A question I often get asked by new watercolor artists who are struggling with their watercolor painting techniques is, “How wet should their watercolor paint mixture be?” Another is, “How wet should their watercolor paper be?” Paint wetness seems a simple enough topic but it can give newcomers to this art a lot of grief.
These are very simple questions and should definitely be asked by every watercolor artist. The challenge, however, is how to answer them! I am going to have a go at coming up with a way of looking at this which is both simple to understand and easy to apply. Experienced watercolor artists have solved this issue, usually with lots of practice, but paint wetness can be quite difficult for new artists to understand.
Why is this question so important to answer and understand for watercolor artists?
Well, the consistency of your watercolor paint, and the wetness of your watercolor paper, combined with your brush handling, and an awareness of how fast everything is drying, will determine just what type of edges you will create when painting. All effects from very soft wet on wet to hard edged wet on dry and all the variations in between depend on this. Even dry brush strokes are influenced by the consistency of your watercolor paint and the wetness of your paper. It is at the core of most watercolor painting techniques.
Why is Paint Wetness hard to define?
Firstly, most books and articles on watercolor painting will use words like “create a weak mix” or “mix a strong mix” when referring to a particular mixture of watercolor paint that will be used for part of your painting. The problem here is, “Just what is a weak mix or a strong mix?” For a beginner artist or even for quite experienced ones this does not really tell you very much as a weak mix for one may be considered a strong mix for another. Combine this with how wet your watercolor paper is and the whole topic become more difficult. The problem breaks down into two sections: the first is definitions of terms and the other is the complexity of what is happening on your paper.
Some books, like an excellent one on watercolor painting techniques written by Australian watercolor artist Joseph Zbukvic, have tried to use terms like coffee strength and tea strength mixes to help define a particular consistency. I found this quite helpful but it still creates some confusion for some students. It all comes back to degrees. Just how strong is coffee strength or tea strength watercolor mixtures. Some people take their coffee with lots of water (weak) and others with less (strong). Not everyone drinks tea and again its strength can vary. So obviously, while this is a useful scale, it can still cause confusion in a beginner watercolor artist. This confusion is further compounded because a particular mixture strength will react quite differently on your watercolor paper depending on its wetness.
OK, so how to try and tackle this problem. Well firstly, what we can say for a fact is that just plain water can be considered your weakest mix and paint directly from the tube with no water on your brush or paper is your strongest mix. So obviously if you are someone that finds it difficult to mix a dark color then in some way you must be adding more water to your mixture than you need to. This water can come from various sources. Most often it comes straight from your water container into the mixture on your pallet and all you need to do is use less water. Sometimes however it occurs through the bad habit of cleaning your brush each time you want to pick up more fresh paint. This is rarely required but if you do need to clean your brush, because you need to pick up some really clean color, then make sure you dry it on a cloth after cleaning and before you go into the new paint. It is also possible that you are picking up wet paint from the bottom of your paint well where water may have already accumulated. Finally you may be painting onto paper that is too wet – though this is not so common.
I suppose one could try to define the consistency of watercolor paint scientifically such as “this much volume of paint for this much volume of water” but really when you take the wetness of your paper into account this system would not be any more useful that by referring to mixtures as being similar to cream strength or milk strength etc. Overall these systems for describing how wet your watercolor mix should be are at best a guide and I don’t think one can be more accurate than that. So where does this leave the budding watercolor artist already struggling with a whole collection of art terms and techniques? My students still need some guide!
Watercolor painting techniques: How a watercolor landscape painting is constructed
In a landscape watercolor painting you start with the big shapes and then progress to smaller ones. Your first watercolor wash is usually the sky which in most cases is the lightest part of your painting (apart from highlights or objects actually painted white). Notice how I use words like “usually”, remember there are no absolutes in this world of watercolor painting, or in life for that matter. All these “rules” are just guides as one can “usually” find an exception to all “watercolor rules.” Don’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to watercolor painting techniques. Just because something can or can’t be done one way doesn’t mean it can’t be achieved in another. For years I never used a fan brush with my watercolor painting as it was rarely mentioned in watercolor books but now it has become a critical part of my watercolor equipment.
