4 Essential skills to improve your watercolors
So let me guess…
You’ve been painting for a while now, but you just don’t seem to be making as much progress as you’d like ?
I understand exactly how you feel. Watercolor painting is full of delight, but sometimes you feel like you’re fighting with the paint, trying to make it do what you want !
So how do you get better at watercolor?
Practice is the best way to improve your watercolor skills, but there are a few tips and tricks you can learn to help you make progress faster.
Depending on your level of experience, you probably know some of the things below, but if you manage to get just one tip for advancing your watercolor talents then I’ll be very happy for you !
You’ll be painting like a pro in no time !
Composing your work means planning out your painting by deciding where the elements of your picture will be located and how to make them stand out on the page.
I know how you feel. I have to admit I can be too keen to just get on with a painting, without stopping to plan out what I’m doing or what I want to achieve.
A little bit of planning can go a long way to help improve your watercolor paintings.
One of the first steps when planning a new piece is designing it’s composition.
Composition is an an important aspect which is often ignored by artists.
Possibly because it seems so difficult to get it right.
Good composition creates focus and harmony in a piece of art. You’ll find that strong composition attracts the eye and contributes to the overall success of your work.
I used to think that composition was mysterious and complicated, but there are a few basic rules which can help improve your compositions.
Composition is about designing the relationships between different parts of your painting. It’s about helping the viewer to know where to look.
One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by controlling values to create focal points in your painting.
The human eye is drawn to the point of greatest contrast. This can either be a bright or dark area of your painting. These areas become important focal points.
You can also create movement by designing primary, secondary and tertiary focal points, which lead the eye from one object to the next.
So by carefully adjusting the darkness or lightness of your values, you can control the composition of your artwork.
Another composition principle is the rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds works by making certain elements in a painting more dominant than others.
If you’ve never heard of this idea, it’s pretty simple to apply. You begin by dividing your composition into thirds with vertical and horizontal lines. Any element which falls along one of the lines or at the intersection of two lines becomes predominant.
Objects at the intersection of two thirds are more dominant than those that just fall along a single line. Studies have shown the people’s eyes are more naturally attracted to one of these points of intersection than the center of an image for example.
The overall result is a more balanced and pleasing composition.
These are just a couple of compositional methods, but they are solid techniques which can help improve your overall artwork.
Before you start a new watercolor, try taking a moment to consider the placement of your subject and the tonal values of the final piece.
If you get the relative values of your painting right, you can create a believable feeling of light and space, even if the shapes are approximate. A value study is a simple sketch to describe the content of your picture. It helps you sort out the relative darkness of each major shape in a scene.
(The terms “value” or “tone” refer to the different levels of lightness or darkness in a painting).
How many of you make a value study of your work before realizing the actual painting ?
I like to do this before starting a painting, it helps to organize my thoughts about color values and composition.
A value study can be an important first step towards analysing a subject, because you learn to see objects how they really are. Many artists put a lot of consideration into the shape of a subject without really contemplating the values. But if you can correctly depict the relative values of your scene, you can create a more believable sense of space and substance.
A value study helps you to become aware of your subject. This awareness lets you exaggerate certain values, to improve the composition. You can choose to make objects recede or bring them forward, which in turn helps you design the composition of your artwork.
Artists typically use a value scale to judge the different tonal values of a scene. A value scale increases in tone from white to black in easy to perceive steps. This simple range of values is enough to get an good understanding of the lighting and spatial characteristics of a scene.
Also, because of the transparent nature of watercolors, you need to make decisions about value at the beginning of a painting. Once you’re committed to a certain level of darkness, you cannot make it lighter !
I think that paying attention to values may be more important than accurately representing the forms.
Why not give it try !
If you take the time to make some design choices for the colors of a painting, you’ll probably end up with a more harmonious outcome. Color harmony is a combination of colors that produce a pleasing effect.
Have you ever thought you may be using too much color in your paintings ?
Another good planning habit is to think about the colors you want to use before you start painting. Rather than just dipping haphazardly into your range of watercolors, try working with a restricted palette.
Using Color design in your artwork can help create a more successful outcome.
By controlling the colors in your painting you help produce color harmony. Certain combinations of colors work well together to produce different moods. Something as simple as changing the color bias will modify the feeling of a scene. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind when choosing a limited palette.
( Using color design requires a basic understanding of the color wheel. If you’re unsure about color theory, then read this…)
Colors can be separated into two main groups depending on their color bias. Warm colors situated on one half of the color wheel, tend to be energetic and help bring shapes to the foreground. On the opposite side of the color wheel, cool colors yield an impression of calm.
Complementary colors are any two colors situated on opposite sides of the color wheel. Two complementary colors are highly contrasting, and when used together, they create a vibrant look.
Analogous colors are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. An analogous color scheme results in a balanced and calm feeling. These kinds of colors are often found in nature. The close correspondence of hues creates harmonious results.
