Watercolor on Vellum: a Workshop with Carol Woodin

Over the weekend I attended a two-day workshop by Carol Woodin. We worked in watercolor on vellum, an entirely new surface to me (although a very old surface in art history).

Carol started off the workshop with an introduction to vellum. She brought samples and a resource list so now we all have some idea what to look for and where to find vellum if we choose to work on it again.

Vellum is processed calfskin, although parchments made of other animal skins, including deer, goat and sheep are available. They all have different characteristics to consider when selecting one for a project. For this weekend workshop Carol had personally selected some classic calfskin. It was relatively pale in color and finished on one side.

Besides having natural differences from piece to piece, vellum has a very smooth surface compared to even hot press watercolor paper. On one hand, that means that you need far less water and paint on the brush to leave a mark, while on the other hand, it’s very easy to lift paint with too much water. That’s great if you want to lift paint (to create a light spot or to correct an error), but it requires very careful control if you don’t want to disturb the layers already in place.

We started off sketching lovely apples gathered from local trees by volunteers in the group, then got down to business. Carol gave us each a scrap of vellum to practice on and a simple exercise designed to help us start understanding how paint and vellum work together. She had us start by putting down a wet wash of color to see how that worked, then had us try lifting heavily applied pigment before moving on to building a solid layer with delicate strokes and very watered-down paint. The darker green squares on my sample were each built up with many, many layers.

After practicing on vellum scraps we all moved on to our apples and worked on them for the rest of the workshop. Carol gave additional demonstrations on building color along the way. Those with more drybrush watercolor experience seemed to transition to the vellum technique more easily than those accustomed to very wet washes, but by the end of the workshop everyone had at least a great start on a painting.

Why choose vellum? Many enjoy the surface variation present in vellum. Each piece is entirely unique and can include a variety of spotting and veining. It has warm color ranging from a pale off-white to a rich honey. Goat parchment has a fascinating pebbled texture, and deer parchment can have scars from the animal’s life in the wild. I enjoyed working with vellum because I love being able to lift color easily. For someone who has a tendency to paint over highlights that lifting ability is great! I also love vellum’s translucent quality. It bring something to the painting that’s difficult for me to describe. There’s a sort of luminous quality about it.

Vellum has two big downsides: it’s an animal product (a deal-breaker for many) and it’s expensive, at least in comparison to watercolor paper. My understanding is that it’s a by-product of the food industry. Although calves aren’t being raised and slaughtered solely for vellum, there’s an ethical issue there to consider. While a standard  22″ x 30″ sheet of 140 lb. Arches hot press watercolor paper runs about six dollars, a square foot of vellum can easily cost you something in the range of $25 to $45 a square foot.

Miscellaneous vellum notes:

  • Because the material is translucent it’s a good idea to work with it on some kind of white backing.
  • Watercolor paints made with honey as a binder don’t work as well on vellum as gum arabic bound paints. M. Graham and Sennelier are two brands that can be problematic.
  • Before beginning to paint on vellum you need to remove surface oils. These oils aren’t just from your hands but can come from within the vellum itself. Rub the vellum surface thoroughly with a dry cleaning pad or white eraser. If you find that your paint is beading up, let it dry, rub the area with an eraser and continue painting. The beading should stop after you’ve rubbed the area well.
  • Kolinsky sable brushes are glorious on vellum. The soft bristles with a good, sharp point glide beautifully over the surface without scrubbing up under layers. For the techniques taught at this workshop I used mainly my 0 and 1 sable rounds, picking up my 2 occasionally. Because of the dry nature of the technique a full-bellied brush wasn’t an advantage.

A couple of places to purchase vellum:

Drawing the apple. E. R. Smith, Rowntreestudio.com

The sketch.

Watercolor exercise on vellum. E. R. Smith, rowntreestudio.com.

The practice sheet.


The first layer of paint. E. R. Smith, rowntreestudio.com

The first layer of paint.

The progress so far: apple in watercolor on vellum. E. R. Smith, rowntreestudio.com

The progress so far.

Dry cleaning pad. E. R. Smith, rowntreestudio.com.

For cleaning oils off vellum.



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1 Comment

  1. Joyce Backus

    How very interesting. Although I am not an artist, I really enjoyed learning about vellum and the manner in which it effects the paint. Your apple is just beautiful. You are so talented. Thank you for sharing.