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.

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.

Watercolor newsletter June 2012

Watercolor Newsletter #1 – June 2012

Welcome to my first Painting With Watercolors (watercolours) newsletter. It is intended as a summary of what has gone on with regards to my Painting With Watercolor site in between newsletter releases. Primarily this will include new demonstrations and articles.

I hope to include some other interesting and useful information regarding watercolor painting which won’t have yet been posted on the website.

The importance of the right attitude for tackling watercolor paintings

I often hear people say that watercolor painting is really difficult or that it takes years to learn. Even so I find some students can get very upset with themselves when they do not quickly start producing good work. They look at other peoples’ work and wonder why theirs hasn’t gone so well. So what is right in all of this?

Well firstly while watercolor is more difficult to learn than some other painting mediums it does not necessarily mean it will take years to learn how to paint good paintings. What is certainly true is that we all come to this medium with different life experiences, in my case I had studied engineering which had developed my observation skills and helped me get a better feel for what the water was doing on the paper (this happens to be critical), others have had experience in other mediums so their understanding of colors may be more advanced, while others bring a love of design or anything creative which can help with the more spontaneous sections of a watercolor painting.

However apart from our previous experiences there are some things we can all bring to our early watercolor work. The first is a desire to learn and more importantly to have fun with our watercolor painting. Having fun is very important I feel, especially if you are taking on this subject in your later years as a pastime for some of your spare time. You should never lose sight of your desire to have fun with this medium. Take a moment as you paint to marvel at the beauty of the watercolors flowing and mixing on your watercolor paper.

In addition to having fun and a desire to learn. The right attitude should be a belief that with practice you will succeed, sure there will always be something you can improve, but you should always acknowledge what has worked with your painting first before looking at what hasn’t worked. In time you will find more and more passages have worked and less haven’t. Look at the areas which haven’t worked with curiosity rather than disappointment. Look at what has happened and how the effect could have come about e.g. letting the paper dry too much before going back in with a very wet brush, too much water in your mix, not enough water in a mix, painting too slow, etc. By analyzing your work this way you can improve it in future paintings.

Sometimes when we are having difficulty with an area and can’t solve it then that is when we should go and ask other artists if they can advise on a solution or a reference, or we can look into the watercolor books in our library (I have about 150) or these days we can do a Google search of the internet and will most probably find something there to help out. When I first started with watercolor I loved the challenge it presented and treated everything that didn’t work with curiosity and interest. This attitude helped my work to progress.

I my classes I am always tasking my students with more challenging pieces to paint. I do this to keep them progressing. For most people (but not all) the idea of always painting the same subject, because we know we can succeed at it, would be quite boring. For this reason, I keep challenging myself with my watercolors and actually get quite excited when I see a piece that makes me think , “Now how was that done?”

So for those of you that sometimes get upset with your work, I hope the above is of some use.

Keep painting with curiosity, observation, and the conviction that you will succeed and you will certainly produce some nice watercolor paintings. Have fun painting!

Latest Demos

Beach Sunset

In May I posted a new watercolor demonstration. It is titled “Beach Sunset” and is a good painting to teach you about wet on wet passages, splattering watercolors, and how to paint an atmospheric beach scene. You can see it on my website or by clicking on this link here: Painting an atmospheric  beach sunset scene.

Have a go at it if you like and please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Removing wrinkles or cockles in your watercolor paper after your painting is finished

I put together an article along with a short video on one way to flatten your watercolor paintings after they have been completed. This is one technique I have found very useful and you may too. Removing wrinkles in your watercolor paper.


The importance of water and time

I also posted an article on the importance of water and time when painting with watercolors. People often concentrate on colors and color mixing while the most important ingredients are actually water and time. It is water that allows us to produce some of watercolor painting’s most beautiful effects. Time is also very important as often we have to wait for just the right moment (when the paper has had a chance to dry just enough) to create certain watercolor marks.

Here is a link to the full article: The most important watercolor ingredients


Other News

Coming up

I am in a process of producing a series of video demonstrations which I will sell as DVDs or as downloads at an affordable price. They will be very much in the same style that I run my workshops and regular lessons only you will be able to review them at will. The focus on the DVDs will be very  much based on education, teaching you useful techniques as I paint through a full watercolor or pen and ink painting. I will provide more updates at things progress.

Next Demonstration Painting

This is the next painting which will go up on PaintingWithWatercolors.com over the couple of weeks.

