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This article on watercolor painting by Cheng-Khee Chee was adapted from the Brushing Up column in the November 2013 issue of Magazine.
I’ve lived in Minnesota for more than 50 years. One of the most exciting aspects of Minnesota life for me is the changing seasons. Colorful thickets of autumn leaves, fantastic snow-covered winter trees, exuberant spring blossoms, and luxuriant summer foliage have all stirred my feelings and stimulated my impulse to paint. Inspired by Frederick Wong and Tseng-Ying Pang, I’ve found that crinkling sized rice paper, manipulating it to the desired texture, and painting on the wrinkled surface is the most natural and effortless way to capture tree forms. The result is a combination of Eastern and Western art styles as well as of abstraction and realism. Realistic images are actually built up from an accretion of small abstract fragments.
I use two approaches in this technique. For winter scenes, such as Winter Pleasure (above), I paint the entire piece in monochrome with Chinese ink, as in the traditional Chinese practice. When the painting is done, I mount the piece and add colors to enhance it. For scenes of other seasons, I use colors right from the beginning, painting from light to dark. When necessary, I add brushwork in Chinese ink. I’ve found this approach most suitable for capturing the bright, fresh colors of spring and autumn.
Sketch, Crinkle, and Paint
1. Sketch: I did a quick thumbnail sketch of my idea for the painting. I know and passionately love Duluth; over the 50 years I’ve lived there, I’ve accumulated numerous sketches and photo references of the city. For this painting I chose the historic Duluth Central High School building as a focal point and pulled in other landmarks—the Aerial Lift Bridge to the left and grain elevators to the right—closer to the building. When the painting is finished, viewers will be able to identify it as a springtime scene of the Duluth harbor without necessarily realizing it comprises multiple viewpoints.
2. Moisten and crinkle: With a large hake brush, I applied water to both sides of a sheet of masa paper and let the paper soak until it became limp and soft. Then I repeatedly grabbed and crinkled the area of paper I wanted textured—the blooming trees and grass in the foreground. I left the sky and water areas alone.
3. Layer colors: I placed the crinkled masa paper on a sheet of felt, which would act as a cushion to keep watercolor or ink that penetrated the surface from sticking to the drawing board. Then, with either a 2-inch squirrel-hair or 2-inch hake brush, I applied layer after layer of color to the textured area of the paper to form tree blossoms and grass. I allowed some settling time between layers so the colors would be moist but not wet. This way the overlapping colors diffused slightly into each other to give the painting a soft, subtle appearance. When I applied dark colors or black ink, I let the painting dry more, using a hair dryer to hasten the process.
Mount the Painting
4. Smooth the surface: When I was satisfied with the blossom and foliage colors, I positioned the wrinkled painting on a sheet of watercolor paper (the specific weight and texture weren’t important). I touched the painting with my finger to make sure the paint didn’t come off. Then, with the colors settled but the masa paper still moist, I smoothed out the painting by rotating a roll of paper towels over it. I checked again to see whether the color had completely set by making sure it hadn’t come off onto the paper towels.
5. Flip painting: Once the painting was completely smoothed out, I placed a piece of cardboard over one half of the painting and then flipped the other half over the top of the cardboard. The cardboard sandwiched between the two halves of the painting assured that the colors of the two halves wouldn’t interfere with each other.
6. Apply paste: With a 4-inch hake brush, I applied Henkel Metylan clear cellulose adhesive paste to the exposed half of the watercolor paper.
7. Lay painting onto paste: I gently lifted the flipped half of the painting and laid it onto the watercolor paper, which was now coated with paste.
8. Smooth the painting: I smoothed the pasted half of the painting with a clean hake brush, starting from the center and working out to the edges. I then repeated steps five through seven for the other half of the painting. I use this mounting technique for paintings up to 22×30. For instructions for mounting larger paintings, see Mounting Large Crinkled Watercolor Paintings (at bottom of article).
Develop Midground and Background
9. Sketch the buildings: I sketched in the midground buildings with sepia watercolor applied with a medium-sized round Chinese brush.
10. Begin midground color: I started applying watercolor to the buildings. I also applied Chinese ink, followed by watercolor, to the trees and bushes.
11. Add backgound elements: As I continued to develop the midground and foreground, I also began painting the background.
12. Finesse the painting: I adjusted the overall composition and value relations to finish the painting Spring Harbor View.
Mounting Large Crinkled Watercolor Paintings
Crinkled-paper paintings on masa paper larger than 22×30 or on fragile Xuan paper need a stronger backing than that used on smaller paintings done on masa paper. For the larger or more fragile works, follow these steps:
1. Place the painting face down on a tabletop. Apply paste to the back of the painting with a 4-inch hake brush. Then lay a backing sheet (masa or similar paper) over it. The backing sheet should be about 1 inch wider than the painting on all four sides.
2. Smooth the painting by stroking its back with a clean 4-inch hake brush, working from the center to the edges.
3. Flip the painting over, apply paste along the edges of the backing sheet, and paste the painting onto a heavy board (such as plywood) to dry.
4. When the painting is bone dry, cut along the edges to free it from the board and then trim the edges of the painting.
5. Mount the painting again on a larger sheet of watercolor paper of any texture and weight, using the same process as you did in step one.
- “How to Display Art on Paper” – tips from professional framers, art design consultants, watercolor and pastel artists, and the chair of the Subcommitte on Artist Paints and Related Materials for ASTM International (free online article)
- “Buying the Right Paper” – Michael Skalka, chair of the Subcommitte on Artist Paints and Related Materials for ASTM International, demystifies Asian art papers (free online article)
- Chinese Landscape Painting Techniques for Watercolor – book by Lian Quan Zhen
- Chinese Watercolor With Lian Quan Zhen Premium Palette – instruction in book and video formats, plus bamboo brushes and mulberry paper
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