Experimenting with Grounds --- Watercolor on varnished paper

Watercolor on varnished paper
Stillman & Birn 5.5x8.5" Hardbound Sketchbook (180lb paper!)

I decided to use one of the brand new Stillman & Birn extra heavy weight Beta hardbound sketchbooks to experiment with various grounds and mediums. The size makes it easy to travel with, so I've prepared a bunch of pages in advance and I take the book out hiking with me. Since I have very little time to sketch on the hike outings, they serve double duty by allowing me to do my media experiments simultaneously.

For this page spread, I used two coats of Golden Polymer  UVLS Varnish  (Gloss), rubbing it in with a paper towel to make as smooth a surface as possible, and drying the paper between coats with a hair dryer. Then, off to Olana I went to do a rather monochromatic, tonal sketch of a sunset overlooking the Hudson River. I used four tubes of watercolor: Winsor Newton Burnt Sienna, Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet, Daniel Smith Quinacridone Gold, and Holbein Permanent White (gouache). The idea was to use the watercolor the way I'd use oil paint, since the varnished surface would allow me to pull out my lights right down to the paper, and enable me to use the paints in both transparent and opaque ways. Landscape painter David Dunlop sketches this way a lot and does it very effectively!

It turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be. The paint had to be used full strength because any water added caused it to bead up on the surface. It dried very quickly and was hard to lift without adding water, yet when the water was added, it all beaded up and came off immediately, right down to the white of the paper. I think this will have great potential for me as a sketching method --- it was fast to work with, and not having to carry solvents nor worry about the paint drying out on the brushes makes it ideal for travel. It also lets me use the same techniques I use in oils. However, I'm going to have to try to find some kind of medium that can thin the paints yet doesn't bead up. I'm open to suggestions! It also has to be able to dry quickly enough so that I can close the book and put it back into my backpack without worrying about sticking. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this idea.


  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    sounds like quite a challenge. Your painting is beautiful.
    peace n abundance,

  2. Have tried adding ox gall to reduce the beading up of the water?