For her 18th birthday this year, my daughter received a Koh-i-noor watercolour set of a very clever design. It has four round discs, each with six colours and a depression in the middle for mixing. The discs screw together, one on top of the other, so that the whole set is about the size of a can of tuna when closed.
The gift was a surprise from her Dad, who got it in London on the advice of an artist friend. When she opened it I think I was even more thrilled than she was, because it was just like a paint set I had at her age! Mine was green rather than black, but otherwise it was exactly the same. I loved that set and used it for years, and until now I had never seen another one like it.
In senior school I loved working with watercolours, and the art teacher was happy to let me get on with painting what I wanted to with my own stackable watercolour set. I had a special Chinese paintbrush too, dark red with soft bristles that came to a perfect point.
These Chinese brushes are designed for calligraphy, and the bristles are made from weasel tails or goat hair. The top brush in this photo has soft goat hair, and the bottom one is a mixture of goat and the coarser weasel hair. I think my brush was a mixture too, though it was a long time ago and the brush is long lost. When I was 17 I used a photograph from the National Geographic magazine to paint this Inuit child:
The rich colours of my special paint set made it possible to get those warm skin tones and deep black of the shadows. My Chinese brush with its fine point allowed me to capture the loose hair on the child’s forehead.
There is nothing like working with real paint on real paper. But more and more these days, artists are turning to computers to produce very similar results that can be shared electronically and reproduced countless times. Many children’s books that were once illustrated the “old fashioned” way with pen and ink or other traditional media are now being brought to life digitally instead.
A good example of this trend is the work of my friend and illustrator Margaret Chamberlain. She has been illustrating children’s books for over 20 years, and when she first illustrated one of my books (Pink! in 2008) it was a departure for her into a new technique and simpler style. Her earlier books had always been done with richly detailed ink and watercolour artwork. An excellent example of this is The Enchanted Flute by Angela McAllister:
The central character of this story is an impossibly demanding monarch, Queen Pernickity, who wants only the very best of everything. You can see from the illustration above that Margaret has created texture and lots of detail with a fine ink outline and rich colour using watercolours.
The Enchanted Flute has recently been released as an iBook, and on her website Download Children’s Books you can watch a short video demonstration of Margaret drawing Queen Pernickity using a computer and a programme called ArtRage. As she points out, it takes much less time working on computer, and it’s easy to correct mistakes. The finished effect is very similar to real paint on paper, and it can be sent directly to publishers and printers to produce a finished book.
So is there any future for real paint and paper?
Another recent invention, the WaterColorBot, has reversed this relationship between art and computers. Instead of computer art replacing paint and paper, this machine translates art drawn on a computer into “real” art through a mechanised process similar to an Etch-a-Sketch:
The paintbrush moves around an x and y axis (two metal rods) powered by pulleys and wire cables. In this way a drawing made on a computer can be reproduced multiple times, and the WaterColorBot becomes a type of printer. The idea began with a 12-year-old girl called Sylvia who wanted to make a robot for a science fair. She has her own website, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, where she demonstrates fun creative projects. When she took her idea of a painting robot to the people at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories they were happy to help out!
My daughter is still keen to experiment with real ink and watercolours, and has done a few sketches with her new paint set:
Even though technology seems to have made real paint and paper somewhat obsolete, I’m quite tempted to buy myself a little Koh-i-noor paint set too…