Understanding Salt Effects in Watercolor
If you’re looking for a new texture effect for you watercolor paintings, look no further than an item you already have in your kitchen cabinets: salt.
Salt offers a great watercolor texture option and no one knows that better than watercolorist and salt expert, Judy Morris. In her workshop, Tuscan Textures: Rich Textures Using Salt, Morris explores how to use salt in a watercolor painting.
Where should I use salt texture in my watercolor painting?
In her workshops, Morris shows us how to use salt texture for a stucco wall. Salt texture also works great for anything made of rock or earth like clay pots and pavement. However, salt can bring an extra dose of visual interest to really any part of your watercolor painting.
Check out the amazing work by Scott Yelonek from our interview this week. We're pretty sure there's salt in there somewhere.
How to use salt and watercolor
First let’s talk about what is physically happening when you drop a piece of salt into a pool of watercolor pigment. Each granulation of salt acts as a tiny sponge, pulling the water and whatever pigment is with it, toward that salt grain.
“The second it touches the surface,” says Morris of the salt, “it starts to work.“
How it works will depend on a few factors including: the size and shape of salt grain, the pattern in which the salt landed, the type of pigment it landed into and the wetness of the paper.
While some artists wait for the wet, painted area to get a sheen before dropping salt, but Morris drops both her pretzel and kosher salts right away. She waits a moment longer before dropping her table salt but we’ll explain why below.
How different salts create different watercolor texture effects
You might be surprised at how many different kinds of salts exist on the market.
“Any variety of salts are available and they all create a unique texture,” says Morris. She has narrowed her salts of choice down to three: kosher, pretzel, and standard table salt.
With all of her watercolor salt effects, Morris drops the salt from 10-12 inches above the paper. This height allows the salt to fall in an organic way.
Regular table salt will create the finest pattern of her three salts. Morris encourages an even tighter pattern by letting her paint have a moment to settle into her 300 lb paper before sprinkling the salt into the pigment.
Course Kosher salt (Mortan’s)
“I find that my most versatile salt,” says Morris. This Kosher salt is shaved into small flat pieces so it doesn’t bounce as much when Morris applies it. Additionally its large, flat surface area allows it to soak up a lot of pigment. It will lighten your salted area almost immediately.
Pretzel salt (King Arthur Flour)
This round salt looks opaque. Its shape gives it additional bounce before finally settling onto your watercolor paper so the pattern is a bit looser than table or kosher salt.
How pigment properties effect watercolor salt textures
The type of salt you’re using will affect the salt pattern. Another variable is the paint you drop it into.
“Transparent, semi transparent and opaque pigments separate differently with salt," says Morris. “So it’s important to know which paints you’re using.“
Using a transparent paint like Winsor Green, will separate into little donuts.
“You can see,” says Morris, “a dark circle where each grain of salt was.”
Semi-transparent paints, like Burnt Sienna, will create wiggles between the grains of salt.
Opaque paint lifts to the surface when faced with salt particles. Morris’ Winsor Red pigment, for example, “floats to the surface and almost sparkles a bit.”
How paper affects watercolor salt techniques
“The surface that you paint on will affect the kind of salt texture that you get,” says Morris. This is because pigment reacts differently to different surfaces.
“When you paint on cold press paper it acts like a sponge. The second the paint hits the paper it starts soaking,” says Morris.
For hot press paper, however, the pigment floats on the surface just a bit longer. These means that when you clear the salt after it has dried you will have a lighter effect with more of the surface of the paper showing than with cold press watercolor paper.
“You get a darker, juicier effect on cold press and more of a sparkly starry effect with lighter areas on a hot press paper,” explains Morris.
So grab some salt, your favorite pigments and paper and start shaking your way too new watercolor texture techniques with salt.
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