Candle wax can be used to protect the highlights or white passages in your watercolor painting. I have used it to create the impression of waterfalls, white foam on the sea, and to save highlights on rocks. This simple watercolor painting using candle wax was done with only a few colors and some quick watercolor washes. It is one of the early exercises I have all my beginner watercolor students do.
The trick with using candle wax is to understand the surface of your paper and what effect you are trying to produce. If you press lightly, less wax will be deposited on the paper surface. If the paper is textured, rather than smooth, you will get a broken edge of white unless you press very hard. The easiest way to learn the properties of wax on watercolor paper is to try it. Any experimenting you do on various papers and candle sizes will be beneficial.
The wax creates a barrier on the paper surface so that it stops the paint from sticking to its surface.
The one big negative about using wax on your watercolor paper is that it is permanent. You can’t remove it and you can’t paint over it. So you have to really need or want to use it and you have to know exactly where you want to place the wax.
Materials for using wax on watercolor paper
Arches 300gsm Cold Pressed (also known as Medium) watercolor paper, eighth sheet (approx. 7.5″ x 6″ (19cm x 14cm).
Brushes: Round — Sizes 24 and 12 for larger washes and 8 for the smaller areas and detail.
Paints: All Winsor and Newton — Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cad Orange.
Old towel to control wetness of your brushes
Pencil, tissues, and large water container that holds about 3 pints.
Clear (white) candle
I did a very light drawing of where the rocks would go.
Watercolor under painting
Before laying down my first wash I mixed my sky colors in my palette. The colors used were Cobalt Blue with a touch of Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Alizarin Crimson on its own, and some Cad Orange on its own.
By premixing my starting colors I can paint the big washes very quickly.
I start my under painting with the Cobalt Blue and Permanent Alizarin Crimson mix. I lay this wash down at a bit of an angle so that the sky does not have a horizontal look. Your brush must be fully loaded with paint. (A fully loaded brush is one that if you hold it vertically, with the point down, it will drip.)
Each wash of watercolor paint must be wet enough that it easily flows down the paper and forms a bead of paint at its bottom. You have to paint it very quickly or you will get streaks in the sky.
After you lay the first wash down, quickly load up your brush with the Permanent Alizarin Crimson and run this along the bottom of the blue wash. I run my brush about a quarter to a half brush thickness from the bottom of the first wash. You have to paint each wash fast enough that you can see the watercolors flow down your paper. If you are not seeing this then you are not loading up your brush with enough paint or you are moving the brush too slowly.
Repeat the above with the Cad Orange mix down to the distant horizon.
I then added some French Ultramarine to the blue mix in my palette and used this to paint the water down to the sand which was a just Raw Umber.
The sea area was a bit weak so I added more pigment while the painting was still wet to strengthen the sea color. I then dropped in a much stronger mix of the sea color under the wet waves.
I let the under painting dry thoroughly at this stage!
Once the under painting was totally dry, I painted the rocks with a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. While the rocks were still wet I used a clean damp brush and softened the edges that touched the sand — quite often you will see damp sand, even little pools, around the edges of rocks near the sea.
Finished simple watercolor painting using candle wax
The painting was completed with the addition of a few squiggles on the sand to represent sea weed or other flotsam and jetsam that ends up along the shore. In this case the squiggles are used to break up the sand area into more interesting shapes.
This type of painting can be done very quickly and is a good exercise for teaching beginner watercolor artists how to handle quite wet washes.
The birds would probably have been better left without the wax and then just placed in later with a dark color or white gouache.
Some students only attend watercolor classes or workshops. They rarely produce artwork at home or in their studio. I am always encouraging my students to try and paint as much as possible at home. In addition to attending my watercolor classes. I did this because I noticed that those that did so progressed much faster than students who just attended classes. Recently I realised the main reason why these students progressed at their faster rate. It has all to do with developing their observation skills versus memory skills. Let’s look briefly at the pros and cons of watercolor classes.
Pros and cons of watercolor classes
If you attend a class or watercolor workshop you will achieve a number of things. Firstly there is the camaraderie of working with other students. Secondly you learn watercolor techniques from your teacher who can also critique your artwork. Thirdly, regular classes keep you moving along with your watercolor painting when you might otherwise be tempted to give up.
