Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Special Report: Painting on Aquaboard

In the past few months I've had my continued efforts with Ampersand Aquabord -- and continued to fail in terms of getting consistent, acceptable quality results. After working and reworking each image for an extended period of time, I was able to make the final results look somewhat pleasant to the eye, but it was extremely time-consuming and frustrating to me as far as the overall experience goes, and here's why:

1. The surface does not stay wet long enough no matter how many times you wet it -- not wet enough to achieve all the splendid wet-in-wet movement of pigments that I love so much and try to achieve in every paintings I create. If I wet it too much that water pools on the surface, the pigments just float on pools of water and make a big mess; but as soon as I drain excessive water off, the surface just becomes damp and pigments do not flow like they would do on wet paper;

2. Difficulty in achieve an even wash or gradation -- with each brush stroke the pigments would tend to accumulate where the stroke ends, and again, the surface dries so quickly that seamless application of washes from one stroke to the next just seems impossible;

3. Difficulty in controlling edge quality -- since the surface do not stay wet long enough, it seems very difficulty to soften edges between shapes, as newly laid-down washes seem to dry almost immediately, leaving very little time for edge manipulation with a damp brush.

But the brilliance of color and interesting granulation textures you can achieve on this surface, and the possibility of framing it varnished, without mat or glazing, directly in a frame kept me coming back despite of all the frustrations. After many Q & A sessions with my painting friends, Kara Bigda and Crystal Cook, who had much better success with this surface than I did, I realized that beside learning curve of a new material, what made this surface particular difficult to me and my usual painting method is -- unlike Kara or Crystal, I do not paint wet-on-dry using thin washes very much. Fundamentally, I am not a brushstroke painter but a wash painter, and I love to wet and area and drop in juicy, thick, wet pigments to create the right color and value in one or two applications, instead of patiently building up thin glazes of color on dry surface to achieve the same effect.

After this realization, I decided to revise my working method and give it another go. And sure enough, it worked like a charm! Guaranteed, my first trials are not masterpieces and I still needed much more practice on this surface. But for the first time, I feel I am knocking at the right door and with this method, I could achieve consistent results for all the different imagery I was working on --

April's Passing,  Watercolor on Ampersand Aquaboard, 6"h x 6"w, WIP 1

So, here's the method I currently use to work on Aquabord:

1. Use lots and lots of water and very thin pigments for any large area washes (I am talking about onle 4-5 square inches). You can either wet it first, and keep your board on a tilt to let excessive water drain off its surface instead of pool on it (use a towel underneath your board to absorb all the run-off water if you'd like to keep your table top dry and clean), or you can directly work on dry surface (I would wet the entire surface at least once before painting on it, to break the surface tension and release the trapped air bubbles on the surface coating). The secret is to keep this first wash very light in pigment. If the area is really large, you will likely observe the first part of wash start drying as you continue applying it to the other areas. This is normal. Do not attempt to go back and rewet or paint-into the dried edge, as it would wash away pigments in that area and create nasty blooms or white rings. It is very easy to remove any ugly or dark edge on this surface -- after everything has dried, you can simple go over it with clean water and use a soft brush to smooth-off pigments, or glaze over it with a second wash. Sometimes, leaving imperfections in a wash creates good surface interest and does not need to be smoothed out at all, like what you can see in "Remembering June" below:

Remembering June,  Watercolor on Ampersand Aquaboard, 6"h x 6"w, WIP 1

2. Whenever you want to achieve soft edge, use slightly dense pigment-to-water ratio, lay the shape on dry surface, then immediately run a damp brush (slightly more watery that one that you would normally use for softening edge when painting on watercolor paper) along the edge you want to soften, let the pigment move into the newly wet area, and soften the leading edge of this area again -- you may have to do this several times until the leading edge of wet areas no long seem to contain any pigments. If the pigments have run to areas you do not want it to go, when the whole area is still damp, you can actually use the damp brush to push pigment back and "erase" it from those areas. All the soft edges on the rose petals in "April's Passing" are achieved using this method. When doing this, I am usually working one soft shape at a time, in very small areas -- the secret of working on this surface is to have patience and do not attempt to juggle too many balls all at once!

3. If you want to blend two colors in an area like the various hues on the water lily petal in "Remembering June", you can either pre-mix all the hues you want to use in very watery mixtures, and paint them next to each other on dry surface, let them mingle (again, one small area at a time!), or you can paint one hue, soften the edge, wait until the area is dry, then paint the other hue next to it, soften the edge (lots of softening!);

4. When painting darker passages, glazing using watery mixtures many times can work. If the pigments start to build up on surface, it is still possible to glaze over it with wet pigments, but trying to wet the surface first then drop in colors would be quite difficult, as the pigments already on surface at this point would tend to move with the first application of water. In other words, you can glaze multiple times on this surface, and the secret is to lay down each glaze wet-on-dry and do not touch any passage back when the surface is still wet. Alternatively, you can mix your dark colors on palette, and lay them in thickly, then quickly soften the edge with a damp brush. The dark areas above the rose in "April's Passing" is done this way;

5. You can definitely use this surface to its advantage -- utilizing the texture interest created by uneven washes, utilizing brushwork to describe texture or patterns of your subject, utilizing thin-glazes and build them up slowly to achieve luminosity... And the biggest advantage -- you can scrub it using any hard brush to remove various degrees of tints of color, almost back to white, and never have to worry about damaging the surface! If a painting totally goes south, you can hose it off with only a ghost image remaining -- something pastel artists often do and make me envy. Then you can even incorporate that ghost image into your next painting adventure on this revived surface! Often, that's a wonderful starting point of your creativity... 

I'm still learning my ropes regarding this challenging but extremely rewarding surface. And I will continue to share with you what I have learned about it here. -- Big thanks to Kara and Crystal, both of whom have so generously shared their working methods with me when I am on this journey, and both of them have created some stunning paintings on this surface. If you haven't already, be sure to take a look! I promise you will not be disappointed...


  1. Arena, I'm not crazy about the aquaboard either, but I've tried it several times. One thing I found works beautifully for softening edges is a damp q-tip. But I am far from an expert with my art but you might give it a try if you get frustrated enough. I tend to paint wet on dry myself, though often use both methods in a piece.

  2. Great post Arena and thank you for the "shout out." While you know that you've been frustrated in the past with this surface, your work never shows it. I'm glad though that you're feeling better about it. Your paintings look luminous and juicy (as usual!) so far! Happy painting! :)

  3. Thanks for the great article. I was glazing using the traditional method that we use on a cold pressed paper (water and then paint), but now I know that it's different for aquabord. Thanks again


Thank you so much for taking time visiting and commenting on my blog! Your feedback and encouragements are things that keep me going with I am feeling down or frustrated... I will try my best to reply to every comment ASAP but sometimes life gets in the way and I am a bit slow in my response. I would like to apologize if that happens...

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