Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts. Nikki Giovanni, poet, writer.
It is a common misconception that experienced painters don’t struggle or make mistakes. Not true! We all inadvertently make wrong decisions at times when painting and get outcomes we don’t desire or intend. Failing in this way is unavoidable. If recognized early, however, many mistakes can be corrected in watercolor. You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, disguise mistakes, change values by lifting or glazing, reevaluate and change course, or even adjust a composition.
YOU CAN CORRECT MANY MISTAKES.
One of the simplest techniques to correct a mistake involves BLOTTING AND LIFTING wet paint. If while you’re painting you accidentally smudge or paint over an area you intended to keep white, quickly blot up the wet paint with a paper towel or tissue. As long as you have not painted with a staining pigment, the color will lift. (Suggestion: Become aware of which paints on your palette are considered staining. Common staining colors that cannot be easily lifted include Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, some of the Sap Greens, Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue.)
Another technique for altering wet paint is using a THIRSTY BRUSH to remove some color from your painting — e.g., to lighten a wash, create a highlight, or lift out clouds. The painted surface should be damp, with the shine just about to go dull. A ‘thirsty’ brush has been moistened but squeezed nearly dry before the brush is moved over the moist painted surface. After each lifting stroke with a thirsty brush, wipe the brush clean to remove wetness and lifted paint from the brush before continuing to lift.
If your paint has dried, WETTING AND LIFTING can remove areas of dark color. To lift at least some of a staining color, you will need a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing. Use a very wet brush to wet the area where paint will be lifted.
Work in small areas to loosen and lift paint, before moving and moistening a new spot. SCRUB until the water loosens the dried pigment. Quickly blot to absorb the liquid with a paper towel or tissue, removing the loosened pigment along with the water. Do not let the loosened color remain on the scrubbed surface. If the damaged paper fibers reabsorb the color, you will not be able to lift it. Be sure to have a wet enough brush when using this technique – using just a damp brush may rough up the paper and scrub the paint deeper into the paper. A slight variation to the above scrub-and-blot technique would be WIPING OFF COLOR with a paper towel or tissue.
‘Mountain Stream’ watercolor painting, using scrubbing and lifting.
SCRAPING can help you recover a lost highlight or create sparkle. You can scrape with a variety of tools (for different effects), either before your applied paint dries or after. To add texture to tree trunks, for example, scrape wet paint with a palette knife or hard brush handle. Scraping can form dark marks on wet paint as the paint flows into the scrape. Or, on less wet but still damp paint, scrape in lighter marks as you push paint away from the scraping.
‘Red Canoe’ watercolor painting, using scraping and lifting.
‘Waves’ watercolor painting, using scratching and scraping.
Rocks can be highlighted and textured with a knife or palette knife by scraping and pushing damp paint. An X-acto knife can scrape dried paint to reclaim highlights, generate sparkle on water, or repair unsuccessful dry brush work. Keep in mind that scraping can damage paper, so it should be one of the last adjustments made to your painting. (Sandpaper can also remove pigment and bring back the white of the paper, although it also damages the paper.)
Hazel Soan, in The Essence of Watercolour, maintains that errors in “light-toned early washes are NOT a problem. As soon as darker tones are employed the eye is distracted from the pale tones.” Soan goes on to suggest that sometimes you can reclaim your watercolor by disguising or DISTRACTING from a mistake. Add a dark-toned accent, such as some grasses or reeds, near or over the error “to distract the eye away from the problem.”
OPAQUE colors, if not overdone, can be used to cover some painting mistakes or recreate lost highlights. Edges can be redrawn with an opaque color. Titanium White, full strength, can hide a mistake against white paper, while a matching opaque color can reclaim a colored background.
Too many layers of paint will eventually destroy transparency, so consider GLAZING to preserve transparency and improve color harmony. Tame overly bright colors, make shadows interesting, or even enliven dull dark color by glazing with a TRANSPARENT pigment. When glazing, make sure the surface of the paper is thoroughly dry. To calm bright colors, choose a transparent NON-STAINING pigment and apply it quickly (without scrubbing). To rescue dull, dark colors, use transparent STAINING pigments (such as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, or Phthalo Green) for glazing. As Jean Dobie explains in Making Color Sing, “turn an error into an asset!”
‘Apple Blossoms’ watercolor painting, using glazing to tame background and create depth.
MISTAKES HAPPEN. HOW YOU REACT AFFECTS THE OUTCOME.
While no one enjoys or aims to make mistakes, the way you react to an unintended outcome makes a difference. Will you respond with upset, embarrassment, and self-criticism, and feel that you’re a failure as a painter? If so, you will lose objectivity and be unable to learn from your mistakes. Instead, try to remind yourself that mistakes can actually be good things (even though it may not initially feel that way)! Making mistakes is a clear sign you’ve moved beyond your “comfort zone” and are challenging your abilities. In other words, this is exactly where you NEED to be so that you can learn and improve your skills. Remember, to improve your skills, give yourself a challenge.
MISTAKES SHOW US WHAT WE NEED TO LEARN.
If making a mistake upsets you, stop painting and take a break. If you don’t know what the painting needs, you should stop. Avoid an emotional response by giving yourself some distance from your painting so you are able to regain some objectivity. A mistake does NOT mean you’re a failure as a painter or a person. When you regain your calm, you’re ready to REFRAME your thinking about your mistake. The best artists are problem solvers. Remember that mistakes are unavoidable, no big deal, and they present us with clear lessons. Looking at your work with fresh eyes, evaluate what happened and think about how best to correct and learn from this mistake. (Look for an upcoming blog post on how you can critique your own work.) What specifically isn’t working? How can you improve what went wrong? (One or several of the above techniques might be useful.)
Yet another way to look at mistakes is as gifts. What just happened on your paper may not have been what you were planning to have happen, but… it may be something good, if not even better than what you intended. It may be a chance to change the direction of your painting if you let go of a preconceived idea that is not working – it’s okay to be open and change your mind. Perhaps the paint is moving in an interesting way, creating a pleasing effect. Is the ‘mistake’ truly a mistake or instead an opportunity to take the painting in a different, better direction? Letting go and allowing the painting to lead requires trusting in the PROCESS (rather than stubbornly trying to control the paint and force a desired outcome). It’s not easy, yet there are times when you might wish to rethink your initial intention and let the painting begin to ‘paint itself’. Try it! (This option can result in a looser style of painting.)
‘Pitcher and Pears’ watercolor painting, a picture that wanted to ‘paint itself’.
Try not to rush to correct all your painting mistakes. It is sometimes best to evaluate your work near the end of the painting process when you can see how one area affects or supports the other sections of a picture. While many mistakes can be corrected or improved, at times it can be best to start a picture over. Try to learn from any blunder. Identify where and how you can improve your work. If you’re not learning from your mistakes, you’ll tend to repeat them. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as know when you probably should begin anew. Continue to enjoy the process of painting, without trying to force the watercolor to always bend to your will. Part of the beauty of the watercolor medium involves its flowing, unpredictable nature and its ability to create beautiful, transparent blended color. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistake of all.
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