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.

Pen and Wash or Watercolor

I recently ran a Pen and Wash workshop at Fay Boyds Fine Art School in Grafton, NSW, during which one of the paintings produced was a landscape of a scene in the Capertee Valley.

After the workshop I painted the same scene only this time it was done purely in watercolor. I thought you might like to see the two paintings to see whether you favor the watercolor or pen and wash version.

I personally like both and feel each has a place in my repertoire.

Below is a photo of the scene.

Reference photo Capertee Valley Farmland for watercolor painting
Figure 1: Reference photo Capertee Valley Farmland sorry for the low resolution

Pen and Wash

The pen and wash version was done quite quickly. First I did the drawing using a dip pen and permanent black ink.

Very little shading was carried out with the ink which was used for outlining the scene only. I did, however, vary the pressure on my pen to give more character to the lines, especially in the sky.

Once the ink was fully dry I laid a light watercolor wash over the whole painting. Starting with the sky, distant hills, the foreground hills and finally the dirt road. While doing the under wash I skipped little parts of the paper to add light to the painting.

Once this was dry I went back into my watercolor painting and placed the distant and foreground trees. I finished it off with the shadow on the right hand side cliff face, the side of the main tree and on the road. You can see my finished Pen and Wash painting below.

Capertee Farmland pen and  wash watercolorp ainting
Figure 2: Finished pen and watercolor wash painting

Watercolor Painting

This next painting was done with water color only, after doing a light pencil drawing of the scene.

The initial under painting was similar to that done in the pen and wash version. Once this was totally dry I painted the distant cliff faces alternating light and dark, cool and warm colors to add interest. This also gives the impression of sunlit and shadowed sections of the cliff.

After painting the cliff faces I added some additional green color to the hill below it. Initially the under painting of the hill was too light and the cliff faces looked like they were floating on air. The extra paint strengthened the hillside tone which fixed it.

Next came the distant trees moving towards the middle distance trees with stronger (thicker mix) watercolor paint. I let this stage dry.

I now painted the featured gum tree starting with the foliage and painting the trunk while the foliage was still wet in places. I also painted some branches in the top right hand corner of the painting. These branches on the right hand side add to the feeling of space in my painting by implying more trees outside of the field of view in the painting.

I let the painting dry fully before finishing it with the shadows  as before. The shadows are painted with French Ultramarine and some Permanent Alizarin Crimson, the mixture leaning towards the blue not the red. Figure 3 is the finished work.

Capertee Valley Farmland Trees Cliffs and strong light watercolor painting
Figure 3: Finished watercolor painting of Capertee Valley landscape

How to paint a river landscape with watercolor

Grose river watercolor landscape

Finished watercolor painting Grose River, Yarramundi, NSW
Finished watercolor painting Grose River, Yarramundi, by Joe Cartwright

I have just finished posting my latest watercolor (watercolour) landscape demonstration. It is of the Grose River which runs through the Blue Mountains on the edge of Sydney, Australia. This location is very close to my home.

The demonstration covers a range of watercolor painting techniques which include painting skies and clouds, how to paint water, reflections and masses of trees and shrubs.

It also discusses how you can use a fan brush to paint certain type of trees.

You can find the link to this demonstration on the above menu or by clicking this link: Watercolor landscape painting demonstration of a river scene

Modified Dry Brush or Broken Edge Technique

Modified dry brush

Instead of horizontal or vertical dry brush strokes you can use a more curved stroke using the body of the brush head, which just lightly touches the watercolor paper.

The trick to this technique is to have your brush almost parallel to your watercolor paper, and not to let the point of the brush touch the paper either.

I use this technique when creating the impression of tree foliage for gum trees and other similar trees as in figure 8. I also use this brush stroke when doing skies with fluffy clouds.

Modified Dry Brush Technique to create tree foliage
Figure 8: Modified Dry Brush Technique to create tree foliage
Watercolor Painting Modified Dry Brush Technique for doing fluffy clouds
Figure 9: Modified Dry Brush Technique used to create fluffy clouds

The trick of making this work is not to dab at your paintings but to lightly move the brush over its textured surface.  It works best with rough paper, but can also be applied to cold pressed paper; the smoother the paper the less paint you want in your brush to create the broken edge effect.

Watercolor Brushes Used

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these edges in these examples are produced with a round brush.  They can however be produced with other brushes, some easier and others more difficult depending on the brush used.

As you master these edges you will find painting water color art will become much easier and they will give you the tools to make some wonderful watercolor paintings.

I hope these watercolor painting tips have been of use to you.

Controlled Wet on Wet Technique

Controlled Wet on Wet Technique

As the paper dries, during the wet on wet technique, it will arrive at a point where it has lost its shine, now if at this stage you run the point of your brush across this damp section of paper you will see an interesting effect as shown in figure two. As the paper is no longer very wet, at this point it will actually have less water on it than is on your brush. Now what happens is that instead of the watercolor paint just running down the paper, some of it is actually sucked up into the dryer section of the paper – so you can get a whole range of soft to furry effects both up and down from the position of your brush stroke.  I use this edge in many places within my watercolor paintings. This is a great edge I use for creating soft connections of a boat’s hull with the water so it looks like it is floating, I use it when creating certain shadow shapes, for quickly creating trees and reflections on a distant lake shore and I also use it in my watercolor landscape paintings to create a tree line on top of a hill. Its uses are almost endless!

Controlled Wet on Wet Watercolor Technique
Figure 2: Controlled Wet on Wet Technique for watercolor painting
Controlled Wet on Wet Technique, with addition water brush stroke
Figure 3: Controlled Wet on Wet technique followed by a stroke of clean water to create a shore line
Waterline of Boat painted with controlled wet on wet technique
Figure 4: Waterline of Boat painted with controlled wet on wet technique
Distant tree line painted with controlled wet on wet brush stroke
Figure 5: Distant tree line painted with controlled wet on wet brush stroke

When painting with watercolor you need to take advantage of this interaction of water,watercolor paint and gavity, to create the effects you would like to produce.

This is one of the most difficult of edges to conquer as so much depends on timing (how wet is your water color painting), how wet is your watercolor mixture in your pallet and brush, the anble of your board as well as how fast it is all drying; environmental conditions greatly affect your painting and you must be aware of them. When painting watercolor landscapes plein air environmental conditions are even more critical!

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