Watercolor painting techniques: paint wetness

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

I think that rather than thinking of comparisons with things like milk, coffee, cream, etc. or using terms like strong or weak watercolor mix, one should first look at how a landscape watercolor artwork 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.

West MacDonnell ranges watercolo under painting with splatter
Figure 1: Watercolor under painting, distant sky lighter than distant ground

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.

West MacDonnell Ranges painting the ranges with watercolors
Figure 2: Watercolor painting of distant hill which is stronger in tone than distant ground.

The same process would generally be used when painting the distant trees and foreground objects such as bigger trees, grasses and shrubs.

West MacDonnell Ranges at sunset watercolor painting
Figure 3: As objects move forward in the picture plane they are stronger in tone i.e. less water in your watercolor mix

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.

Sunset watercolor painting – Lake Bonney

Lake Bonney sunset watercolor painting

How to create a sunset watercolor painting was the topic for my Monday watercolor class this week.  For this work I chose a sunset scene with lots of warm colors and interesting reflections.

The reference photo was provided by my friend Robyn Lovelock and is of Lake Bonney in South Australia, close to the borders of Victoria and New South Wales.

I chose this photo reference for my class for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly we had just completed a work which was predominately green and I wanted my students to have experience with a work with very little or no green in it.
  • Secondly this photo required very little editing to turn it into a nice watercolor painting.
  • Thirdly I wanted to teach them how to capture the light in a beautiful sunset.
  • Finally I could show my students how to tackle soft water reflections in barely damp paper. If not done at just the right time you can end up with unwanted backruns or cauliflowers. On the other hand if you wait too long you end up with hard edges which would not look right for this watery scene.
Lake Bonney SA reference photo for watercolor painting. Warm red sunset with red reflections.
Lake Bonney SA reference photo for watercolor painting

Very little prior drawing was done for this watercolor painting. In fact the only drawing was of a horizontal line representing the distant shoreline.

Painting design decisions

I made a number of decisions about the design of my watercolor painting at this point:

  • I placed the distant shoreline lower than in the photo to keep it well away from the center of the work.
  • I also decided to leave out the diagonal shore in the foreground as well as the tree on the left hand edge of the photo. They did not add to the painting and the hard edge of the diagonal would have acted to lead the eye out of the painting rather than keeping it in it.
  • I moved the position of the sun to the left for a more pleasing balance.
  • When I paint a scene like this I never slavishly try to paint everything that is in a photo – if I wanted to do that then I would just frame the photo. As artists we have the ability to extract the essence of an image and hopefully improve on it.
Lake Bonney sunset completed watercolor painting demonstration by Joe Cartwright
Lake Bonney sunset watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

Brief steps for painting this watercolor

The sky was painted with the board held in a portrait position so that the water colors would flow parallel to the horizon line. Otherwise if I painted this with the board in a normal landscape position I risked all the colors flowing down into one another.

I made sure to leave some of the paper untouched where the sun is positioned. This gives my painting the greatest light.

I left the sky to dry fully.

I then painted the distant tree line running some of the dead tree trunks into the water (this is why they are dead).

Again I let this dry fully.

Finally I painted the water with horizontal brush strokes. Water reflections are a little duller than the object they are reflecting, in this case the sky.

While the lake area of our scene is still quite wet- the shine is still on the paper, I dropped in the soft edged reflections of the distant bushes and trees. The after it had lost its shine I used a small brush with a good point, and very little water to paint the soft edged reflections of the dead trees in the foreground. It is a good idea to practice this on a scrap piece of watercolor paper till you get the timing right. When you practice something like this make sure you use the same paper as the watercolor paper of your painting.

I have now produced a full step by step demonstration article on how to paint this watercolor paintng. You can view it at this link: Lake Bonney warm sunset watercolor painting.


Dry Brush Technique for Watercolor Paintings

Dry brush technique

One of the brush strokes most often missing in beginners’ watercolor paintings is the Dry Brush Technique. This is a shame as it can add a great deal of energy and interest to a painting. While my comments are primarily directed at watercolor (watercolour) artists many of the points can also apply to dry brush technique for gouache, ink, oil and acrylic works of art -  basically any fluid art medium.

The dry brush painting stroke creates a range of broken edges implying neither hard nor soft edges. It can be used to create a statement but leaves enough uncertainty to allow the viewer to add some of their own interpretation to a painting while still getting the general message.

Dry brush edges can add a great detail of variety to your painting. Some dry brush strokes can be hard edged on one side and broken on the other; something I find very useful when creating sparkle on water in seascapes and river paintings. They can be broken edged on both sides, a stroke I use when creating texture in clouds and on the sides of Venetian and other old buildings. By modifying the typical straight edged stroke to one with curves you can use it to quickly and easily create the impression of foliage in certain trees, like Australian gums, and fluffy clouds in the sky.

