I have seen that look on your face, the one that says, “I can’t do that; what is more, my children can’t do that!” at the mention of using watercolors in your and your children’s nature notebooks.
It is not as challenging as one might think.
Let me preface what is to follow by saying that this is NOT one area in which my performance shines. In fact, I have four children and out of my four children, only one of them consistently kept a nature notebook and learned the dry brush technique. But I still have one at home and in preparing for writing this post, I am newly inspired to take up the dry brush in a much more consistent manner with my youngest child, now 11.
This year we are once again part of a little Charlotte Mason co-op in which we meet just once a month for group singing of a hymn and a folk song, individual recitations of poetry from memory, a picture study, composer study (following the AO schedule) and last, but not least, a time to make an entry in our nature notebooks. I have come to cherish this time near the end of our co-op meeting when I can set a specimen in front of me, study it and then attempt to render it in dry brush. There is something so very satisfying in mixing colors, in discovering brush techniques, in really looking at God’s creation.
It goes without saying that there is great value, inestimable value in your life and that of your children’s to take the time to actually study nature. God speaks to our spirits in His creation. It calms our over-stimulated minds, reminding us of our Father and His love for us as He has placed us in this gorgeously beautiful and intricate world. There are many worthy articles in the Parent’s Review on the importance of Nature Study if you need more convincing.
But I see now that this practice of keeping a nature notebook, of learning dry brush was not just a fad of the Victorians. Charlotte Mason gives a reason for keeping notebooks in this way and for expecting children to learn this method. Dry brush is unique in that it allows one to paint the smallest details. It allows one to build from a simple under painting, adding layers upon layers of transparent color until a lifelike rendering is reached along with the delightful realization of how many colors go into something as simple as a green leaf.
The child of mine who learned dry brush and kept a nature notebook for many years is now 22 and a classical figure sculptor in New York City. While she was home for a few weeks after spending this past summer drawing and painting in Europe, we, as is our tradition, set aside a day for girl’s day out (my other three children are sons).
Usually we spend these days thrifting, or culling local antique stores for books. But in answer to her query, “What would you like to do mom?” I responded with, “Let’s go up the mountain, find a covered pavilion, get out our watercolors and collect some specimens to paint and you can teach me more about watercolor.”
After 4 years of art studies at an atelier in Manhattan, my daughter had much to teach me. I will include some of her notes in this post. I share this little story because it so delighted my heart that a skill that I attempted to teach my daughter has blossomed into this amazing talent. The shared activity of nature notebooking still ties us together and as part of our heritage now that is a wonderful thing. Here is my entry:
And this is hers. The student has far surpassed the teacher!
Now on to the tutorial.
I glean from several resources. I will try to give you the highlights of each one. Probably the most helpful tutorial is one written by Melissa Duffy, one of the art teachers at Perimeter School. She and Bobby Scott, the headmaster, gave me my first lessons in dry brush at a teacher training retreat of Perimeter School held at Covenant College many years ago. Eve Anderson, a PNEU trained Headmistress from England taught Melissa and Bobby. Melissa’s tutorial may still be available from Perimeter school. Bobby also has some notes, which are very helpful. There is still a DVD of Eve Anderson teaching dry brush to young students available at Perimeter School in Atlanta.
Let’s start with the supplies. These are important because the quality of your results can only be as good as the quality of your tools. I am from frugal Dutch stock but I say, do not scrimp on art supplies. Buy the best you can afford.
- The Notebook. You will want one that has a sturdy cover. A good size is 8 x 5 according to Melissa but I like a 10 x 7. Spiral bound is essential so it can lie flat. Look for at least 70 lb acid free paper. Mine is 75 lb and is made by Cachet.
Alternatively, you can purchase very good quality watercolor paper and cut out your paintings and mount them in a notebook and label them after you are finished. However if you are really following the dry brush technique, you will not need true watercolor paper.
- Brushes. Again get the very best you can afford. Sable brushes are the best quality. You will need a number 3 or 4, and a number 1 round brushes. I also buy some less expensive 4’s or 5’s for transporting color from box to palette. To test a brush, you want to make sure it comes to a nice fine point, no stragglers. You can pull on the bristles to be sure they are fixed tightly to the ferrule (the metal jacket for the bristles). If you flick the bristles, they should snap back into place. A good quality number 1 round brush is the most important.
