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.

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