Wet on Wet … Wow!

“Geraniums Radiant” Watercolor on
Arches medium paper by Annette Raff
Have you heard of the term wet-on-wet painting in watercolor?  ‘On googling’ this I found 294,000,000 results.  This is not surprising as most students when joining my class tell me that they love the look of wet on wet painting and would like to know how to do it.   Those that don’t know of it when joining my class usually discover this wonderful approach shortly after and wish to explore it further!  It’s the part of painting in watercolor that never fails to bring a ‘WOW’!
So here is a bit of a ‘blurb’ on some things I have learnt over the years of painting in watercolor and teaching this wonderful medium to others.
Many students, especially when starting out in watercolor have difficulties with painting wet on wet. The usual questions surround the wetting of the paper and how wet that paper should be.  I believe it is not so much about how wet the paper is that is the problem, but it is more about how wet and diluted the paint is that you brush on to the wet paper.  For example, if your paper is wet, than generally you need less water to dilute your paint.  There is no one recipe for the correct amount of dilution of paint, because it depends on what effect you are trying to create.  The more diluted with water your paint is (watery consistency) the more your paint will spread out on the wet paper when you brush it on.  It will usually spread out another inch or so after you have touched your ‘loaded’ brush to paper.  It also will become lighter in value as the water on the paper and the water on your paper dilutes the paint and it will become lighter.  If you are painting soft floaty clouds on a hazy day, than this may be exactly what you wish to achieve.  However, if you wish to paint distant foliage, ie. The type you see with the hazy edges, than you will need thicker less diluted paint, so that when your brush hits the wet paper the paint spreads a little.  This way the shape (tree) will retain some of its shape and have a nice soft edge as well.  This is very useful when you wish to paint something at a distance or you wish to suggest distant background and not have it ‘jump out’ at the viewer.  To add another variable to this, I have to mention that during the process of painting on wet paper, if the paper starts to lose it’s shine and begin to dry (even a little), and you apply watery diluted paint to the surface, you will create what is called a ‘bloom’ or ‘watermark’ or ‘cauliflower’.  This may or may not be desirable.  So it all depends on what effect you are aiming for and getting to know how to adjust the consistency of the paint you are painting with, to suit the degree of wetness.
The following hints may help you when working wet on wet.
  • Have everything ready before you touch brush to paper.  Have your thick consistency paint for the foliage ready.  Because this paint has to be thicker, more of a butter consistency, you will need a separate brush to mix it and most of the paint (you will notice) stays within the hairs of the brush.  (Any thinner than soft butter over previously painted semi-dried surface will produce watermarks.)  Therefore, you’ll need to leave the brush you have mixed your paint with ready and loaded while you use another brush to apply the weaker and thinner washes of color.
  • Always use a large soft brush to wet your paper and take your time as this will help the water to ‘sink’ into the fibres of your paper and stay wet for longer, sometimes it is necessary to wet twice.
  • Try to move quickly and don’t spend too much time fiddling with tiny little ‘dabs’.  Once the painting starts to dry, STOP and dry it off completely (to bone dry) before resuming painting on it.  This reduces watermarks and stops the ‘worn’ out look that paintings can get.
  • Aim to paint from ‘thick’ to ‘thin’ (less diluted to more diluted).  In other words start with things that are softer in the distance or underlying color and then as you continue working and painting over this, thicken your paint up each time to go on until it starts to dry and then stop and dry completely.

You can practice with a piece of watercolor paper by wetting it and trying different consistencies of paint and watching the effects.  This is really the only way to learn.

Practice and enjoy the process of learning!
Happy Painting!

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