- The paints. The best beginner set is the 8 pan Prang watercolors. At all costs, avoid washable paints. The Prang set is inexpensive and Dixon Prang has consistently used quality pigments in the making of its paints. I started with Prang but a few years ago I was urged by Teresa Miller of Miller Pads and Paper to try Yarka, which came in a 12 pan set. The tones of Yarka are earthier and I like them very much. This year I invested in a Cotman Water Color Sketcher’s Pocket box that has been simply lovely to use (even my daughter is a bit envious!).
- Miscellaneous supplies. Water. I have filled a contact lens solution bottle with water and added small plastic bowls in my sketch travel kit for fieldwork, but if you are close to home, any small cup or bowl will do. For younger children, make sure your cup is not tippy—the heavier the better. I use old glass juice cups when I am at home. Small margarine or cream cheese tubs also work well.
Paper towels. Have paper towels to blot and keep your brush dry.
Scrap paper. Use scrap paper to test colors.
White paper. Have a piece of white paper as a background for your specimen (more about this later).
- Pen. A fine tip black pen is needed to label your drawing (more about this later) and a fine tip gray one to add fine details. Gray will give a softer effect than black.
- Other helpful but not essential supplies. A separate palette for mixing (or you can just use your lid) is useful.
Now you have gathered your supplies you are ready to paint. It is time for the most important thing: your specimen subject. For a first painting nearly everyone recommends a single leaf. In the Eve Anderson DVD, she has each child find “their special oak leaf.” All of them are similar and rather plain brown. Remember you are painting life size so you do not want your specimen to be too small or too big. It should fit nicely on the page of your notebook. Eve’s criteria are the size of the leaf and if the child likes it. For your first painting, it is good to keep it simple. One broadleaf is ideal.
I do some nature notebook paintings en plein air, out of doors, where the specimen is found but it is much nicer to bring the specimen to a large table either outside or inside. You can then lay all your supplies out where you have access easily to water and everything you need.
I used to think it would be good idea to lay your notebook open and place your specimen on the left side of an open notebook while you sketch it on the right side, but in researching nature notebooks, its points out that if you are right handed and are sketching something on the left, you will be interfering with the natural light source. Instead, it is recommended to lay the specimen on a blank sheet of white paper in front of you so you can see it without overshadowing it. In any case, take some time, at least a few minutes to study your specimen, noting angles of the lines, color variations, vein patterns and general shape.
If the specimen is not just a twig or bud or if it has breadth such as a broad leaf or a blossom, you may want to do a quick outline in yellow to establish the parameters of your painting. This is called an underpainting. In the Eve Anderson DVD, she skips this step but Melissa Duffy includes it. Bobby does his in a very pale blue. Some teachers allow a pencil outline of the object being painting but both Bobby and Melissa note that this will make your outline muddy when you paint over it. A yellow or pale blue outline is much more versatile and will allow you to paint over it where you need to with no unwanted effects.
A word about holding your brush—you will want to hold it like a pencil close to the ferrule, lightly gripping the ferrule so you have maximum control of the tip.
To begin painting, you start with your larger brush by dipping it into the water and then into the selected pan of paint to collect paint. Then transfer paint and water from the pan onto your palette to create your first color splotch. You do not blot your brush dry when mixing paint. You need a wet brush to do this. Remember for a lighter color, you just add more water. You may at this point want to mix some of the main colors you will need in the same family. For a first effort, a leaf in all one color might be best. But even a single colored leaf will have variations. When painting a green leaf, Melissa mixes up three different shades of green by adding increasing amounts of blue to the yellow. Just a dot of blue will change the shade of green. She advises mixing a quantity of one color, transferring some of it to the adjoining spot, adding a dot more of blue to make a deeper shade, transferring some of this new green to the adjoining spot and adding still a bit more blue. You end up with a palette of greens.
The Eve Anderson DVD is the most simple of the instructions. I think the purpose of it was not so much to teach technique but to introduce the children to the idea of transferring colors from their pans to the lid (palette) and then to the paper in the shape of their special leaf. She told the children to start at the top of the leaf and stroke in one direction with their brushes, filling in the center of the leaf as they went. This along with many encouraging words from Eve to each child in the class was the main part of the instruction. If you have very young children, her video may be all you need to get started. But if your children are older or if you want to learn this technique yourself, Melissa’s tutorial is most helpful.
