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If you have ever tried to paint with watercolors, you know how difficult it can be to estimate amounts of water accurately. Some beginners may use too much water and lose control of their painting or paint overly pale colors. Other beginners are inclined to use rather dry, stiff color in their work creating uneven, streaky, or possibly even muddy passages. How wet is too wet?
While many people feel watercolor is difficult and uncontrollable, once you understand how using the right amount of water can give you control, you’ll begin to have more fun painting.
A basic (and unbreakable ) rule of watercolor is that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area, whether you are placing paint next to other paint on the watercolor paper or touching a wet or paint-filled brush to paint already on the paper.
Further, there are different degrees of wetness, and these differences affect the success of the techniques a painter uses. Whether a technique works or not will depend on your ability to observe and control the amount of wetness involved.
The secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush.
When you want controlled, clearly defined brushstrokes and a hard edge, paint on a dry paper (wet-on-dry). On dry paper, paint will only go where you put it. Keep in mind that after you have put paint down, you have created a wet area into which you can charge other colors or paint wet-in-wet. (See one of my related blogs, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper”, published June 4, 2019).
It can be difficult to paint large, complicated areas wet-on-dry because some sections of paint may dry too much before you can finish painting the area. This can create problems such as ‘cauliflowers’, ‘blossoms’, or ‘backwashes’ as you place wetter paint next to a less wet (damp, starting to dry) wash. (Remember that wetter ALWAYS flows into less wet!) Try to paint leaving a ‘bead’ of wet paint on the edge of your painted area (i.e. keep your paint edge wet) while you pause to reload your brush with color, to avoid having a drying edge of paint. If you have trouble maintaining a ‘bead’, you might want to pre-wet the area to be painted.
Make sure you mix a large enough puddle of paint so that you don’t need to skimp on paint or run out of mixed color partway through a wash. Also use a large enough brush to get paint down quickly, before it starts to dry and creates unwanted brush marks or ‘cauliflowers’.
One important point to remember is that watercolor fades as it dries and color that looks just right when it’s wet, can often look weak and unconvincing when dry. Try to mix your colors darker than you think you need. Getting the color right the first time looks fresher (and often less muddy) than trying to adjust color with a second layer over the first. If possible, try to avoid unnecessary over-painting.
THE PAINT ITSELF.
Only experimentation will tell you what your paints will do, which is why you hear so much about the need to practice painting and to get to know the colors on your own palette. Paint behaviors depend on the type of pigment used in manufacture (organic, mineral, chemical, dye), how finely the pigment is ground (how it is milled), and also whether or not paint contains fillers (as many student grade paints do). Different brands may use different ingredients in different proportions. Generally, experts say that the more transparent a pigment, the better its flow on a wet surface.
PAPER AND TIMING.
The wetness of the watercolor paper itself also is a factor in how paint behaves. When water is first applied to paper it can be described as FLOODED with a sheet of water. After a short time, a WET sheet of paper becomes evident, as water starts to soak into the paper. On wet paper, you see a shine but the texture of the paper can be observed. As time goes on, water continues to soak into and evaporate from the paper. On DAMP paper the shine becomes dull and the watercolor paper is ready for the artist to put paint to paper. Here is where TIMING becomes so important! If the shine disappears from the MOIST paper, it can be a problematic time to paint. The paper may not be wet enough for paint to move smoothly or may be drying unevenly, which can create unexpected streaks or bleeds. (Note that the time it takes for these processes to occur can vary quite a bit depending on weather conditions, such as humidity, and even the type of watercolor paper in use.)
Similarly, through practice, you should learn how to control the amount of water on your brush. Small brushes don’t hold a lot of water or paint, especially synthetic brushes, so it is difficult to overload them. But they also cover a limited area when painting, making it very unlikely that you will be able to paint a smooth wash with them. Large brushes will quickly cover the paper and keep your painting looking spontaneous, however, they can sometimes hold more water and paint than you want. “How much water should I use?” Not too much.
A SOPPING brush, which goes directly from the water container to the paper, is only okay when you are pre-wetting your paper! You will probably NOT want to paint with a dripping, sopping brush because too much paint will flow onto your paper and you will have little control. Instead, a WET brush is wiped once or twice on the edge of the water container or tapped lightly on a paper towel to make it more manageable, and can be dipped into the paint and used for painting. Before applying the paint, check your brush again to see if it is dripping with paint, and, if so, gently squeeze a small amount off on the edge of the palette or on a paper towel, as before. A DAMP brush is wiped on the edge of the water container and excess moisture is squeezed or blotted away. A damp brush can still moisten your paper and would be ideal for ‘softening an edge’. When softening a just painted edge, the painted edge should still be wet AND the brush MUST be less wet than the painted area. (See my related blog “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, dated October 23, 2018.) Finally, a MOIST brush has only enough moisture to hold the brush in shape and would be perfect to use for lifting color.
While nothing is simple in learning to paint, attention to detail and practice WILL lead to your success. Everyone can learn how to paint. Keep in mind the basic rule of hydrodynamics in watercolor – that the wettest area of paint (or water) ALWAYS flows into a less wet (damp) area. And also try to remember, the secrets to controlling the application of your watercolor paint are 1.) TIMING, and 2.) LEARNING TO JUDGE THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF WETNESS for the job you want to do. The moisture comes from several sources, including the mixed puddles of paint, the degree of dampness of the watercolor paper, and the amount of water/paint in the brush. Enjoy!