Breaking out

Photo reproduced courtesy of FezzusAustralis and TaikOz

I was given the opportunity to sell some paintings. I wasn’t sure what to charge as it puts a bit more pressure on you when it’s commissioned work. But the brief was pretty open as long as it related to taiko music. So I came to an agreement if they let me experiment I won’t charge too much, especially as it was a non-prof organisation.


Photo reproduced courtesy of Prudence Upton and TaikOz
Photo reproduced courtesy of Karen Steains and TaikOz

I had no idea what I wanted to do but I had a few ideas and techniques running through my head. Ultimately it was governed by what reference material I had on offer. I used photos I found online of TaikOz from various photographers. If you would like to see more of their photos, please click on the photograph or their name. If these paintings were to reach a wider audience, ie reproduced professionally,  I would have gotten permission to use them as reference material before I started. But it is unlikely they will be reproduced beyond this blog and my flickr site. Also I didn’t plan on my paintings being so true to the photos as there was more detail in them than I wanted.

Anyhoo, I planned to use watercolours and Indian ink, and I also wanted to capture the energy of taiko playing and the atmosphere it can create. It’s hard to replicate movement from a static photograph, so I had to rely on my personal experiences of taiko music to give it life.

First step I lightly drew in the basic shapes. As mentioned, these paintings weren’t about detail but about movement and energy, so I only wanted enough detail to comprehend what was happening in the image.

The first stage – light pencils to mostly mark in areas I want to apply masking fluid.

Masking Fluid

As I planned to go crazy with colour I wanted to make sure there were some splashes of white in each painting. There is something about leaving a bit of white paper in your artwork that really lifts the picture more than if you coloured every square inch. Even cartoon drawings or watercolour landscapes have more vibrancy and depth to them if you allow a bit of the paper colour to come through. And I don’t think it works as well if you add white paint afterwards.

So I decided to use masking fluid. For those who have never used it before, it is a very wet liquid but when exposed to air will dry in several minutes and becomes waterproof. Masking fluid is usually used whenever there is a significant difference between the foreground and background colours, and you want the background to be applied seamlessly.

Masking fluid step by step: once the masking fluid has dried; apply colour straight over the masking fluid; when the paint dries rub off the masking fluid. Please click on image for enlargement.

For example, if you wanted to paint a sunset – instead of painting around the trees and cliffs in the foreground leaving little brushstrokes around the edges, you liquid mask out the foreground shapes and paint the sunset in from top to bottom, left to right over the masked areas where it repels the paint. Then when the paint dries you gently rub off the masking fluid with your finger and it reveals your clean white paper.

But for me it was more about creating theatre in the paintings.

A few tips when using masking fluid

It’s something that is traditionally used only with watercolours. In the past I have managed to use it with gouache, but it is not something that works well with all art mediums. Also, depending on the quality of the paper, it can tear the paper when removing it (a bit like so-called “magic” tape). So it’s always good to test out the masking fluid on the paper you plan to use. Manufacturers also warn you not to leave masking fluid on the paper for too long as some versions can stain, especially the yellow version. Clear masking fluid is also available but it’s not always easy to see it when applying it.

To remove masking fluid when it dries, rub it off gently with your fingers (or thumb) – it’s the only way to remove masking fluid. I don’t think there is a tool for it at this stage, and I wouldn’t recommend using an eraser. Sometimes you can peel it off but be careful it doesn’t also start to peel the paper. Oh, and make sure your fingers are clean too!

Testing masking fluid: Some papers tear when removing masking fluid, or it may require a more gentler hand to do so. Please click on image for enlargement.

Also when applying it with a brush it can totally stuff up the bristles and as a result ruin a good brush. One brush I own the bristles have started to come out when I clean it, so don’t use an expensive brush. I have kept two brushes aside just for masking fluid application (I labelled the ends of the brush so I know) and try to have two different sizes.

