Before I show how I used masking fluid on the understory of my melaleuca painting, I need to explain two things to those of you who don’t use watercolours.
Firstly, the delight of watercolour is its transparency. Light is able to travel through the paint and bounce back off the paper. So, if you put down two layers of colour the first will add to the colour of the second. In the photo you can see the colours in the undergrowth, created by about three layers of watercolour washes. My limited understanding of oil and acrylic paints is that the second layer will cover the first. [Handy if you make a mistake!]
Secondly, masking fluid is a rubberised medium that you use to cover areas you want to protect. The highlight in watercolour is usually the white of the paper, so an artist may paint on masking fluid to protect the white paper. I put it on with a nib pen, but you could use an old brush. Once it is dry you can then paint over the area, knowing that it is protected by the masking fluid. It is easily rubbed off, with no damage to the paper and no oily residue..
I don’t use masking to preserve the highlights, although it is really useful for little slivers of light. I use it more to help me build up layers. I first used it when I was doing a lot of bird nests. I wanted to have method that allowed me to get the depth of the nest while still showing the strands of grasses. These photos show a bird nest painting in progress and you can see how I have used masking fluid to create the fine lines of the grasses.
The understory of the melaleucas is a dark, dense jumble of skinny trunks. I wanted to show this, but to also show it as a space that could be moved through. However I also wanted the contrast between the stark white trunks of the front trees and the more muted ones in the undergrowth. Masking fluid was the way to go. It requires a little bit of planning and understanding of tone.
The first wash was the lightest one, but while the paper was damp I added in splodges of other colours, starting to build up the depth of the understory. Once that was dry I used the nib pen to add masking fluid lines for the trunks of the trees that were closer to the edge of the grove, closer to the light.
Then I put on another wash, going right over the masking fluid, know that those areas were protected. The wash was not a smooth, even one, rather I moved the colour around, adding more in some parts, less in others. As with the first one there were dashes of darker and lighter colours.
This is the sneaky, happy part. The second layer has darkened the area a little more. Adding masking fluid over this created trunks that were slightly darker than the ones created with the first wash.
A third wash and more masking fluid and the darkest trunks of all. A final wash over the top. However, the number of washes is really dependent on the depth and effect you are after.
After the last wash the paper looking like this. The yellow lines are the masking fluid.
The masking fluid is very close to the colour of the paper, and this makes it hard to see where you have put it. Fortunately it is shiny!
As you can imagine, it is a rather serendipitous process — I am never quite sure of what the end product will be! It is fun to rub it off to see how the painting turned out. I rub with my [clean] finger. That gives me a good feel for any that might have not come off. This is important because, naturally, bits left will continue to do the job and not take any paint.
Then there is touching up to do. Masking fluid leaves a hard white edge that looks artificial and usually needs softening. This caused by the wet watercolour running up against the hard edge of the masking fluid, leaving a slight line. Also, I had to refine the darks and lights in the undergrowth, making some parts recede further.
The process was a good one, and allowed me to create a complex scene. However I felt that the undergrowth was too dense — too many trunks = too much masking fluid. I used the same process on a second one, this time with a lighter touch in the undergrowth and on the canopy. I am happier with this one, but it will not surprise you to know that I am still playing around with melaleucas, still hoping to create the perfect one!