Become A Problem-Solver To Overcome That Awkward Stage!

The awkward, unlovely stage in painting a picture is a difficult time for me. I begin a painting excited and inspired to paint an image or scene that appeals to me. I create a plan of attack having a vision in my mind of what I would like the painting to become.

But the stage between the initial underpaintings and the finalizing of values and details can be difficult for me. At this stage, the picture usually looks uninteresting, incomplete, sometimes confusing. Well, it is! It’s not finished! I know this, yet, it’s sometimes hard not to get discouraged at this point. If I start to judge my work too soon, I may not think I’m going in the right direction. I can start to second-guess my original plan and self-doubt can set in.

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Rationally, I understand that a painting proceeds in a series of many steps – from beginning to end. And I know I should not despair. I realize all artists encounter frustrations and self-doubt. Struggling is part of learning and growing, and being creative. So, I try to accept my feelings, to not worry, and to open myself up to the possibility of continuing to improve my painting, pushing beyond the awkward stage.

Attitude is important here! Don’t give up, I tell myself. Don’t criticize your work. Have faith that the awkward stage will pass, that it is just a problem to be overcome. Trust yourself!

It may be a good time to step away from the picture and get some perspective. You could even take a break and come back to the painting the next day. Don’t get too frustrated before you step away. We are often are own worst critics.

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When you come back, often your work doesn’t look as bad as you remember it. You’re rested, fresh, and may already know what your next step in the painting needs to be. If not, think again about the big picture and what you’re trying to accomplish in the painting.

Taking a cell phone picture can give you more objectivity. Are colors in the painting too bland? Does the picture need more emphasis around the center of interest? A black and white photo (gray scale) can help you decide where to strengthen your contrast and values (lights and darks). Determine where in your picture you want to add (or not add) details and highlights. Turning your picture upside down (or looking at it in a mirror) can make it easier to see if your shapes are accurate. This helps to insure you are not focusing on unimportant details. Squinting your eyes is yet another way to evaluate the quality of values and details in your painting.

After evaluating your work with a positive problem-solving attitude, you will have some ideas about what your painting needs. Continue to follow through with your plan and vision. You can do it!

Remember, as artist Angela Fehr says, “Every painting starts out as a problem… and continues to be a problem, right until it’s finished. Think about it, your first problem is a sheet of white paper.” So, become a problem-solver!

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How Do I Develop A Personal Painting Style?

What is it that makes a painting meaningful and gives it a personal touch or style? Most artists spend a lot of time and effort practicing technical skills and learning technique. They study and practice to improve their competence.

Nevertheless, a well-executed painting, even if technically perfect, can be lifeless and without feeling. What exactly do we mean by style? How can an artist paint with feeling?

CHOOSE SUBJECT MATTER AND INTERPRET IT:

Style is more than the SUBJECT MATTER an artist chooses to paint, although it begins there. Style includes a personal INTERPRETATION of a subject. Each of us will see and describe a scene in a somewhat different way. When we paint, we hope to express our own POINT OF VIEW, our FEELINGS about the scene. By omitting or SIMPLIFYING details that seem unimportant and highlighting other details, you can focus on what is important to you. You might make an effort to limit your reliance on reference material, at least to some extent, to allow for more interpretation. Decide what touches you about a scene, rather than blindly copying (without thinking) all the details of what is before you. Do this, and you will begin to develop your ‘style.’ Tell your own story!

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GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND LET THEM SHOW:

It is not easy to create art that expresses your feelings and personality. You may need to get to know yourself better and begin to identify what truly interests and excites YOU. Instead of copying other artists by painting what they paint in the way they paint it, don’t be afraid to do it your way. What makes you an individual is what will give your painting style. It’s your feeling about a work that helps the viewer to connect, on an emotional level, to your picture. Strive to show an imaginative, original, unusual, perhaps even surprising, viewpoint. Experiment!

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PAINT BOLDLY:

TIMIDITY and FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES are two obstacles to developing your painting style. When you paint with hesitation and uncertainty, you tend to create tight, stiff, overworked images. Strive to loosen your BRUSH STROKES, painting more BOLDLY and with LARGER brushes. Small brushes make it too easy to paint minute details, leaving nothing to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, suggest and omit nonessential details, thus allowing a viewer to become involved in imagining and filling in ambiguous specifics for themselves. One technique to increase viewer connection is the use of LOST AND FOUND EDGES in painting. (For example, vary your edges by using hard edges as well as soft or disappearing edges to create interest in your picture.)

