Following Curiosity: Watercolor Archeology 101 (yes, I just made that course title up)

(Author’s note: this post is the first in a new blog series I’m calling Following Curiosity. My thought is that it will eventually hold a collection of posts all about the creative tangents I find myself taking thanks to my insatiable curiosity about all things art. I hope y’all find wherever this new blog direction takes me both enjoyable and informative!)

A few years ago, my dear friend Toni Davenport (aka Turtle and Bird Creations) stumbled upon a plastic baggie (the gallon kind) full of used watercolor tubes at an airport unclaimed baggage thrift store. Thinking a find of this kind would please me to no end, she bought the collection and surprised me with it, adding to her gift the promise that she and I would have an art-play date soon so we could explore them together. Painting with watercolor was something I was curious about at the time, but my experience with the medium was limited (like, I’d only played around with a Crayola watercolor palette with my son when he was a preschooler…and Sam will be graduating college this June!), so I was super excited to get my hands on some grown up watercolor paints and discover their properties in the company of a friend. It was the tail end of fall 2019, and since the two of us were *crazy* busy with our solopreneur art businesses heading into the holiday season, we agreed that we would come together the following year, probably in early spring when our lives were a little less hectic, to have a proper, carefree art-play date. Well, the spring of 2020 didn’t turn out the way we (or anyone) planned, and that baggie full of crinkled up paint tubes got tucked into one of the many drawers in my studio to be saved for a time when the world became “normal” again.

A collection of obviously old and used watercolor tubes rests on a desk. Some empty bottle caps are full of watercolor paint, and it seems a project is underway.
Half way through Steve’s and my watercolor archeological dig
I got it into my head to take in-process pics VERY carefully
(my hands were covered in paint!). I’m glad my shutterbug
tendencies urged me to do so because without the photos
I could never have kept all the colors straight to label them!

Fast forward to spring 2022, and I’m now obsessed with painting with watercolors, so much so that I’ve recently begun dragging my partner, Steve, into my studio to partake in online watercolor tutorials with me on the weekends. I find them super absorbing (no pun intended) and relaxing, and since Steve’s been looking for new ways to de-stress, it made perfect sense to me to suggest he join me in my watercolor explorations. 

I think it’s fun to explore a new art medium with a buddy, but what’s NOT fun is trying to share a single paint palette between two people, especially when one of those folks is all elbows (that would be Steve, y’all). So, right before Steve and I were settling down to a Sunday afternoon painting session a few weekends ago, it dawned on me: I *don’t* have to fight for my personal space when I paint with Steve—I have all those watercolor tubes Toni gave me waaay back when! Those tubes obviously belonged to an on-the-go artist (they were unclaimed at an airport after all) so the chance that the colors in that baggie were going to be pretty diverse and useful was fairly high! I imagined myself being able to pull together a hodgepodge paint palette for Steve that was comparable if not in quality but in color selection to my Sennelier watercolor pan palette we’d been trying (and failing) to share. 

But, when I pulled the tubes out after a looong search to rediscover that “perfect spot” I put them in years ago, I was incredibly disappointed to find that half of the tubes were rock hard and the other half had caps that were so difficult to open that twisting them in hopes of getting access to soft paint created a mangled mess of metal and pigment. Thoroughly dismayed when Steve entered the studio with our beverages (we do art-play dates properly with fancy beverages and occasionally snacks IF we are not working with toxic art supplies), I told him that *finally* getting to paint with a palette of our very own wasn’t going to be possible as the paint was either locked tight in its tube or oozing out all wonky-like from cracks in its packaging. 

Thankfully, however, one person’s hopeless situation (mine) is another’s challenge accepted (Steve’s), and when he saw the mess I was trying to work with he told me, “I think I’ve got something in my tools that will help!” Steve came back into the studio shortly with a variety of cutting, squeezing, and prying tools and the question “It’s watercolor paint, so it doesn’t matter if it’s rock hard, right? If we can dig it out, we can still paint with it, yes?” 

The answer to that question is essentially yes, so folks, I cleared everything off my desk, and we got into digging for new-to-us old colors that afternoon for HOURS, and rather happily I might add! Each tube was a different challenge to pry open and every color felt like a magical discovery.

A watercolor sketchbook lies open with a lot of color swatches spread across its pages. There is dirty paint water on the table and loads of bottle caps with paint in them spread everywhere
Many hours and ridiculously dirty paint water later, 
Steve and I had dug out a collection of watercolors
neither one of us would ever forget!

It was also quite exciting for both of us to dig into all the different brands of paint within this baggie. I’d heard of Grumbacher Academy watercolors, but I had never had the opportunity to try them. After our watercolor archeology afternoon I now had a lovely assortment of them to explore!