A dry brush stroke can start on a portion of your watercolor paper which is dry and lead into a wet area acting as a nice connection between a textured region of ground moving towards a shadowed or more dense area. This stroke can also start from a wet area of your painting and be dragged into a dry one.

Painting the foreground of green foliage in watercolor painting
Figure 1: Dry brush technique giving impression of distant masses of trees

Quick dry brush strokes can be made to represent breaking waves in a beach scene or textured areas of a road surface. One stroke and you’re done; in my view, nothing conveys confidence in a watercolor painting more than dry brush strokes placed in just the right spot.

Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene
Figure 2: Dry brush technique to create breaking waves on beach

Another use of the dry brush technique is when painting palm trees, one quick stroke can create a trunk which has a hard edge on one side and a broken edge on the other.

Hawaiian sunset watercolor painting. Palm trees in front with sailing boat in distance.
Figure 3: Dry brush technique to create palm tree trunks with one brush stroke.

Dry brush technique does not necessarily mean that you have to use a brush with very little paint or water in it however. The variables you have to work with when painting a dry brush stroke are these:

1. The texture of your watercolor paper: is it rough, medium or smooth? It is much easier to create a dry brush stroke on rough paper, but it can be produced on any texture.

2. The speed of your brush movement determines how much of a dry brush effect you create: speed is more important the smoother the texture of your paper. If you are using very smooth paper you need to move the brush very fast to create this type of stroke.

3. How wet is the paper you are painting on? If your paper still has a shine on it then you cannot produce a dry brush stroke. It can only be produced on dry or maybe damp paper – though this requires a greater degree of skill as it can lead to a muddy work of art.

4. The angle of your brush and how hard you press: a brush held with the hairs parallel to your paper will create a different dry brush effect than one which uses the tip of your brush. The pressure you apply with also have an effect on your final dry brush result.

5. Finally the amount of watercolor paint as well as its consistency on your brush is important. This point works in conjunction with the points above. If you have a fully loaded (almost dripping) brush you have to move it quite fast to achieve a dry brush stroke. If you have less paint on the brush you may need to move the brush slower. If you are using smoother papers then you may need to reduce the amount of watercolor paint to get a creditable dry brush effect.

Points 1 to 5 above are all interrelated. You can’t have a single rule for creating a dry brush stroke with watercolor because all five factors have to be taken into account along with what statement you are trying to make with a particular brush stroke. Remember you are not just coloring in when you paint a watercolor painting – you are making some statement and the various edges you create are part of your language!

To me the most enjoyable watercolors are those that have the full range of watercolor artists’ painting edges within them. These edges include hard edged wet on dry strokes which imply definite statements effectively saying ‘Hey, this happens at just this spot in this way!” to soft wet on wet edges which leave a great deal up to the viewer to evaluate. The dry brush technique is equally as important as these other two brush techniques and including it in your work will help you create better and more interesting watercolor paintings.

Watercolor painting demonstration of boats and early morning rising mist

San Diego Harbor, Rising Mist

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

I have just loaded my latest watercolor demonstration painting. The painting is titled “Rising Mist” and is of an early morning scene on San Diego harbor with the mist rising. It is based on a photo my wife took a number of years ago as she was sailing out of the harbor on the way down to Mexico.

You can find the demonstration at this link: Rising Mist boat and sea watercolor demonstration

The demonstration takes you from the initial photographic inspiration, through how to draw boats and objects into the light, the initial wet on wet under wash, how to create a mist effect with watercolor paint, painting boat details and finishing with how to paint the reflections on the water.

If you would like to purchase a printable pdf copy of this demonstration which has larger images and no advertisements you can do so through my online store for US$1.00 or by clicking here:  [wp_eStore_add_to_cart id=15]

I hope you find it of interest and use!

Happy painting,


Joe Cartwright

Art Masking Fluid

Using art masking fluid with watercolor

What is art masking fluid and how is it used? Masking fluid is liquid latex, which is a natural rubber, though there are synthetic versions of it as well. As a watercolor artist it allows you to protect parts of your painting. It allows you to quickly paint over areas of your paper without having to try and paint around complex shapes. Masking fluid is used by Acrylic artists as well watercolor artists.

For this demonstration I am using Winsor and Newton’s Art Masking Fluid which I have been using for about 14 years without any problems.

What you need to apply art masking fluid

Here is a list of the tools you will need when applying masking fluid to your watercolor paper.

