlight. They were protected from environmental decay. As man progressed they found many plants, minerals and even animals which would produce color. They were used to dye fabrics and create paint. The pigments were crushed into a fine powder. Just adding water to these pigments would not create a bond to plaster, wood, linen or paper. Once the water evaporated the pigment would flake and fall off. Something called a “binder” was needed to adhere the color to the substrate. The first known binder was the egg! Egg tempera was invented and is still used by adding the egg yolk to the pigment. This helped it to bind to plaster walls. A good example of this is the frescos of Pompei. Later linseed oil was added to pigments to create this bonding to linen and oil painting evolved. Gum Arabic is used to bind pigment to paper in the form of watercolor. Wax and oils are also used in colored pencil. Each binder has its own properties and how it bonds to the substrate and how it moves over each surface.  The one thing they all have in common is the pigment! If the pigment is transparent, the binder can have an effect on the transparency but overall the pigment has a tendency to be transparent no matter what. Pthalo Blue is one of those pigments. It is very strong and highly transparent. As soon as white which is inherently opaque is added it looses much of this property and greatly changes the color and they way it reacts, regardless of which medium you work in.

Most people are attracted to working in watercolor because of the transparent nature of the medium.  It can easily be diluted with water and this where the beauty of letting the paper shine through is most apparent. This is why most watercolorists do not use white. If white is used, it often blocks the transparency of the color. The colors become chalky and pastel. So the addition of white will actually negate the property most artists are seeking when then opt to paint in watercolor.

There is another type of watercolor which is called gouache. Gouache is an opaque watercolor. It is highly pigmented and can have the properties of transparency but can also be very opaque. I feel it has its place and can be used along side and in combination with watercolor. I use it often when I work with feathers and fur. Because it can be used opaquely, I can render a subject dark and then add medium to light on top of it. This is not possible when you work with only transparent colors. I sometimes combine gouache and watercolor together for different effects. I have studied for years with many artists who’s work I admire and I have learned not only the rules, but how to break them.  For many artists, they will frown on the use of using white. This is what I call a purist attitude. I don’t think this is wrong, but I also agree that an artist can and will “break” the rules. I can get the effect I am looking for by combining techniques without sacrificing quality. This will come with practice and experimentation. 

I am thinking about offering a class in gouache in the near future. For now I am still offering my Wonderful Watercolor Class. It is a great way to learn the many ways of using watercolor as well as great foundation into color mixing. What are your thoughts about watercolor and mixing other mediums? I’d love to hear what you think about this. Please feel free to leave a comment or question. I love to hear from you!

Here is a little video I made to show you some of the techniques and subjects we will be doin gin the class.