A close up photo of watercolor paint that has been squeezed into bottle caps and then glued to swatches of its color.
I was really surprised at how vibrant and smooth these
ancient watercolors were! None of them were technically
artist’s grade, but most of them had a superior light
fastness rating, which is what I really look for
in my art supplies.

I had seen that Permalba made oil paint somewhere in one of my online deep dives into art supplies, but apparently the company at one time (but not anymore) also made watercolor paint. Thanks to Toni’s thoughtfulness I now have some of this discontinued paint—how cool is that?! 

A closeup of a chaotic watercolor color swatching sketchbook page.
I obviously created this swatching “chart” on the fly as
Steve and I dismantled tubes and excavated paint. It’s wild and
wooly (and note—I even forgot to label one of the shades of
red on the left!), but I absolutely love it!

In between peeling, squeezing, and literally digging paint out of metal tubes, we popped onto Google to do a little research on the names of all the paint makers. It was fascinating to find out that Guitar watercolor paint is made by Teranishi Chemical Industry Co., and that they still make watercolor paint to this day. It seems that folks online are hungrier for their “vintage” sets, though, rather than newly produced paint, probably because the packaging is delightfully retro to our contemporary eyes.

A photo from the internet of a vintage Guitar watercolor set in its packaging.
Y’all, please note the description—this is “High Class”
watercolor paint! I have no idea what that
means, but it sure sounds fancy!

I found the same “discontinued” story was true for Speedball watercolors as well. The company makes all sorts of art supplies, including a variety of watercolor palettes in which one puts paint, but not watercolor paint itself. This fact disappointed me as their colors were some of my favorites in this lost-and-found palette collection.

A color swatching sketchbook page lies open with many bright color swatches that are labelled in detail.
I was really excited that many of the colors in the baggie Toni
gave me were hues I did not have anywhere in my 
watercolor collection.

There were 37 crunchy old tubes total in the baggie Toni gave me, so I was incredibly glad that Steve and I have a strange habit of saving all the metal bottle caps off of the sparkling water and beer we imbibe! Bottle caps make great watercolor paint holders, especially after you rough them up a bit on the inside with a scrap of sandpaper (it gives the paint something to stick onto as it dries). If the paint was already completely deprived of moisture, I dropped in a generous amount of fresh water into the bottle cap prior to and after depositing the paint so it would settle inside the cap nicely.

A closeup photo of crusty watercolor paint in bottle caps glued to color swatches. Shades of yellow are prominent.
The yellows were the most difficult of the colors to excavate
and yielded the least amount of paint. BUT,
I was determined to collect as much of the yellows
 as possible as that is the color family
my watercolor collection is most lacking.

I’m the type of frugal artist that will only ever have one brand of any particular color (for example: I’m currently exploring a small Sennelier’s pan watercolor set and a small collection of Daniel Smith watercolor tubes in colors that the Sennelier set didn’t have, so I won’t be buying a new Payne’s grey or quinacridone rose until those babies are thoroughly used up), so I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I’m over the moon to now have yellow ochre in THREE different brands and FOUR different brands’ burnt siennas! It’s crazy interesting to see how completely different and yet obviously related the same hues are, and of course it is making me re-think my whole “frugal artists finish ALL their paint before they try new brands” rule.

A full shot of a completed watercolor swatching chart lying on an art table.
If you ever stumble upon a collection of “vintage” watercolor paint, my 
suggestion to you is to snap it up! I may not make sellable art with these paints
(I like to make all of my finished, sellable pieces with
artist grade supplies), but I’m going to have a blast painting with
family and friends and creating studies using these for sure!!

  

Steve and I actually never got around to doing any real painting the day of our watercolor archeology dig, but I can’t remember the two of us having more fun on a Sunday afternoon! It was such a delightful art adventure diving into this mysterious bag of ancient watercolors, we could almost hear John Williams’ Indiana Jones soundtrack playing while we explored Toni’s just-because gift (“almost” because we were streaming it on Spotify two rooms away from my studio for ambience)! When next we two paint together we will *definitely* not be sharing a single color palette collection. What we will be sharing, however, is the nerdy pride of having “discovered” all this colorful awesomeness together and the hearty gratitude that my friends do indeed know exactly what will make me ridiculously happy.

Comments

  1. That day was quite a lot of fun, and this perfectly encapsulates it! My tools, for the curious, were wirecutters to get through the tubes, pliers to squeeze, and some kinves and picks to pull out dried paint.

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    1. Ha! Thank you for filling in those details, love! 😘

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  2. Totally delightful use of bottle caps and now I really want to see your 'rainbow' of siennas! ❤️
    Rachel

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    1. I will have to create a piece all in the earth tones from this vintage adventure! Thank you for the fabulous idea!! Glad you enjoyed the post:)

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