Once your paints are mixed, you can take your number 1 round brush and do the under painting of the outline of your shape and the veins. Just dip it into the yellow you have mixed with water in your palette. Remember to dry your brush before dipping it into the paint. If you have too much water, you can blot your brush on your paper towel. After the outline and veins are completed, my daughter recommends painting in the shadows that you can see. This is optional but I like doing this. It gives an anchor to your painting. To paint the shadows, you can use a dot of blue and one of black and lots of water. Clean your brush in the water, blot it dry and just barely dip it in the shadow mix. Look where the shadows are and paint them with a loose hand. You can also wait until the very end to paint in the shadows. Use your scrap paper to test your loaded brush to see if it is the right consistency and color. Bobby Scott says change your water as often as you need to, whenever it gets muddy. Melissa hardly ever cleans her brushes or changes her water. I like clean water and if you have access to water, it keeps your paint pans from getting too muddy.
Next take the lightest green you mixed and fill in your outline. Now layer different shades of green if you are painting a green leaf. You can paint around the yellow under painting of the veins to fill in the leaf color. Always start with the lightest colors and move to the darker ones. A serrated edge can be painted by just drawing out the paint on the outline with the tip of the brush while it is still a bit wet. If your brush is blotted enough, you should never have any buckling of your paper.
Here are some more tips from Eve, Bobby, Melissa, and my daughter.
Work on small sections at a time so as not to become overwhelmed.
Don’t press down on the brush. Keep the point nicely pointy.
Paint with the tip and not the side of the brush.
Never use the green in your paint box, mix all the greens you need with your blue and your yellow. Some CM art teachers remove the green so students are not tempted to use it.
To tone a color down, add the complimentary color. To tone a yellow down, you can add a dot of purple; to tone orange down, add a dot of blue.
Always paint actual size.
Give each painting its own sheet in your notebook, don’t use the back of the paper for another painting.
Paint all the defects: small holes, brown spots, missing bits. Nature is never perfect.
I like to use a gray fine tipped marker to add some fine line details if needed.
A color wheel might be helpful in mixing colors.
For older students, you may want to have them make their own color scale. My daughter suggests taking a color – Yellow ochre for instance, and mixing it with each color in your palette in turn to see how that changes the yellow. Here is a visual example she sent me using some of the more useful watercolor pigments. You can see how every shade of green can be mixed. A smaller version of this can be done with your Prang paint box. As you move from right to left, more of the color on the left is added. This will serve to increase the confidence of the student in mixing colors and in adding increasing amounts of color to achieve different shades. You can keep this with your supplies to use as a reference when mixing.
When you finish your painting, you will want to label your finished drawing. Bobby and Melissa suggest a pencil but I like to use a very nice fine tipped pen.
At the top left is the name of the specimen, its common name with the Latin name underneath (Genus species). At the top right , put the date. In the lower right hand corner put notes as to where the object was found/location, event etc. The bottom left could be used to add a quote, poem or interesting facts about the specimen such as lore, story behind name, medicinal uses etc.
Finally, rinse and wash your brushes and set them to dry with bristles standing up so they will dry straight. Do not wash your palette. Once the colors dry, you can just reconstitute them the next time you paint by adding some water. You may want to take your paper towel and gently clean the surface of your paint pans if some colors got mixed together. This is especially important with your yellow.
I do hope this post has encouraged you to give dry brush a try in your nature journals. I have found that if I have all the supplies in a little zippered pouch, it is easier to begin than if I have to collect them every time. I have also found that you have to plan carefully and intentionally to actually do the dry brush. Once you begin, the next time will be easier. Our monthly co-op is really the only time I do it for myself, but once a month is better than never. Perhaps you plan a nature outing weekly. If so, schedule some time at the end of it for entering something into your nature notebooks. I would love to hear about your trying this out. I am confident that, like Mason’s students, your nature notebooks will become treasures.
Every flower of the field, every fiber of a plant, every particle of an insect, carries with it the impress of its master and can – if duly considered – read us lectures of ethics or divinity. —Thomas Pope Blunt
© 2014 Jeannette Tulis