Hello artists,

What a summer we’re having so far, fantastic! This month we’ll be taking a look at some of the basics of Watercolour painting, as it can be a wonderfully rewarding or extremely frustrating medium, depending on who you ask.

I know some students have had mixed feelings about it, although we just about scratched the surface of what you can do with it. Let’s go through some of the essentials of this sometimes unpredictable medium, and then have a look at a watercolour artist I admire.  

Perhaps the very first thing to consider with watercolour is whether to use tubes of paint or pans of paint. Is one better than the other?

Let’s have a look at some pros and cons of both, as it is often the context of your surroundings or subject matter that makes the difference.

Tubes: If you’re painting out of doors then tube paints are probably too cumbersome, making them much better suited to large scale studio/classroom paintings. Tube paints are more fluid than pans so are better for mixing large scale quantities of paint. Although it is easy to squeeze out more paint than you need with tubes, therefore making it easier to be more wasteful with paint.

Tube paint is also prone to hardening if the caps are not replaced properly  

Pans: These are perfectly adapted to painting out of doors. The colours are arranged in an orderly way and they won’t leak like tubes sometimes do. They are also more economical as there is less wastage of paint. Although it can take a bit more effort to lift enough paint onto your brush, and individual pans can get a bit muddied if you don’t rinse your brush between using colours.

Right, that’s that out of the way. What about actual colour mixing and application of paint? One of the first things to be mindful of when colour mixing is to make sure you mix up more paint than you think you’ll need: the paint gets used up really quickly, which often catches people out (which somewhat contradicts some of what I mentioned above!). But it can be frustrating to be painting a sky for example and then halfway through it you run out of colour and have to mix up a fresh batch.

The other little nugget of advice is to not over mix your colours too much. When blending two colours together, the mixture should ideally contain three colours, the original two colours and the mixture itself. This gives a livelier look overall.

There are of course many ways to approach watercolour painting, it is indeed a huge subject with a plethora of techniques. However, for the sake of time and sanity, I’m going to condense it down to three major techniques that are the cornerstones of the medium: wash techniques, wet-in-wet, and wet-on-dry.

Wash techniques: these are the foundation of watercolour painting, but laying down a large, overall wash free of streaks takes practice. Where heavy washes are required (lots of water), the paper must be stretched and taped firmly to a board to prevent or minimise wrinkling. It is up to the individual artist to decide whether it is best to lay in large areas of wash on dry or damp paper. Some artists claim it is easier to achieve a uniform tone on dry paper, while others feel that washes flow more easily on damp paper. It does matter about the quality of the paper used (thicker is usually better), but that aside, it really comes down to experimentation.

When laying in the wash it is best to use a large round or flat brush, although some artists use a loaded sponge for smooth washes. Don’t press too hard, sweeping the brush or sponge lightly and quickly across the paper works best. If you do need to work back into a previously laid wash to smooth it out, make sure it is dry first or it will make matters worse! Below are a couple of examples of wash techniques by Robert Tilling using the wet-on-wet method. For parts of these paintings the artist would have tilted and turned his board so the colours spread and diffused into one another.

Wet-in-wet: This is the quintessential watercolour technique. It’s an expressive and beautiful approach, but unpredictable. Although therein lies another of its charms.

The idea is to wet your paper first before applying a layer of paint, which then runs out over the wet surface, giving a soft, hazy look. Artists often use this technique when painting skies and water, producing gentle gradations.

The right paper is important for this technique to work to its full potential. Paper that is fairly thick and not too smooth is best.

When actually applying the water you can use a sponge, although make sure the water is clean. If you get little pools of water you can use a tissue to blot it up.

The next bit takes a bit of courage, but there is no other way. Take up your brushes and apply the paint, wet-in-wet. It’s best to work quickly, allowing the colours to diffuse and go where ever they go. It can be exhilarating and tense all at once, but that’s the joy of the technique!

Wet-on-dry: This approach gives the artist a bit more control, although of course you lose the spontaneity of the previous method. Colours are applied in a series of pure, transparent layers, one over the other, each layer of colour being allowed to dry before adding another.

The dry surface of the paper ‘holds’ the paint, meaning the brush strokes will not run out of control or distort. In much the same way as glazes, light travels through each layer of paint to the white paper, reflecting back through the colours giving a kind of iridescent look. Magic! Thinner applications superimposed over one another result in better results instead of a single, flat wash of thicker colour. Just remember that patience is needed for this approach, as each layer must be fully dry before applying each subsequent wash, otherwise you can get muddied colours.

Once again, paper quality makes a big difference to superior results.

And that is a quick, concise insight into the very basics of watercolour techniques. The best form of learning is of course to experiment and have a go!