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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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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How Does A Painting Progress?

The first step in a watercolor painting is usually choosing an image to paint.  Sometimes I am excited about a subject or intrigued with the way light affects a scene.  That image can make me feel a certain mood or remember a wonderful feeling I’ve had before in a similar setting.  Often, the scene “picks me”: it touches me, and I want to paint it.

The painting “Mulpus” began in this way.  When I saw the photos that my son had taken of a brook that we both know, I felt the excitement of discovering a magic secret garden in my backyard.  The series of photos taken on a clear spring day showed a progression from the old stone bridge on the road up the sparkling brook edged with bright green moss and grass to the ruins of a towering stone wall dam that in the 1700’s had controlled water for a log-cutting mill.  The dam, though still impressive, was partially collapsed and the mill pond gone, but, oh, the water sparkled, and the green of the moss and grass was brilliant!  How refreshing!  In the midst of decay was renewal.  I could almost feel the warm sun, see the rosy buds about to open, smell crisp, clean air, and hear the soft whisper of the breeze!

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I settled on two reference photos to combine and sketched a template for transfer to watercolor paper.  When I had the image drawn, I used masking fluid to preserve the sparkles of white on the water, the bright green shore, and highlights of the rocks in the water.

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When the masking fluid was dry, I pre-wet the sky and tree line area with clear water.  As the sheen disappeared, I painted the sky with a very pale wash of a mixture of mostly cerulean and some Winsor (or phthalo) blue.  I tried to leave the center of the sky area paler than the surrounding sky because I chose to have the sunlight shining from the center of the picture toward the viewer.

Keeping in mind a clear spring day, I mixed colors for the far tree line.  Spring green was a possibility, but these trees were in the background, and I did not want them to stand out or compete with the bright green grass and moss which would be the focal point of the picture (in conjunction with the sparkling water).  Therefore, I toned the green down a bit to a slightly-grayed blue-green mix of ultramarine blue, DaVinci sap green, and a small touch of burnt umber.  And since I wanted the distant trees to appear soft and unfocused, I painted the tree underlayer onto damp paper.  (If you mix this tree color at the same time as your sky mix, you’ll be ready to paint your tree line as soon as you finish the sky.  However, if you find your paper has dried out since you painted your sky, it’s perfectly fine to rewet your sky and tree line with clear water, then paint your tree line when the sheen has gone.)  While the tree line is still damp, scrape in a few trunk-like lines with a palette knife or brush handle.  (Some pale gray trunks can be added here later and softened.)  Also, while the distant tree area is still damp, randomly drop several other colors into the tree area to add variety.  For me, these colors were a touch green gold and separately also burnt umber (mixed with a touch of burnt sienna).  Don’t get carried away here – less is more.  Every tree you paint should have a variety of colors in it.  As these color additions started to dry, I used a slightly stronger version of the underlayer green (ultramarine blue, DaVinci sap green, and a touch of burnt umber) to scumble in and start to suggest shadowing and shaping of the tree line.

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I began to work on the large stone wall by mixing three separate puddles of very, very pale color to apply as an underlayer.  I used permanent alizarin red (or quinacridone red), cobalt blue, and hansa yellow light (or cadmium lemon) to mix these three puddles.  These colors I randomly painted onto the stone wall; each color remained separate but just touched another of the three colors.

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While the stone wall dried, I began to put down the first layers on the middle distance tree trunks (which would eventually have more detail than the distant tree line).  I started with the trees to the far right to avoid spoiling the stone wall before it dried; then I gradually worked toward the left.  Since the type of tree, the age of the tree, and the smoothness of the bark cause variations in the tree trunk color, I used more than one paint color.  First, I laid down a pale greenish gray made with Davy’s gray.  Almost immediately, I began to add variation – some green gold and/or raw sienna on the sunny side of trunks, and darker brown-gray made of ultramarine blue with burnt umber on the shaded side.  I needed to remember the direction of LIGHT for shadows:  because I chose to have the light come toward the viewer from the middle of the picture, shadows on the trunks are on the right side of a trunk on the right of the picture, but shadows on the left side of the picture are on the left side of the trunks. I laid these colors in without mixing.

I painted one tree at a time so that the colors could soften into each other and create shape in the trunk before the applied paint had a chance to dry.  I let these underlayer colors in one trunk dry before proceeding to detail work on the trunk and moved instead to underlayer the next trunk.  When all the mid-distance trees were underlayered, I added details (crevices and knotholes) with a dark brown of ultramarine blue and burnt umber.  This same color I used to dry brush a bit of texture on the tree trunks, including grooves and shadows at the roots.

I then painted another layer of color, made from cerulean blue with a small touch of cadmium red to make a gray, over all of the large stone wall.  The color was not too dark, but pale enough to see hints of color through it.  When this was dry, I painted details in the wall – for example, crevices, shadows, texture – with a gray-black mixed from ultramarine blue and burnt umber.  I left light some highlights on the top of the wall, though I could also have lifted them later.

A light layer of burnt umber I laid over the earth area to the right and left of the stream.  I let this layer dry while I began to paint the water in the stream.

The water I painted wet-in-wet.  For this technique, it is best to have all the colors ready BEFORE starting to apply any paint.  To get ready, I mixed five separate puddles: cobalt blue; ultramarine blue; burnt sienna; ultramarine blue/DaVinci sap green/burnt umber; and ultramarine blue/burnt umber.  The first layer put down on the pre-wet paper was a layer of cobalt blue over all the water, avoiding the rocks.  Some of the green mix I dropped into the cobalt blue near the shore of the pool next to the ruined dam and close to both shores to suggest reflections from the distant tree line and the grass and moss along the shore.

Before the water dried, I added some burnt sienna in the water closest to the left front corner.  These transparent colors (cobalt blue and burnt sienna) made it seem that the viewer could see through the water to the sand on the streambed below.  Again, before the water dried, I darkened the edges of the water in particular with ultramarine blue.  Closest to the shore, where the bank overhangs a bit, I added some ultramarine blue/burnt umber mix (blue black) and made sure the color was softened as it met the rest of the water.

While the water was drying, I worked more on the forest floor.  With burnt umber and then with a dark brown/ burnt umber mix, I darkened the ground toward the far tree line on the right and up close to the large stone wall on the left, where the ground would be in shadow.  I added some texture and a few darker indentations in the fallen leaves with the dry brush technique.  I spattered the brown ground first with the dark brown mix, then with just burnt sienna. When the spatter had dried, I added a few strong tree shadows on the ground while keeping in mind the direction of the light.

The stones and rocks in the water received an underlayer of gray (cerulean blue and cadmium red).  When they were dry, I used the dry brush technique again to texture in the gray and dark gray I used previously, also adding dark shadows where the water meets the rocks.

When all the paint was dry, I removed the masking fluid.  Green gold was the color for the brilliant and sunlit moss and grass (though hansa yellow light mixed with ultramarine blue could also work).  The shadow color for painting depressions in the green ground came from adding more ultramarine blue to the above color.  In darker spots, I added burnt umber/ultramarine blue to increase depth.

Finally, to finish up, I added more tiny branches to the mid-distance trees.  I scraped (with an X-acto) some white water to make sure the stream looked natural.  I also lifted some rock highlights that seemed to have been lost.

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