How I Float Color with Acrylic Paint:

Note: I feel the use of a Masterson’s Sta-Wet Palette is essential to the success of my floating technique.

When I teach classes, I explain shading as the absence of light and highlighting as the presence of light - not the addition of paint. I feel this is an important fact to keep in mind as you are painting. No matter what subject matter is that I am painting, I use this method.

If floated color is not sheer, it overpowers the painting and looks like a line of added color instead of a soft shadow. Always use transparent color for shading. You should be able to see through all your shading to what has been painted underneath and thin layers of paint will be transparent allowing that to happen. You can always add another layer of color if it is sheer, but once you get a heavy layer of color on and it dries, it is very hard, if not impossible, to correct. I like to call this method “dirty water floating” since that is pretty much the consistency of the paint when you are using it for shading. That leads to the question of how do you know whether or not a color is transparent? Sometimes it says on the label but not always, so to find out for yourself, do the following test. Take a piece of newspaper from the classified section - you know, where all the tiny print is for the ads – then thin the color you want to test way down with water until it is sheer. Now brush the thinned color across the printing on the newspaper. If the background is tinted the color of the paint and the printing is still black that color is sheer and will be great for shading purposes. However, if the background is tinted but the printing turns grayish looking, you will know that the color contains white and will always give you chalky looking floats!

Dampen the brush (I most always use at least a ½” or larger angle shader) but do not blot your shader brush on a paper towel. Instead, press the excess water out on the side of your water container. The extra moisture left in the brush will help to give you a nice sheer float. Dip just the long corner into the paint and then walk the brush back and forth on both sides in the same place on the wet palette until color is sheer and is on only the top half of the bristles. What you see on the palette is what you will see when you paint on your surface. There should be no visible line of paint, just a gradual fading of color. I promise you, if you have a line on your palette you will have a line on your painting when you add the shading so please take a little more time to work the paint to a sheer consistency. You can go back to that area of paint on your palette many times before having to thin more paint.

Here is an example of what I mean:

I love to paint peppermint candies and like to shade with a dark navy blue. If that color is not sheer, it will take over the peppermint painting! On peppermint, the white is a really clear white and that usually has a blue tinge to it when in shadow. You don’t want to “see” navy blue paint, you just want to “see” a shadow. So when you are adding the navy blue shading on the candy cane images you are painting the area that is not receiving much light and it would really be clear white that has a blue tinge to it. Since the color is sheer, I can also pull it over the red or green areas and have the floated color just darken the colors instead of cover them.

I also pull the paint along with short strokes instead of one long stroke. I find it is easier to apply that way and keeps you from outlining an area. I like to start the chisel edge of the brush on the edge of the design, slide down, pull across an area, and then slide off on the chisel edge. Basically a “C” stroke. Pull across any “V” shapes in the design instead of going down into the “V” and then back up out of the “V” shape.

I hope this is of some help, especially for those that have a problem with floating color. Try it, you just may be surprised at how easy it really is to float soft color!

If you have any questions, please email me