Watercolor can be a fun medium. It creates beautiful washes of color that can be a joy to brush onto paper. But, watercolor can be a problematic medium. Because of its transparent nature, it’s easy for an artist to lost control of it. Overworking can be a real problem. When watercolor dries, it lightens up and appears pale and faded. Often, I will LOVE the way my painting looks when it’s wet. But, then I break for lunch, and the painting dries while I’m gone. When I return, the look has been lost, and the colors seem pale and dull. This is a quality that must be remembered when using it, and bumping the colors up a bit while it’s wet will help. But that can be hard to do, for when wet, it may appear too harsh.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard my students complain about the same thing. I also hear this comment: “Oh my gosh, I just created mud!” A muddy look comes when the layers of color blend together, and the colors mix into an unattractive new color. This is because watercolor will re-hydrate with each subsequent layer. This makes all previous colors become wet again and mix together. To keep your watercolor paintings looking clean and pure in color, the fewer washes of overlapping color the better. It’s just the opposite of using acrylic, where each layer dries, and new layers can go on top easily.
To remedy my watercolor issues, I started using my acrylics as a watercolor instead. When diluted with water into a transparent wash, acrylic looks exactly like traditional watercolor paints. But, there are a few differences in them, which make me very happy. First, each wash of color will dry true to their color. They don’t dry lighter like their watercolor counterpart. The colors stay as deep dry, as they do when they are wet. No more surprise fading over the lunch hour.
Secondly, you can apply many layers of transparent washes into your acrylic painting but you won’t get the muddy look. By allowing the washed area to dry and set, it becomes permanent. It won’t re-hydrate when another wash of color is applied over it. This will keep the colors clean.
In my example above, I started the painting of the old man in the park with traditional watercolor. The problem came when I started to apply the darker foliage in the foreground. I found that when it dried, it simply looked too pale, and the effect was lost. Instead of repeating the layers with regular watercolor and risk getting the muddy look, I diluted my acrylics and used them instead. The result was a deep green color that didn’t fade when it dried. It was the perfect solution.
I like to use diluted acrylic when creating a silhouette landscape as well. The second example (above) is a quick demo I did for a student. With traditional watercolor, the entire background of the painting would be washed in first, and then allowed to completely dry. The dark trees would then be placed over the background later, to prevent the colors from bleeding.
But when using diluted acrylic, the trees can actually be painted in first. If the acrylic is used a little thicker, for a deeper color, it will actually repel washes when it’s dry, because acrylic is plastic. A watery wash will not stick to it once dry. The washes can be applied right over the dry acrylic, with no bleeding at all. That way, you can perfect the look of the trees first, and then wash the transparent sky colors in afterward. Trees can be difficult. I’ve seen a beautifully painted sky in regular watercolor ruined when the trees go in and a mistake is made. By perfecting the trees first, there’s much less risk of ruining your painting. The application of the sky colors is then less stressful. The dry paint, which doesn’t re-hydrate, allows you to go back and forth, tweaking the background and the trees, making adjustments without making “mud.”
If you love watercolor, but have experienced some of the same type of disappointments, give diluted acrylic a try. You may find that this is the answer!
Lee Hammond has been called the Queen of Drawing. That may not be fair these days, since in addition to providing the best drawing lessons, she has also created fantastic books and videos filled with the same easy to follow acrylic painting techniques, colored pencil techniques and more. Click here to see all of the instructional books and DVDs that Lee Hammond has to offer!