I’ve waffled on at great length about how to choose your colours, what sort of palette to get, and so on, especially in regard to watercolours, but as I continue to explore and develop my skills in the medium, I realise there are some things I do that make things easier (and some that, I have come to learn, actually make things more difficult). While I’m not the first artist to have these ‘epiphanies’ (and I know I won’t be the last), I thought it might be helpful to put together a list of things that I have found to be good habits or at least useful things to keep in mind when it comes to painting with watercolours, especially since this month is World Watercolour Month.
1. Use Two Jars of Water
This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me when I first started. I often found myself becoming frustrated when I’d go to wet my paper with a clear wash, only to find it contaminated with whatever colour I’d rinsed out in my jar last. By keeping two jars of water in your painting area, you can use one to rinse out your brush, and the other to pick up clean water for laying down clear washes or mixing fresh colours.
On a side note, if you’re not going to be using the jars for a while, make sure you empty and rinse them and dry them out. One time I’d put the lid on a jar of dirty water with the intention of ‘cleaning it later’, only to forget about it for several months, at which point I opened it and discovered a thriving metropolis of mold so pervasive I ended up having to dispose of the jar.
My two watercolour jars.
2A. Let Masking Fluid Dry Completely Before Painting
If you know you need to reserve the white of your paper in some places, it can be easier to cover them with masking fluid rather than trying to paint around it. As tempting as it can be to put down the masking fluid brush and immediately start slathering water all over the paper, you need to wait until the masking fluid is completely dry, otherwise it will (at best) fail to protect your paper from unwanted colour and (at worst) mingle with paint in the surrounding areas, which can create unpredictable and unpleasant effects or irregularities in your washes. The drying time may vary depending on the brand, humidity and temperature but I tend to find that it has thoroughly dried after 20 minutes. This leads me to:
2B. Avoid Leaving Masking Fluid on for more than 24 Hours
Some bottles of masking fluid will have a warning to not leave it on the paper for more than 24 hours. While this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, it is still a pretty good guideline to follow. Masking fluid has to bond to the paper in order to stop paint from getting under it and staining the paper you want to protect, but the longer you leave it on, the more it seems to continue bonding to the paper. As a result, if you leave it on for more than a day or two, it can be really difficult to remove; masking fluid that’s been on for less than a day can usually be rubbed off easily with an eraser or even your finger and will often come up in a handful of large pieces, but masking fluid that has been left for days tends to flake and fragment when you try to remove it, making it a lot more difficult and time-consuming to remove. Also, depending on the type of watercolour paper you’re using, removing masking fluid that has dried onto it too thoroughly can actually damage the paper. If you’re leaving that area white, this may not be an issue, but often artists reserve an area while they put in a dark background so they can come back later and pain that area with lighter colours. The damage to the paper can show up as ugly or uneven texture in this area of pale colour, which can be difficult (if not impossible) to cover.
One of my paintings in progress, with masking fluid on the birch trunks.
3. Don’t Cheap Out on Paper
I think I’ve touched on this in one of my earlier articles, but it’s important enough that I feel it’s worth reiterating here. When it comes to the holy trinity of watercolour supplies – paints, brushes and paper – paper is probably the most important one (which comes next out of the other two is a subject much debated on art forums, and even I would likely give a different answer depending on what mood I was in when asked). When I first started painting with watercolours, I was almost perpetually frustrated by the fact that when I used the same techniques or even the same paints I saw professional artists on YouTube using, my colours just never looked as ‘fresh’ on the paper as theirs did. It didn’t matter how hard I practiced or what quality paint I used, I just felt like I’d hit a wall and wasn’t getting any better, and I couldn’t understand why.
Funnily enough, it was laziness that led to my “come to Jesus” moment; I saw blocks of St Cuthbert’s Mill Saunders Waterford on sale in an art supply shop in the city, and because I always get annoyed at having to soak and stretch and tape down paper from pads, I bought a small one, figuring that having all four edges gummed down would eliminate both the buckling when washes were applied and the need for stretching to avoid it. When I started painting on it, I suddenly found that my paints were actually doing what I wanted them to, my brush strokes looked like professional brush strokes, and my colours looked vibrant and luminous. I realised that I wasn’t having to fight the cheap paper anymore, and was able to just get on with painting. Artist grade paper not only holds water better and more evenly, it’s also usually more durable, so the paper is far less likely to be damaged by any scrubbing and lifting techniques (which might be used to create texture or correct mistakes), or to pill or disintegrate if you apply multiple heavy washes.
While cheap paper can have its uses (for example, practicing brush strokes or testing new colour mixes), it’s a false economy to buy and use it for ‘proper’ paintings. Not only will the resulting painting be underwhelming in a lot of cases, it can frustrate new watercolour artists to the point where they give up on the medium entirely. You don’t need to buy the most expensive artist grade paper but if you’re serious about watercolours, it’s worth spending a bit extra on good paper to make sure you get the most enjoyment out of it.
Various watercolour paper from my drawer: The cheap and nasty Eraldo di Paolo, the mid-range student grade Daler-Rowney Aquafine, and the artist grade Saunders Waterford by St Cuthbert’s Mill.