However observation skills can suffer when you attend a watercolor class or workshop. This is because students concentrate more on trying to remember everything their teacher is saying, rather than observing what is happening with their own work. Your teacher may show you a step in a watercolor painting which you are expected to follow. When you go back to your easel your first thought is usually to try and remember what you have just been shown. Instead of you thinking through the steps you need to take to complete your watercolor painting you spend your time trying to “remember” what you were told. To progress with your watercolor painting what you need is the ability to think through the steps for yourself. You also need to observe the affects you create with your watercolor paints. Observation is critical to improving your watercolor painting techniques.
Furthermore there can be plenty of distractions in a watercolor class. Other students talking, your tutor or other students looking over your shoulder as you paint. Concerns about what others might think about your painting. Cramped space, poor or different lighting, etc. All of these things can hinder you ability to observe.
When you are painting at home, you are forced to think through your own steps to complete your watercolor artwork. You are also more likely to observe what is happening on your paper than in the classroom. It is much more important for you to observe what is happening on your own watercolor painting than to sit there and just try and remember the steps someone else has given you. Furthermore, when you are working on your watercolor painting at home or in your studio you are not distracted by other people. This makes it much easier for you to concentrate and observe. It is for this reason that I have found that students that do some work at home in addition to their classes always progress the fastest with their watercolor painting skills.
In summary, observation is critical for watercolor painting, probably more so than for any other medium. It is much easier to observe when you are at home in your own studio rather than with all the distractions in a class. Obviously for more experienced artists this is not such a problem, but then again an experienced watercolor artist is less likely to be attending watercolor classes or going to workshops. I hope the above is of some use to you in your watercolor painting journey.
What is watercolor painting? If you tackle the subject from the point of view of painting with colored water, rather than watercolor paint you may find it easier to understand.
By considering watercolor painting as dealing with colored water you are forced to give more thought to the water component. Water is the most important ingredient in watercolor painting but it is rarely given much attention. It is the water that lets watercolor paint do its magic.
I have found that most of the difficulties new watercolor artists run into are related to not keeping an eye on what the water is doing. On their painting surface or in their palette or on their brushes. Sure part of the problem is confusion about what steps to take with their painting, however as this confusion slows down their response to their work which allows the surface to dry too fast – hence water becomes a problem even here.
Why water is critical to a successful watercolor painting
It is the flowing of water and pigment on your paper that leaves behind a nice clean layer of paint called a “watercolor wash”. If you do not use enough water in your paint mix it will not flow down or over your watercolor paper and you will have a rough looking paint layer. In fact this is often what people refer to as a muddy watercolor painting. It is muddy not because it is the color of mud but because the layer of watercolor paint on the surface of your painting is actually quite rough instead of smooth which is what happens when enough water is used in the mix. This rough surface seems to inhibit the transfer of light through the watercolor layer. If you run your fingertips over a muddy passage in your painting you will find that it feels rougher, than when compared to a nice clean passage of your watercolor painting.
Think of sand on a beach. If the sand is roughed up by people walking, digging, or otherwise playing on it while it is damp, it will remain roughed up. However if a wave rolls over the sand as it washes back out to sea it leaves behind a nice smooth surface. This is similar to what happens on the surface of your watercolor paper. A definition of watercolor mud was given by a famous Australian watercolor artist, Norman Lindsay, who compared the process to that of a muddy puddle. If you leave a muddy puddle undisturbed, as it dries, it will leave a nice smooth finish. If however you disturb the mud while it is still damp, for example by digging into it with a stick, it will dry with a rough surface. This again is very similar to what happens on the surface of a watercolor painting if you keep trying to paint with thicker paint on a barely damp surface.
How much water to mix with watercolor paint
So just how much water should be in a watercolor mix? Well this depends on a number of factors:
The angle of your supporting board. The steeper the angle the less water is needed to allow the paint to flow.
How fast you paint. This is connected to your skill and experience level. The slower you paint the wetter your watercolor paint mix should be so it doesn’t dry too fast and stop flowing.
How wet your watercolor painting is from a previous wash. Painting with thick paint into an already wet surface will still give you a soft edge but it will be more controlled than when you paint in a wet surface with a very wet mixture.
