HOW WET IS TOO WET? THE SECRETS TO CONTROLLING WATER AND PAINT.

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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.

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BASIC RULE.

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.

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THE SECRETS.

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.

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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.

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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, 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.)

 

THE BRUSH.

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.

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TO SUMMARIZE.

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!

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Charge Ahead And Mingle: Blending Color on Watercolor Paper

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Most students of watercolor painting have heard the term wet-in-wet. It simply means painting color on a moistened (or prewet) paper. Wet-in-wet painting often involves painting with more than one color. The dampness on the paper allows pigments to relax and produce softly blended edges where the colors meet. The degree of wetness of the paper is important to the movement of the pigment.

There are numerous variations of wet-in-wet color blending in watercolor painting that you can use to create interesting textural and mixing effects. One of the most common ways to paint wet-in-wet involves dropping color onto wet paper and letting it flow and mingle freely on the wet surface, as when painting a sky. The aim is NOT to push color around on the paper after it is applied, but to allow the color to move and soften on its own, thus preserving spontaneity and freshness.

Further, you could drop water into damp paint to create light spots or streaks. The water drops push aside the paint to form the spots or streaks. Also, you might drop wet color into already applied (but still damp) color. If the paint you drop in is wetter than the first color, similar spots and streaks can be created. If, however, the pigment you add to wet paint is slightly thicker (less runny) than the first layer, the colors will blend slightly and soften smoothly.

Other variations on creating color changes on the watercolor paper are possible. For instance, several artists describe how they ‘mingle’ colors (or ‘put color next to color’). The area in which you do your mingling could be dry, wet, or partially wet; each creates a different effect. Use a spray bottle (with a coarse spray not a fine mist), spatter or dry brush with clean water to create a partially wet surface in preparation to adding paint. If you were to drop in color quickly, then you could add a second color (or more) right alongside (not on top of the first color), one color at a time. Do NOT mix the colors together after they are applied. Try to make sure that some of each of the original color remains visible. It’s okay for a few of your strokes to overlap slightly, as this is where blending occurs. You will have a wet multi-colored wash. Do not go back in to correct colors; leave the wash alone to allow the colors time to meld and soften on their own.

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Wet-in-wet Background.

Most often, mingling or putting color next to color is done on dry paper. Transparent color is more successfully mingled, as opaque pigments can easily create mud. Mix separate, juicy puddles of all the colors you intend to mingle together. Load a brush with the first color and apply to dry paper. Clean your brush, remove excess water from the brush by blotting, and load your brush with the second color. Paint this next to and just touching the edge of the first color. You can add more colors in the same way (before any of the previous colors dry) to create even more interest. Variations in color temperature, from warm to cool, might be quite effective. Just remember to rinse and blot your brush with each color change to keep your colors bright and clean.

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Mingled color in distant tree line.

I recently discovered yet another variation of wet-in-wet color blending on the paper that could be called ‘saving lights or whites with water’ (rather than using masking fluid). Using clean water only in some spots gives very soft edges, whether you are painting backgrounds or preserving highlights on an object. The first step in saving lights (or whites) with water is to carefully wet just the shapes you intend to keep light. When the paper has absorbed some of the wetness, add or mingle a number of colors on the dry paper, working the paint toward the dampened area. You will paint right up to the edge of the prewet areas. Do not add paint to the wet shapes, only to the dry paper. It is possible to further darken some areas if you wish (before the previous colors dry), but make sure to use thicker paint when adding to your damp colors. And remember to clean your brush  between colors (to keep them bright) and remove any extra water on your brush by touching it to a paper towel or rag.

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Saving whites with water in background, behind unfinished vases.

‘Charging’ is described in various ways by different artists. Whether charging is done on wet or dry paper, it describes the action of adding one color to another color on the watercolor paper (not the mixing of colors on the palette). Charging can be done by adding pigment to a wet passage and watching the colors blend on their own. For example, touch a wet shape with a brush loaded with paint (of the same value and thickness) of a different color. Or, paint your first color on dry paper and charge a second color next to the first. These colors soften into each other, because the paints are wet, yet the colors stay more or less where you put them.

