How to use photos for painting

Most artists use photos for painting at some point in their career. For some, they are the only reference they use, while for others they are rarely used. If you are going to be working from photos, there are a few things you need to be aware of if you want your artworks to succeed. Continue reading “How to use photos for painting”

Watercolor Painting Mistakes

Here are the common watercolor painting  mistakes a beginner watercolor artist often makes that would cause him, or her, to feel the medium is difficult. I remember when I first started it was all a bit of a challenge, but because I was challenge driven I had no problem continuing on to a good level of success. Now, while the challenge is still there, I have found I am able to be a lot more relaxed with my painting and the watercolors almost seem to paint themselves at times.

So what are these watercolor painting mistakes students make when painting with watercolors?

Here is the list I have come up with after reviewing the common problems I have observed during my classes and workshops. If you are having major trouble with your watercolor painting then a review of this list of watercolor painting mistakes should hopefully result in you spotting the cause of your difficulty so you can correct it!

Rusty old truck avoiding common watercolor painting mistakes
Avoiding common watercolor painting mistakes will allow you to paint better with more confidence.

Common watercolor painting mistakes

1. Too much water

If you find you can’t  mix a strong color and your watercolors always look too light and washed out. Then you are putting too much water in your mixes. The darkest darks are mixed with almost pure watercolor paint and no water. Now this would be too strong in almost all instances but I mention it too give you perspective on how too much water can hinder your ability to mix a strong dark color.

Have a look at where the excess water is entering your mixes and you will be well on the way to correcting this. You could be washing your brush each time before you pick up more color when it is not necessary, you could have so little paint in your palette that you try to make it cover more area by adding more water, etc.

2. Too little water in your watercolor painting washes

If you try to do a wash over a large area of your painting with a brush with very little paint in it you will not end up with nice clean watercolor washes. The big washes should usually be done with a fully loaded brush – one which will drip if head vertically with the point down.

3. Painting into damp paper with a too wet a brush

This is a very common watercolor painting mistake. Painting into a damp (where the shine has left the watercolor paper) wash is dangerous as it can cause watercolor mud to develop but there are times when doing so can create just the effect you want.  The trick is to have less water in your brush than on your paper and you will be fine as long as you do not continue to fiddle!

4. Not waiting till a wash is totally dry before laying a glaze over the top of it

This is a very common one. Not only should the surface of your paint be dry but the paper below must be thoroughly dry as well. Otherwise as soon as you wet the surface with your glaze you risk disturbing the wash underneath as it can quickly re-liquefy due to the inherent dampness of the paper below.

5. Using a wrong sized brush for the shape being painted

A very small brush will take too long and too many brush strokes to cover a large area, this will lead to a rough look to your watercolor paintings. While too large a brush used for a small shape will make it too difficult to judge its water content and can lead to the under painting being washed away.

6. Poor quality paper

Some watercolor papers are just too absorbent acting like blotting paper. They are not only false economy as you will not be able to produce nice work on them but they actually hinder you from learning how to do nice clean washes.  A wash must be able to flow down the paper. Paper like that made by Arches and Saunders Waterford are very good. Why give yourself a handicap when you first start to paint with watercolors by trying to get away with inferior paper.

7. Trying to paint too large too soon

If you are just starting out with watercolors then I suggest you paint small to begin with about 16th (approx 19 cm x 14cm) or 8th sheet size (approx 28.5cm x 19 cm). Then build up to larger sizes as you get comfortable with the smaller. Some people find they prefer to paint small while others prefer larger work.

8. Poor quality watercolor brushes

Round watercolor brushes need to hold lots of water and pigment, and have a enough (but not too much) spring that their hairs bounce back to a nice point when the wet brush is tapped on the side of your water container. If the larger brushes don’t have a nice point it will increase the frequency with which you have to move down to a smaller brush which wastes valuable time. A good watercolor brush lets you use if for longer when painting before there is a need to pick up a smaller brush. I have written more about what to look for when buying a watercolor brush in another article on this website.

9. Not pre-mixing your starting watercolor colors

Before starting your under painting a good practice is to pre-mix the main colors you will need for your wet into wet wash. Otherwise if you start painting with your first color and then have to quickly mix your second and then your third you will not end up with a nice clean wash as the first one will dry too fast. Time is a very important factor “once you start your watercolor painting”  so why waste it mixing colors.

10. Starting to paint before thinking through the steps you will need to take to successfully complete your watercolor painting.

If you just start painting without a plan of attack you could find yourself running into difficulties which could have been avoided with some forethought. You may have needed to mask an area, painted it in a difference sequence, etc.

The above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of watercolor painting mistakes but they are the main ones. In later articles I will be expanding on each of the above points. For the time being if you are having problems with your work there is a good chance that if you scan down the above 10 point list you will spot the item (or items) causing your trouble.

Finally remember not to take it too seriously. It is much better to tackle a painting just wanting to have fun as it will show up in your final result. I have a related article you may be also interested in which covers how to fix a watercolor painting.

When a watercolor painting is not fixable

When a watercolor painting just can’t be salvaged

Well this does happen and not just to beginners, experts also create work that just doesn’t come together.  In fact I believe you have to be prepared to make such paintings from time to time if you want your art to progress. You have to be prepared to try new things and techniques to keep progressing; I know I certainly have to.

So what to do this non fixable painting? I usually refer to this technique as “always make you paintings pay for themselves”.

