My earliest memory of using “watercolor paints” (above, created when I was 7-years-old) is actually not what I would define today as watercolor paint at all — they were craft-grade Prang Water Colors for kids (fun fact: this product line was named after Louis Prang — “the father of the American Christmas card”).
Back in the day, this was the set (along with the bullet-proof metal palette) that you used from kindergarten through the end of middle school.
And to be honest, the Prang “watercolors” were — and still are — just child-safe opaque and semi-opaque semi-moist cakes of low-quality paint, at least when compared to genuine transparent artist-grade watercolors; however, back then each Prang set consisted of eight bright and vibrant washable colors; today they have up to 16 colors with the same characteristics now.
The Prang watercolors were great for kids because the colors were non-toxic (because… you know… kids will eat them), they were cheap, they were easy to paint with, and — most importantly — they were easy to clean up after… just use some soap and water. Prang watercolors can still be found today on Amazon here.
Other paints of this era for me were poster board paints and non-egg-based tempera paints (whatever that means, because real tempera paints are actually egg-based) — and they shared much of the same description as those above listed for Prang. Oh, and good luck trying to figure what the binder may be for these, as a lot of them smell like watered-down versions of Elmer’s glue with pigment added (hmmmm…).
Hardly the stuff for a more sophisticated use, though I have seen some pretty impressive results by adults using these paints in recent years. Don’t believe me? Check this owl out here, though I think it’s cheating that they also used some form of opaque white to spice things up.
The next step in my odyssey was to the lower-end of student-grade paints, in the form of this — the Pelikan 24-Color Opaque Watercolor set. These have been around a surprisingly long time (not as long as the Prang, but still…), since I bought my set as a high school student in 1978. You can still buy them through Amazon here.
I remember haunting the local art supply store, Visual Systems in Rockville, Maryland (long gone now) — which covered both drafting supplies (their mainstay product line at the time, and my primary focus because I was taking mechanical and architectural drafting classes at nearby Richard Montgomery High School) and art materials. I was shopping for some better watercolor paints, but wasn’t ready to step up to anything in tubes yet, so when I spotted these on the shelf I was quite taken by them, as I really responded to the clean, sophisticated design of the packaging (Ha — sucker! They saw me coming from a mile away!), and the fact that the set contained so many nice vibrant colors.
I had yet to understand the difference between opaque and transparent watercolors, and was still easily swayed by how sexy the paints looked in the pans, rather than how they performed on paper. However, that said, this is still a very nice set of student-grade opaque watercolors, and — truth be told — these act more like a hybrid between transparent watercolor and gouache. To see them in action, check out this YouTube video here.
In researching these Pelikan paints for this post, I was surprised to discover that the exact same pans from the Pelikan paint sets are used for opaque watercolor sets from both Staedtler and Lukas, which makes me wonder if a third-party supplier actually makes them and each company just has their name pasted on a generic product. Dunno, as I’ve never played with the other two brands to see how they compare. Suffice to say, these were perfect for me until I attended design school. One more other thing to note: I learned with this set that watercolors of this grade-level can’t be worked too much on the paper without turning to mud, in part because they were opaque and also because each color pan is a mix of at least two or more different pigments.
Below is an example of what I’m describing when learning about materials; both of these were created by me when I had just turned 10-years-old, and my birthday present was a week at summer art camp, where I created them. Both images are oil pastel on paper, but the papers are different — so one image has much more texture, while the other has much smoother gradations.
The above images were also my earliest attempts at getting perspective correct in a drawing, something that would continue to elude me for another few years until I began taking mechanical drafting courses in high school.
Design school. Whew, boy! That’s where you learn more than you ever thought you were capable of about art materials (or at least you used to before desktops and laptops came on the scene; I don’t know what is being taught there today).
You learn all about the different types of paper (the most important of all art materials, but rarely gets top billing as such), pencils, pen and inks, charcoal, watercolors, gouache, acrylics, oils… the list is virtually endless. And you have to understand what specific materials should be used for certain end-results (for example; pen and ink versus charcoal for detailed renderings), what quality level of material is used for what purpose (you don’t use 300 lb watercolor paper for learning how to create 5-minute sketches with charcoal), what the behavior of each material is like and how it behaves with other materials (watercolor doesn’t paint over oil pastels, but watercolor and soft pastels work fine together), etc. And that’s in addition to expanding your knowledge about design, learning about design history, and dealing with an absolute avalanche of homework from each instructor to complete before the next class session.
So design school at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is where I learned the importance of using artist grade materials — specifically with regard to liquid media — like inks, watercolor, and gouache. Why? At the time, I was using a Paache turbine airbrush, an incredibly finicky piece of painting hardware that had the high-pitched whine of a dentist drill and did NOT work well with anything but top-shelf water-based inks and paints. If you fed it low quality liquid pigments, it would either splatter them in big globs all over the place or it would build-up material at the spray point in an instant — which would require disassembling everything, cleaning it with a solvent (benzene was a favorite at the time), putting it back together… annnnnd rinse and repeat every 5-to-10 minutes. That behavior with the “craft” or “student” grade materials soon became maddening, and you learned very quickly that the good stuff, the expensive stuff, the “artist” grade materials, were there for a real reason — they just work.
Oh, and to anyone that moans and groans about the cost of college texts these days… ha! Don’t make me laugh. I had no idea just how expensive design school could be, as the potential cost of individual projects was never mentioned or discussed. I regularly spent $2,000-to-$3,000 per semester on art materials, and remember one project in particular during my junior year that cost over $1,800 by itself (over half of my art material budget on just that one project!). Keep in mind that presentation is everything in design school, so the more polished and professional your finished project looked, the higher your grade and class standing. And I was in the top 5 percent of my graduating class, so I know a thing or two about getting to that level, and it included using expensive materials to achieve the level of polish required to look like a professionally printed piece of art work.
At any rate, this is all long-winded, I know — but I’m simply trying to make it clear why artist grade materials exist and why I use them.
Years later, when I finally wanted to begin watercolor painting for personal enjoyment, I wanted something that I could carry with me at all times. Something that was very light and portable, but yet could deliver the results I was wanting to create. This was in 1988… when there were no smartphones, analog photography was very expensive (even black and white), and I was truly a starving artist with no money left after all the bills were paid. If I wanted images to share with others, either I had to get photos developed or I created the images myself.
So I scrimped and saved for months, and scrimped and saved some more… so I could finally buy a Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour Field Box.
To be continued…