How to Make Smooth Watercolour Washes

06 January, 2014 0 comments Leave a comment

Watercolour washes dry in a short amount of time, which means you have to apply paint fairly quickly if you want the colour to dry evenly. Many students have difficulty with this when trying out watercolour for the first time. Here are several things you can do to make smoother areas of colour.

Use artist quality watercolour paper of a heavier weight.

For years I painted on Arches 140 lb. cold pressed watercolour paper with good results. Then I tried Arches 300 lb. cold pressed paper and was amazed how much easier it was to make smooth washes.

The difference is that the thicker paper can absorb more water and so evaporation takes longer. This means you have more time to apply paint before the paper starts to dry. Although the 300 lb. paper is more expensive, I still recommend it for everyone—beginner students to experts—as it makes our job of painting easier.

Another advantage of heavier paper is that it stays flat when wet. Whatever paper you choose, make sure it is acid free so it will not deteriorate over time.

Paint on a slanted surface.

I attach my watercolour paper to a firm board with masking tape. I place the board on my angled drafting table, or on a flat table with a large box of facial tissues or a shoe box to support the top of the board. These angled work surfaces allow gravity to pull the paint towards the bottom of your paper, which allows washes to dry without depositing paint unevenly.

The photo above shows my typical portable set-up when working on a flat table, such as when I am instructing at a workshop, or demonstrating painting at an art show. I rest the support board, with watercolour paper attached, against a shoe box. Since I am right-handed, my paints, brushes, squirt bottle, and water bucket are arranged to the right of the painting. This way I am not risking an accident by constantly reaching across my painting with a loaded paint brush.

In the photo above, I am working on a watercolour in my studio. This is just a larger version of the portable set-up shown in the previous photo, with all my materials to the right of the drafting board. The slanted board helps to ease strain on my neck and back, but also provides the angle needed to create smooth washes.

My studio faces north, but I often paint on dull days or after dark, so I illuminate my drafting board with an incandescent elbow fixture and an overhead fluorescent fixture. This combination of two or three light sources represents typical lighting found in most buildings where my paintings will be shown.

When painting at art shows or in our travel trailer, where the ambient lighting is insufficient, I use a portable fixture featuring a natural spectrum daylight lamp.

Use bigger brushes.

For larger areas of even colour, start by pre-wetting the paper with clean water (using a large brush or spray bottle) and let it rest for a minute or so. At this point, the water should glisten on the paper, but not move with gravity. Brush on a little more clean water if the sheen looks uneven. I like to use a one-inch to one-and-a-half-inch flat brush to apply the paint with a left-to-right sweeping stroke, starting at the upper edge of the wash area and working downward.

Plan to use as few strokes as possible, and resist the urge to make short, fast stabs with your brush. Instead use slower strokes and reload your brush as soon as you see the deposit of colour on the paper lessening.

If the wash is ‘flat’ colour (evenly dark from one edge to the other), reload your brush with the same paint mixture each time.

If the wash is to be graduated from dark to light, use the painting mixture full strength for the first few rows of paint, then add increasing amounts of water to your brush-load as you work towards the bottom. Alternatively, you can work from light to dark by adding a small amount of the paint mixture to a wet brush, and increasing the proportion of paint in your brush as you work downward.

Keep a high, even moisture level on your brush and paper. You will experience a slower drying time if your paper is pre-moistened with clean water, and if you keep your brush well loaded with paint.

It takes practice to get the feel of how much moisture is required. Too much moisture will cause colour to puddle or drip, and be hard to keep where you want it. Too little moisture causes uneven, hard edges (‘back runs’), where fresh wet paint meets drying paint.

Wash your hands.

Ever since I ruined a big sky wash years ago, with greasy fingerprints, I always wash my hands prior to handling watercolour paper, and try to touch only the edges of the paper if possible. You may think your hands are clean of contaminants, but your skin contains natural oils that change the way water moves on the paper surface, affecting how the pigment is laid down. You can pick up natural secretions without realizing it, such as when you rub your eyes or scratch your head.

I also wash my hands after painting, and before eating, to avoid ingesting any pigments.

This excerpt from Watercolour Toolbox: Essentials for Painting Success is reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more details visit
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