In 2014 I painted my first watercolor in 24 years. (The last ones being in 1990 when I visited Portugal for a month.) I’ve been fascinated by watercolors ever since I first discovered Winslow Homer’s conch divers paintings. However, I never thought I could use traditional watercolors in my current work. I had always used watercolor for studies on paper, which was how I used it in Portugal, just for quick visual notes or ideas. My current work is designed on the computer, so for better or worse I don’t use studies on paper in my process. But I’ve always been interested in incorporating different mediums into my concept.
I finally decided to experiment with watercolor again in 2014, when Golden Artist Colors introduced their QoR (pronounced core) Modern Watercolors line. I attended Golden’s QoR product training that year as a certified Golden artist, and I must admit I fell in love with QoR, not just because it’s a high-quality watercolor, but because it’s a truly contemporary medium that filled a personal void! Using QoR watercolors has enhanced the concepts that inform my art tremendously. So I thought I’d write this review and share the pros and cons I’ve encountered using these powerful watercolors over the past two years. They are truly modern.
Start with the Ground
The three grounds that the QoR product line offers—Watercolor Ground, Cold Press Ground, and Light Dimensional Ground—actually already exist as Golden products under different names. The QoR Watercolor Ground is the same product as Golden’s Absorbent Ground; the Cold Press Ground is Golden’s Fiber Paste; and the Light Dimensional Ground is Golden’s Light Molding Paste.
The only reason I’d recommend the original Golden grounds over the QoR label is that the Golden grounds can be bought by the gallon, whereas the QoR grounds are limited to 227ml. So if you’re like me and want to work large, go with the original Golden grounds.
I work on aluminum composite panel and prefer a slightly textured surface, so I use the Absorbent Ground (Watercolor Ground) for my watercolors. QoR advertises that the Watercolor Ground creates a surface similar to hot press watercolor paper, which it can if that’s what you’re after; however, you can always control the texture by adjusting the application. This is a typical feature of Golden products: you can always tweak and control them according to your needs. Just be sure to you read the directions for any special requirements.
For example, the Absorbent Ground should be applied over a gessoed surface. Golden recommends applying three to five coats of ground for increased absorbency. I apply the ground with a foam roller to give it slightly pebbled tooth, like cold press paper. I then lightly spray rubbing alcohol over it to pop any air bubbles. This creates the paper-like textured surface I desire. All the grounds allow you to create a paper-like surface on canvas, wood, aluminum or whatever substrate you prefer.
Watercolorists traditionally prepare the paper surface in ways that fit their practice. Manufacturers of watercolor paper add a gelatin coating called sizing that affects the hardness and absorbency of the paper, and the artist can alter these properties in different ways before applying the paint. With Qor watercolors and grounds, the same level of control can be applied to any substrate, from canvas to wood panel, and even my favorite, aluminum composite panel. The grounded surface is also more water-resistant, keeping it from absorbing too much pigment and helping to keep the colors vibrant and crisp. A paper surface can also deteriorate in its archival qualities over time. So to sum up the benefit of using grounds over sized paper, you can control the texture and absorbency on a variety of substrates, and not worry about your ground changing with age.
Now that we’ve applied the ground, let’s talk paint. To make it you need pigment, which is the color. Some pigments change from medium to medium but for the most part we see the same names come up again and again. When you buy a tube of Ultramarine Blue, you know it is made from the pigment also known as ultramarine blue.
Pigments are the most expensive ingredient in paint, and the quality and amount of it that’s used in a product is what separates student grade paint from professional artist grade paint.
The next component you need is the binder, which is the glue that holds the pigment to a surface. The binder forms the film that is dry paint. Traditionally, gum arabic has been the binder used to hold watercolor together. When I first heard that Golden was going to be manufacturing watercolors, I knew they would change the binder, and I was correct. They introduced Aquazol as the binder for QoR. Golden promotes it as the first major improvement to watercolor in 150 years, which is no overstatement.
Aquazol has been used in art conservation since 1990. As a binder for watercolor, Aquazol offers two major improvements over gum arabic. The first you may notice is its flexibility—that is, it can be applied to a flexible surface like canvas without cracking or flaking off, and it can be applied more thickly. Other products like QoR mediums and synthetic ox gall help move and extend the paint even more—important when you work large. Now, this may not be what a traditional water colorist wants or needs, but regardless, QoR gives painters many more options to think outside the box.
Ever thought about using watercolor for printmaking? I’ll go over that topic in my next post!
In my process I use masking tape, cutting out shapes with a blade and then applying the paint to the cut-out areas with a brush, squeegee, or foam roller. I embrace whatever medium I’m working in, and it’s in the nature of watercolors to bleed or seep past the mark you put down, so here the paint has a tendency to seep under the tape, and I really like the effect that results from the bleeding colors. But since QoR is thicker than traditional watercolor, the bleed can controlled by the quantity of water used to thin the paint. Depending on the amount of water used, I can achieve a wild bleed (incredible filigrees of color) or a harder edge.
Another improvement and something you will notice right away is the intensity of the colors. The characteristic amber color of gum arabic can cause traditional watercolors to dull when they dry. Aquazol is not only neutral, but it accepts a higher pigment load than gum arabic, resulting in clearer, more brilliant colors. Beside the flexibility of the paint and intensity of the color, QoR screams for experimentation. It’s not often a product comes along with a long traditional history, yet offers so much room to try radical new things. QoR’s strength lies in its experimental potential!
On the negative side, the paint comes in small 11 ml tubes, and although the paint does go far, it’s not enough for large-scale works like mine. My largest paintings are 80″ x 48″. I suspect the packaging is marketed to traditional watercolorists, but I feel that if the paint could be packaged in larger size jars, this would appeal to more artists. Another drawback with the tubes is that the paint has a tendency to push or ooze out of the tube before you can replace the cap, which wouldn’t happen with a jar container. This most likely has to do with the makeup of Aquazol but since you can reactivate it, the paint isn’t necessarily wasted. All in all, though, a minor criticism.
Finishing with Varnish
Francis Bacon purposely placed glass over his oil paintings because he wanted the viewer to see their reflection in his paintings. That worked conceptually for him, but not for me! I don’t want my work to be under glass.
Many artists use glass as a sort of knee-jerk solution to the issue of protecting the work, but unless the glass is UV coated, that protection can be limited.
I find the idea of “freeing” the finished work from the glass very compelling and contemporary. To protect my watercolors I use Golden’s Archival Spray Varnish, which is a mineral spirit varnish that provides a much greater level of UV protection than regular glass. It also doesn’t interact with or reactivate the watercolor, so that it can be sprayed on to lock in the colors, allowing you to work over areas without lifting the paint. If you decide to use Archival Spray do keep in mind that it’s an aerosol, so be sure to use a respirator and spray in a well-ventilated space.