Next tip: as mentioned before, when exposed to air masking fluid starts to dry. This includes drying on your paint brush as you use it. After the first few dips it will start to dry and harden leaving you with a clumsy stumpy brush. Unfortunately it doesn’t come off the brush as easily as it does on paper. To combat this I have two jars of water when I work. One is plain cold tap water and the other has warm water with a few drops of dishwashing liquid. When my brush is starting to feel a bit chunky I wash it out in the soapy warm water, then rinse it in the cold water. If you only use the soapy water it may dilute the masking fluid when you next apply it.

Left jar has hot soapy water and right jar cold tap water.

So I’ve applied the masking fluid to the areas that correspond to light reflections in the photographs, but I also splashed it around a bit too.

Applying Colour

I worked out the colour combinations earlier. Winsor & Newton watercolour paint can be quite expensive, and although I don’t need a lot to paint with, working out the colour combinations beforehand can save you a lot of paint.

I wanted the watercolours to blend in with each other as I applied them, so I wetted the paper before I started. Watercolourists will do this when they want to paint large areas and have really smooth blends and not leave any brush marks. I used this sponge brush (seen on right) to apply the water.

The only problem with this is that large amounts of water can make your paper buckle. If its important to you to keep your artwork as flat as possible, tape your paper on all sides to a thick piece of board and hopefully that will reduce the buckling in the end.

Mixing it up or going straight

I’m not sure if there are two schools on using paint, ie are there artists that like to mix up their own colours or do they prefer using them straight out of the tube? I used to like mixing colours but I found that if you weren’t happy with the results it is a lot of wasted paint. Or, if you did like the colour but needed more remembering how to remix the same colour again is a futile task. So now I prefer to use colours straight out of the tube. The only time I mix is mostly when I’m using my half pans and its an en plein air situation.

Although I wanted areas where the colours bled into each other, I also wanted to leave some areas “pure” so the colours weren’t muddy all over, like they were squeezed straight out of the tube.  So it was hard to refrain from overworking it. The good thing about applying it quickly was that it also emphasised the movement and energy of taiko music.

As you can see in this photo, because of the liberal amount of water and paint I applied, the paper buckled.
This close up you can see where the paint repels off the yellow masking fluid.

Next step was applying the Indian ink. I decided to leave the masking fluid on for this stage as well, because I wanted to splash the ink around. My only concern was if I could peel off the masking fluid without making a mess, as indian ink is quite thick and can sit on the surface rather than be absorbed into the paper.

But it turned out okay. I did have a few issues in some areas – where the indian ink was very thick it tended to flake off when removing the mask. While others where it was thinly applied I accidentally smudged it. If I had smudged it with watercolours or even gouache you could probably clean it up with a lightly wet paintbrush and dab off the water with a tissue.

Close ups of areas where I smudged the ink trying to remove the liquid mask.

Then I added a few finishing touches like the bolts on the drum, facial features etc.

In the end it was a really good experiment. Probably not how I envisioned it but that was part of the excitement. I learnt I should tape my paper down before starting and that there is still a lot more I can do with masking fluid. Anyway, hope that was helpful. Below are the rest of the pieces and the separate stages it took to produce them.


24 thoughts on “Breaking out

  1. These are wonderfully vibrant and fun! Your drawings are excellent, by the way. I wanted to tell you about a great little tool called a “rubber cement pick-up”. It’s a small square of material that is fantastic for picking up masking fluid! It’s all I ever use and have used them since college (25 years ago). I cut the square in half, giving me twice as many corners to use to pick up the masking fluid. cheap and easy… no more fingers!

    1. hi leslie,
      aah i think i know what you’re talking about. i use to have one for cleaning up rubber cement marks or adhesive mess on my mock ups, but not for masking fluid. will have to buy one.
      thanks for stopping by, saw your FB page – you have a lovely watercolour style, very confident and strong.

  2. You’ve captured the movement and power of the moment the show must be stunning. Thanks for the masking fluid information I have some but haven’t tried it yet.

  3. Great tutorial! I have a small jar of masking fluid, and I have not even used it yet. 🙂 It definitely looks fun and I might play around with it soon!

  4. love the drama in your work! And so funny I’m also experimenting with watercolour at the moment, but I havn’t tried masking fluid yet

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