Watercolor is all about timing— and understanding the effects created by differing amounts of color and water on the brush. That knowledge comes with experience; consequently, although painting wet into wet (applying paint to a wet surface) and color charging (mingling wet colors on the surface) are two of the most basic techniques, they’re also two of the most difficult to master. Even if you’ve been painting in watercolor for a while, renewed attention to these techniques could take your work to the next level.
Getting the Feel of the Brush
As you gain experience with your brush, it becomes an extension of your hand and, by default, the rest of your body, as well as of your artistic sense. A good brush makes the job of painting simpler and allows the poetry of your art to emerge with more ease.
The hairs bound together in the ferrule (metal sleeve) create narrow spaces that act like channels to carry water between them. Knowing how much water is in your brush is important. If the tuft (hairs or fibers) is swollen with water, it will flood the paper, and the color will be dispersed on the surface.
Over time, an artist gets to know the feel of just how wet or dry the brush is. Too much water in the brush causes blossoms (see example, above) and uncontrolled areas on an already wet surface. Over time, I’ve become aware of the weight of the brush, which tells me how much moisture it’s holding. The tuft gives another clue. A swollen and shiny tuft tells me it’s loaded with water.
When I’m first wetting the paper and using a wet into wet technique, I want a water-heavy brush but later, during color charging or other techniques for which controlling the amount of water is important, I make sure the tuft is moist but not fully engorged with water.
Selecting Paper Thickness
Paper is the traditional surface for watercolor, although newer products are becoming more and more popular, such as watercolor canvas and clayboards. In this article, I’ll simplify things by concentrating on paper.
I use Arches 300-lb. or heavier paper, which is relatively thick, so watercolor disperses evenly. Because of the thickness of the paper, the paint dries more slowly and gives me more time to use the wet-into-wet technique. Thinner papers work fine; they just have different characteristics, such as quicker drying times.
Wet Into Wet Paper Pointers
When painting wet into wet, the surface must be evenly moist but not so wet that there are puddles. The paper should have an even sheen with no visible dry areas showing. To check, look at the paper with your eyes at an angle low to the surface.
I use a 3-inch synthetic brush saturated with water to wet the paper. Some artists prefer submerging the paper in a sink or tub; however, if the paper is left too long in the tub, the water will remove the sizing (coating that reduces absorbency), which makes maintaining a definite painted edge difficult, even after the paper dries.
I brush water on the paper two or three times, waiting after each application for the moisture to be absorbed into the paper. The surface should exhibit an even wetness from edge to edge. Getting the wetness right is a matter of experience. Having painted thousands of watercolors, I’ve found that knowing how wet the paper should be has become second nature.
Wet Into Wet Pigment Pointers
I usually tape my watercolor paper to a board, which I keep at a slight angle with the lower edge toward me. When I’m ready to apply paint wet into wet, I load my brush with very little water, but on the tip I load plenty of pigment. If the brush has too much moisture, it will flood the paper and dilute the wash, creating blossoms. An overly wet brush also makes smooth edges and transitions difficult to achieve.
With a properly loaded brush, I can touch the tip to the surface, and the color will disperse evenly without losing the integrity of the edge of the shape I’m making. If I realize the brush is too dry, I may dip its tip into my water container to lubricate the pigment and let the color flow onto the surface more easily.
You can use the wet into wet technique to unify an underpainting, make soft edges for elements like clouds or trees, and create a mood or atmospheric effect, like mists or sunsets.
Color-Charged Mixtures and Shapes
Color charging is similar to working wet into wet, but you use color charging in more selective ways—mainly for mixing colors. I often paint a shape with one color on a dry underlayer and then, while the shape is still wet, I use a drier brush to introduce a new color. The two colors merge and then dry. In this way, I attain more vibrant mixtures than I could on my palette, and I can also create a more spontaneous feel to my painting. My step-by-step demonstration (immediately below) shows how this process works:
1. Initial Washes and Shapes: A wet into wet underpainting or wash unifies a scene, so I painted the light, cool tones of the cloudy sky and warm colors of the beach first. Then, after the paper dried, I began introducing the shapes of the driftwood structure and sea rock. I charged color into these wet shapes and let the pigments mingle. Allowing colors to drift together creates a more vibrant surface.
2. More Color-Charged Shapes: As the painting progressed, I added more shapes and charged more color into the driftwood structure. I also washed in the background cliffs, allowing colors to mingle, wet into wet.
3. Crisp Edges: This close-up shows how I used my underpainting as a foundation for shapes that would come later. The wash underneath was dry, so the color-charged driftwood shapes retained their distinct edges.
4. Dry Underlayers: I painted Drifter’s Hideaway entirely on location at a beach along the Navarro River, in California. The moisture in the atmosphere presented problems. Many times I had to let the painting dry under a heater fan in my car before I could continue to the next layer. If I hadn’t waited for the surface to dry, the painting may have become soft and muddy, without distinct shapes.
- “Using Gesso” – free online tip from Dale Laitinen
- “Value for Value” – free online article on establishing values in watercolor by Dale Laitinen
- Landscape Essentials in Watercolor – View the preview of Dale Laitinen’s DVD.
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