Let the White Shine

To preserve your whites in watercolor paintings, knowing your options and planning ahead are the keys. Some artists choose to paint around their shapes to save light areas, but this can be tricky and doesn’t always work. I’ve found that one of the best ways for keeping your whites is to use masking, which simply means to cover an area in order to prevent it from being painted. With masking, you have the freedom to paint the way you want, without worrying that colors will bleed into the white spaces.

When considering masking techniques, there’s an assortment of products to choose from: masking fluids, masking films and wax. These are the most common types of resists used today, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Masking Fluids
You have several different kinds of masking fluids to choose from. I recommend a commercial fluid mask, which is easy to use because it’s thin and flowing, and is easy to paint into a particular shape. Fluid mask is available in different colors—clear, yellow, blue or neon—and the advantages of choosing a tinted resist are twofold. First, as you paint you’ll be aware of where your whites are. Second, when it’s time to remove the masking, you’ll be able to find those areas more easily. A disadvantage to using the tints is that they can throw you off when you’re establishing color harmony and value scales in your paintings.

Another option is permanent masking fluid, which, as the name implies, is permanent and non-lifting. Even though paint may settle on the masking fluid, it can be wiped off very easily. The permanent liquid does have a slight shine to it after it’s dry, so if having a uniform finish is important to you, I don’t suggest it. You can apply paint over the permanent fluid after it dries, although the color may appear different than its true hue.

There are also lifting preparations that act as a resist by preventing paint from penetrating the paper. Without damaging the paper, the dried paint can be scrubbed off, leaving the original color to show through. You’ll get a duller, less bright white with the lifting preparation than with the basic masking fluids, but this may be a look you want. And if you want precise shapes and sharp edges when lifting color off an area treated with lifting preparation, you may want to use a stencil.

All masking fluids should be applied to dry paper and left to dry fully before any paint is applied. If you want to create a solid shape, you must apply the medium in a uniform layer. If some areas of the fluid are applied too thinly, the paint may reach the paper. For those of you who want to pour the paint on, any of the masking fluids are perfect because you won’t have to worry about painting around small shapes or having paint leak into areas that were meant to be light.

It’s common to use a blow dryer to try to speed up the painting process, but if you heat a liquid masking fluid it will bond with the paper and you won’t be able to remove it. Also, try to leave the masking on for as little time as necessary or eventually it will bond with the paper and, again, you won’t be able to remove it.

Brushes, toothpicks, cotton swabs, synthetic nibs, eyedroppers and fingers are all tools you can use to apply masking fluids to your paper. The less sophisticated utensils (like your fingers) will result in more crude mark making. For more detailed, precise shapes, a brush is the best bet. I recommend using inexpensive synthetic brushes rather than ruining good sable brushes. It’s helpful to first dip the bristles in a bit of dish soap diluted slightly with water; this prevents the masking from gumming up the bristles and, after you’ve finished your application, the masking fluid should easily wash off the brush. If you have trouble removing the masking fluid, you can also try a brush cleaner.

To remove the masking fluid from your painting, simply rub the appropriate areas after everything is completely dry. The masking will peel off in lumpy bits and reveal the white color. If your fingers are clean, use them to rub off the mask. In addition, erasers, old clumps of used masking fluid and commercial removers can be used to remove the dried mask.

Masking Film
Masking film comes in sheets or rolls. It’s great for covering an exact shape because you can use the masking film to create a precise stencil. Another benefit is that the film is transparent, so you can see your whites while painting.

To create the desired shapes, X-Acto knives or scissors can be used to cut the film. One side of the film has a waxy paper that you peel away, leaving just the clear plastic. This film has a sticky surface that adheres to the watercolor paper and acts as a barrier against the paint as you move your brush over the intended area. The adhesive isn’t very strong, so you don’t have to worry about damage to your paper when you peel the layer off. On the other hand, the film’s weak adhesive doesn’t lend itself to really wet washes or pouring techniques, and water has a tendency to slowly seep underneath the plastic.

Mylar and Japanese stencil paper achieve a look similar to the masking film. These products are thicker, more rigid and more resilient than the masking film, which allows you to use them multiple times. Just like the film, you’ll cut out a shape to produce a stencil that provides a waterproof barrier over the paper. Mylar is very useful for a large area, but you should apply masking tape to the edges to prevent water from seeping under the plastic.

Wax has been used as a resist/mask in watercolor for more than a hundred years, and its practitioners have included such master artists as Sargent and Homer. Wax yields a more textured look than other methods, and it’s often utilized in painting rough textures, such as foliage or bricks. As with the other methods, you apply white wax to dry paper and it resists the paint while preserving the whites. The wax, however, is permanently affixed to the paper.

Depending on the look you want to achieve with your whites—precise shapes, untidy lines, bright whites or muted whites—you can decide on a single masking technique or use a combination of them. After masking, you can always soften a few of the edges with a damp sponge or brush, or paint into them with clean paint.

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