There are fewer than 10 commandments in watercolor. One of the most important is the answer to the question, “How much water?” You need to always be asking yourself, “How wet is my paper? And with that amount of wet, how much water and how much pigment should I be using?”

The answer is a ratio.  The wetter the paper, the less water you have on your brush and the more pigment you need (some will soak into the paper).

The drier the paper, the more water you need on your brush to carry the pigment and you will need less pigment for a smiliar effect.

So why start wet on wet?  Isn’t it out of control? A mess? Not necessary? Impossible to learn?
Over and over I have students tell me that they don’t like to work wet-on-wet because they can’t control it or just don’t “get it” in some way.

I answer:

If you only paint dry, or wet small area you are missing much of what is exciting and special about the medium of watercolor.
Let’s forget about painting a masterpiece and experiment to learn what you can do with wet on wet.

Soak the paper — let the extra run off and then start experimenting.

  • Rinse your brush, don’t blot, and pick up some color — like the yellow — make a gesture on the paper. Pow! Spreads all over.
  • Rinse your brush, blot it with tissue that is in your other hand, pick up some color and make a stroke near the first. It does spread as much — maybe the blue here
  • Pick the paper up and see if you can get the drier color to run into the wetter one
  • Turn it the other way and see if the wetter one runs into the other.  Is there an area where you can’t tell when it stopped being blue and became yellow? (Or what ever the color)
  • Try it again with another color
  • with a different brush
  • with more water
  • with less
  • with more color
  • with less
  • Pick up the paper and let it run; rotate it

wetonwetpeopl3Is it too wet?  If so, that means you are bringing too much water to it with your brush.  I like the synthetic bristles like white sable or Talkon because they don’t carry too much water.  I always keep some tissue in my other hand and blot off the excess after I have rinsed the brush.  when the tissue gets wet, I get another piece. Beware of Mop-type brushes.  they are used by artists who are not working wet.

If it is too wet, just hold it up and let it drip off, and then try again.  Or if you want what you have to stay, set the paper aside until it dries, soak it again (the colors have bonded with the paper and won’t wash off) and try again with another layer.

Keep at it until you begin to get the feel of moving the color and the water, until you begin to anticipate how much water and how much color is the right amount.

How long can you work?  Until the shine goes off.  As long as it is still shiny you can add color.

As the shine goes off, you can do lift offs with a brush that is rinsed and blotted, or can splatter as you see in the blue.

Then set it aside until it is thoroughly dry.  If you continue to work, wetter areas will attack the drier areas such as you see in the people above where the blue (wetter) formed a hard edge going into the yellow. The blue-green man had started to dry and the yellow green attacked.  There are times when this look is just what you want so it isn’t necessarily bad. But it you try to “fix it” you will have a disaster so — if you don’t want this look — set the painting aside to dry when the shine goes off the paper.

wetonwetskyIn this closeup, you see one example of using wet on wet.  After I drew in my cloud shapes (and the rest of the shapes) and wet the paper, I brushed in blue with some green and violet into the sky.  I didn’t worry about the edges  but went ahead and put in the soft gray-violet at the horizon. When the paper was less wet, but still had a little shine,  I painted   the larger masses of the firs. The gesture of the stroke was important to get the flip.

Then, as the shine was going off, I took a damp brush and rolled back the edges of the blue drool (much like the blue edge in the figure only this was with clean water).   I shaped the soft edges of the clouds in a way I never could have achieved dry, or wetting small areas.  After the painting was dry and I had worked on it a while, I soaked it again and developed the secondary shapes in the clouds.

Also, as the shine was going off, I lifted off any blue that had leaked into the trunks of the the firs — using a damp dry 1″ flat brush.

LandOfTheMissingHORIZONYou can see how putting the basic shapes of the firs in wet and then just decorating the edges when they were dry keeps the trees from looking overworked.  The soft transitions in the water would have been imposible to get if the paper weren’t wet.  This is just one example of a painting that owes its freshness to working wet on wet.  Check out The Hammock Beckons in today’s Event’s post (Lost!) and see if you can figure out what was done with layers of wet on wet.

What do you do during the wet-on-wet stage?

  • establish your white shapes by getting some color on everything else, even if it is just a tint
  • put down the undercolors on areas that are going to receive several layers of color
  • establish your soft edged shapes (clouds, surf, fur, mist, etc)
  • take care of your out-of-focus areas
  • establish texture with splatter and subtle brush strokes (i.e. the firs above)
  • stop while it is still fresh

endofsessionBut DON’T, Do Not try to paint your hard edge shapes.  Stay away from  edges.  Establish them when the paper is dry.

In the apples on the right, you can see the impression that was created during the wet stage.  Now I am building on it with a) wet blending — weting small areas such as the fruit; b) negative painting — such as the leaves in the top photo and c) dry painting — positive leaves. The wet-on-wet is a support taking care of out of focus areas, unifying the page, and keeping it fresh.

Think how many times a pianist practices a piece before he/she plays it in front of an audience.  Think how many baskets a basketball player misses getting  the feel and the eye to make the free throw or the long shot as the buzzer is sounding. He doesn’t rush out in the last minute having only shot at the basket 20 or 40 times in his career. He has done it again and again and again. As has the pianist.  You owe your art the same.

How wet is the paper and with that amount wet, how much water and how much paint do I need? You do it again and again until you know — from the inside out.

Frustrating? Yes. Easy? No. Fun? Yes. Magic? Absolutely! Go get your paper wet and start to get a feel for it. You’ll be glad you did.


© 2010 Caroline Buchanan