Equipment for applying art masking fluid
Figure 1: Masking fluid, water container and range of old watercolor brushes
  • Bottle of masking fluid, also known by various brand names.
  • A water container filled with about3/4” of water – for use with cleaning the latex from your brush
  • Old watercolor brushes, do not use your good brushes as any latex left in the brush will destroy their good point very quickly. I have a number of such brushes with varying shapes, one has quite a fine point (obtained over time as hairs have worn away) for masking narrow lines and shapes.
Concentrated dish washing liquid for use with art masking fluid
Figure 2: Concentrated dish washing liquid for use with art masking fluid
  • Dishwashing liquid.
Crepe eraser for remove dry art masking fluid
Figure 3: Crepe eraser for remove dry art masking fluid
  • Crepe eraser for removing the dry masking.

Steps for apply masking fluid

The first step after you have completed the drawing for your painting is to give your bottle of masking fluid a good shake. I do this about 15 minutes before I need to use it to allow all the bubbles thus generated to settle back down. Otherwise you get masking fluid up the side of your brush when you dip it into a half full bottle.

While waiting for the bubbles to settle down add some dishwashing liquid to the container you will use for cleaning the masking from your brush. Stir it all up so the liquid soap is dispersed evenly throughout the water.

Add some dishwashing liquid to water used to remove wet art masking fluid
Figure 4: Add some dish washing liquid to the water container
Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid in water and stir used to clean art masking fluid
Figure 5: Stir up the dish washing liquid

Start by dipping your brush into the soapy water. Drag the brush over the rim of the water container to remove some excess water and then dip it into the latex masking.

After dipping brush in soapy water pick up some art masking fluid
Figure 6: After dipping your brush into the soapy water dip it into the masking fluid

Now you can paint the masking fluid onto your dry paper over the areas you need to protect.

Paint art masking fluid directly onto dry paper
Figure 7: Paint the masking fluid onto your dry paper over the areas you want to protect

Between every one or two times that you pick up fresh masking liquid rinse the brush out in the soapy water. If you fail to do this the masking will start to dry on your brush and you will end up throwing it out!

Dip brush in soapy water before dipping into art masking fluid
Figure 8: Frequently clean you brush in the soapy water

Continue this procedure till you have finished applying the masking fluid to your watercolor painting.

Finish placing all your art masking fluid and let dry thoroughly
Figure 9: Continue applying masking fluid to the watercolor painting till finished

Let the masking fluid dry completely. Once dry you can lay your watercolor wash over the unprotected areas of your painting. In my case I have used the masking to protect the flowers and branches of my painting so I can easily lay in the background watercolor wash. The masking will protect the paper underneath from staining. However sometimes you may find you have missed a spot leaving you with a small patch of watercolor where it isn’t wanted. This will need to be removed with some light scrubbing after the masking is taken away.

Once art masking fluid is dry lay down your watercolor wash
Figure 10: After the masking is totally dry you can lay your watercolor wash

After your watercolor wash has totally dry (this is very important) then you can proceed to the next step of removing the masking. The easiest way to do this is to use a crepe eraser. You do not have to press very hard as the latex of the masking fluid seems to be attracted to the rubber of the eraser and comes off quite easily.

After the watercolor wash is totally dry you can remove the dry art masking fluid with a crepe eraser
Figure 11: After the watercolor wash is totally dry you can remove the dry art masking fluid with a crepe eraser

You now have the background done and can concentrate on the details in the areas which were protected.

After removing art masking fluid from watercolor painting
Figure 12: The painting with the dry art masking fluid removed

If you had left a gap in your masking now is the time to remove as much of the unwanted watercolor paint as possible with a barely damp stiff brush. You can also use this same brush to fix any edges that you feel are not correct or too sharp before proceeding to the next step.

Key points for using masking fluid with watercolor paper

Make sure you only apply masking fluid to watercolor paper which is totally dry. Do not apply it to wet or damp paper or the masking fluid will be absorbed into the paper and will damage it when you remove it. Also, it should not be used on soft sized paper – I use Arches watercolor paper which has plenty of sizing. Otherwise it could be absorbed into the paper fibres. If this happens it cannot be removed without damaging your paper.

Do not use it on soft sized watercolor paper. This means watercolor paper with very little sizing on it. I mainly use Arches paper and have never had any trouble with it. The problem with soft sized paper is that the masking may be absorbed by the paper and not be able to be removed properly without damage.

Clean you brush in the soapy water very frequently.

Don’t use your best watercolor brushes for applying masking fluid or they will be damaged.

Wait until the masking is fully dry before painting over it.

Wait until you watercolor wash is totally dry before removing the dry masking with a crepe eraser.

You can apply masking fluid over a dry area of watercolor wash before laying another wash. However a little of the watercolor being protected is likely to be lifted and may need to be reestablished anyway with more watercolor.

I only use masking when I really have to as it slows down the whole painting process rather than letting me get right into the painting – but there are times when it just must be used.

Hopefully this information will allow you to use art masking fluid successfully with your future watercolor and acrylic paintings.