Now after the sky you would continue your watercolor wash down to the distant ground and on to the foreground. The distant ground will have more pigment than the sky above and the foreground would have more pigment in your watercolor mixture than the distant ground.
So you can see that by thinking this way you don’t have to compare your mixes with anything other than how strong a mix you used for your sky and other parts of the painting you do after that! In a way everything flows from this first step.
Now once your sky and ground are totally dry you will see that you already have a watercolor landscape painting before you. If it doesn’t look right at this stage the rest of your watercolor painting won’t work! Think of it as laying the ground of your landscape painting upon which you will paint hills and trees and animals.
The next step is to paint the distant hills. So what consistency paint do you need for this? Well vertical shapes are usually stronger in tone (more watercolor paint to water ratio) than the horizontal objects near them in their space. For example a tree is usually stronger in tone than the ground it is on!
For this reason when I start a painting I generally mix more paint than I need for my initial wash. In this way after I lay down my under painting I have plenty of paint to use as the basis of the following watercolor washes.
So for the distant hills I would add more paint to my sky mixture in my palette and I use this for the hills. Now obviously I would use additional colors but more importantly in adding these colors I am increasing the strength and hence the tone of my mixture. This will ensure that my hills sit in their correct position in the picture plane.
The same process would generally be used when painting the distant trees and foreground objects such as bigger trees, grasses and shrubs.
So an important watercolor painting technique is to compare the consistency (strength) your watercolor paint mixtures with the mixtures you have already used in your PALETTE.
Depending on how light you start with your sky will determine how strong you need to go with the rest of your watercolor mixes to achieve a watercolor painting with a feeling of space with all objects in their right place in the picture plane. By playing around with your sky mixture you can influence the range of tones within your watercolor painting. There is no right or wrong, it is more a matter of personal taste. However, if you feel your mixtures are too light, for the effect you are trying to achieve, just add more pigment. If they are too strong add more water. If after adding more pigment the mixture does not get stronger then you are adding more water to the mixture somehow.
By the way, don’t forget to test your mixtures on a scrap piece of watercolor paper as it is very difficult to judge paint consistency just by looking at the mix in your palette.
Now there will obviously be some exceptions to this, and I know that the explanation is not as simple as I would like to have made it, but hopefully you will find the above concept is a useful guide when looking at your own watercolor painting techniques. Have fun and please let me know if you have any questions.
Last weekend we had a very pleasant get together with some close friends who live on Berowra Waters, New South Wales. I have visited them many times and always found myself spending a lot of time looking out at the beautiful view from their deck and wanting to paint it. This time I took the opportunity to do some plein air painting and took my outdoor watercolor painting kit with me.
Berowra Waters is on the outskirts of Sydney less than an hour from the center of the city. There are very few houses on the water and there will never be any more due to limited space and planning restrictions. It is a wonderful location, very peaceful and beautiful and a great place for contemplation and creativity.
My plein air painting watercolor kit
I have put together a reasonably lightweight outdoor watercolor kit that I use for my plein air painting. It is basically constructed from and old cutlery box and a light photography tripod. At some point I will provide more details of my system as I had fun putting it together for a trip I was taking to Venice where weight was an issue. For now you can at least see a picture of my set up below.
This painting was done on an Arches 300 gsm Cold Press watercolor block. I like to use a block when painting plein air as I don’t need any supporting board nor tape to keep the paper down. This all helps to keep weight down when plein air painting; this is especially important if you have to carry your gear for any length of time. However, I do sometimes tape around the edge anyway as I like to see what my painting looks like after the tape is removed – a bit like putting a mat over it.