Glazing is a slightly different way of varying color on the paper. Color is altered by adding a pale, transparent layer of of color over a dried wash. (Look for a later blog post which will describe the technique of glazing in more detail.)

It doesn’t matter what you call it – whether you paint wet-in-wet, charge, mingle, saving light with water, glaze, or put color next to color – these techniques of blending colors ON the watercolor paper (NOT on the palette) create lively and vibrant colors rather than flat, uninteresting areas which lack interest.

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Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?

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TONAL VALUES (tones) refer to how light or dark something is. Tones have nothing to do with color, although each color does have a tonal value. For an artist, value is seemingly the most important aspect of color. Color and value usually work together to give each picture its impact.

Colors (hues) themselves each have their own tonal value. Yellow, for instance, has a relatively light tonal value, whereas red has a darker tonal value. Some blues appear almost black, having a very dark value.

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The VALUE RANGE of colors refers to the number of values an artist can mix between a color’s darkest value (straight from the tube) and lightest value (When mixed with water in watercolor). Yellow, which has a light value, has a short value range. That is, not as many variations of tone are possible as with some other colors. In contrast, red has a long value range, with many variations of light and dark red possible.

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Value is important in painting because changes in value are used to describe an object’s shape and form, as well as suggesting space and depth, thus creating the illusion of three dimensions on the paper. It is the contrast between light, medium and dark values which creates the illusion of light falling on an object.

Every object has a RELATIVE VALUE; its value is compared to its surroundings. In nature, as light falls on different objects it affects their relative value. A light colored object in deep shadow may appear darker (in color and value) than it actually is. On the other hand, a dark object in bright sunlight may appear lighter (in color and value) than it is in reality. In this way, tone/value describes the relative amount of light an object is receiving. A light value suggests something is lit, while a dark value shows an object in shadow.

As painters, we strive to have a convincing balance of light, dark and mid tones in a painting. But, sometimes our eyes can fool us. We’ve all been deceived by optical illusions. We know that sometimes we shouldn’t believe our eyes.

How, as artists, do we judge these light and dark values as we attempt to accurately capture details in a scene? A GRAY SCALE (or value scale) can help to measure and replicate lights and darks. The absolute value of objects needn’t always be measured and reproduced exactly, but the relative value is extremely important to approximate correctly! By comparing the values in our paintings with values on the gray scale, we can insure consistent value relationships within in our pictures.

The gray scale (or value scale) is most often comprised of five to ten sections of even, gradual gradations of gray, progressing from white (value 1) to black (value 10, in a ten section scale).

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Without color, that is, using just variations of black and white, it is easier to see and focus on value.

Color often distracts the less experienced painter from the importance of value/tone. By using the gray scale, you can determine the values of colors (or colored objects). To use a gray scale, you generally look at your colors while squinting your eyes. Squinting makes the hue less dominant and value more obvious. As the hues of the color diminish, you gain the information you need about value. The highlights and darks are still visible, while ares of similar value unite and non-essential details fade. With practice, discerning the value of each color without being distracted by the color itself becomes easier.

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(Above) Location of some palette colors arranged along a gray scale.

Since value is relative, rather than absolute, we try to think in terms of ‘lighter than’ and ‘darker than’. In a painting, the lightest tone may not be white and the darkest value may not be black. Therefore, use the gray scale (value scale) to determine the strength of one value in relation to another and in relation to the whole.

Another way to evaluate light and dark values is to use a black and white photocopy. Print out a copy of your reference template in black and white, and compare its values to the values in your own painting. You could also photocopy your own painting in black and white to help you judge how well it approximates the desired values. Or use a sheet of red acetate (which sometimes is included in value finder kits such as Don Rankin’s Magic Value and View Finder, available at cheapjoes.com or at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors, 30 Main Street, Ayer, MA, 01432, 978-772-2001). Hold the red plastic over a scene and look through it. The red color will eliminate other colors, leaving visible a range of values.