Painting shadows finished Light over Shearing Shed
Painting shadows finished Light over Shearing Shed

Surveys running on my website

During May I implemented some software which will allow me to run various surveys regarding watercolor painting. My current survey asks visitors about what types of paintings they most like to paint in watercolor. So far landscapes are ahead but I will provide a more comprehensive update in the next newsletter.


My wife and I are taking a 4WD trip through the Kimberley region of North West Australian during June. Hopefully I will bring back some nice paintings and plenty of reference material!

Contact Joe

If you have any watercolor questions about my watercolor newsletter or would like to contact me please do so through my Contact form above.

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.

How to fix a watercolor painting

A watercolor painting can be fixed

One often hears artists say that you cannot fix a watercolor painting once you have painted it or a section of it. This is not necessarily true, there are many things you can do to repair a painting or part of it. At worst there are things you can do that will make your next painting of the same subject better. In this article I will cover some of the things you can do to fix problems in a watercolor painting

One comment I would like to add about the paper you use however. Many of the techniques here are based on the use of good artist’s quality paper. I use Arches watercolor paper as well as Sanders Waterford, but there are many others. These papers, especially the Arches, are made especially for watercolor and have good sizing (like a glue which helps keep the surface of the paper together and controls how fast and have much watercolor pigment is allowed to be absorbed into its surface). If you use poor quality paper, with very little sizing, you will find your paints are too readily absorbed into the core of your paper and cannot be adjusted once laid down in a watercolor wash.

My watercolor students often look at me after they have done something in class with their painting which leads them to believe that they have ruined it. Often this is not the case.

I learned this lesson myself quite a few years ago when I was doing a landscape painting and had felt I’d ruined it. I had actually gotten to the point where I had thrown the painting into the bin (the only time I have done such a thing). Then about an hour later, I found myself thinking about the painting and realized I probably had not gone past the point of no return.

I dug the painting out of the bin and continued to work on it. It turned out to be a good piece of artwork and sold soon after I framed it.

So the first question to consider when creating a watercolor painting and you think you have ruined is have you really ruined it? Quite often you have not gone past this point of no return, you just think you have. Why is this so?

One reason this happens is because often one has to leave a large section of your painted untouched until near completion such as when painting river scenes and you have to leave the river area unpainted until you paint everything else – because you won’t know what reflections to put in otherwise. For this reason your paintings tonal pattern will not look right until the end. In this case you just have to have faith with your initial design that it will work out. One painting I did for a major exhibition was like this and I had to work on it over a period of three weeks, all the while thinking the tones were out, but when it was finished it ended up winning a couple of major awards.

So before you give up on a painting, give it another thought and if the tones don’t look right, make sure it isn’t just because of the white left on your watercolor paper.

Now what are some of the other things that can go wrong with watercolor paintings?

  • Stray dots which land in the sky
  • Tone too light in a section of your painting
  • Mass of tree foliage to flat and uninteresting
  • Large splash of paint in and unintended or unwanted location.
  • Objects in the wrong place
  • A small area of your painting which is too dark
  • Lost highlights
  • Composition doesn’t look right
  • Small area of muddy color
  • Large area of muddy color
  • Painting is a real mess and really can’t be fixed
  • An area of the painting is too dark

Before we look at how to fix some of these problems, let’s consider just what happens with watercolor paint on the surface of our paper.

Watercolor paint that we lay on our watercolor paper is made up primarily or water, pigment, and a binder (gum Arabic) which fixes the pigment to the paper.

When you lay a quick watercolor wash on your paper, and leave it to dry without fiddling you will end up with a nice clean wash. It will effectively be a smooth layer mostly on the surface of the paper, with a small amount absorbed into the paper.

If you keep fiddling with your watercolor wash while it is drying you will end up with a rough texture on the surface of the paper instead of a smooth one. This is what we call mud. A famous Australian artist, Norman Lindsay, gave one of the best descriptions of mud I have ever had given. He said if you imagine a muddy puddle on the ground. If you leave the muddy puddle to try naturally without disturbing it, it will end up with a nice smooth dry surface – this is what we would call a nice clean wash in watercolor painting. Now if you stir up the muddy puddle as the water evaporates and the puddle loses it shine, it will dry with a very rough texture – this is what we would call a muddy (no pun intended) wash.

Knowing what the surface of your watercolor wash painting looks like when it is dry we can see what and how we can make certain repairs or adjustments.

Continue to: Removing stray watercolor droplets in your sky