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Starting with Watercolour

This is really just some information if you are starting to paint in watercolours. You might know bits of this already, but hopefully some of it will be new and useful to you.

Here are 5 common mistakes people make when they are new to watercolours

1. Not using enough paint

If you’re like me, you’ve been brought up to not be wasteful, however, this is not helpful when it comes to painting. I see my students squeeze out a tiny dot of paint into a palette with button-sized wells, add water with a little brush and then attempt to paint a wash across an A4 sheet of paper (or larger) to represent a sky. Needless to say, desperately dragging a tiny amount of pigment across and expanse of paper will give poor, patchy results. It’s better to work with a limited palette of say 6 colours in a palette with deep wells. Add just enough water to give the paint a single cream consistency and make sure you have enough of each colour – as though you could cover the entire sheet of paper with it if you wished to. This sounds like too much, but you will find that you can work more quickly and loosely if your paints are ready and waiting for you to dip your brush into them. And don’t just dip the tip of your brush into the paint – make sure you really load it up with paint.

2. ‘Fixing’ drying washes

Painting very loose, runny watercolour washes relies on learning how much water to add and when. Work from light to dark and plan your painting as it’s difficult to correct mistakes. If you think something has gone wrong, leave it to dry, then try to work with what has happened, rather than scrubbing and rubbing it out in order to fix it. If you go into a damp wash with more paint you will cause problems unless you have very thick paint on your brush. Often the best watercolours have areas of ‘happy accidents’ where the artist has just gone along with whatever the paint has chosen to do without trying to force it one way or another.

3. Filling in

If you have drawn out your picture very carefully in pencil first, you will be tempted to ‘colour in’ what you have drawn. If it’s a landscape, it’s easy to have a shape outlining trees, another for fields, another for bushes and then fill these in with flat washes of colour. Try to keep to a rule of 80/20 – paint 80% of your paper with paint and leave 20% white. You will probably end up painting over 80%, but if you aim for that it will help you to leave more areas as highlights and give you a more interesting painting as a result.

4. Poor tonal values

If you work from photographs a lot of the time, you may find that your paintings lack contrast. This is often due to the fact that photographs can flatten out tones but enhance colours. If you take a photo of your work and turn it to black and white you will be able to see if you have a good range of tones – from very dark/almost black up to the white of the paper. Before you start a painting, look at your reference photo and see which tones you can adjust and push either lighter or darker to give a better tonal range. I often do a thumbnail sketch in a soft pencil to work out just where to put my darkest and lightest tones (leaving the white of the paper) before launching into the painting. This helps me to sort out any changes that I want to make to the composition as well.

5. Having all edges hard and sharp

This is something that will improve your watercolours if you have managed to get to a good level of control of this tricky medium and are finding that you are getting fairly good results, but there’s just something lacking in your work. Without being too prescriptive about it, try to make sure that you soften and blur some of the edges of your shapes. E.g. in a floral piece it’s good to lose the edge of a petal from a flower so that it blends into the background. Or where you have similar tones – the shadow area of fruit in a still life – you can blend away the edge of the fruit into the cast shadow beneath it.