Cliff Notes for Zbukvic's "Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor", pt. 1

First, in case you don't know Joseph Zbukvic well as an artist, here are some samples of his work.  Lovely!


Last Spring I had the chance to read Zbukvic's out of print "Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor", thanks to the magic of the interlibrary loan process (Yay public library system!!).  I even made a little review of it in an earlier post "Summer Reading for Watercolorists".  Sadly, the book often costs up to 500$ on Amazon.  So, in the hopes that my notes and thoughts might be helpful to others, I'll be doing three posts, as I break down the book- one on the Watercolor Clock, one on Composition as the book presents it, and one on Mood and Atmosphere.

Now, with all that in place, without further ado-

Zbukvics Watercolor Clock-

This is the really the nuts and bolts of the book- Zbukvic’s thesis on how to get pigment and water to do what you want it to do. It doesn’t have anything to do with how to compose an interesting image, or what techniques you should use to what affect.  It’s really just about understanding the mechanics of watercolors.  He uses this set up throughout the book to let you know how he’s applying pigment and water in the painting examples.

In a gist, you need to know how wet your canvas is and how wet/ full of pigment your brush is.  When the two interact, different things happen, depending on the ratio.  He has 5 versions of paintbrush wetness and 4 version of paper wetness.  Each combo of hands (one being how wet the pigment/brush is and one and being how wet the paper is) creates a different effect, depending on what "time" it is on the clock.

Joseph has a beautifully illustrated version of the clock in the book, but in a rudimentary fashion, it looks like this-


Pigment Consistencies (on the Brush)-

Tea= very thin and watery, not much pigment; moves freely on canvas if tilted; good for skies and clouds

Coffee= stronger mix; moves freely when canvas is tilted, but leaves behind a wash of color; good for distant mountains, clouds, and gentle shadows

Milk= thick enough to dry reasonably close to the color in the palette; good for mid and foreground, dry brush techniques; can get muddy if over-brushed, but will create granulation of a large area

Cream= sludgy, fluid consistency; moves on palette when mixed, and slowly on paper when tilted; this won’t create a bead, so used more like gouache; good for darker things- shadows, rocks, dark trees, etc.; creates broken edges; good to drop into wet and milky washes to create undulations and varied values

Butter= basically straight from the tube; won’t move even if held upside down; don’t over do it- basically used for creating rich contrast with gentler washes and muted colors; done only at the end of the painting.


Paper Wetness-

Dry= well, dry; creates sharp edged contrasts and uses the paper texture a lot

Damp= almost dry, probably cool to the touch; easy to screw up if you have too much water on your brush, which will create back-bleeds into the painting; best to paint on with a thick application of pigment (like cream or butter) as that will control the soft edges of the brush marks; good for scratching, lifting pigment, and splattering water drops or salt where you want to create a mottled texture

Moist= not sopping wet, but still has a sheen-a short lived stage; good for soft edges on shapes you’d like to keep atleast semi-controlled, good for dropping one color into another so they’ll gently mix

Wet= very wet and glossy, you can tilt the water in any direction you want; good for alla prima applications of color, graduated washes with granulation, and tea and coffee applications; creates soft, diaphanous edges


Let's see some of that in action.  Here's a video of Zbukvic painting from YouTube (part of the Australian show "Colour in Your Life").  Let's go through what we can see, and I'll try and associate it with the clock.

11:00     Tea on Dry. 

He starts a pale wash.  All edges that he cuts are sharp, but the value of the pigment he applies is light.

13:00    Coffee on Damp. 

He starts a new, darker wash on the still damp paper, varying the values, getting darker here and there, but some of his edges are a bit softer than before.

14:00    Coffee on Dry.

He lays a darker section in, to the right of the image.  He blends it into with the previous wash on the left side (which is still a bit damp), but you can see that the edges are generally dry on the right and that he can do dry brush work (at the bottom of the shape, by the street), because the pigment is a bit thicker.

15:00     Milk on Damp.

You can see him do the simple strokes into the wash he finished, on the right, for windows.  The pigment is thick enough to be darker than the wash.  The edges are all soft, but the pigment doesn't disperse, thus Damp.

16:00    Cream on Dry. 

This is where he sets in to do the cars.  You can see from the close up that the paint is a bit thick on his brush.  Perhaps Cream.  Also, the paint doesn't create a bead when he uses it on the cars.

17:00     Cream on Moist. 

This is for the red tail lights. You can see how the very rich color disperses and runs down into the darker value of the car.  He daubs it in, and the water does the work.

17:50     Butter on Moist. 

He takes the white straight out of the tube and applies it to a slightly damp surface.  The goal, as he says, is for the white to "melt" into it.  Compared to the red tail lights, it disperses less, because the pigment is thicker/drier than before.  So it's not just the wetness of the canvas that's important, but the brush too.

18:00     Milk on Dry/Damp.  

This is where he starts painting the tree in the foreground on the left. The value is noticeably darker than the older washes, and he removes some of the paint from the brush, so it's not so loaded/wet.  This lets him paint with more texture.

19:00     Cream on Dry? 

This is when he does the leaves and the light posts, etc..  As he says, "The paint is lovely and thick."  That's how he's getting that dark, saturated value as well as all the texture.

21:00     Milk on Wet

This is the final stage, where he wants the pigment to really run.  He pre-wets everything and drops rich paint in.  And boy does it run.  This is much different than earlier stages, where the brush was very wet but the paper was drier (either totally dry or damp).  Now, the paper is very wet and brush is comparatively dry.  This is making all the difference in the world.  If the pigment on the brush was wetter, it would run faster.  You can see how it slowly drifts down the page though, and is able to keep its value despite the page being re-wet.  If he wanted it to run only a very little bit, he might have put Cream on Wet instead, for example, which produces a different effect, as the paint is comparatively "drier."


My thoughts-

After much experimentation, my take on all of this was that the wetter your paper is before you put paint down (such as Moist or Wet), the better wet washes play, mostly because you can’t control much anyways— it’s all about washes or granulation at that point.  The drier the paper gets (such as Damp) while still being wet, the better it is to use drier and thicker applications of pigment (which will soften with the damp surface, but not bleed so much).  Once the paper is dry, you can use any application of paint, with the purpose of the stroke dictating the thickness of the applied pigment (a pale valued wash of shadow being Tea or Milk, versus a super chromatic glob for a headlight being Butter, for example).  The trick is to figure out when a paper is Damp or Moist, etc. as well as when the pigment is a Milk or Cream consistency, for example.  That basically takes pure experimentation and doodling, to just see how different combos of wetness and dryness interact.  Playing with pigment and water on the canvas this way was fun, and well worth doing!  Quite educational, in the best way.

Here are links to the other two parts of the the "Cliff Notes"-

Cliff Notes pt. 2

Cliff Notes pt. 3