Color triads consist of hues that are evenly spaced around the color chart. This is quite a vibrant color combination. With watercolors, when you mix two triad colors you get a muted complementary color. A good way to use triads is to let one color dominate and use the others as accents.
You don’t have to use pure colors to apply these color design rules. Choose some basic hues, and use them as a guideline for your color palette. Mix neutral colors and use variations of tone, plus warm and cool versions of your chosen color design.
As a water soluble medium, watercolor depends enormously on fluidity and wetness. To control these properties you need to be mindful of the wetness of your paper and the wetness of your brush.
How often have you said to yourself “the paper got to dry” or “the brush got too wet”?
Quite often when a watercolor goes badly, it’s because you lose control of wetness.
Type of paper
There’s a reason why professional watercolor artists use watercolor paper.
It’s quite simply the best type of paper you can possibly use for painting with watercolors.
This kind of paper absorbs water in just the right way and is dimensionally stable, so it doesn’t buckle and warp like ordinary paper. Good quality watercolor paper also allows some corrections and “lifting off” without modifying the quality of the surface.
There are various types of watercolor paper to choose from and ways to prepare your paper for obtaining the best results.
In general, you should choose the correct thickness of paper to suit the kind of work you are doing. If you’re just painting a sketch or a study you can get away with using lightweight paper ( A weight of 90 lb should be fine).
If you’re working on a final painting then choose thicker paper, (I usually find a weight of 140 lb is thick enough for final works).
Watercolor paper is also available in a variety of surface finishes known as hot pressed, cold pressed and rough. You'll find a guide to my preferred watercolor paper here...
You should also tape down your paper before starting a session. Even though watercolor paper is relatively stable when wet, it will still warp slightly.
Taping the paper down at the edges, then leaving it to dry with the tape, will help keep the paper flatter.
Keep in mind, the best quality of paper to use for watercolor painting is 100% cotton, pH neutral, and acid free.
Learning to assess and control paper wetness is a big contributing factor to your watercolor skills.
If your paper is too wet you have less control over the flow of paint and your brush strokes. On the other hand, if you’re deliberately working wet on wet, but your paper is too dry, the spread and diffusion of paint is diminished.
Watercolor paper goes through different stages of wetness, each of which give slightly different results. Experienced painters know just the right moment to apply the next brush stroke.
It’s easy to become impatient and start painting on top of a watercolor wash which is still settling and full of moisture. A good tip is to keep a hairdryer handy so you can move on quickly with your next glaze.
That being said, I find it easier to start working too wet than too dry. You can always blot water off the paper if necessary.
Problems with wetness can also produce frustrating issues such as unwanted blooms or backruns.
A semi-moist area of paper will actively draw fluid from any nearby area of greater wetness. Backruns and blooms create feathery dark edged marks because additional liquid (paint or water) was introduced into a drying watercolor wash.
Understanding when blooms or backruns occur will help you avoid them, or apply them that’s what you’re after.
Brush control is a tricky skill to learn. I had problems realizing this especially when I first started out doing watercolors.
How wet or dry your brush is, has a lot to do with how much we can control our painting.
In general, the wetter the brush is, the harder it is to control your technique.
A brush that’s too dry is difficult to work with. But if your brush doesn’t hold enough liquid you will run out of paint during a brush stroke.
It's a bit of a balancing act, but as a general rule most of your painting should be done with a mid-level of brush wetness. It should not be totally soaked and dripping, and neither should we paint with a brush which has a low level of moisture.
The type of brush you use has a big impact on the control you have over wetness.
The best types of brushes for watercolor work are generally made from natural hair such as squirrel hair or sable. These hold the best reservoir of water, allowing greater working time between dips, and help produce smooth brush strokes.
What’s a good method for this ? At the start of a new painting session remember your brushes are totally dry. To get them ready for work, you should rinse them in clear water a few times, squeezing and blotting them with your fingers.
Aim for a brush which is “juicy” but not dripping. Try to be aware of the amount of fluid held in your brush while you paint. Don’t hesitate to blot paint from your brush before applying your stroke, rather than just picking up liquid from the palette and laying it down on the paper. I often use a scrap of paper to test the level of wetness, and draw off some moisture until the wetness is just right.
While you work, try to develop a feeling for how levels of wetness affect your painting.
For example, it’s a mistake to begin by painting the outlines of a shape, rather than painting the shape as a whole. By the time you’ve painted the outline, your paint has probably dried, which produces hard edges that you can no longer blend. Don’t let brush strokes dry before finishing a shape if you want smooth blending.
Another good tip is to work quickly and deliberately, and don’t fuss.
Watercolor painting is equally rewarding and demanding. Take a little time to discover when you should think about composition, value, color, and wetness. Try to find a balance between thoughtfulness and the wonderful surprises offered by flowing paint.
And above all, have fun !
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