Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tips to Control Watercolor

"Yunnan Grannies", my first watercolor painting, around 5" by 8".

This painting was done over a weekend in early March 2017 as a celebration of one year of pursuing art, with a single color: Phthalo Blue Red Shade. I particularly am fond of studies in blue.

I've been asked by those who find watercolors challenging how I painted "Yunnan Grannies" as my first watercolor painting.

I want to clear up a misconception, which is that what made the painting work was the paint I chose. The truth is that it doesn't matter what paint you use for a value study. In watercolors it helps if the color is transparent and staining, but with practice even this isn't necessary.

What does matter is moisture control in the following elements:

  • the brush
  • the paint mixture
  • the paper
The paint mixture ends up on your brush, which in combination with the water in the brush, results a certain viscosity. Knowing how thick the paint and water is on your brush is a key to control.

It's helpful to wick away excess moisture on your brush (a towel for a bit of extra dryness, or simply using the edge of the water container) before dipping the brush in your paint mixture. This allows for better prediction of the end result.

Now consider the paper. 

If the paper is bone-dry, the paint will not migrate far, and you may achieve sharp strokes and areas. 

If the paper is soaking wet, the paint will flow into the paper, and thus it is easier to achieve a soft wash, and especially to blend different colors in that wash.

The paper's wetness is often between these two extremes, and thus you have a range between tight control and loose washes.

How the viscosity of the paint/water on your brush interacts with the wetness of the paper is something you can practice ahead of time. Make sure to record the results and refer to them later if you need to. 

Note also that different papers will react differently, and different paints will also react differently. This is why it is best to start with just one watercolor paint.

A general principle that will help reduce the amount of experimentation you need: paint/water will flow to the driest location. 

Thus a bone-dry paper will draw in paint from the brush at all times—but a moist paper may or may not do so depending on if it is drier than the brush, or if the brush is drier.

This is the key element of control. Thus you must learn also patience: let the paper dry to the point you need it to. This may include bone dryness fairly often.

For mono-color paintings, it's also essential to learn how to compare an area of color to another to determine relative value. I did a very small thumbnail sketch to work out the major areas of value and their relevance to one another, using only pen and hatching.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.