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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Creativity Can Be Learned!

CREATIVITY CAN BE LEARNED!

By adopting a creative outlook, you open yourself up to both new possibilities and to change.   You become able to find new answers, new solutions, and new ideas.  A creative mind can transform one thing into another – can look at the same thing as everyone else but think something different.  Creative artists can change their perspective and, by using their knowledge and experience, can make the ordinary extraordinary.  Creative ideas come from manipulating and transforming your resources, and you can choose from many creative techniques and strategies when transforming those materials. The stages of this creative process include identifying, preparing, incubating, reaching a breakthrough, and finding a resolution.  In the preparation stage, techniques for modifying and changing your vision can include comparing, reversing, connecting, imagining, eliminating, and rearranging.

Everyone has the potential to be creative.  In other words, with a little effort, you can increase your level of creativity.  The quickest way to kill your creativity, however, is to think you have neither talent nor creativity.  Believing that you have insurmountable limitations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In other words, if you think you are not creative, you hesitate to try, and – sure enough – you fail to be creative.

Instead, believe in yourself.  Attitude is important!  Develop your skills: skills build confidence.  Improve your drawing, and practice your painting techniques.  Improvement comes with practice.  Emphasize the fun of creating rather than the achievement of results.  Try to notice the good things you’ve done, and don’t dwell on mistakes.  Set yourself achievable goals, and persevere.

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Try new things, and expose yourself to new ideas.  Look at artwork in museums and galleries and at art fairs.  Read books and magazines.  Look around you, and observe.  New experiences stimulate your imagination.  Similarly, vary your routines, and do the unexpected.  CHANGE jumpstarts your creative thinking, and creativity becomes more accessible when you can begin to act more impulsively in your life.  Change a problem by sneaking up on it from a different direction.  You can try something fresh – a new way with an old theme, a different point of view, a new technique.

A childlike playfulness allows you to relax your mind so that creative images come to you.  IMAGINATION plays a large part in the process.  Take a few minutes every day to work on freeing up your imagination.  Think of this as a way of stretching your creative muscles, getting them limber.  You should aim for a state of relaxed attention, when you can be free of interruptions.  Let yourself daydream, and empty your mind of all the distracting “clutter” of chores or things that need to be done.  (Natalie Goldberg calls this negative state of mind “monkey mind.”)  Allow spontaneous images to come and go.  These images express your connections with your inner self, and that connection is what creativity is all about.

OBSERVING AND BEING AWARE of what is around you is important to developing your creativity as well.  People tend to look at things without really seeing them.  They block out the unfamiliar and allow access only to what they feel comfortable with.  (See my blog dated 12/18/18, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, at leemuirhaman.com.)  Try to focus your awareness on what is around you and discover things you may have overlooked, details that others don’t see.  CHANGING YOUR FOCUS increases your creativity.  Train yourself to look closely and refocus.

While no subject is totally new (everybody has painted water or mountains or trees), your unique experiences and observations influence everything you paint or draw.  You modify, add to, or subtract from what is there to make something new.  Your subject often chooses you.  It doesn’t matter how ordinary the subject is: what you bring to it that is new is YOURSELF.  Your point of view is different from everyone else’s.  Tap your inner resources to find your responses to life’s experiences.  What makes you happy, angry, calm, nostalgic?  Use your EYE, MIND, AND HEART in your artwork.  Strive to make your art your own and not to copy; copying denies your uniqueness.  When you paint or draw, you are making visible something that you might not be able to express in words, something that combines how the subject appears to you with what you think about it and how you react to it emotionally.

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There are definite steps to the creative process, whether they occur over a long period of time or happen very quickly.  The first step in the creative process involves the IDENTIFICATION of the subject or problem to be solved (for example, selecting what to paint or learning a new technique).  Nothing creative can happen until you recognize what you want to do.

The PREPARATION step follows, during which you consider many possible solutions.  You may make a thumbnail sketch, plan color schemes, consider altering the composition by eliminating or adding components, decide on the placement of a focal point.  You also consider the mood, time of day, and season of the year for the painting.  In watercolor painting, most of this THINKING AND DESIGNING phase is done before you start to paint.  It is advisable to decide exactly what you are trying to do and consider possible plans of attack.

