Syn Studio : Class 10 : The Great Yupo Experiment


We’ve just completed the 10th (and final) week of my watercolor course at Syn Studio. (For this year anyway. We’re taking registrations now for the next session in January 2014).

I wanted to end this season with a bang. Something challenging, but also a lot of fun.

Immediately I thought about Yupo.

What could possibly be more fun than sending students on the wild and crazy ride this material offers?

Yupo is a synthetic alternative to paper, made out of polystyrene. It is glass smooth, bright white, and almost entirely non-absorbent.  It’s such a bizarre experience for a watercolorist, you either toss your hands up in frustration, or embrace the strangeness and laugh.

I think I convinced people to have a laugh at their own expense, to go with the flow, quite literally. I do hope some of them will come back to this material someday. I think it has tremendous potential. I’ve only just begun experimenting with Yupo. To be honest, including two three hour classes this week I have about 7 hours total time with it.

If I might make a few observations from my experiments, however early it might be in the research:


You can see the the extent of the wet-in-wet activity in these 5 minute ‘underpaintings’.

Water and suspended pigments float on the non-porus surface. Wet-in-wet effects travel much further than on paper. Washes will float around for up to a half hour. The slightest touch between two wet shapes is going to make things bloom. Forms you thought you painted clearly can gradually dissolve into new patterns.


You can drop a puddle of liquid, and just keep pulling it out with water or new pigment. Growing a shape organically. “Charging in’ – touching with rich pigment – is highly effective here. (Seen here in the hair. The model was wearing flowers). If anyone is familiar with Charles Reid’s manner of shape welding, they’ll find this very natural I think. If exaggerated.


Let’s move onto some longer poses.


I have this trick for doing 20 min figure poses in watercolor. We do three sets of 10 minutes. Take a break, then do the same poses again, starting from the top. This gives us a 20 min pose, with time to dry inserted between sets. With the Yupo, this is only partially successful. Even when completely dry, a second pass has to be laid on carefully, or it will lift what is below. The faces in these following were blended with the mottled egg of the underpainted head. Small shapes blended into the base wash, and small lights lifted out. Good examples of working Larger-to-Smaller.


To lift a clean white, you have to touch the dry skin of paint twice. Once to dampen, and once to lift. You can see a nice clean lift on the back of this hand. That light shape was extracted out of the hand whereas the light below the breast was reserved. Can’t really tell the difference eh? Only that the natural reserved edge has a thin linear border, whereas the lift is softer edged. Washes stated in one pass have dark ‘tidal lines’ outlining the edge of a wet shape. There are linear deposits of pigment in parallel bands, much like flotsam deposited on a beach by wave action. It can also look a bit like solarized photography.


Often lifting out will happen unintentionally. It can be a bit frustrating at first. But after a few tries, you may come to enjoy how hair trigger it is. The lights on the chest and thigh in the left hand figure were lifted out with a clean, damp brush. The profile on the right was cut out of an oval blob.

Some students made the most of their Yupo supply by washing a sheet under the tap, completely removing a sketch, then starting fresh on the same page.


It is possible to come in with a wet wash and both erase and paint at the same time. I made this figure on top of a previous standing pose involving a swatch of blue silk. The second figure completely absorbs the first. Some areas obliterating, some areas blending, depending on the relative dampness. The first figure is gone, but the blue silk is part of the final effect.


After 10 minutes the thinnest washes might be dry, while the watery areas are still completely fluid. As the pigments begin to skin over you can really see the benefit of lifting out. You can redraw outside contours with a damp brush, cutting in with white.

More dramatically, the entire left side contour of this figure was erased out of a previous reclining pose using a damp paper towel.  I just turned the previous recline 90 degrees, and used it as an underpainting. You can see some parallel ‘rake’ marks to the left of her flank caused by the texture of the paper towel. Its a similar feeling to wiping out oil with turps or vine charcoal with a kneaded eraser.

Ok, that’s probably enough said about all this fun and games. Lots to think about here. The TLDR is: Yupo is a lot of fun. If you ever want to loosen up your work, it’s a sure fire cure.

I’ll report some more on this later. If people are interested in further Yupo demonstrations, let me know.

9 thoughts on “Syn Studio : Class 10 : The Great Yupo Experiment

  1. Yes, we worked hard in Marc’s classes but we appreciated his dedication to us. He was on time, last one to leave, always an answer to our many problems, never lost his cool. Never took a smoke or coffee break. On trip advisor he would rate 5 stars and a few kisses. Many thanks.

  2. This is awesome! I’ve got a stack of untouched Yupo paper. I’m definitely going to give this a go. I’d love to see more demonstrations from you on Yupo.

    1. Well, the paper is very stable and permanent, but yes it’s the water solubility that’s the problem eh? Well – like a pastel, you might have to frame it under glass. I might try a varnish? But I don’t have any on hand to test. Will have to research that. Good question!

  3. Okay, as a photographer, who can barely draw and who hated having to paint in his 2D classes, this process sounds absolutely maddening to me. Then again, I’ve always been into chaos in my process, so who knows, I might just love it (but most likely I would end up throwing something).

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