april FEATURED artist

Dustan Knight

Big, Loose White Flowers in Watercolor 

by Dustan Knight

Big, loose white flowers are a challenge to paint at any time and particularly when working in watercolor. Artists don’t use white paint in transparent watercolor painting; we use dry paper.  The sheer beauty of a brilliant watercolor painting is the way the white of the watercolor paper shines through to illuminate the image. In fine quality professional watercolor paints like Winsor Newton or Daniel Smith, the pigments are finely ground and the color intense. Brushed across white paper they become clear areas of color. When white pigment is added to the transparent colors, the colors become more opaque. These opaque watercolors are then sold as a product called gouache. I often use gouache and transparent watercolor pigments in the same image.  In fact, during my April demonstration to Rye Art Study, I will demonstrate how using opaque pigments allows me to add color to darker areas.
However, there is nothing in watercolor painting that can match the gleaming white of dry, clean and fresh paper.  

I should note that in oil and acrylic painting one rarely sees unpainted areas in a painting. Traditional academic practices frown on raw canvas in a finished piece. In watercolor, that is the artist’s greatest asset. And it isn’t easy to “leave” the white paper once the artist starts working.

A watercolor piece is often determined by the early stages of drawing. Some watercolorists are very careful about their drawing so that, once they have transferred it to the watercolor paper from their sketch books, they can carefully paint in areas as well as leave some dry. A wonderful trick to save white space is to use a product called liquid frisket. Developed by illustration majors, this is a glue-like liquid that is laid down in the area that is to be kept white. When it dries, the artist can paint right over it. Once the painting is finished, the liquid frisket can be removed and the paper is “saved” as dry and gleaming white.

My approach to watercolor does not depend on drawing. I often begin a painting without any sketches and then, partly through, sketch lightly on the developing painting. This approach requires me to visualize areas I need to leave unpainted, like the dry white paper, and then adjust my evolving painting to take advantage of the accidental dry areas.

The challenge of painting a white flower in watercolor is leaving the flower dry and unpainted. My favorite technique for doing this is painting the “negative” areas around the white flower, e.g., the greenery or another flower. Practicing being present and exercising restraint in the throes of creativity are always exciting for me. And quite difficult.

I am never sure how a watercolor painting will actually turn out . . . and after more than 40 years of using this medium, it is uncertainty what keeps me returning again and again to this challenge.

Dustan Knight, a RAS favorite, is a professional painter (MFA/MA). After retiring as a professor of studio and art history, Dustan now works full time in her studio at the Button Factory in Portsmouth.  She is featured in the recent coffee table publication Ten Piscataqua Painters (2022). 

Please visit her website for more info:  Dustanknight.com

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