This post is not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the brands mentioned. All opinions are my own.
If you’ve followed my work for a while, you’ll know that when it comes to art, I’ve somehow always managed to learn things backwards. I started drawing faces before I learned to draw individual features, I learned to shade before I perfected my lineart. So naturally, I worked with acrylic paints way before watercolours even entered my life.
Confident (or at least praying) I’m not the only one to work like this, I’m hoping this series of posts will help all you over-achieving artists like myself, who try to fly before they learn to walk! Watercolours and acrylic paints could work to achieve similar end-results, but the processes are entirely different, and this post aims to tell you why.
First, let us break down the very basics of both, acrylic and watercolour painting:
- Watercolours consist of pigment particles bound by gum arabic, which is made of hardened sap. This basically adheres the pigments to each other and to the painted surface.
- Acrylic paints follow a similar principle, except the binder is acrylic polymer.
- Both types of paints can be thinned by water, though watercolours are obviously much more soluble than acrylics.
- As with acrylics, you get both student- and artist-grade watercolours. However, while a higher quality of acrylic paints usually refers to better pigmentation, you can still get artist-grade watercolours without adding unwanted opacity.
- More opaque watercolours are usually referred to as Gouache, but we won’t go into that here (mostly because I haven’t tried that method out yet!).
Watercolours come in both, cakes and tubes. However, having experienced immense amounts of wastage with acrylic paint tubes (*cough*MyPoorPalette*cough*), watercolour cakes were most definitely the best choice for me.
My current watercolour kit (that I’m absolutely loving, by the way) is the Sakura Koi Water Color Field Sketch Travel Kit (24 shades). While that’s a mouthful, this kit is incredibly handy! As pictured below, it comes with 24 cakes of watercolour, a detachable palette, two sponges, and a (barely visible in this shot) waterbrush. Admittedly, I pulled the picture below from my Instagram
, and it is from a while ago when my palette was still quite green. By that I mean I still had the outer cover.
These are definitely one of the higher-end student grade watercolour sets, but definitely well worth the money. It has been specifically designed for plein-air work, and is thus convenient to carry around with you. I love that the shade range is rather realistic, in that I can definitely see myself using all of these colours at least a couple of times in my work….or perhaps it’s my painting style that has evolved to involve more colour…. Either way, below is a swatch sheet of all the colours in natural daylight (post-processed slightly to get the colours as close to real as possible). Zoom in for the shade names!
I must admit, I have always grown up a scientist. As is seen in a lot of my drawings, the technical aspects of art come a lot more easily to me than abstraction. If something doesn’t make universal sense, it probably has no place in my work. So, of course, when it comes to comparing two media of art, I was obsessive about try to make it a fair comparison.
I started by grabbing a couple of tubes of acrylic paint that had identical namesakes in the watercolour kit. These, for me, were Cadmium Red Hue and Viridian Hue. I swatched out two circles split into quarters, one with watercolours and the other with acrylics. I also looked at the effects of layering the paints on, and this is what I found:
Before we go any further, I would like to mention that right now is when I realised just how much of a difference is made by the paint quality. Both the acrylic paints I used are student grade, but from different brands. The Viridian is so much sheerer than the Cadmium Red, it’s almost funny! Lesson learned: a lower price almost certainly guarantees a trade-off in terms of pigmentation. 😦
Now clearly, the acrylics are, overall much more opaque than the watercolours, but what’s worth noting is that with enough layering, watercolours can most definitely achieve an opaque enough look. That being said, these have been swatched on paper. It probably wouldn’t be a similar case with primed canvas, which is great for thicker acrylic paints, but would barely hold on to anything so watered down.
Next, I tested the water solubility of both. Admittedly, the colours below aren’t identical, but they are similar enough to be comparable.
What you’ll notice instantly is that the acrylic swatch (right) is much streakier than the watercolour swatch. This, as I mentioned before, is because the gum binder in watercolours is much more water soluble than the polymer in acrylic paints. I should also mention that both these swatches were wet paint on dry paper, and I added some extra water about halfway through the circle.
Now as an acrylic artist, the concept of dipping into water before swiping over paint, to get more pigmentation even, is going to seem strange (unless, of course, you’re using watercolour tubes, in which case I bow down to your superior tube-squeezing skills). With acrylics, I mostly only use water to wash my brushes, and occasionally to thin paint enough so it can be poured on to the canvas directly.
The other novel thing about watercolours for me was the way they dry.
If we look closer at this half of the previous (watercolour) swatch, there are a few visible streaks. Funnily enough, this is not because the paint applied unevenly. Usually with acrylics, though the paint dries really quickly, it is still workable when wet. Watercolours do this thing where the paint sets into the paper in the blink of an eye, even if the paper is still wet. The fibres in watercolour paper trap the water really well (hence why this paper is specifically manufactured in the first place), which means that while it adheres the pigment beautifully, it does take a bit longer for the water itself to evaporate. This means that if you outline your shape first and then go back for more colour to fill it in (which I clearly did here. Rookie mistake, Srish!), the outline might have set, and the new colour will apply like a new layer, making the edges of the outline appear darker and uneven. If you’re trying to create realistic art with watercolours, this can be a huge bummer. However, here are a couple of tips that help me avoid this kind of kerfuffle:
- The best thing to do would be to try a wet-on-wet technique to begin with, where you fill the shape in with water first, then go over it with paint. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post.
- An alternative would be to use a lower water-to-paint ratio on the second layer, so that all of it is significantly more opaque, and you can’t really see the edges so much. However, this can often take away from the airy, care-free feel that most artists seek from watercolours.
- Finally (and this is my least favourite method) you can go in with a wet brush that has no colour on it, or a damp sponge or tissue, and try to rub the edge out before quickly going over it with more paint. The reason I don’t like this technique is because, as I mentioned before, the paper is usually still wet, and adding friction to wet paper can cause it to peel off or tear. Not an effect anyone is ever really going for!
Watercolours bring with them an amazing freedom for creativity which, for someone as structured as I am, is a huge craving. While acrylic paints help you grow as an artist due to their amazing flexibility of usage, watercolours encourage you to simply play with colours in their purest form. If this hasn’t convinced you to try them out, here’s a super cool watercolour effect that is difficult, if not impossible, to create with acrylics:
So these are some of the basic things I learned about watercolours, as someone who has spent years loving (and sometimes ruing) acrylic paints. I do hope this was a good read, and I would definitely love to hear any similar experiences you might have had! And finally, here’s a piece that I completed using this watercolour kit (and some white acrylic paint for the stronger highlights): WARNING FOR POSSIBLE GORE!
Sakura Koi kit: http://sakuraofamerica.com/component/product/products/412
Thank you ever so much for reading, and I’ll see you on the next one!