Managing Water in Watercolor

Slate-colored Junco, watercolor 12×16″ © Bivenne Staiger 2020

To some artists, watercolor is the most challenging medium. It was for me too in the early days, mostly because I didn’t know how to achieve saturated and bright color or particular effects. Through study, practice and experimentation, I not only resolved most of the challenges but also made new discoveries. Now, to me, watercolor far surpasses other media because it is as unpredictable and exciting as it is controllable and consistent.

The key to painting successfully in watercolor is learning to control two things: the amount of water in the brush and on the paper, and the amount of paint in the brush. The brush especially (and sometimes the paper) requires some preparation before painting and, depending also on how dry or wet the paper is, produces vastly different shapes and value. Each of the following five applications, each dab of paint, produces a shape, from very subtle to well-defined, on the paper. Always prepare your brush before you do anything to the paper because sometimes speed is necessary. The first word, for instance “wet” refers to the brush, and the last, for example “dry” refers to the paper. Try to use each in every painting:

Wet-on-wet: Load the very wet brush liberally with paint, then wet the paper, and paint quickly! Almost always applied to a watercolor painting first, this wash, which leaves no defined edges, requires speed so that the paper does not dry before the wash is complete. It can be used to suggest a subtle value and/or color change. Don’t touch the paper as it dries.

Dry-on-wet: Load a damp or almost dry brush with lots of paint. Then wet the paper. Gently dab the paint onto the wet paper. The effect is a soft-edged, identifiable shape. You might use it to paint dark clouds on a sunset sky. Often applied early to a painting, don’t touch it as it dries.

Wet-on-dry: The brush can have as little or as much paint as you wish, but also needs a lot of water. The more paint on the brush, the darker the wash will be. Applied to dry paper, any hard-edged shape can be achieved. This application often defines an artist’s style and should be used in the middle and later stages of a watercolor painting.

Dry-on-dry: Often called “scumbling,” paint on a damp (or “dry”) brush applied to dry, uneven paper leaves marks only on the paper’s peaks, effective for suggesting shadow on rough surfaces like rocks, or for the sparkle on the sea. Because wet washes painted over it can mar the effect, this application is often added last.

Wet-on-damp: Usually undesired when accidentally added to damp paper, this leaves cauliflower-shaped marks called “blooms.” But used intentionally and painted early, they may suggest texture on snow, bark, leaves, flowers, etc.

My painting Slate-colored Junco uses four of the five applications described.

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