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Getting Warm and Cozy with Alcohol
Beer blanket, vodka veil, moonshine mantle, shroud of spirits … many of us are familiar with the sayings that describe the feeling of “warmth” alcohol can provide. But did you know it can also keep your watercolor paints cozy, too? Yes, outdoor artists get ready to cheers because adding alcohol to your paints can actually keep them from freezing in very cold temperatures.
There are of course limits when it comes to consumption, and paints are no exception. We asked expert Bradley Lance Moore to weigh in on this boozy topic, and to find out what effects, if any, adding spirits to your paints may have on your paints and your surfaces.
Don’t stop soaking up the goodness once you have all the deets from Bradley. There are plenty more fun and unexpected tips found in the pages of our printed publications and magazines and many of them are on sale now for just $1.99. Be sure to grab a stack right now!
Alcohol as an Antifreeze
Alcohol is an effective antifreeze for watercolor. And, if you use it judiciously, your work should remain archival. Both isopropanol and ethanol rubbing alcohol may be used, although there are differences to consider.
Pure isopropanol freezes at 127 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, whereas ethanol freezes at 173 degrees below zero — so a smaller amount of the latter could be used. Isopropanol doesn’t mix as readily with water, which can create interesting textural effects.
Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Artists who add ethanol-based spirits should use a clear liquid like grain alcohol, vodka or gin. Liquor that’s 64 proof freezes at 10 below zero, and 84-proof liquor freezes at 30 below zero. Artists sometimes add up to 20 percent of 84-proof liquor to their watercolors.
Mixing Watercolor Cocktails
Not all pigments behave alike when in contact with alcohol. Consequently, if a color is composed of two pigments, one of those pigments may bleed into the alcohol while the other may not, resulting in a separation effect. Also, you may notice difficulty in lifting colors with dyes that are more soluble in liquor, which enhances the staining properties of those dyes.
Some watercolorists use alcohol with tube colors but not with pan colors because the alcohol seems to dry out the gum arabic binder in the pans too much. This results in a powdery paint that will not sufficiently bind to a surface.
Alcohol also can have a detrimental effect on natural-hair brushes. While it may not freeze in the brushes, it can strip natural oils from the hairs, causing embrittlement and breakage over time. And, depending on the adhesive used in the ferrule, alcohol can soften the bond, dislodging the hairs.
In addition to lowering the freezing point of watercolors, alcohol can act as a wetting agent and, in humid conditions, as a drier. You may also add up to 10 percent alcohol to your paints as a preservative. Finally, if using alcoholic additives isn’t for you, applying a touch of glycerin and ox gall can also help keep your colors flowing in freezing conditions.
About Bradley Lance Moore
Bradley Lance Moore has both a Master of Science in Painting Conservation and a Master of Fine Arts in Painting. He teaches art history and studio art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, and exhibits his artwork internationally. You can learn more about Moore and his art by visiting his website.
A version of this article first appeared in a past issue of Artists Magazine. Subscribe here.