As usual the painting was done from light to dark. Starting with the sky and painting the most distant hill while the sky was still wet to give it a soft edged look. I took my watercolor paint color across all the hills and let it dry.
After this dried completely I painted the stronger hills to the left and right. Again I let it dry. You must resist the urge to keep watercolor painting into damp paper or else you will end up with a muddy mess. This is particularly important with plein air painting as you are often at the mercy of the weather and your paper will often dry very slowly. You just have to be patient. It is better to finish off a watercolor painting back in your studio rather than ruin it by trying to get it done by continuing to paint in damp paper.
My next step was the water at which time I dropped in the reflections of the hills.
This was followed by the tree branches and foliage on the right.
Finally I painted in the two boats along with their reflections.
Here is my finished plein air painting. I am quite happy with it as they don’t always turn out but this one did. In the future I will create a full watercolor painting demonstration article of this scene and painting. For now I hope you enjoy the painting.
This is a class demonstration watercolor painting titled “Tea Gardens Sunrise over the Myall river, New South Wales”.
I was attracted to this scene by the light reflected on the water of the Myall River at Tea Gardens in New South Wales. Watercolor is a great medium for capturing light so decided to do this as a class painting. I simplified and made other adjustments to the photograph below to improve its composition and also to make it work better as a watercolor lesson.
My key focus was to teach my students how to create a feeling of space and how to capture the early morning light reflecting off the water surface.
The main adjustments I made were:
Raised the horizon to focus on the light sparkle on the water
Lighten the sky
Remove all boats except the one little house boat
Remove foreground grass and car
The next step, after making my design decisions, was to do a very simple drawing of the scene on my cold press watercolor paper.
My next step was to paint the sky with my watercolor paints and while this was wet to paint the distant hills. I worked with progressively stronger tones (more pigment, less water) as I moved closer to the foreground.
The land closest to the viewer was completed after the sky area had dried so I could produce hard edged shapes against the sky.
Notice how the land jutting into the river is basically horizontal where it connects with the river. This stops the river area from looking like it is flowing up hill.
I let this dry completely.
The water in this scene is painted with the side of my round watercolor brush. I used quick movements to create a dry brush stroke which gives the impression of light on the water.
The distant water is lighter (thinner mix) and bluer than the foreground which is stronger in tone (more paint) and slightly warmer – there is a little Burnt Sienna in the mixture.
The sparkle on the water is just left white paper.
This article is not meant to be a full demonstration but more a reference for my students to use. You should be able to understand some of my watercolor painting technique for this type of scene however. I do have a similar and more detailed demonstration here: simple watercolor painting demonstration of boats and water.
The pen, ink and watercolor wash demonstration starts with the selection of a suitable reference photo. In this case the photo is of my wife’s favorite tree in our garden. I looked for an image with a nice composition (though I still had to adjust it slightly) and a strong light and dark pattern.
It then covers the materials required and how to do the ink drawing which is done directly without any prior pencil sketching. Usually I find when I tell my students that they are to draw directly with the ink they get all nervous and concerned. However it usually surprises them just how well they do.
By drawing directly with ink it forces students to think and observe more, before they actually touch their watercolor paper with their ink pen. I have found this improves their overall drawing skills as it helps them to develop good drawing habits.
Also because the ink is permanent, it teaches them to just lay down a mark or an ink wash and just leave it. As the ink is permanent it removes the temptation to fiddle. Fiddling with the watercolor paint on your paper is a common problem for beginner watercolor artists.
Pen and ink is also quite a forgiving medium as it is very hard to create a muddy look as often happens with a failed watercolor painting.
After the pen outline is done I allow it to dry thoroughly. In the next to final stage in this pen and wash painting I cover how to lay a loose watercolor wash over the magnolia flowers and stems.
The painting is finished with a very loose and sketchy watercolor wash for the background.
If you have an interest in pen and wash work you may like to have a look at my demonstration.