The tone (relative lightness or darkness) you are trying to create with a particular mix requires more (lighter tone) or less (darker tone) water.
The type of edge effect you are trying to create. A very soft effect where it is not possible to tell when one color finishes and another starts needs more water than an edge which is more definite. The other extreme is where you want hard, definite, edges. In this case you would paint on dry paper – though the mix still has to be wet enough that it will flow.
The size of the shape you are painting. A bigger shape requires more water in your mix so it does not dry between each successive horizontal brush stroke as you paint down your sheet of watercolor paper.
Atmospheric factors need to be taken into account as well. If you are painting in a hot room or environment you will need more water than when painting in a cold one. Outdoors you have to make similar allowances for the wind, which can be really tricky – so much so I rarely try and paint plein air if the wind is too strong.
Finally all of the above are inter-related – this is where the skill comes in!
So next time you get out your watercolor painting gear give yourself some time to look at what the water is doing as you paint. It will certainly improve your results!
Hopefully the above will give you a new insight into watercolor painting which will help you gain more from your art. Watercolor painting is a wonderful medium and I wish you many years of pleasure from it if you are just starting out. Should you have any questions of comments please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.
Here is a simple watercolor painting subject for beginners. It is also a good subject if you are sitting around your home and not feeling too inspired. It will get your creative juices flowing without a great deal of emotional investment on your part. I have a number of other similar simple watercolor paintings for beginners on this website which you may be interested in.
Simple watercolor painting subject – egg shells
This is a very good watercolor painting exercise which can also result in quite a nice work of art. I recently had my students paint egg shells as a class painting. While the subject can appear very basic it opens the eyes to such things as subtle reflected lights, cast shadows, form shadows, and composition.
A subject like this is very good when you are feeling stuck for a painting subject. It’s simplicity will mean you can get your drawing down quickly and get painting with your watercolors. It is a great subject for when you are feeling creatively blocked. You can treat it as an exercise rather than a full painting so you will not be so hesitant to start. After all, it only requires a little of your time and almost no cost. It generated a great deal of interest amongst my watercolor students. What at first just seemed a simple watercolor painting subject, turned out to be a lot more challenging. It is a watercolor painting for beginners but it can also be done by more experienced artists.
The first step in this painting, after collecting your egg shells, and finding a suitable bright spot light, is to arrange your composition in an interesting manner. Set up your spotlight to cast an interesting shadow pattern to aid your composition. I selected three pieces of egg shell with two touching and one a little apart from the others. The shells were placed so that there was a lot of variation in the spaces between and around them.
After lightly drawing up my composition I painted the egg shells with a wash of burnt sienna and French ultramarine. I made the mixture quite watery so that some of the paint beaded at the bottom of each egg. After I quickly painted the two connected eggs I let the paint sit there for about thirty seconds to give it time to stain the paper but not fully evaporate. I then paint their cast shadows. I used French Ultramarine mixed with a little Alizarin Crimson, this violet mixture leans to the blue. Notice that some of the egg color has bled into the shadow area, this acts as reflected light which you should notice in real life. This bleeding into the shadow color was done on purpose and is the reason to keep a bead of paint at the bottom of the egg shapes.
With the egg shell on the right I did not bleed any egg shell color into the shadow area as there was light shining through a gap in the egg shell on its left hand side. Sorry but you can’t see this in my image as it is out of the field of view.
After the egg shapes and shadows were totally dry I went back and painted each egg shape again with my previously mixed egg color. I also dropped in some soft edged form shadows with French Ultramarine and a little Alizarin Crimson.
I let this stage dry completely.
Next I re-wet the shadow areas and drop in some strong dark water color made up of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. This goes just under each of the two egg shells on the left.
I used a weak wash of Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Blue, and some Burnt Sienna for the inside of each shell. I let this dry fully. The watercolor painting was finished with the addition of some shadow color to the inside of each egg shell. The one in the middle has a hard edged cast show which you can see in the finished painting above.
While this is a relatively simple watercolor painting subject it can be enhanced as much as you like to build it up to a full work of art.
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
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.
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.
The same process would generally be used when painting the distant trees and foreground objects such as bigger trees, grasses and shrubs.
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.