Monday, July 13, 2009

Watercolor Workshop: The Secret of the Unifying Wash

11" x 15" (28 x 38 cm)
Watercolor on Strathmore Gemini 140-lb CP paper
© 2009 Steve Penberthy

I did this still life painting as an exercise in a workshop taught by Laurie Humble titled, "The Secret of the Unifying Wash" workshop at the Learning & Product Expo - Art! in Chicago on Friday, July 10.

Laurie Humble is an extremely talented artist and a great instructor. She explains things very clearly, and interjects humor and personal stories into her teaching. She is very personable, friendly, and was a pleasure to work with. I felt that this workshop was worth the price of the entire weekend alone; I think Ms. Humble designed a very effective workshop that targets a very useful technique; one that I feel will take my work up a notch. Don't miss an opportunity to take a workshop from Laurie.

The official workshop description reads:
Watercolor is often called an unforgiving medium, but the unifying wash allows you to manipulate the depth of already painted elements. In this workshop, you will discover exactly what a unifying wash is and how to best use it to your advantage. Once you develop a true understanding of how to utilize this technique you will realize how much control you actually have over the final outcome of your work.

The core concept of the unifying wash (which Ms. Humble also calls a "separating wash") is that the unifying wash causes a focal point to emerge; it's a way to add realism and depth to your paintings. The unifying wash separates one element from another in a painting. It can be used on the shape that's "back" in order to bring another shape forward. To do this, a value change must be created everywhere there's a line where two shapes touch each other; not a colorchange necessarily, but a value change. Darker values cause things to look more pushed-back whereas lighter values cause things to come forward.

We first learned how to create a unifying wash by working on a "ribbon" exercise, one that she also features in her latest book, "Watercolor Depth and Realism." We drew random "ribbons" on a quarter-sheet of Strathmore Gemini 140-lb CP paper using two pencils that were held together with a rubber band separated by a scrap of sponge (to keep the pencils about a half-inch [1 cm] apart). Then, using any color we chose, we painted a unifying wash where the ribbons overlapped each other, causing one to visually emerge and the other to be pushed back. Here's a work-in-progress (WIP) photo of my ribbon exercise:

As a second exercise, we did a still life of some ordinary household matchsticks, the result of which is shown in the larger image above. We were each given about four or five matchsticks; Laurie asked everyone to "artfully arrange" the matchsticks, then do a pencil drawing on the quarter-sheet of watercolor paper. The arrangement of matchsticks affords many opportunities for overlapping and intersecting edges and lines, which is the whole point--lots of opportunities for unifying washes. This technique is especially useful in paintings with lots of detail, such as florals with foliage. The matchstick painting took me probably a little over an hour to do; when finished, I got a positive critique on it from Laurie.

The technique is really effective, and it's interesting that, even when you think you're finished, you can almost always go back into the painting and find new areas where the values need to be refined. This restating is often due to the paint drying at a lighter value than it was when it was wet.

I have other photos I took during the workshop on Flickr at