In the INCUBATION phase, you set the project aside for a time.  All the information that you accumulated and thought about in the preparation stage needs to be sorted in your unconscious mind.  This stage may take only minutes while you organize your paints or take a quick break.  On the other hand, it may take a much longer time for all the information to gel into a final solution.

BREAKTHROUGH is the next stage in the creative process, when the solution/plan becomes apparent.  Your solution does not come out of the blue fully formed but is a result of all of your previous thinking.  At this point, RESOLUTION completes the process, and you’re ready to try your solution and see how it works.

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Okay, so you’re ready to be more creative!  Where do you find ideas?  If you can observe carefully, approach your art playfully, and not concern yourself with the approval of other people, you will discover painting ideas everywhere you go.  Ideas are in familiar places like libraries, malls, food markets, farmers’ markets, coffee shops, the beach; at work, in newspapers or magazines, at museums, galleries, art fairs, at home, in sunlight or moonlight, outside on a walk or inside looking out the window.  If you can change your focus to discover things you may have overlooked  and things that others don’t notice, you will have many images and ideas come to your attention.  Some images will interest you more than others, because we each have different passions.  It is helpful to get in touch with yourself and come to understand what issues and ideas are important to you.  Are you repeatedly drawn to animals in their natural surroundings or to baby animals?  Do you enjoy images of the hustle and bustle of the city or see people as isolated in the city?  Do you find connections between the grandeur and power of nature and an individual human?  The subjects that suddenly surface in your mind and pique your curiosity are usually topics you feel strongly about, and thus they will likely be excellent topics for you to paint.  If it feels good, paint it!

The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself.  It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation.  And the true creator may be recognized by his ability to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note.

Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music

Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…

Many inexperienced painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to observe closely what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually looking at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed object.  Artists try to avoid labeling an object as “tree” or anything else and instead train themselves to interpret what they see in a new way.  Seeing means focusing attention, looking at shapes, values, and colors before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the “tree”?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can accurately paint what you see, NOT what you think you see.

Drawing helps you see, and seeing helps you draw.  Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you!  One of the main purposes of drawing is to train yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to see.  Look for basic shapes, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes.  Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush.

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational skills, is that you will learn to condense observed information into a simplified format, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simplified, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Reference photos:

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Line drawing:

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Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, use the information to record an image skillfully.  Mastering these techniques will improve the quality of your work.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

Your picture has your touch in it.  You can pick a subject that appeals or has special meaning to you.  You can rearrange what you’re looking at any way you like.  You can simplify or exaggerate parts of what you see.  Look beyond the normal, the everyday, the expected for your painting subjects.  Notice the negative shapes, the rhythms, the reflected lights, the colors.  Look at an object close up for a new viewpoint.  Consider a portrait approach or botanical style.  Look for varied shapes and unusual forms to add interest to your picture.  Each person sees the world in a different way.

Painting Skin Tones.

There are so many variations in skin tone that it seems overly simple to choose only certain specific pigments for painting skin.  In other words, you don’t have to use prepared color formulas.  Consider variables of age, ethnicity, light source, reflected light, and gender when you are painting skin color.  Skin color does NOT come in a tube; it must be mixed by the artist based on an interpretation of the colors seen.

To reproduce skin colors accurately, observe your subject closely.  Painting skin tone has more to do with the light and the environment than with any preconceived notion of what skin color should be.  You must analyze how and where the light source strikes the skin surface.  From which direction does the light come?  Is there more than one source of light?  Can you see any reflected light in the shadows?  What colors do the shadows add to the general skin color?  Is the light soft or harsh?  Warm or cool?  Brighter light will make reflected color stronger and more obvious.  Bright light darkens and sharpens shadows.

Skin color can vary from the palest yellow on through pinks, browns, and ebony.  Light skin tones appear transparent and vibrant.  Dark skin shows a range of rich, exciting colors.  Look for a subject’s general skin tone; then alter tone by diluting with water for highlights or by adding a complementary color to create shadows (for example, a trace of green shadow on a pink jawline and a bluish or purple shadow on brown or dark skin).

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Facial areas like nose, ears, cheeks, chin, and tear ducts of the eyes tend to be warmer in color than the rest of the face.  The most basic way of painting skin is, after careful observation of general skin tone, to mix that color with two to three transparent paint colors.