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USE COLOR IN YOUR OWN WAY:

COLOR CHOICES can play an important part in developing your style. The paint pigments on your palette affect the feel and flavor of your paintings. The Zorn palette, for instance, created and used often by Anders Zorn, consists of primarily four colors: yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion, and titanium white. Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, tended to prefer other color combinations, as did Johannes Vermeer and Claude Monet.

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CAREFULLY OBSERVE AND EMPHASIZE SUBTLETIES:

Beyond the colors on your palette, style also depends on how you ’SEE’ what you choose to paint AND how you might choose to EXAGGERATE subtler colors. (For more information on ‘seeing’, check out my blog post entitled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.) Painting with style thus involves looking carefully and analytically at a subject, and taking the time to observe. Without careful looking, your paint colors can tend to be flat, conventional, tired, and uninteresting. We have all seen beginners who paint trees or grass an unvaried, unnatural green. Strive instead to observe subtle color variations which are almost always there to be seen. Further, use your imagination to emphasize some of the subtler, more elusive colors to suggest to your viewer WHAT YOU FEEL about your subject.

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CAPTURE THE LIGHT:

Observing and capturing the QUALITY OF LIGHT in an everyday scene will help you to paint with style and feeling. Again, study your subject and really look for the nuances and subtle variations of light at different times of day and in different locations. Light affects how everything appears, whether it be the strong golden light of summer or the soft purple-gray mist of a rainy day. Shadows, whether cast or reflected, also tend to have rich and subtle color variations that you will want to get across to the viewer of your art.

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IN SUMMARY:

One artist will interpret a scene differently from another. In choosing the essentials and leaving out unimportant details, a painter begins to develop a personal style. Further, your selection of colors, materials, and techniques to use in painting will be unique, contributing to your style. Over time, each of us develops our own characteristic and distinctive shorthand for dealing with familiar objects; these habits can become recognizable. For instance, I often paint trees by scumbling the leaves, and I use lots of dry brush when painting rocks and stone walls. An artist’s selections, simplifications, and techniques are individual, making style a natural evolution within an artist’s work. However, to develop style fully, you must move on from simply considering materials and techniques to delving deeper and getting to know yourself and what you value. Be sure to express your feelings about a picture; be creativeRemember, your style is yours!

To delve even deeper into the subject of creativity, check out my blog posts entitled “Fostering Creativity” (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/,  and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”  (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes!

Joe Garcia in The Watercolor Bible puts it well when he says “A common misconception about watercolor is that it’s one of the most difficult mediums to use because you cannot correct mistakes.” In fact, you CAN often correct or adjust mistakes in watercolor painting! You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, change values by lifting or glazing, even adjust a composition.

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 used to alter 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. A staining color will require a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing to lift any color. 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. It can be reabsorbed by the damaged paper fibers and not be able to be lifted again. 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.

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Mountain Stream, 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. Create 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 paint is pushed away from the scraping.

 

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Red Canoe, scraping and lifting.

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Waves, 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 nearby the error, such as some grasses or reeds, “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, to preserve transparency, consider GLAZING to 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 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!”

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Apple Blossoms, background glazing.

By accentuating some areas of your painting and playing down other sections, perhaps by glazing or lifting, you can improve your focal point or center of interest. If a picture lacks a strong focal point or the center of interest is too weak, increase contrast of lights and darks between your focal point and the background. If your center of interest is too broad, choose a smaller area, strengthen color and contrast here, then darken or soften the surrounding sections to make the focal point stand out.

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. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as knowing when you probably should begin anew. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistakes of all.

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Fostering Creativity.

How many of us are secretly afraid, although we hope it is not true, that we don’t have the abilities necessary to be creative? How many of us feel it is too late for us to become artistic and reinvent ours lives? How many of us don’t know where to start even though we have a desire to be creative?

