Canton Museum of Art Watercolor Class: Week 5

This week in the Watercolor Class we discussed the technique of “scraping” when painting. This is a technique I have tried to use a number of times, but I regularly am frustrated by it. I don’t think I really “got” it, but I do think I was able to get the results more reliably.

For a demonstration on the scraping technique, I like this video by Ron Hazell – in it you can also see his technique for rippled water, which I have found to be very reliable.

I have tried this technique dozens and dozens of times, but it’s always an afterthought. I never start a painting expecting to use the technique, and I almost never find much success with it. I certainly never get the results Ron got in the video above.

This week, because I was focusing on the technique itself, I tried to really explore it. So, instead of worrying about painting a full composition, I just tried to play with the technique. I guess I don’t actually have a photo of it on me.. Hopefully I’ll remember to come back to this post and insert images of it.

Here I was exploring different for an undercoat, I concluded that this isn’t necessary.

Basically, what I found was that an underpainting is unnecessary. Scraping deposits enough pigment on the paper in the areas where pigment is removed that an underpainting just makes another layer. In watercolor, I have noticed that if the pigment is too thick in too many places, the resulting image feels dull and muddy. So, one less layer is helpful. This seems to be the case especially considering the scraping technique because you need to use such a thick layer of paint when scraping.

First: Light Source

This was my first attempt, there’s no rhyme or reason to the scrapings at all, so it doesn’t end up reading like light hitting anything – it’s just an abstract pattern of technicolor mud.

I found it helpful to draw a simple shape, and here’s the most important part of the technique: identify the light source. If the light is striking the top left of a rock, then you’ll want to scrape away, moving from right-to-left. If the light is hitting the top right of the rock, you’ll want to scrape left-to-right. I don’t know why moving your hand in a direction opposed to the path that the light is taking makes a difference, but it seemed to have an impact for me.

Second: Pigment

The next most important thing is using thick pigment. You want to scrape away here, so you will need a relatively thick pigment – milk to cream consistency. If you use tea consistency, there won’t be enough contrast between the pigment and the paper for the scraping to have the dramatic impact that the technique is trying to give you.

You also need to paint multiple colors at once. So when you mix this thick pigment on the palette, make sure to mix more than one color at a milk/cream consistency. At the very least, you’ll likely want both a warm and a cool color for the most dynamic results.

The pigment that you select for this technique needs to be relatively non-staining. I don’t think the amount of granulation makes a big impact – but if you use a heavily staining pigment like an alizarin crimson, you’ll leave that behind in the highlight.

Third: Timing

If the paper is too wet when you scrape (because you didn’t wait for it to dry enough) the pigment you move will simply pool back into the area that you scraped. What’s worse – because you used pressure on wet paper, that part of the paper will be slightly thinner than the areas above it. Water will always pool into the lowest areas, so the part you scraped will become a small recess into which water will flow. As a result, the part of paper where you wanted less pigment (to represent a highlight) will now hold more pigment, and appear darker than the areas around it – the exact opposite of what you wanted.

If you wait the right amount of time before scraping, the pigment will move when you scrape it, and won’t flood back into the area you just scraped. As a result, the highlighted area will be light in appearance. You’ll also get a thick syrupy line of pigment at the end of the scrape which can help give the impression of a crack in a rock. Maybe this is why scraping works so well for rocks.

If you wait too long, the pigment won’t move at all.

Here I scraped too early, see how the water just pooled back into the areas I scraped?
Here I tried a bunch of different time, trying to see what worked. I ended up scraping too early, then at the right time, then when it was too late.

When it comes time to scrape the highlights away, you need to wait the right amount of time. This is a thing that you’ll only get right with practice, so try it. Paint a block of pigment, wait ten seconds, and look at it. Notice how thick it appears, try to gauge how wet it is. Then, scrape it away. Just scrape once – and leave it alone. You aren’t trying to make a painting with tests like this, you are just exploring the technique.

Then, paint another block and wait twenty seconds this time. Watch the pigment as it dries and notice how the sheen of light changes in appearance. The ability to gauge how wet your paper is might be the most important aspect involved in techniques like this, so the more tests like this you do the better.

Here I was finally getting a good feel for the right time to scrape away.

Fourth: The Utensil

You can use anything you want to scrape pigment away, but I have found a credit card to be the most effective of the things I have used. I also have found that cutting the credit card into curves makes it much easier to get organic shapes when scraping highlights. Instead of getting the same pattern of even lines, you can get much more natural feeling scrapes if you cut some curves into the card.

Fifth: Keep Painting

Once you are done with the scraping, you might have a rock that’s perfect, and you won’t have to do anything else. But, if you are anything like me, you’ll have something that’s almost reminiscent of a rock – in which case you need to let it completely dry… then you can go back and VERY JUDICIOUSLY add shadows. It’s so important to not go overboard here because before you know it, you’ll lose the glimmering light that the scraping technique provided. Add just enough shadows to create a semi-convincing illusion of whatever you are trying to paint – do not keep noodling with things until you get it exactly right. You’ll never get it exactly right. Just get twenty percent of the way there, and quit.

When I think I understand how it works, I paint a bunch of studies of the subject to explore different things.
Using 140lb paper lets me paint the back too, so I can get 8 studies out of a quarter sheet of paper.

Once I thought I had a good understanding of the process, I painted a little recipe card for myself:

Making my own painting aids like this is really valuable. It helps me keep going when I’m in the ugly stages.

Then, I proceeded to the larger painting, on a quarter sheet – so it’s not huge.

First, I sketched the image. I wanted to remind myself of where the light was coming from because it’s easy to get tunnel vision when painting and forget what should be a hill and what should be a valley.
Then, I added a very wet wash of neutral tones, with a pretty quickly rendered sky above. As it was drying, I sprinkled some salt on the painting. Notice how the salt doesn’t appear to be doing all that much at this stage, the painting is still quite wet.
The only thing I did between the image above and this was wait. As the pigment dries, that salt will have a dramatic impact on the textures in the painting. Not all of these textures will survive because I’ll be covering a lot of it up, but the effect this creates will have a noticeable impact on the final painting.
See? I told you I was going to cover up a lot of those salt blooms. This is the stage when I actually used the credit card to scrape pigment away. I added very thick juicy pigment in warm and neutral tones, and then scraped the highlights away to get the effects shown here. Then, I waited for it all to dry again.
The last little bit is what Joseph Zbukvic calls “The Jewelry Stage” here I added some deep dark tones to really make the bright bits shine out. There’s a lot of room to add more deep values in this painting, but here I’m really just exploring the scraping technique, so I didn’t do a lot at this stage. I also wanted to see what would happen if I concentrated the deep dark values in one spot – I’m hoping it draws the eye to that little spot in the painting. It actually works a bit too well, I find my eye going to those purple shadows and just living there forever…