In the second part of the beginner’s guide to watercolors we’ll take a closer look at different watercolor painting techniques, some very basic thoughts about color mixing, and some common mistakes that a lot of beginners run into. If you want to take a look at part one, it’s here. Now let’s see what kind of marks you can make with your brush.
There are a few different painting techniques when it comes to watercolor: glazing (wet on dry), wet on wet, and washes. Practicing these techniques will help you to be more comfortable with your paints.
Washes – Flat or Graded
A flat wash is simply a smooth layer of one color. It’s best to use a large flat brush for it, but it can also be done with a big round brush. You wet your brush with a mix of water and paint, and apply the paint with very gentle pressure on the paper in straight lines. If you run out of paint, reload the brush and continue the same movement. This technique is often helpful when painting backgrounds for landscapes like the sky.
For a graded wash you basically do the same thing, but you’ll add water instead of new paint, so that the color will gradually lighten.
Wet on wet
This is probably what most people associate with watercolor – freely flowing colors mixing together on the surface. The effect is achieved by wetting your paper first and then adding pigment to the wet area. The paint will immediately spread – the rule is that the paint always will go where the most water is, this can be your paper, or your brush. You can mix one or several colors in interesting combinations this way. I often use the wet on wet technique right at the start to get a light, smooth base layer, and add more paint in a more controlled fashion on top with the glazing technique.
Working in layers – Glazing
Watercolor is a technique that works with layers to achieve some of its most beautiful effects. Since the white in your image (and the only light source) will be the white of the paper, you can think of watercolor as painting the shadows. The more layers you add, the darker it will get. Since all watercolors are transparent (even the opaque ones), you will see the previous layer through your current layer. Note that adding a new layer can only be done when the layer below has dried. If you paint with the same color on top of your previous layer, the color will get more intense and start to build up depth. The layers will act like a foil and you can achieve beautiful mixes and effects with this technique. The glazing technique can be applied with a lot of control and is often used for detailed paintings like botanical illustration. A useful rule for glazing is to never put an opaque color over a transparent one, because it will lessen the transparent effect. If you plan to add opaque or semi-opaque colors, then apply them first and add the transparent layers on top.
If you apply almost dry paint on a dry surface, you will get a very rough line with a lot of texture. This can be helpful to add details and accents in a painting. Note that you can ruin your brush if you push it against the paper or don’t wash out the paint thoroughly – so don’t use your most expensive brush for this technique.
Note that you can also lift paint instead of adding more to the page. Simply go over a wet area with a dry brush to soak up paint, or rewet a dry layer of paint with your brush and pick it up with your brush, or carefully blot it with a paper towel. Depending on the pigment and on the paper, it can lift out of the paper completely, or leave a stain. This technique is a good way to fix mistakes. Usually you will lift out a color right after you have applied it, when it’s still wet, but you can also carefully rewet dried layers and attempt to lift out the paint. The more staining a pigment is (and the finer the pigment particles are) the harder it will be to get out of the paper.
Mixing colors is a whole chapter for itself, I will touch briefly on it here. You can achieve wonderful new hues by mixing two or three of your basic colors, after that the mixes sometimes start to get muddy. This also depends on the kind of pigments in your palette, very transparent pigments are better mixers than opaque pigments. Try making small color charts to explore the possibilities of mixing your colors, you will be surprised at the colors you will get. Particularly blues and browns can mix very interesting neutrals.
Using Too Much Water
For beginners, this is usually the most common mistake. Watercolor needs water to flow, but not in the generous amount you’d think. Watercolor pigments can be diluted to a very light wash, but you have to be careful when adding a lot of water to your paper, or it will buckle. Be careful with the amount of water you put on the page, and practice a lot.
Blooming and painting into damp washes
Often associated with the use of too much water. Since water will form puddles before it dries, the pigment in it can’t go anywhere and will collect at the edges (or loosen any existing dry paint). You will see cloudy, uneven structures in these places.