Possible skin color combinations might be:

For fair skin—

Burnt Sienna/Cadmium Red/New Gamboge

Burnt Sienna/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cadmium Yellow

Burnt Sienna/Winsor Red/Cobalt Blue

For Native American or Hispanic skin –

Burnt Sienna/Brown Madder/Cobalt Blue

For Asian or fair skin –

Raw Sienna/Burnt Sienna/Cobalt Blue

For dark complexions –

Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Ultramarine Blue

Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cobalt Blue

Burnt Sienna/Burnt Umber/Ultramarine Blue.

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Apply the general color thinly in a pale wash.  When this underlayer is dry, layer more color, as needed, to suggest skin depressions and create form.

Adjust the ratios of your colors to fit your subject’s skin color and value.

When trying to make the skin in your painting lifelike and interesting, you should paint wet-in-wet or on damp paper to allow for soft transitions.  In painting skin, your layers should follow and define the shadows you observe.  You must have value changes to imply form.  Build up your layers of paint, remembering to save areas for the highlights.  Create form and depth by painting depressions and shadows, leaving highlights created by lightly painted layers.

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More experienced painters might prefer to mix paint on their paper rather than premixing a general skin color on the palette.  When paint is mixed on the paper, colors are much more interesting and vibrant than the same color combinations mixed on the palette, then applied to paper, which tend to be dull.  Glazing and layering one color at a time on the paper gives skin a luminous tone.  Apply the lightest washes first; then gradually progress to the darkest washes, which you should apply last.  Build up transparent layers with Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose, Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Magenta, Winsor Red, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), and Winsor Blue (Red Shade).

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Be sure to use transparent colors for a clear, luminous effect.  By choosing a warm and a cool transparent color for your palette, you will have more than enough color options to produce unlimited skin tones.  By varying proportions of each color to change color temperature AND by paying attention to the order in which the colors are layered, you can create different skin tones.  (Remember that the last layer of color glazed on will determine the dominant hue of the skin.)

Softening an Edge or Fading Out.

Even experienced watercolor artists may have some gaps in their skill set. One basic watercolor painting skill that every painter should have under control is FADING OUT a color, also called SOFTENING AN EDGE.  (See other “Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want To Learn”, my blog post dated September 11, 2018,  for a quick review of what you may want to be sure to include in your painting repertoire.)

The most important prerequisite to understanding how to soften an edge is learning that different degrees of wetness exist. In watercolor painting, these differences in wetness determine the effect a painter gets and whether a painter’s efforts create the desired effect. WETNESS is the basis for most techniques in watercolor. With too little water, the paint will not move easily, whereas with too much water, a painter will not have much control of the paint. Whether an artist’s techniques work or not will depend on the artist’s AWARENESS OF and ABILITY TO CONTROL the amount of wetness employed.

Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge wetness and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be disregarded. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. It doesn’t matter where or when. For example, paint or water will flow OFF a brush onto a surface if the brush is WETTER than the surface. Paint or water will flow from the surface onto the brush if the brush is DRIER than the surface. There will not be much flow at all if the two areas are of similar wetness. There will be flow only if one area is much wetter than the other. Use this knowledge to control your edges in painting and to soften an edge or fade out color.

The technique called “softening an edge” or pulling out or fading out color uses a brush that is damp and LESS WET than the painted area to be softened. When softening an edge, you are not actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect.         

FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, dampened with very clean water, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. If you go too far into the paint with your brush,  your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your damp strokes further and further away from the paint.

What kind of brush is best for softening or fading out an edge? Natural fiber brushes are much better for softening than synthetics, because synthetic brushes are less able to hold a large amount of water AND have a tendency to release all of the water they hold at once. A synthetic brush will tend to dump too much moisture at first, leaving the right amount partway, then having little moisture left and running out toward the end of trying to soften a large area. The result can be a blossom at the beginning of softening, nice fading out toward the center, and no change in an edge at the end of a stroke with a synthetic brush.

It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, a snow bank, rolling surf, or flower petals.)

Soft edges convey distance.

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Soft edges create a sense of movement. 

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Soft edges suggest depth and shape. 

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