Jan Kunz explains that the shadow side of objects is a full 40% darker than the sunlit side (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68, Watercolor Basics (1999), p. 30, and Watercolor Techniques (1994), p. 3, and cast shadows are somewhat darker still. Even the shadow side of clouds is 40% darker than the cloud areas in sunlight.

If our gray scale (value scale) has ten sections, we count up or down four values (on a gray scale with 10 sections) to arrive at the 40% difference in desired values. When local color (the actual, true color of an object) is darker, the shadow color will also be darker, yet the 40% difference in value will still be accurate. So, to paint the illusion of sunlight, first determine the value of your subject in sunlight. Kunz suggests counting four values down to get the value of the same object in shadow. Then, simply match the value of your colors to the gray scale and you will have a reasonably accurate illusion of sunlight and shadow. Since values are relative to their surroundings, you can relate all values in your painting to each other in a similar way.

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Dropping In And Lifting Out…

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DROPPING IN paint is introducing another color to a still-wet wash.  The second color will soften into the first color, subtly blending on its own.  This painting technique can create the illusion of shape in a curved object (for example, a tree trunk, flagpole, fencepost, chair leg, or arm) and can also help suggest depth in a painting.

To drop in, put down some color on paper, not too wet.  Then mix a second color, a little darker than the first.  Drop the second color into the wet first wash along one side with a light touch.  Put a little color in at first, adding more (while everything is still wet) only if necessary.

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Many painters almost unconsciously LIFT OUT paint to adjust tones and colors while they are painting.  You can deliberately draw out color from “too dark” areas, when the paint is still wet, by using a slightly damp brush (as you would a sponge) to lift off or soak up pigment.

Be careful, however, if you paint with a staining color, because lifting out paint will be much more difficult (if not impossible).  If you want to lift out paint from a dark area, make sure you use non-staining colors.  Try to lift out paint soon after the paint has dried, because then you won’t need to put in as much effort as you would when the paint has set and dried for several days.

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If you want to lift color from a large area, wet the area, allow the water to settle in to the paper and moisten the pigment, then work the brush over it (tickle the area) to start moving the pigment.  As the pigment softens and becomes moistened, lift out with a slightly damp (not dripping wet) brush.  The brush needs to be drier than the paint, or it cannot absorb and lift out the wet pigment.  If your brush becomes wet and full of paint while you are lifting, you will need to rinse and slightly dry the brush again (and perhaps repeat the process several times).  Tissues and paper towels can also blot up unwanted color.  Use a clean paper towel, for instance, and blot straight up; do not rub.

If you wish to lift paint from a smaller area, moisten just the area you want to lighten.  Only moistened paint will lift.  An erasing shield (or a piece of paper or cardboard or even #810 clear Scotch tape) and a small stiff brush will make it easier to lift along a straight, sharp line or small specific area.

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Drama In the Skies!

In a landscape painting, the sky affects the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the whole painting.  As painters, we strive for an interesting, perhaps a dramatic sky whether or not that is what we see in front of us.  Clear blue skies can appear bland and less than inspiring.  In a painting the artist hopes to design a sky that helps create the most effective mood for the subject.  Ask yourself, “What does this subject need to make it work well?”

If a landscape or seascape is busy, with lots of details or information, a simple sky treatment might be a good choice. 

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On the other hand, a moody, vibrant, or striking sky would complement a composition with a low horizon line, as in a stark, brooding moor or a bold sunset. 

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As another example, a roof in the rain could take on a gleam of silver as the sky reflects off it.

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It is essential to decide what sort of sky is involved in a landscape painting BEFORE starting the painting.  This statement is true even if a sky will not actually be seen in your picture, because the appearance of the light depends entirely on the sky.  A landscape can be creatively transformed by altering the light or weather conditions in a painting.  Light and shadow, color and mood should be consistent throughout your composition, so skies must be part of your initial planning.

