Painting with watercolours can seem like more of a challenge than painting with oils or acrylics. The medium is less easily “controlled”, can’t be overpainted (layered in case of mistake), and has several unique physical responses when manipulated (such as bleeding for better or for worse).
But watercolour painting also has such character that it is hard to resist as a favoured medium for expression. It is my choice, anyway, over the complexity of oils or acrylics. Below are a few basics for beginners who want to experiment with such a fascinating medium.
Terms for Techniques When Painting with Watercolours
Blotting: in watercolour painting, the subtractive act of removing by soaking up excess/unwanted colour/paint.
Blotto Painting: using tempera paint, the application to one side of a piece of paper that is then folded (blank side over painted side) to double the image—resulting in a kind of inkblot, or Rorschach.
Flat Wash: a covering that is smooth, even, broad, uniform, or lacking in shading or tint changes–for background or sizeable area of the watercolour surface.
Graded/Gradated wash: a covering of the painting surface that is first thinly or lightly coloured (with less colour) and is made gradually thicker, darker, or heavier (with more colour)—or vice versa: dark to light.
Gum Arabic: used as a medium, vehicle, binder, or base, gum Arabic is a natural resin or sap gleaned from acacia trees and in watercolour paints is what carries the pigment—or what holds together the pigment(s).
Solvent: the substance used to solve or dissolve. In watercolour painting, the solvent is water.
Wash: a thin, typically translucent paint layer—used in backgrounds or for covering large surface areas.
Waterbrush: like an ordinary paintbrush, a wetbrush has a bristled, shaped tip but unlike typical brushes has a cylindrical vat or reservoir that is filled with water and screwed to the brush tip. When in use, the water flows in a slow and controlled manner to the bristles, allowing for continuous wet application.
Wet-on-Dry Watercolour Painting: watercolour painting applied to a dry surface—or a surface that has been painted and allowed to dry before the next [wet] application is made—making for cleaner, sharper, more defined details/lines.
Wet-in-Wet Watercolour Painting: watercolour painting applied [wet] to a still-wet colour surface—making for merging, blending, bleeding, blurred, undefined lines or details.
Tips for Painting with Watercolours
To choose a watercolour surface (watercolour paper)…
Preferences will vary among: Rough (highly textured)Hot-pressed (smooth, finely-grained)Cold-pressed (moderately textured)but watercolour artists most typically opt for paper that is absorbent, substantial in thickness, is acid-free (so it doesn’t yellow over time), has a high rag content, and has a high degree of tooth (texture).
To watercolour paint a wash…
Using clear water and a large, wide brush, dampen the surface. With a full-armed stretch, move across the surface width with one continuous stroke, continuing with the same brush and colour until the surface is covered evenly.
For a gradated wash, dampen the surface, make the first complete stroke with the colour and with little water; and add a slight amount of solvent (water) for each successive brush stroke.
To watercolour with the wet-in-wet technique…
Paint a clean water image or shape, and with the second action dip brush in watercolour and apply. The added colour will disperse, or bleed, into the wet space and to its edges. Experiment with painting a watercolour image or shape and using a second colour to add to the first—for a subsequent bleeding and blending of colours.
The most important thing to remember about watercolour painting technique is that a mistake cannot be “fixed” by painting over it—only blotted to diminish or accepted as a fluke that was meant to be! That’s what I love about watercolour painting: it is a surprise, a highly characterised medium, and it is more fluid and fascinating to watch as it takes more control of itself.