Making Watercolour Paint Behave

13 January, 2014 0 comments Leave a comment

Many of my beginner students have trouble making watercolour paint stay on the paper where they want it to. This is a central aspect of watercolour painting: moisture control.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the enjoyment I derive from engaging in a partnership with my watercolour materials—to control the paint application, to a certain extent, and have the materials provide the ‘serendipity factor’. Sometimes you want the paint to spread softly, with little direction from you. Other times you want the paint to stay exactly where you place it. Most of the time, you require a degree of control somewhere in between these extremes. Let me tell you how to achieve the level of control you need.

Wet-in-wet painting.

This term refers to applying a full brush-load of paint onto wet paper, and offers the least amount of artist control. I call it a high risk manoeuvre, with lots of chance for ‘happy accidents’ or ‘surprise disasters’. Much practice is needed, to learn what levels of moisture on paper, and brush, produce the results you intend.

The water on the paper delays the absorption of paint, so it has more chance to move and mingle with adjacent colours before sinking into the paper. This technique can produce marvellously luminous skies and sky reflections on calm water, as well as interesting base layers for tree foliage, grassy meadows, surfaces of buildings, or other relatively large areas of your painting. I use large synthetic or natural hair brushes for wet-in-wet painting.

The painting above, MAGNOLIA SERENADE, watercolour, 12 x 9”, was created with Winsor & Newton French Ultramarine, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Aureolin paints, and has a wet-in-wet background. The petals and branches were done with two-brush technique (explained below). Final tiny details were added with a calligraphy pen, or the tip of a damp round brush.

Dry brush painting.

This commonly-used terminology actually refers to a damp to moderately wet brush-load of paint applied to dry paper.

The sizing used in watercolour paper manufacture reduces the absorbency of the paper, causing the paint to remain in place on dry paper. The result is very defined edges on painted areas.

Usually, I use this technique for adding the final details to a painting, such as stripes on stones, the texture of wood grain, or to subtly ‘dirty up’ any area of a painting that looks too pristine.

Two-brush technique.

I use this term to describe the way I apply paint when I want to control precisely where paint goes, to achieve a softer effect in a specific area.

With the exception of the wet-in-wet base washes that comprise the first layer, I create almost all of my paintings with two #12 round brushes in my hands. One brush is loaded with paint and the other with clean water. Typically, I apply paint to dry paper and then use the second brush to add water beside the painted area, wherever I want the paint to have a less distinct perimeter. If the particular area is large, I dampen it with water prior to applying paint. This allows the paint to float for a few seconds before sinking into the paper, giving me more time to moderate the edges with the clean water brush.

Students, trying the two-brush technique for the first time, often have trouble judging how much paint to lay down and how much water to add. If they put down too little paint it will start to dry before the water is added, so the paint does not move as intended. If they apply too much paint, or water, the mixture spreads beyond the intended area.

It takes considerable practice to learn what levels of moisture work best for a given section of a painting. It helps if the brushes have comparable moisture levels, so start with two identical brushes and load them with paint or water in a similar manner. I load as much liquid as the brush will allow, and then return some paint to the palette (or water to the rinse bucket), by wiping the brush against the rim until the brush point is sharp again.

Avoid using 100 per cent synthetic brushes for two-brush technique, as they release liquid too quickly. You will have more success with brushes containing some (or all) natural hair, as they release liquids more slowly and controllably.

Negative painting.

This term refers to creating the illusion of an object in your painting, by applying paint in the spaces (‘negative’ areas) around the object. I use two-brush technique to achieve this effect. Usually the defined edge of the paint lies against the perimeter of the object, and the soft (or ‘lost’) edge fades off into the background. I use this method in all my paintings and I would be ‘lost’ without it.

IRIS INDULGENCE, watercolour, 10 x 7” (above). Negative painting was used extensively here to paint around stems, leaves, and petals, and within background shrubbery. Winsor & Newton paints used: New Gamboge, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Winsor Blue Green Shade, Winsor Violet.

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