Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jello salad, mud and transparency

By way of answering a question on the last post's comments, I thought we'd get into "transparency" in watercolor and the problem of "mud".
 First, WATERCOLORS AREN'T TRANSPARENT..!! Really...The very same pigments are used in watercolors, oils, pastels, acrylics, even house paint and lipstick. They aren't little bits of colored glass that light can pass through. Check the pigment numbers on your tubes - same PB 29 ultramarine blue in oil or watercolor.
 So why do they look transparent? Because we're viewing what might be called micro-pointillism. When the paint is applied, the water is initially on the surface of the paper before soaking in. The tiny pigment particles are kept suspended by something called Brownian Motion before settling to the paper's surface. When they do, they distribute themselves fairly evenly, owing to the aforementioned Brownian action.

 Like these scattered bearings, light can bounce off the white paper AND the pigment particles so it appears transparent. 

Yes, people talk about "sedimentary" and "transparent" colors but what that really means is some pigments are just bigger than others if seen under a microscope. The more recent pigments tend to be smaller (having been manufactured for use in spray equipment) revealing more white paper and giving the appearance of transparency. All pigments are sedimentary - none of them can hover.

Why do oils look opaque then? Because in watercolor we're looking at a THIN layer with pigment particles side by side. In oil we're looking at a THICK viscous layer with particles stacked over one another like this...forgive me... jello "salad". Try not to hurl.

  I'll avoid launching into a diatribe about the far too liberal Midwestern view of what constitutes "salad". And their version of biscuits and gravy? Don't get me started...
  Let's talk about "MUD". 
In watercolor, what gets called mud is just TOO MANY SUBSEQUENT APPLICATIONS OF PAINT TO THE SAME SPOT. All those white spaces between the particles just get covered up - so it looks opaque...because it is. Look at this sample below: I went around my palette and mixed ALL 14 COLORS TOGETHER. That's the top color. It's an interesting grey that could even be used...for rocks, maybe. Point is: All 14 pigments are distributed NEXT to each other.
 Below it I applied one color, let it dry and then applied the next as a glaze and so on. I never made it to all 14 colors. Sample 2 is only 9 colors but look how murky, because they're ON TOP of each other. Tap or pinch it up larger to see.

 So the trick is learning to mix your colors pretty close the first time. Glazing is to get a specific  effect...one color over another. It's ability to correct has limits.
 Next post we'll address proper use of opaque paint in watercolor.


  1. I'm guessing that stuff in the centre of the "salad" is Miracle Whip.
    This is one of the reasons why I enjoy working with you. You get down to the science of things and really understand why things work the way they do & are able to explain it to the rest of us.

  2. That is a way more comprehensive answer than I was expecting. So it's really a factor of over-layering that creates muddy colors. That actually makes sense now why Charles Reid in his book suggests you to kind of mix on the paper. Not just for the happy blending accidents - but less layering of many different colors.

    On a totally different note - I agree that calling anything with jello as salad is an oddly midwestern thing, but what exactly is wrong with biscuits and sausage gravy? That was one of Grandma Miller's specialities.

  3. The Iowa version is actually a variation on cream chipped beef on toast. They call it S.O.S.in the military - you can work on the acronym yourself. REAL biscuits and gravy is made so: First fry a ham steak in a cast iron skillet. Not from a pre cooked ham - from a real smoked shoulder. Put that on the biscuits. Deglaze the pan with black coffee and let it reduce a bit before pouring it on the ham and biscuits. That's called red-eye gravy. Sounds awful but tastes great.

  4. I think you're getting biscuits & gravy from the wrong part of Iowa. I don't even eat it & I know that's not right. S.O.S. & biscuits & gravy are two different things here. Usually it's sausage gravy over buttermilk biscuits. I'm grossing myself out just typing this.

  5. The S.O.S. I saw (and never ate) substited beef for the sausage and toast for the buttermilk biscuits. Is there yet another variant?! Prior to the arterial plaque stage I guess there are some differences.

  6. yep it's nasty and made me throw up as a child. called chipped beef on toast.... I am gagging as well.