Let us now praise bad paper

I love “bad” paper.

I love buckling paper, cheap paper, non 100 percent cotton paper that is going to yellow when I’m old or gone on to the next plane of existence, newpaper, cardboard, computer paper – “bumwad” yellow paper on rolls, butcher paper, kraft paper (especially kraft paper) and scratch paper.

Am I well aware that bad paper is bad? Yes. Absolutely. My favorite papers are Stonehenge, Lenox 100, Coventry Rag, Rives BFK and BFK light, Arches 140 CP and Portofino, Blick Premier HP. No bumwad here – for my FINAL works. Most of my work is non-final. It’s ALL in the re-write.

I think knowledge is key – it’s much more valuable, in my opinion, to teach our noobs WHY Arches or Fabriano cotton are so freaking fantastic (they are), and WHAT Strathmore 400 does differently, and WHAT happens if you paint in gouache on a paper bag, rather than just making them think that if they don’t start out with an Arches block they may as well not start.

THAT, friends, is a terrible way to treat newness. Quite.

I want to ask these people who are always somehow there, right on the starting gate of noobs, to say “Arches is the ONLY way to GO!”

…have you ever painted on a paper bag? Have you ever done it out of broke desperation, and have you ever returned to it out of sheer creative constipation when you have access to every “good” material you could need and you’re stuck in boredom?

How much Canson XL mixed media paper have you actually gone through, pushed, bent, broken, buckled and thumbnailed through before you decided to declare it “unusuable.”

Do you know what it does to knuckle your way ahead with “bad” materials? It makes “good” materials feel like freedom, like flying. You’ve already had your drawing struggles, your color struggles, your style struggles. You will know yourself in a way that you won’t otherwise. “Bad” materials give you a little friction, a little built-in limitation, a little texture in the experience. If everything is set up for you to succeed, and you don’t – you’re more likely to blame yourself. If things are a little cheap, insufficient, janky, non-ideal – then you’re less worked up about making more work and going through more material. More work = get better.

Yes, I know that cheap watercolor paper is “bad” and it’s going to buckle and pill and not allow me to layer or lift. I know this because I’ve tried it. I know this because I know that there is, in the world, some circumstance where I might want to float-frame a drawing that buckles like a stiffly tanned hide in a vitrine. I know that I don’t care about archival for things that go into the scanner anyway.

Repeat with me: an illustration is as archival as the ink in the printer.

An illustration is as archival as the ink in the printer.

This is one of the things that helps sort “fine art” and “illustration” in my brain, I’m realizing.

So if there’s a point to this rant, and to the spontaneous drawings/paintings on Canson XL mixed media, in a spiral bound book under 10 bucks, it’s this –

make the drawing. Make the preliminary. Make the thumbnail. Give yourself the room to make the thumbnail big enough. And you don’t have to spend a ton of money to do it. There’ll be time for that later.

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How To Improve Your Brush Control in Watercolor and Gouache

It’s an unfair world. No matter how much I work for it, I will probably never develop the amount of brush control I’d like to have in my watercolor and gouache painting.

The thing is, I’ve found that anyone can improve, and move along a narrative arc that brings them closer to their ideal, even if they never actually achieve it. It keeps life interesting to keep trying regardless.

Enough philosophy – here are the things I’ve focused on to improve my brush control in watercolor and gouache painting more and more each year.

  1. Sit down, comfortably.
    If you’re like me, you switch between sitting and standing, even in watercolor painting. (If you have never explored postures and positions when you paint, I suggest you give it a try.) Standing generally gives loose and dynamic marks to my painting, and sitting generally gives more control.
    When I explore sitting to work on brush control, I find that a straight posture, focused on giving my upper arm a comfortable length to the table is really helpful. I try to remember to keep my feet flat on the ground.
  2. Move the paintbrush holding arm, not the hand.
    Fix your wrist in a position without locking it uncomfortably and move your arm instead of your wrist. Pull even your tiny lines from the shoulder, tempting as it is to create them with wrist motions.
  3. Enlist help.
    By “help” I mean using your other, non-paintbrush hand. Hold your wrist if you want. Rest and leverage your working wrist on a fist. Try out different assists, and find something that helps.
  4. Turn, turn, turn.
    Flip the direction of the watercolor paper so that you are pulling (or pushing?) your line in the most comfortable direction for you, so that you have the best chance of success on lines that count. (When you’re in your sketchbook or journal or on a practice sheet, make all or most of them count, but don’t worry if you mess it up, just keep going.)
  5. Get a little weird.
    Pretend your hand holding the brush is actually a 3D printer or a laser cutter, and see what that does to the consistency of the line. Remember, you can’t exert more or less pressure until someone consciously dials in another setting. Beep beep boop! If you want machine-smooth lines, this will help.
  6. Slow. Down. Seriously.
    My illustration work is fast, gestural, grungy, and loose. And what holds it together are slow passages which areā€¦.not. Explore slowness, find more patience, take more time than you feel you have. Meet boredom head on, and see how you deal with it. Take full advantage of what linework has to teach you, and take full advantage of the meditation lessons embedded in this practice.
  7. Notice your weaknesses and give them love and attention.
    It’s easy to practice only the things you like doing and that you are good at. But that really isn’t practice – that’s doing. Doing is important, but practice is doing something you don’t know how to do until you do know how to do it.
    Notice the things that are bad in your execution, without beating yourself up, and move toward those. Give them extra attention. Give them more time.
    I notice that I have more control of horizontal straight lines which are drawn across the page than I have over vertical lines pulled down toward me. Guess which ones I fill more practice pages with?
  8. Most important? Breathe.
    This could be its own book, but try painting your line on the exhale only. Try painting lines that last the duration of the exhale. Make them long and slow. Make them count. Get your body and your mark in sync. Use your paint to teach you to relax as well as to focus. Even if your line doesn’t improve as much as you’d like it to, visually, it may just improve you right back.
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