A rule of thumb to avoid these is to leave the paint on the paper alone unless it is really wet, or has dried completely. When the painted area has lost its sheen you need to leave it alone, unless you have the exact amount of water in the brush as on the paper, and that’s very difficult to match.
Using Too Much Color
If you add too much pigment to the paper, either directly or in too many thick layers, some colors will show an effect that’s called bronzing. The paint will have a metallic sheen and will also not look transparent anymore. Watercolor isn’t a paint that’s supposed to be applied in thick strokes. Treat it nicely, and always respect its translucency – that’s where it shines. If you want to build up intense color, do it with caution and layer by layer.
Using The Wrong Paper
Paper really plays a large part in a successful watercolor painting, and you will notice that you need at least a decent student-grade paper to make your watercolors look decent and behave like they are intended to. Don’t use drawing paper, don’t use regular sketchbooks, it will just act like blotting paper and soak up the paint, leaving hard edges. You will waste pigment, paper and effort by using the wrong paper, and maybe lose the motivation to continue your practice. While the best papers to use are made of 100% cotton, they can be pricy and for sketching purposes you will be fine with cellulose paper – but it still needs to be watercolor paper. Just take note that your sketchbook or student grade paper won’t take that much layering or water or lifting. Use paper with at least 300 gsm (140 lb) or it will likely buckle.
Following The Wrong Advice
Watercolor is a very versatile medium, and there are at least as many teachers out there as there are techniques. I was very confused when I took my first steps with watercolor due to the excessive amount of knowledge out there – but that’s to be expected considering the many different approaches to painting with watercolor.
A strategy I can recommend is to experiment a lot in the beginning and find out what you are drawn to, and what you want to learn more about, and then look for a teacher whose techniques will complement your goals. If you want to learn the detailed glazing techniques used for layered botanical paintings, then you won’t find the wet on wet techniques used for abstract, loose floral paintings very helpful.
While the basic techniques and tools often overlap, the application is often very different, because watercolor can be used in so many different ways. My own approach to watercolor has changed and evolved over the years: I started with a very loose technique (still overwhelmed by all the different approaches), then my illustrations became more and more detailed as I learned how to apply glazing to my paintings, and recently I’ve enjoyed letting go a bit of this very controlled approach and found my way back to a looser sketching technique that still has a few details. I definitely experiment from time to time to keep my painting routine fresh and interesting, but basically I know what I can focus on when I want to learn something new. This helps me to filter out what I don’t need at a certain moment.
You may find that the same approach of focusing on one technique for a while works for you. Of course trying out different things is part of the whole process of getting to know your watercolors, and I don’t want to deter you from that – it’s an important phase!
Where to go from here?
A sketchbook is a great way to practice your watercolor skills every day, so this would be my first advice to any beginner. Be curious, experiment, and get to know your paints. Explore mixing different pigments, and learn what their characteristics are. Make little color charts, with two colors or more, and really explore the possibilities.
I know watercolor can seem daunting in the beginning, but it’s a really beautiful and easy technique once you’ve mastered a few basics. Remember that learning any new skill is hard in the beginning. My personal opinion on keeping a sketchbook massively changed when I started nature journaling, because it allowed me to shift my focus away from having a perfect sketchbook portfolio to exploring and getting to know cool things about nature. This is a practice that I would recommend to everyone, to keep it fun and explorative. If you enjoy observing nature, then absolutely give nature journaling a try. It’s a great way to connect with the natural world and learn drawing and painting at the same time. If you prefer buildings and people, then give urban sketching a try. If you like to mix it all up, then any kind of art journaling will be a great way to getting to know watercolor. I’ve heard from people who have a separate sketchbooks for each topic – I think that’s a fanstastic way to explore different directions. Whatever you like to paint, the most important part of it all is coming back to your practice and enjoying the journey.
This was part two of a beginner’s guide to getting started with watercolors, part one can be found here.
Did I miss any beginner questions? Do you want to know anything else? Let me know in the comments!
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