Watercolor Techniques: Controlling the Paint

What separates watercolor from the other opaque mediums is the brilliance and the amount of light the painting has. I would even take the liberty to say that the overall painting seems to be one value lighter. You can place a watercolor on a wall and you really don’t need gallery lights, whereas with the other mediums, the paintings weaken. Another aspect of watercolor is the ethereal and diffused edges. For this reason you may want to include this medium in your painting projects.

In the last two blogs, I wrote about the kinds of watercolor paper and the classification of pigments. In this blog we will gain insight on how watercolor techniques to make the paper and pigments work together.

Watercolor techniques | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

This old adobe home painting (above) has three classifications of edges. The background trees were all done in what is commonly known as “wet-into-wet.” This out-of-focus area conveys a sense of recession, resulting in a 3D illusion. My policy is to always apply this technique to my backgrounds, especially where there are buildings. I always tell my students, “Every watercolor should have wet-into-wet application.” If this is ignored, the wonder of this medium is seriously downgraded. (Click here to learn about my online art workshops, where I go into more details of watercolor techniques for beginners.)

Everything seems fine and dandy but, hold on, it’s not that easy. If the intent is to conserve the basic silhouette of the forms on wet paper, it requires quite a bit of skill to hold these shapes or the paint will just expand like a balloon. The timing has to be just right.

Watercolor techniques | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Watercolor Techniques: Diffused Edges

In this painting (above) once again my policy of creating diffused edges was put into practice. I tend to handle these three degrees of edges:

  1. Very diffused edges: The entire form is lost and the paint just bleeds out. This is evident at the top half left portion of this painting. The orange trees have no defined shapes. This helps indicate they are even further back in comparison to the evergreens, which are somewhat more defined.
  2. Soft edges: Things will look blurry but the shapes will still hold their identity. The violet evergreens behind the shack look out of focus but yet you can distinguish their forms.
  3. Hard edges: These are very distinct and sharp. Hard edges tend to attract the eye. Placed in the right place, they enhance a focal point. The yellow tree at the right of the building has very defined and crisp foliage.
Watercolor techniques | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

You can appreciate the contrast of hard vs. soft edges in this example; clearly things seem to be about 100 yards back. Even the bare tree was done with a controlled wet edge. Had I not done this it would stack everything together at one plane. The green tree seems closer due to the hard edges.

The reason wet-into-wet watercolor techniques are so vital is because without them, your elements can seem like they are cut out and pasted on with glue. Besides, the human eye cannot see everything in sharp focus. You can read more about this in my book, Landscape Painting Essentials. There’s an entire chapter on painting how the eye anatomically perceives reality.

Watercolor Technique: Controlling Wet-Into-Wet Edges

This where the whole thing gets tricky! Let’s forget for a moment that we’re working with brushes and paper and think along the lines that we’re working with two sponges because both the paper and the brush absorb water. If you spill milk on the floor and use a totally wet towel will you be able to pick up the puddle? No. In fact you would add more water into it. But if you wring and squeeze out as much water as you can then the towel will suck up what’s on the floor. The same principle applies to watercolor wet-into-wet application. Imagine your towel is the brush and the paper the floor. If your brush is too wet, you will lose control over how far the pigment advances and you can ruin the form. The other factor is how much water is sitting on top of the paper. The interplay of the dampness of both the brush and the paper is what determines if you end up with a very diffused or soft edge.
These are the steps I use to control my wet-into-wet applications:

1. Thoroughly wet the paper. Take into account you cannot oversaturate it but you can sure “under wet.” If you feel you will be painting on the wet area for a good deal of time, wet it, wait 7-10 minutes and rewet. You can even do this a third time. The idea is to allow gravity to do its job and get as much water you need under the surface.

2. Add pigment. If you want a very diffused edge, wait only until the puddle is gone then hit it with the pigment. The degree of how wet your brush is vs. how wet the paper is will determine the degree of diffusion.

3. Wait and apply. If you want a soft edge but still keep the form, wait until the water seeps into the cotton fibers. (The water doesn’t actually dry.) The right moment to apply the paint is when the glisten disappears. With a damp cloth squeeze the bristles at the brush ferrule (where the metal meets the bristles) while holding it upright, the bristles facing you, at a 90 degree angle to the paper. Also make sure the pigment is not runny wet, but moist and pasty.

4. Practice step 3 by writing numbers and letters on the paper that are about 3/4″. If you can still clearly distinguish the letters and numbers you have succeeded. Then practice with forms such as evergreen trees.

Hint: If your shape is definition sensitive, such as an evergreen, don’t start at the contour. Start in the middle and gradually work your way toward the outer contour. This will buy you more time and allow you to assess the degree of wetness and hit the contour at its ripe moment.

You will still run into unpredictability, but with practice you will tame watercolor!

Stay tuned for my next blog, where you’ll gain insight on how to remove undesired areas.


Visit my website, http://improvemypaintings.com to download courses I have given, to buy my book, “Landscape Painting Essentials” or join our ongoing live online art classes.

“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at NorthLightShop.com. North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at http://improvemypaintings.com.

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