If you’ve ever wondered about these issues, let me assure you: you are already creative, and you can become a still more creative artist if you wish. Creativity – bringing something new into being – is a tool we can all access and utilize. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.” And similarly, according to Brenda Ueland, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

Cooking can supply an example of how creativity enters into even everyday processes. At first, you learn the lay-out of the kitchen and how to use equipment; you learn how to read a recipe and where to find and how to prepare ingredients. However, with a little practice, time, and effort, you begin to change the recipes, combine two or three different recipes, adapt a recipe to use ingredients on hand. You have begun to create something – perhaps dreadful, but often wonderful – with your own style. You are being creative! You take the time and make the effort needed to finish cooking the meal. You persist through difficulties and interruptions. You focus on what you’re doing, observe the process. You might take a chance and trust your intuition, adding less of one ingredient and more of another. With luck, you do not judge the results negatively, put yourself down, or feel a failure, and you are not afraid to try again, make a mistake, or feel foolish. Instead, you taste and evaluate the product, keeping in mind what worked well and what you might improve next time. You note your reactions and ideas, are inspired to plan another meal and to keep practicing your skills. You continue to experiment.

Once you’ve decided you want to get acquainted with your creative self, where do you begin? How do you jumpstart the creative process? First, be yourself; you are original.

With mass production, mass marketing, and mass media, it is important to remember that an artist needs to be independent of pressure groups and popular opinion. Have the courage not only to say no to superficial trends, but to say yes to your own emotions, thoughts, and creative impulses.

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Don’t be in a rush! Take the time to get to know yourself. Get beneath the surface, and observe your reactions to what goes on in and around you, allowing yourself to notice details you might have missed. This patience and openness will allow you to recognize the invitation of inspiration, whether the stimulus is an idea, a hunch, a thought, or an impulse. (See my related blog post, titled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.)

When you choose to follow your inspiration, whatever it may be, it needs to be captured and recorded. One of the best (and most adaptable) tools available is a journal to help provide a “visual record the way your creative ideas evolve.” Write down what you want to make. Think about your project – subject, materials, technique, color, time, cost, style, shape, whatever seems relevant. “Record everything.” In writing (or sketching) your thoughts, you honor their value. Brainstorm. Research. Plan. Get organized. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you.

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The next part of the creative process may take an hour, a week, or months. Don’t be impatient – you mustn’t be in a race to the finish line! The project may need time to come together, to simmer, to mature, to evolve. Allow the time necessary for this incubation. It often helps to carve out a corner as a sanctuary where you can sit in quiet reflection. Spend time regularly in your creative space. A ritual, or simple routine, can often spark the creative process, whether it is taking a walk, lighting a candle, or sitting with a cup of tea. Interestingly, shaking up your routine can also cause a creative spark. Try some new things, a museum, gallery, or art fair, and expose yourself to new ideas. New experiences will stimulate your imagination. (See my related blog post, titled “Creativity Can Be Learned”, published January 8, 2019.)

It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s quite another to trust your idea and follow where it leads. Translate your thoughts into a plan of action. Take the risk and begin! Many of us have been taught to be too cautious, too nice, to play it too safe. To be truly creative, you must be willing to try and fail, and then get over it. Remember that perfection is NOT the goal – this is the time to experiment! Have courage and heed your intuition. Sample or test, change a variable, and sample again. Do the work and DON’T give up!

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Avoid judging yourself by whether your project is a “success.” Enjoy the journey instead of focusing only on your results. If your goal is creativity, it’s the process that matters. Trust that if the process is good, the end will be good as well. And NEVER allow other people’s opinions to intimidate you or make you feel vulnerable.

You might seek out mentors, role models, or advisors who are supportive of your uniqueness and expression. Creativity flourishes within an atmosphere of security and trust but dies if surrounded by a climate of criticism and stress. One thing a mentor might tell you is to leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy. Keep in mind that what you really WANT to do is what you are really MEANT to do. Don’t feel guilty or selfish! Take the time to make painting (or whatever else you choose to do) fun, and strive for your dream.

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Creativity is within your grasp. It means you being yourself, thinking your own thoughts, responding to what you feel, NOT rotely copying someone else or a reference photo. Creativity transforms conditions as they ARE into conditions as they COULD be or OUGHT to be. You create only when you bring forth something that was not there before. There is no need for you to make your painting abstract, realistic, or any other particular style if these options make you uncomfortable. Make your own shapes, values, and color!

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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”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/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 (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.)

 

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”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/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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