How to fix a watercolor painting

A watercolor painting can be fixed

One often hears artists say that you cannot fix a watercolor painting once you have painted it or a section of it. This is not necessarily true, there are many things you can do to repair a painting or part of it. At worst there are things you can do that will make your next painting of the same subject better. In this article I will cover some of the things you can do to fix problems in a watercolor painting

One comment I would like to add about the paper you use however. Many of the techniques here are based on the use of good artist’s quality paper. I use Arches watercolor paper as well as Sanders Waterford, but there are many others. These papers, especially the Arches, are made especially for watercolor and have good sizing (like a glue which helps keep the surface of the paper together and controls how fast and have much watercolor pigment is allowed to be absorbed into its surface). If you use poor quality paper, with very little sizing, you will find your paints are too readily absorbed into the core of your paper and cannot be adjusted once laid down in a watercolor wash.

My watercolor students often look at me after they have done something in class with their painting which leads them to believe that they have ruined it. Often this is not the case.

I learned this lesson myself quite a few years ago when I was doing a landscape painting and had felt I’d ruined it. I had actually gotten to the point where I had thrown the painting into the bin (the only time I have done such a thing). Then about an hour later, I found myself thinking about the painting and realized I probably had not gone past the point of no return.

I dug the painting out of the bin and continued to work on it. It turned out to be a good piece of artwork and sold soon after I framed it.

So the first question to consider when creating a watercolor painting and you think you have ruined is have you really ruined it? Quite often you have not gone past this point of no return, you just think you have. Why is this so?

One reason this happens is because often one has to leave a large section of your painted untouched until near completion such as when painting river scenes and you have to leave the river area unpainted until you paint everything else – because you won’t know what reflections to put in otherwise. For this reason your paintings tonal pattern will not look right until the end. In this case you just have to have faith with your initial design that it will work out. One painting I did for a major exhibition was like this and I had to work on it over a period of three weeks, all the while thinking the tones were out, but when it was finished it ended up winning a couple of major awards.

So before you give up on a painting, give it another thought and if the tones don’t look right, make sure it isn’t just because of the white left on your watercolor paper.

Now what are some of the other things that can go wrong with watercolor paintings?

  • Stray dots which land in the sky
  • Tone too light in a section of your painting
  • Mass of tree foliage to flat and uninteresting
  • Large splash of paint in and unintended or unwanted location.
  • Objects in the wrong place
  • A small area of your painting which is too dark
  • Lost highlights
  • Composition doesn’t look right
  • Small area of muddy color
  • Large area of muddy color
  • Painting is a real mess and really can’t be fixed
  • An area of the painting is too dark

Before we look at how to fix some of these problems, let’s consider just what happens with watercolor paint on the surface of our paper.

Watercolor paint that we lay on our watercolor paper is made up primarily or water, pigment, and a binder (gum Arabic) which fixes the pigment to the paper.

When you lay a quick watercolor wash on your paper, and leave it to dry without fiddling you will end up with a nice clean wash. It will effectively be a smooth layer mostly on the surface of the paper, with a small amount absorbed into the paper.

If you keep fiddling with your watercolor wash while it is drying you will end up with a rough texture on the surface of the paper instead of a smooth one. This is what we call mud. A famous Australian artist, Norman Lindsay, gave one of the best descriptions of mud I have ever had given. He said if you imagine a muddy puddle on the ground. If you leave the muddy puddle to try naturally without disturbing it, it will end up with a nice smooth dry surface – this is what we would call a nice clean wash in watercolor painting. Now if you stir up the muddy puddle as the water evaporates and the puddle loses it shine, it will dry with a very rough texture – this is what we would call a muddy (no pun intended) wash.

Knowing what the surface of your watercolor wash painting looks like when it is dry we can see what and how we can make certain repairs or adjustments.

Continue to: Removing stray watercolor droplets in your sky