Issue: 29
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 Silhouettes & Varnishing Watercolors                   

 by Bill Hudson  





I recently completed a commission where I tried several new approaches in composition and presentation. It turned out well. The customer was more than satisfied, and I went away with many useful lessons learned.


Jillian, wanted to surprise her fiancée, Ryan (who is one of my son Will's closest friends and a long-time friend of the entire Hudson family), with a silhouette of she, Ryan, and Ryan's 11-year old companion Cooper. Jillian wanted the background to be a sunset on Huntington Beach, CA. She wanted the size to be roughly 12" x 16". And her other request was that the finished painting be presented without a frame, matting, or glass. Jillian then said, "I'm fortunate to be marrying such a burning hunk of love." Note: Now we all know that Jillian didn't really say that. Ryan asked that I put it in this article. He just rightfully figured that if Jillian had more time to think about it, she certainly would have said it.



  • My first step was to bond a 12" x 16" MDF (medium-density fiberboard) panel to a larger Arches cold-pressed watercolor art board. I used Liquitex Matte Medium as the archival adhesive. I used an art board because the thickness of the board guarantees the painting surface is isolated from the adhesive. And the thickness of art board eliminates any concerns of the paper rippling or bubbling even when wet. I used an art board that was about 2" longer and 2" wider than the MDF panel for two reasons. (1) When I bonded the art board to the MDF panel I wanted to prevent any adhesive from having a direct path to the painting surface, and (2) I intended to cut the art board flush with the MDF panel after the painting was complete.

  • For the bonding process, I pencil-marked the desired position of the MDF panel. I then brushed on a generous layer of Matte Medium to both the MDF panel and the art board. I put the art board face down on a paper pad which was on the top of my kitchen table. I then positioned the adhesive surface of the MDF panel on the adhesive back of the art board and applied even pressure on the sandwiched assembly using books and dumbbells.

  • For the painting itself, I elected to paint the silhouettes first to guarantee I had them right before I took on the remainder of the painting. For the silhouettes, I used casein paint. Once casein is dry, it will not reactivate even if subsequent watercolor washes are applied directly over the silhouettes.

  • When the painting was complete, I cut the edges of the art board flush with the MDF panel using an "OLFA" rotary cutter on a cutting mat. A box knife or utility knife also work.

  • At this point, the painting needed a method for wall-hanging and something to counter any possible warping. I made a ½" thick by 1" wide wooden maple frame that I bonded to the back of the MDF panel using Elmer's wood glue. The frame is spaced 1" inboard of the painting edges. As shown in the figure, the top slat of the frame has been cut at a 45 degree angle to allow it to serve as a "nail rail."                                                  

  • The painting was now ready for a protective surface varnish. And there are a variety of brands to choose from that have been made expressly for watercolors. Also there are brush-on and spray-on approaches. I choose to use Golden Archival Varnish from spray cans in accordance with the procedures outlined in Golden's "Application Information Sheets", available online, which recommend 6 coats for archival UV protection. I chose 5 light coats of "Gloss" for a clear coat followed by a single coat of "Matte" to provide a near uniform surface reflectance. Simply using "Gloss" coats leaves some areas highly reflective while other areas remain absorptive and flat. By contrast, using only multiple coats of "Satin" or "Matte" tends to lighten and de-saturate the entire painting.


    For each spray coat, secure the painting in a vertical position and hold the varnish can vertically to produce even spray coats. Immediately after spraying, drop the painting to the horizontal position to help the varnish lay smoothly. For each successive coat, rotate the painting 90 degrees.



  • Silhouettes are extremely effective in their simplicity, in conveying a mood, and in providing enough information to easily identify the subject. They invite you in and challenge you to fill in details.

  • Varnishing watercolors is not new. "Varnishes were used by the master watercolorists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Users included Thomas Girtin and J.M.W.Turner who used a gum varnish to sometimes deepen the darks. Others used varnish to: make them resemble oil paintings (and command a higher price), to add luster, enrich colors, and acct as a resist." Ref Stephen Quiller

  • Presenting varnished watercolors, without frames, is now preferred by many galleries, collectors, and artists.

  • Casein allowed me to get the silhouettes correct at the start of the painting. I could then do the background with wet-on-wet washes and still retain the sharp outline of the silhouettes.

  • An art board bonded to an MDF panel provides a perfectly flat painting surface that requires no pre-stretching.

  • The Liquitex Matte Medium and MDF panel also serve as an archival sealant for the entire back of the painting.

  • The cold press paper used on the surface of Arches Art Board is not as absorptive (thick) as 140-lb paper. But I like it and it is easier for lifting paint.

  • I haven't tried 140-lb or 300-lb paper in lieu of the art board, but I will in the future.

  • Since doing this painting for Jillian, I did bond finished paintings (done on 140-lb paper) to MDF panels using nearly the same processes. I was very happy with the results. However, with finished paintings it is important to use care not to get the Matte Medium on the face of the painting. Also, I'm fortunate to have a radial arm saw that I used to accurately and smoothly trim the final assembly.


Other Recent Paintings by Bill Hudson




Upcoming Events (for Bill Hudson) 

May 17 & 18  Beverly Hills Art Show.  Stop by and visit at booth #329.

June 21 & 22  La Jolla Festival of the Arts.

July 26 & 27  Malibu Festival of the Arts.


Announcements (submitted by Newsletter Subscribers) 

"The French Squeeze" Water Color Paper Stretcher.



For those of you who are tired of wrinkled water color paper or don't want to mount your paper to a background board, "The French Squeeze" might be what you are looking for.


This device both clamps and stretches your paper.  When you first mount your wet paper on this stretcher, it pulls it flat.  When your paper dries, it is drum tight.  On large washes; when you wet your paper again, you can still adjust the paper to remove new wrinkles.  This stretcher also works well on oil painting canvas.


Half sheet models (15 x 22.5) are $65 plus shipping and there's a new ultra lightweight plein air version now available.


Videos are available by calling 702-400-5164.  Ask for Dan.



46th Watercolor West - International Juried Exhibition

  • Call for entries: ON-LINE ENTRIES ONLY

  • Entry deadline: June 30, 2014

  • Juror: Judy Morris

  • Exhibition dates: October 11 - December 14, 2014

  • City of Brea Art Gallery, Brea, CA.

  • $20,000 in cash and merchandise.

  • Only Transparent Watercolor, $35 for 1-2 entries.

    Exhibition Chair: Angela Chang 

Visit for prospectus and details



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