4. It’s Better to Underwork a Painting than Overwork it
Once again, this is more of a guideline than a rule (and there are probably valid arguments against it), but the more you ‘fiddle’ with a painting, the more you run the risk of ruining it by overworking it. Overworking can take various forms, but in my own experience, it’s usually when I’ve kept noodling at the details of a painting until one area looks too ‘busy’, or when I’ve brushed over an area too many times and the paper has started pilling (usually a problem with cheaper paper; see tip number 3 above) or the glazes have become muddy. This often happens when I’ve made a mistake and keep scrubbing the paint to remove it, only to repaint it and still not be happy with the result. While I’m not saying you should bin a painting as soon as you make an error – it is sometimes possible to correct watercolour paintings – there comes a time when you need to accept that it’s a lost cause and think about how you can apply the lessons you’ve learned in your next painting.
In terms of those who tend to tinker with paintings long after the point they should have left it alone, one thing you can try if you feel you’re close to finishing a painting but not quite satisfied with it is to let the painting sit for a day or two and look at it from a distance. This can help you to be more objective about the piece. If after this time you still think it needs more work, then you can go and do what needs to be done, but often you will find that the painting stands well enough on its own at this point, and any further additions are unnecessary and may even be detrimental to the painting. Think of it like writing a book; the author needs to tell the audience some things, but at least some of it should be left to the reader’s imagination. Unfortunately there’s no ‘formula’ to tell you the right time to put your brush down and step away from the painting; it’s something that will only come to you with practice.
One of my first decent watercolour paintings. I overworked some sections of the water and though I was mostly able to salvage it, I can still see some of the flaws.
5A. Timing is Everything
One of the most challenging thing for watercolour beginners is getting the timing right when layering washes or working wet into wet, and I still get it wrong sometimes. Unlike oil paint (which can pretty much be worked and reworked to your heart’s content) or acrylics (which dries quickly and becomes more or less permanent), watercolour dries very quickly but can still be reactivated if you’re not careful. Even if you’re adding colour to a wet wash, you still need to be careful of how quickly the paper dries, as half a minute or so can make or break your painting. A good rule of thumb to follow is that you should aim to either finish working on your wash before it is one-third dry, or wait until the area is completely dry before glazing another wash over it. When the paper is still mostly damp, any more colour you add to it should diffuse softly into the clear wash or existing colour on the paper, creating smooth transitions. However if you add wet colour to an area of colour that is more than one-third dry, the disparity in dampness between the new colour from your brush and the colour already on the paper will result in a hard edge where the colours meet. How long the paper will take to dry will depend on the paper you’re using, how much water you laid down and the ambient temperature where you’re painting, but usually you’ll have a 2-3 minute window from when you lay down your first wash to when it’s dried too much to add more colour without getting hard edges. This is closely related to:
5B. Each Brushstroke Should Contain Less Water than the Last
In addition to the water that’s already on the paper, you also need to be aware of how much water is in your brush. If you’re working wet-into-wet, the surface of your paper should already be wet, so there’s no need to add even more water. It can be tempting to add more water to make the new colour lighter if you’re afraid of going too dark (related note: see Tip 6), but you’re better off just picking up fresh paint straight from the tube or pan but just less of it, rather than diluting it further. If you add the straight or nearly-straight colour to the wash, it’ll diffuse and blend with the existing wash. However if you add a lot of water, the new water will displace the existing wash and push it into unpleasant patterns with harsh outlines, especially if the existing wash is more than half dry.
To understand both of these principles, let’s look at the sample swatches below. In the first one (on the left), I allowed the green to dry completely before I applied the red, fading it from right to left, using less pigment and more water as I went, until it appeared to blend smoothly into the green. In the second swatch, I applied the green and then immediately blended in the red from the right, so it merged with the still-wet green for a gradual transition (I also didn’t pick up as much water in my brush when I picked up the red). In the final swatch, I applied the red when the green was only about half dry, using a brush loaded with a lot of water. This resulted in the ugly hard edges between the two colours, which were unable to blend properly.
From left to right: Wet into dry; Wet into wet; Wet into semi-dry.
6. Watercolours Get Lighter As They Dry
Another common mistake beginners make is using washes that are too weak. This is usually down to one of two factors: either they are scared of ‘wasting’ paint, so they’re stingy with how much they put into their mixes, or they judge the colours by how they look when they’re wet instead of taking into account the fact that watercolours look different when they dry. Lighter colours like yellows will often look more or less the same dry as they do wet, but the darker a colour gets, the bigger the difference there will be between its wet and dry states; some colours can look up to 30% lighter when dry. As you practice with your watercolours you’ll eventually come to know how much paint you need to mix up wet to achieve the desired saturation and intensity when dry but as a rule, it’s better to make your wash a little stronger and darker than you think it needs to be.
Two swatches of Dioxazine Violet. The dry swatch on the left is noticeably lighter and less intense than the fresh, wet swatch on the right.
I hope some of these hints and tips are helpful to anyone who is just starting out on their watercolour journey. It can be a challenging medium, but if you put in the time and effort to understand it, it can also be very rewarding.