Sunday, October 6, 2013

Painting into the Soup

Here's a sketch that I did yesterday on a rainy day in Bennington, Vermont. I'm here as a judge for the exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists—more on that tomorrow. 

This picture is painted in gouache, which is the best water medium for detail and value control, and I want to tell you about an unusual technique called "painting into the soup" that works well for conveying this kind of misty weather.

Because of the rain, Jeanette and I had to find a painting spot that was under cover, so we drove around Bennington until we found this public building that wasn't in use on the weekend.

Working on watercolor paper, I did a very quick pencil layin, and then applied the "soup"—a thin layer of opaque titanium white, lowered just a little bit from pure white with a little blue, yellow, and red.

The soup went across the whole sky and the far end of the street, and then tapered off down past the treetops and toward the foreground. With 100% humidity, the soup took a while to dry so it influenced some of the mixtures as I laid on subsequent areas.

Here's what the palette looked like, with a mixed Schmincke and Rublev pan set of transparent watercolors, and gouache on the flanking areas in white, cad red, yellow, and ultra blue.

 When the soup dries, it takes the colored pencil a bit like gesso would, allowing very sensitive small touches. Instead of black, I used two values of gray Caran d'Ache Supracolor for the delicate telephone wires and fine branches.

This idea of painting into a soup of gouache was used by William Trost Richards, and it's also a method you can use in oil using colored soup to influence your color schemes. Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis talk about this as an oil method. Just be careful to keep the soup thin, and only in areas where you want it to influence later mixtures.

Art Supplies
Winsor & Newton Designers' Gouache Introductory Set each
Moleskine watercolor notebook
Caran D'Ache watercolor pencils
Amazon: Schmincke Watercolor Pocket Set,
and a larger Schmincke set for a better price that Steve suggested.
Super magnet for holding down the cup


Steve said...

Thanks for explaining such an effective and useful technique. Especially liked the four work-in-progress images.

For those interested, Wet Paint in St. Paul has an excellent price on a Schmincke watercolor set -- $62. It is slightly larger than the pocket set linked to Amazon at the bottom of this post. It comes with 12 half pans of paint and 12 empty half pans. Same amount of paint as the Amazon set for less than half the cost.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Steve--Great find. I've linked that WetCanvas deal at the end of the post, and here too:,14629.html#.UlFtlWTF3Lw

Aaron said...

Hey James, Love the posts on using gouche that you've done of late. I actually tried it out as a medium in college. and almost by accident. A local art and framing store was closing (retiring) and he was liquidating his inventory. I saw a stack of 4 0r 5 sets of winsor and newton paints and asked him a little about gouache, long story short I went back and bought the other 4 sets, and have enjoyed sketching with them ever since. (Sidenote) Popular comic Illustrator Alex Ross uses Gouache.

Ezra Suko said...

I love some of the soft effects that this technique can achieve. I mentioned it to another artist recently and he was not familiar with the term... I suppose it may go by different names. I have been struggling with finding a medium in oils that works well for me with this technique. Do you use this technique in oils much? If so, what medium do you prefer for your soup?

Alex said...

James, you are awesome with water media. I really love some of the 19th century watercolors, they have a level of detail and control that is insane for the medium, as most of the water media work i see today looks pretty "watery". Is there any particular technique to achieving such control or is it just a good underdrawing and practice? Love your blog!


Cccaubin said...

thanks James....I love your blog tho I mostly never comment , but you mention one of my idols WT Richards. I've read everything I can find on him but don't remember the soup thing, do you remember where you saw that?

James Gurney said...

Good question, Colleen. We've been lucky to look at a lot of WTR originals, in many different exhibitions and several times behind the scenes with museum curators. He worked in a variety of media: pencil, oil, transparent watercolor, and watercolor mixed with opaque white. Typically his opaque watercolors are a mix of opaque and transparent. He very often painted on a light greenish gray toned board, where the sky has a wonderful milkiness. If you ever get a chance to see them in person, do! Otherwise there are several good books now on his paintings and drawings.

Rob Howard said...

Some artists are familiar with painting into the soup using oils but, I'm pleased to see one of the most useful gouache techniques illustrated here. Over the years I have found that adding a few drops of honey to the water aids the already excellent precision of gouache transitions.

Tom Hart said...

I don't know if anyone else is having this issue, but two of the images in this series - the second and the second from the last) aren't loading for me. That was true yesterday as well...

James Gurney said...

Tom, not sure why that happened, but they didn't show up, but I just made JPEG files like always. I re-uploading the problematic files as PNG files (bigger, but I guess better for the web). Hopefully they should work now.

Tom Hart said...

I can see them now, James. Oddly, I could see them earlier too (not sure if that was Sunday or early Monday when I did see them initially).

MikeC said...

Hi James, I too appreciate the gouache info lately; it's a media I've enjoyed exploring lately. Quick question about "the soup": I had assumed that "soup" meant you intended the white-gouache-mixture remain somewhat wet as you quickly worked color into it, but later in the post you pointed out that gouache took longer to dry in the humidity and produced some unexpected results.

Gouache usually dries so quickly, especially in thin layers, but the obvious influence tinting trees in the background has me befuddled. Could you clarify?

Thanks, and lovely sketch, by the way!

James Gurney said...

Mike, good question. The soup layer can influence later layers whether it's wet or dry, depending on how you handle layers on top of it. If it's bone dry and you put down a quick touch, the bottom layer won't mix into it, but if the later layer is on the wet side, that white foggy layer can lighten the nearer layers, which is what you want. That's why I didn't put the soup across the whole image where I wanted the darks. This soup method is also great for achieving smoke.