A Lesson in Staying With It

By the time I had put down 100 washes in the sky and the mountains, I hated this piece. Before I started layering washes, I had masked off the bottom to protect the field of mustard. When I peeled off the masking fluid, the top was dark and the bottom was the white of the paper. I remembered my teacher telling us we should work all over the painting, not just in one little area, to get a sense of the entire painting. Then I heard her voice, “Just put the trees in and see what happens!” I did and I began to like it. Not love it. Like it.

Fields of Gold (watercolor, 21 x 29)

Next, I began working on the mustard field, spattering masking fluid, letting it dry, putting washes of all sorts of colors over the entire area. When this dried, I peeled off the masking, spattered another layer of masking fluid, added another wash layer, then kept repeating this process.

Since I wet the back and front of my paper, the fibers are very soft. When I went to peel off the masking in one of the stages, the paper came with it in big chunks. The top was dry, but I learned the hard way that the entire sheet must be thoroughly dry before you peel off your masking fluid.

I drew the vines and the mustard field design back in, working on the paper where it had torn off in sections. Then I spattered more masking fluid, working it into the rest of the painting. It made some very interesting textures. You couldn’t even tell where the paper had torn. When the century-old vines went in, I was in love with it.

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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