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Wilfred Ball, in Weather in Watercolour (1986), describes the “creative transformation” of planning a composition by altering sky and weather details.  “Buildings, walls, gates, fields and mountains tend to be relatively formal features of the landscape, but the effect on them of such variables as the light, seasons and weather is capricious and magical” (p. 9).  And changes in the sky and weather are “merely an extension of the creative process that goes on whenever we paint.  Almost without thinking we strengthen this, weaken that, miss out a tree here, heighten the colour of an autumn tree to focus attention on it.  These devices are all ways of recomposing the subject to increase its impact.  Indeed it is this kind of alteration, that we make to the subject matter as we saw it, that is the creative process in what would otherwise be a straightforward copying procedure.  Using the weather creatively is one of the most effective of all the transformation devices a painter can use” (p. 11).

Thus, you should not be afraid to use a bit of imagination when creating a sky.  Think about the colors you will use in your painting, and have them mixed and ready to go.  Mix up large, juicy puddles of the sky colors you will use.  Mix lots more than you think you will need to insure that you won’t run out or have to skimp while painting!

Have your plan thought out before wetting your paper.  Skies are often painted wet-in-wet, though other techniques (wet on dry, for instance) can also be used.  To begin, wet the sky area with clean water.  As soon as the shine goes from the paper (and when it appears to have a more matte finish), DROP in your colors by floating the pigment across the paper.  Try NOT TO PUSH the colors around, instead letting the colors mix together on their own.  Do not overwork or touch the paint while it is drying.  During drying time, the sky continues to develop ON ITS OWN with a subtle blending of colors.  Timing is all-important.  Don’t paint back into your sky; be assured, and paint with confidence.

To increase the feeling of distance in your sky, lighten the sky toward the horizon.  Colors can be warmer and darker higher in the sky.  Don’t view the sky as separate from the rest of your painting.  Remember: it affects your entire landscape.  You can achieve the needed harmony by echoing the sky colors in the rest of the picture.  For example, include warm sunlight on the side of a building or reflections of a sunset on water or snow.

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What colors should you use?  Sometimes you may want to add yellow highlights to a blue sky.  Have you ever laid down a sky with blue and yellow and had it start to turn green where the two colors met?  The effect has something to do with color bias and color mixing.  Certain blues have a red bias (they contain some red pigment), while others lean toward green, and whichever blue you use will react with other colors according to its bias.  If you are unsure how your colors will interact, try several combinations of blue and yellow on test paper.  Alternatively, lay down your pale yellow wash, and let it dry before adding blue.  This way, you will have less chance of creating green, even though you will also lose some of the soft mingling of color that occurs with the wet-in-wet technique.

To avoid surprising or unpleasant color mixes when combining colors in the sky, try arranging your color sequence like a rainbow.  In a naturally occurring rainbow, the colors appear in a sequence similar to (but not precisely the same as) the following; so from the top of the sky to bottom (horizon), you could use:

*Ultramarine (which has a red bias)

*Cobalt (no real bias)

*Cerulean (yellow-green bias)

*Raw Sienna (red-orange bias)

*Permanent Alizarin Crimson (or Perylene Maroon or Permanent Rose) mixed with  Ultramarine Blue. (Be sure not to use too much red.)

Put your colors in bands in this order, just overlapping the edges so the colors soften.  Keep in mind that you needn’t use every one of the above colors in your sky, but use at least two.  Your choices of colors will affect how each color blends with its neighbor when they touch.  Test your colors and technique on a test sheet before applying paint to your picture.  Make sure you understand the affect of your color choices so you can avoid unpleasant surprises.

A sky affects the tone and mood of the whole painting.  Plan ahead for a dramatic, interesting sky that integrates well with the rest of your picture.  The sky will suggest proper placement for shadows and even some of the colors you should use throughout your painting.  For example, strong Mediterranean sunlight will create harder lines and sharper contrast than a misty morning in the Scottish Highlands.  Don’t be afraid to use your imagination when creating a sky.  Don’t paint back into your sky, don’t fiddle, and don’t be impatient.  Instead, try to apply your colors confidently, with a large brush, and let the colors mix together on their own.

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