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.

Earth watercolors and color mixing

Using Earth Watercolors

The earth watercolors are already a mix of the three primary colors, however each leans a little towards one primary or secondary color. For instance, Burnt Sienna has a strong orange leaning, Raw Umber has a slight greenish tinge, Raw Sienna is a yellowish brown with a slight greenish tinge, while Yellow Ochre is obviously a Yellow with a slight red leaning.

Looking at these earth watercolors this way explains why French Ultramarine (primarily a blue) when mixed with Burnt Sienna ( Orange = Red(R) plus Yellow(Y)) gives you a beautiful dark color, almost a black at times, depending on the relative amount of each pigment mixed and the quantity of water used.

French Ultramarine + Burnt Sienna = (B + r) +(R + Y) = B+Y+R = Strong dark color.

French Ultramarine mixed with Burnt Sienna gives a strong dark color
Figure 6: French Ultramarine mixed with Burnt Sienna gives a strong dark color

French Ultramarine + Raw Umber = (B + r) +(Y + b) = B+Y+r = dull green color.

French Ultramarine mixed with Raw Umber gives a dull green color
Figure 7: French Ultramarine mixed with Raw Umber gives a dull green color

Full list of colors in my palette along with their color bias (leaning)

Here are the rest of the water colors in my Winsor and Newton palette for reference:

French Ultramarine: Warm blue =  B + r

Cobalt Blue: Almost a pure pigment not warm nor cool = B

Cerulean Blue: Cool blue = B+ y

Alizarin Crimson: Cool red =  R + b

Cadmium Red: Warm red = R + y

Cadmium Orange: Warm orange with a lot of yellow and some red = Y +  R

Cadmium Yellow Pale: Warm yellow color with a little red = Y + r

Aureolin: Cool yellow = Y + b

Cobalt Turquoise: acts like a cool greenish blue, has lot yellow in it = B + Y

Earth colors

The earth colors are more complicated as they already have some of each of the three primaries in them. Effectively they are already greys (colors made when you mix three primaries together) which lean towards one or more of the primaries. The indications after the equals sign ( = ) refer to the colors the brown leans towards.

Burnt Sienna: Orange brown earth color, can be treated as a dull orange = R + Y

Raw Umber: Slightly greenish brown earth color = b + y

Yellow Ochre: Warm Yellow earth color = Y + r

Hopefully this information about earth pigments and their component colors will help you to become more confident with your own color mixtures.

Color mixing formula, how to mix bright versus dull watercolor colors

Color mixing formula

All too often students find themselves wondering where a particular color has come from. They set out to create a bright green with a blue and yellow watercolors but they do not quite get the color mixture they were after. Instead of a bright green they end up with one which is quite dull. To help understand what is going on we will talk about what I can the color mixing formula.

The cause of this is often a lack of understanding of the impure colors which make up most of our primary color (Blue (B), Red (R) and Yellow (Y)) pigments. Most blues are not pure blues, and the same applies to the yellows and reds.

Before we investigate this further, we need to remember that if you mix blue, red, and yellow you should end up with a dull grey to black color depending on the proportions of each color mixed.

Color mixing formula.Mixing a Blue, Red and Yellow will give you a dull grey to black color depending on proportions of each color mixed
Figure 1: Mixing a Blue, Red and Yellow will give you a dull grey to black color depending on proportions of each color mixed.

So whenever these three colors come together in your mix of paints your resultant color will not look bright but will instead look a little dull. If only two primaries are mixed together then a bright secondary color will result – it is the addition of the third primary which dulls colors off.

So what do we mean by impure colors. Well, it means that the main color, such as the blue in the case of French Ultramarine, has tiny additional amounts of one or both of the remaining two primary colors, in the case of French Ultramarine it is a small amount of Red. This is why it is called a warm blue. Because of this the trick to predicting your resulting color from your mixes is not just to think of your colors as one (blue, yellow, red) but to look at them as their component parts. For example, French Ultramarine is a Blue (B) with a tiny bit of Red (r), Alizarin Crimson is a Red (R) with a tiny bit of Blue (b). Here I am using upper and lower case letters to reflect the relative quantities of each Primary in your typical.

This way of looking at colors however would apply to all brands of artist watercolor paints.

In the next section we will look at this color mixing formula in more detail to see how it can help us mix brighter or duller colors at will.

Continue to: The watercolor color mixing formula

Cheap Light Box for Artist’s Use

How to make a cheap light box

About six years ago I was given a great tip for transferring drawings you do on tracing paper or light weight paper such as Bank. This cheap light box is very cheap – in fact it is so inexpensive it is free!

After to you complete your sketch, you tape your drawing to a clear glass window or doorway. I prefer to use a southern facing window (in the southern hemisphere where I live) as it faces away from the sun. It would be the reverse if you live in the northern hemisphere.  I found if I used a window that faced directly into the sun; it was a bit hard on the eyes so I don’t recommend it.

Cheap light boxTape tracing paper onto window
Figure 1: Cheap light box – Tape tracing to transparent glass window or outer doorway

On top of the drawing you tape a sheet of 300 gsm, watercolor paper and you should be able to see through to the drawing underneath well enough to trace over it.

Tape watercolor paper over tracing
Figure 2: Tape watercolor paper over tracing

You may need to add a little pressure to the paper to see the tracing underneath easily.

You may need to add light pressure on the paper to see through to tracing easily
Figure 3: You may need to add light pressure on the paper to see through to tracing easily

I use this technique if I feel I will be doing a lot of erasing on my initial drawing before I get it right. It lets me work on the tougher tracing paper and also it obviously does not damage the watercolor paper through excessive erasing.

It also means that if I then go ahead and mess up my watercolor painting – hey it happens to everyone, it does not take me long to re transfer the drawing to a new sheet and I hence save myself a lot of redrawing time. This also lets me be a lot more relaxed with my painting, especially if the drawing required a few hours of work, as it does not take very long to retransfer the sketch.

In my studio I have an A3 light box but this technique can be used for any size depending on your window!

I used to rub graphite on the back of a sheet to create graphite paper, but this cheap light box is a much cleaner and easier technique.