TEXTURING WITH SALT
Salt technique - what is it, and how does it work?
When salt is added to a wet wash of paint, the salt will absorb the pigment and pull it across the paper creating unique, abstract patterns.
Once the salt is added, it is best to leave your work undisturbed until the pigment has completely dried. There will still be some remaining bits of salt that have dried onto the paper, but they should brush off easily.
This salt technique will often be used to create the impression of foliage, snow, stars, or even fur. For an example, I used salt in the background of my "Snowy Owl" painting to create the illusion of snowflakes. This effect, combined with the cool blue tones, helped me achieve a chilly atmosphere.
Truly, the options for this technique are as endless as your imagination.
How do I soften the effect of the salt pattern?
Salt will generally create a bold pattern once it has fully dried and worked it's magic on the paper. This striking texture can be highly desirable in some instances, while it can also be distracting in others. To soften the effect, you can glaze over the salt texture with either clean water or pigment.
Will different salt create different textures?
All salts are not created equal. The different physical properties of the various types of salt crystals will each produce slightly different but relatively unique effects. As a general rule, the coarser the salt you use, the bigger your pattern will be. There are no right or wrong salts to use when expressing texture in watercolor. The preference is entirely up to your own personal style and leanings. So have fun experimenting with different salt types available to you!
Below, I've illustrated some of the most well known and easily obtained salts for texture reference:
Salt distribution - How do I apply the salt to my watercolor wet wash?
When applying salt to a wash of color, timing will determine the success. If you apply the salt crystals while the watercolor is too wet, the salt will just dissolve and not create the desired effect. If the paper is too dry, then the salt will stick to your paper and create an almost sandpaper like texture. To achieve the best results, the surface should be damp.
Rock salt is unique in its application to the paper, and will need to first be dipped into wet paint or water and applied to your wet watercolor wash with tweezers.
Timing - How wet should the watercolor wet wash be when I add the salt?
The results of adding sea salt to a wash that was "too dry" will vary. The salt crystals glue themselves to the paper and require you to nearly chisel themselves off rather than creating the desired "starburst" effect. While this is not usually a desired effect, it could be depending on what you are trying to achieve.
If this occurs and is an undesired effect, you can often chisel off the salt pieces prior to applying some water to the area to scumble off the remaining salt residue. Using a paper towel, blot the paper to absorb the water and subsequently allow the painting to completely dry before attempting the technique again.
Lastly, you can store the salt in a shaker or in a salt box. I prefer to have more control over salt distribution by pinching it between my fingers so the salt box works better for me than a shaker.
You'll need to consider the humidity in your studio. If salt is compacting and damp, the salt wash will fight you. try pre-drying your salt in an oven or microwave before using.
Often I "babysit" my salt wash. Since I do not generally stretch my watercolor paper beforehand, the issue of warping will mess with your salt wash. In the image on the left, you can see a deeper pool of pigment behind the white skin near the eye. As the color wash dries, I will either need to add more salt to this area or use my paintbrush to dab out the excess water.