Watercolor Painting

Watercolor painting Rising Mist boat painting by Joe Cartwright

What is watercolor painting? If you tackle the subject from the point of view of painting with colored water, rather than watercolor paint you may find it easier to understand.

By considering watercolor painting as dealing with colored water you are forced to give more thought to the water component. Water is the most important ingredient in watercolor painting but it is rarely given much attention. It is the water that lets watercolor paint do its magic.

I have found that most of the difficulties new watercolor artists run into are related to not keeping an eye on what the water is doing. On their painting surface or in their palette or on their brushes. Sure part of the problem is confusion about what steps to take with their painting, however as this confusion slows down their response to their work which allows the surface to dry too fast – hence water becomes a problem even here.

Watercolor painting Rising Mist boat painting by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting “Rising Mist” by Joe Cartwright

Why water is critical to a successful watercolor painting

It is the flowing of water and pigment on your paper that leaves behind a nice clean layer of paint called a “watercolor wash”. If you do not use enough water in your paint mix it will not flow down or over your watercolor paper and you will have a rough looking paint layer. In fact this is often what people refer to as a muddy watercolor painting. It is muddy not because it is the color of mud but because the layer of watercolor paint on the surface of your painting is actually quite rough instead of smooth which is what happens when enough water is used in the mix. This rough surface seems to inhibit the transfer of light through the watercolor layer. If you run your fingertips over a muddy passage in your painting you will find that it feels rougher, than when compared to a nice clean passage of your watercolor painting.

Think of sand on a beach. If the sand is roughed up by people walking, digging, or otherwise playing on it while it is damp, it will remain roughed up. However if a wave rolls over the sand as it washes back out to sea it leaves behind a nice smooth surface. This is similar to what happens on the surface of your watercolor paper. A definition of watercolor mud was given by a famous Australian watercolor artist, Norman Lindsay, who compared the process to that of a muddy puddle. If you leave a muddy puddle undisturbed, as it dries, it will leave a nice smooth finish. If however you disturb the mud while it is still damp, for example by digging into it with a stick, it will dry with a rough surface. This again is very similar to what happens on the surface of a watercolor painting if you keep trying to paint with thicker paint on a barely damp surface.

How much water to mix with watercolor paint

So just how much water should be in a watercolor mix? Well this depends on a number of factors:

  1. The angle of your supporting board. The steeper the angle the less water is needed to allow the paint to flow.
  2. How fast you paint. This is connected to your skill and experience level. The slower you paint the wetter your watercolor paint mix should be so it doesn’t dry too fast and stop flowing.
  3. How wet your watercolor painting is from a previous wash. Painting with thick paint into an already wet surface will still give you a soft edge but it will be more controlled than when you paint in a wet surface with a very wet mixture.
  4. The tone (relative lightness or darkness) you are trying to create with a particular mix requires more (lighter tone) or less (darker tone) water.
  5. The type of edge effect you are trying to create. A very soft effect where it is not possible to tell when one color finishes and another starts needs more water than an edge which is more definite. The other extreme is where you want hard, definite, edges. In this case you would paint on dry paper – though the mix still has to be wet enough that it will flow.
  6. The size of the shape you are painting. A bigger shape requires more water in your mix so it does not dry between each successive horizontal brush stroke as you paint down your sheet of watercolor paper.
  7. Atmospheric factors need to be taken into account as well. If you are painting in a hot room or environment you will need more water than when painting in a cold one. Outdoors you have to make similar allowances for the wind, which can be really tricky – so much so I rarely try and paint plein air if the wind is too strong.
  8. Finally all of the above are inter-related – this is where the skill comes in!

So next time you get out your watercolor painting gear give yourself some time to look at what the water is doing as you paint. It will certainly improve your results!

Hopefully the above will give you a new insight into watercolor painting which will help you gain more from your art. Watercolor painting is a wonderful medium and I wish you many years of pleasure from it if you are just starting out. Should you have any questions of comments please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.

Author: Joe

Owner and adminstration of the Painting With Watercolors website and forum. I am a professional watercolor artist, though I also use other mediums including pen and ink. I also enjoy playing with computers and the internet so this website is a bit of a hobby of mine.

19 thoughts on “Watercolor Painting”

  1. Joe, your tutorials is awesome. I want to translate some to Chinese and post to non-commercial bbs ( for these one who has difficult to read english and who could not access foreign web site ). Would I do that?

  2. Atulip, Please do not do this. I put a lot of time and effort in producing my tutorials and it will confuse Google if copies of my work appear in other places, even if in other languages. Please suggest to your readers to come to my website and use Google Translate to read my tutorials. Please respect my copyright.
    Kind regards,

  3. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nasty. I will suggest them to your website directly.

  4. Joe, thank you. Your tutorials are most inspiring for someone like me, painting again in my 70s after a long break. I’m in Malawi, a country that is technologically challenged. It’s frustrating and painfully slow to follow your video tutorials because of buffering by narrow band width. How could I obtain your recorded videos or book(s) ?
    Kind regards, Al.

  5. Al, if you purchase my videos on Vimeo you can download them and view them in real time. They will take some time to download if your link is very slow. You can find a link to my Venice video on the right side bar of this page.

    I am working on a Watercolor Painting fundamentals book which should be available through Amazon early next year. Once it is out of the way I intend to concentrate on producing more videos.

  6. I am a newbie of watercolor. I have got difficulty to make an even first light color wash on my Bockingford 140lbs watercolor paper. Every time I try to give the whole paper a wash say light grey as the background, the paper reacts quite uneven, some of it very smooth, some of it has an obvious paler area which makes the whole wash very ugly after dry. I do not stretch paper because I’ve seen some painters paint washes very well without stretching. Is it a technique called “bead” that would help making a wash even? Somehow I really don’t understanding if it’s the problem of this student quality paper or it’s my problem. I hope someone can give me a solution.


  7. Thank you Joe for being so generous with your online demonstrations, tips etc. You are an excellent teacher.

  8. Just dropped in on your website after spotting your painting of Sydney Harbour bridge on a google search.
    I am really interested in your technique of doing an under painting and also your advice on mixing greens. Your explanation of why we create mud makes a lot of sense.
    I will follow some more tips later. Many thanks for passing on your knowledge on such simple terms.
    Looking forward to reading more articles.

  9. Wonderful tutorial on painting crashing waves, thank you Joe, just what I needed to learn how to create that effect. I had never heard of wetting the underside of the paper prior to painting on the front surface but it worked so well!

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