First step is not to get too fussed about it. What have you really lost? Well, probably a buck or two worth of paper, and much less of pigment along with some of your time.

Red Waratah flower watercolor painting
Red Waratah flower watercolor painting

But really the time you spend painting is never lost as the more you paint the better you will paint in time. This is what we call ‘brush mileage’ and everyone who wants to be a successful artist has to put in their time!

Second step is to look at your work and find what has worked. Depending on you current skill level this can be anything from noticing a nice clean wash in your painting, to who sections that work just fine.

Third step is where you look at what didn’t work. Is it a dirty wash, incorrect drawing, were you too hasty and overworked an area rather than letting it dry fully before moving onto the next step in your painting, objects in the wrong place, composition just completely wrong? If you can’t see what is wrong, but know it doesn’t look right, try turning the painting upside down or look at it in mirror; this often highlight design and tonal deficiencies. This is the most important step as by looking at what didn’t work you are learning and expanding as an artist.

The final step, after you have worked out what didn’t work, is to decide on a plan of action that would have corrected the problem with your painting (more learning and growing as an artist here) and then paint it again!! This is how you will develop you skills, not by wallowing in feelings of failure, you not trying to become brain surgeon, where mistakes can be a lot more costly (for the patient), you are an artist, deriving pleasure from the act of painting and working to improve one little step (or one painting) at a time.

Here are some other things you can do if your painting isn’t salvageable – after you have done the steps above:

One option is to wash the whole thing off under a tap with a sponge and repaint. This will work for some paintings and not others as you will not be able to get all the color off, at best it will leave a slight tint on the paper. It all depends what you want to do with your painting and if the tint will be in the wrong place. If you have damaged the paper surface this will probably not work either as that area will become very dark.

You can turn the sheet over and paint on the reverse side. In my early days as an artist I used to do this all the time. I still do sometimes. If you original painting is very dark you may want to wash it off under the tap with a sponge so that it does not show through which can happen with lighter weight papers like 180 gsm or lighter.

You can sometimes use pastels or acrylics to paint over you watercolor painting to create a beautiful multimedia piece of art. There are some watercolor artists that only paint this way. They use watercolor to create the under washes for their work and use other media like pastels to put in the detail and hightlights. You should always be open to new opportunities – the more I paint and learn about the rules of art the more I decide there really are no rules! Certainly you should never let some “now I am supposed to” rule someone gave you who really wasn’t a great artist to begin with, stop you from creating a beautiful piece of art!

I hope you have found this article of use to you.

Muddy watercolor paintings and problems with design

Small area of muddy watercolor

If your watercolor painting is largely made up of clean watercolor washes but maybe 5% is overworked and muddy looking I often just let it go as it will not alter the overall look of your painting. This is not a hard and fast rule however.  Sometimes a little muddy area can add additional textural interest to your painting.

Large area of muddy watercolor

Depending on how large an area is muddy it could unfortunately fit under the category of not repairable and would be repainted after analyzing when so much of the painting ended up overworked and muddy looking. At worst you can always paint over it with other mediums e.g. pastel or acrylics.

Composition doesn’t look right

First try to ascertain what is wrong with your composition. See if it can be corrected with tonal glazes or the addition of darker objects to break up a space into a more interesting one, etc, etc.

However if it is just not possible to correct the overall composition of your watercolor painting then you could try cropping the painting into a smaller shape.

Using various mats that are smaller than your painting pass it over your artwork in both landscape and portrait formats to see if there is a successful smaller painting within the not so successful larger one. One of my students regularly did this when she was still developing her watercolor skills and often ended up by selling the cropped watercolor.

A large section isn’t right but the rest of the painting works just fine

Washing out the offending section under the tap using a sponge and repainting can certainly work here. I have had a couple of paintings to which I have done this with very good effect.

Continue: When a watercolor painting is not fixable

Fixing problems with shape and tone in a watercolor painting

Mass of tree foliage too flat and uninteresting

You have just painted a mass of tree foliage but have just discovered it looks like one big flat shape. If the paint is still wet just use your fingernail or the rounded edge of and old credit card and scrape in some branch shapes. This breaks up the tree shape into more interesting ones.

If the foliage mass has dried too much. Wait till it is thoroughly dry, then glaze over it with clean water. Wait 30 seconds for the water to be absorbed by the paint underneath and then scrape in your branch shapes. Remember, to create interesting shapes avoid regular even branches which divide a shape into equal parts. Irregular sized shapes and angles make for a more interesting composition.

Irises watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright. White and dark flowers
Irises watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

Areas of you painting look disjointed i.e. too many small unconnected shapes.

Connect these together with a strong wash of watercolor paint.

Tone too light in a section of your watercolor painting

This is an easy one to fix.

All you need is a glaze of watercolor over the area that is too light and it will quickly repair the light area.

A small section of your painting is too dark

Again you can use the same technique for removing an object only just use it long enough to lighten the shape you want to adjust.

Lost all highlights in my watercolor painting

If you want to reclaim some lost highlights you can either do this with some judicious use of Chinese white or white gouache. In small areas this does not detract from the overall transparency of your watercolor painting.

If you want to reclaim more white you can try using some find sand paper, I have used this to create the impression of foam on waves. This technique can only be used as a last resort however as once you have done it you cannot paint over it as the sand paper removes the sizing.

Continue to: Muddy watercolor and problems with design