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Featured Artist: Michael Ireland

Working on Aquabord with Watercolor

Connections by Michael Irelend

After painting for over thirty years, I have never come across a product that significantly changed my approach toward the process of watercolor more than Ampersand’s Aquabord. Don’t get me wrong. Give me a 300# sheet of cold press and I’m about as happy as can be. I’ve used 100% rag acid-free paper almost exclusively ever since I began painting. But I admit, when I first experienced Aquabord, the first wash of color made me realize this surface was going to be different. The surface itself, in my opinion, resembles a bit like that of a hot pressed surface in the way it holds a decisive stroke and I’m always careful not to overwork it. It also holds its whites and under-paintings very well.

Much, if not all of my process involves glazing washes of transparent and semi-transparent colors, each consisting of large sweeping strokes that measure as large as three feet wide, or mini-glazes as small as two inches. One body of work that developed out of working on Aquabord is the “Prairiescapes” series of which “Connections” is one. Some of the pieces in this series are fairly large, but I also quite often use the smaller, cradled boards and group them together into a triptych or large grid format.

Before I start to paint, my first step is to decide on the finish for the plywood cradle itself. Right off the bat, there are a couple of nice options. It can be kept natural.

Lifting technique

It can be painted similar to that of a canvas gallery wrap, or it can be treated post-painting any way you choose. If you choose to keep it natural, take a two inch strip of painter’s tape and mask off the entire side of the cradle. I usually go around once starting at the bottom of the cradle and use another strip to go around the top edge. I find it’s very important to burnish the tape down to the 1/8˝ side of the Aquabord because water can find its way anywhere, especially if using a substantial wet in wet wash.

The clay surface itself really soaks up a lot of water. My first pass is invariably pure clean H20 using the same brush that I will use for my first wash of color. I also keep a misting spray bottle close at hand if I want to keep the surface somewhat damp. With the first pass of water still fresh, I immediately lay down my first wash of color. This can sometimes be a single color wash for an undertone of mood or a wet in wet, color in color wash that establishes an overall palette. With almost any size painting I work on, I begin with my largest brush and move down in size per subsequent wash.

The Aquabord dries rather quickly, but I also use a hair dryer to not only dry, but also to “harden” the washes making the next pass less fragile. With fresh water and a clean brush, I begin laying in basic shape, form and value and defining the negative areas. This is not a bad time to begin “lifting” any color or shape that may end up in part of the background of the painting. I like to take a nice crisp edged brush that quickly absorbs the water and use it to “pull some color” out as a lift technique.

Allow the brush to absorb water

I continue this technique using a smaller brush each time and add in my deep values and details. All of this is done in a very traditional watercolor technique and process. However, this is where Aquabord changes your thinking. At least it did mine. I found that the “lifting” of color was such a simple process that, for the first time, I felt I actually had a tube of white paint in my palette.

Its like having a tube of white in your palette!

Now, that may sound ridiculous to most people, but if you have painted almost exclusively in watercolor your whole life, you would realize it was astonishing! While my work is still very traditional in creating form through negative shapes and washes, this lifting feature adds a different dimension while still staying within the process and practice of watercolor. The “lifting” process is close to my final step in a painting since I use it to establish stronger value combinations and to pull together the final design of the piece.

Once each painting is finished, I apply up to seven coats of Golden UVLS polymer varnish to seal and protect the watercolor. Then, I take off the painter’s tape so I can sand and varnish the cradle.  Done, ready to show my watercolors without glass!


Michael Ireland

Materials list

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