152: Watercolor Ground

The last few years, I have been making a bunch of flat pack laser cut trees to sell at shows. (You can actually see a whole post about making the giant versions 2 foot versions of the trees in 99: Christmas Trees back in 2015! I can’t believe it’s been that long!) I must have set one down someplace funky, because it got a dark oily mark on it that just wouldn’t sand away. I couldn’t sell it like that, so it got relegated to the experiment table.

These were cut from birch plywood – you can see the weird spot pretty well on the left one.

I’ve been playing around with watercolors, and I indulged in a Daniel Smith Primatek watercolor kit from Michaels (with a 40% off coupon!). It included a bottle of white watercolor ground, and I thought this would be perfect surface treatment to cover up those dark spots. Watercolor ground is a paint-like surface treatment that is designed to let you watercolor on top; you can then put it on anything the ground will stick to – metal, plastic, wood, etc. You can watercolor directly on wood, of course, but the colors end up being more of stain, the spread is more unpredictable thanks to the graining, and lighter colors are really hard to see (the almost-there color is buff titanium).

Watercolor directly on wood – pretty that the grain comes through, but you lose certain colors.

Of course, I know full well that painting after cutting is never as neat and clean as painting before cutting (check out 64: To Paint before or After Engraving if you want to see the post about it.) It was absolutely true in this case – if I were doing this for a gift or for sale, I would paint first, then cut. Also, watercolor ground is slightly thicker than paint, as it’s whole point it to become almost a paper-like substrate under the watercolor. It wasn’t the smoothest to paint on. I found out later that I could have thinned it with 10 – 20% water; I would definitely recommend that for more ornate cut pieces. Every tight space it got stuck in, it turned into spackle. I resorted to using a screw driver to chip it out of tight spaces. A powdery white remained on the edges. I guess we’ll call the look shabby chic?

I’m not a great artist, so I didn’t want to paint some elaborate scene or anything overly complicated on the trees. I painted it wet on wet, both to test the “spread” of the ground, and get a more fluid, abstract effect. I did a base of sap green, then highlighted areas with the Daniel Smith jadeite genuine, a green color I’m loving right now. While it was still wet, I put in dots of cadmium yellow, thinking it would add a softly glowing effect.

Overall, the effect wasn’t bad, the ground does hold some water, but in the end the watercolor was a lot lighter than I expected. The ground seemed to absorb some of the vibrancy. Perhaps if I added another layer of paint; might be worth a shot on a new piece. If I get better with watercolor, I can see that the ground would open up a great range of opportunities in conjunction with the laser. Wouldn’t it be fun to cut out interesting shapes and paint them? Like animals, or flowers, or even more simple geometric shapes? You could do some fun trompe l’oeil, or maybe paint some memento mori or vanitas on a skull shape…well, that got morbid faster than expected. But I can see great artists doing great things with the combo!


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