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Controlling Watercolor: Part 2

Author: Johannes Vloothuis, Associate Editor

Ways to Control Watercolor

Before I begin, I would like you to forget for a minute that we have a paintbrush and paper. For a moment, let us imagine that these are sponges. From the following experiment you will see that they both can absorb water.

Using a 1-inch bone-dry watercolor brush, dip it into a small puddle of water and try to absorb the water. It will take in very little. Now wet the brush and squeeze out all the excess water using a damp paper towel. Dip it in the puddle again and watch how it sucks up the water working like a sponge. Keep this in mind. We will apply this concept later.

So in conclusion.

  1. A bone-dry sponge will pick up almost no water.
  2. A damp sponge does pick up water All the sponge has to do is touch the water and the water will travel up into it.
  3. A saturated sponge can pick up no water (its already full)

Here is the trick! Damp paper and damp brushes work exactly like sponges. Any time the brush touches the paper, water is going to move either from the brush to the paper or from the paper to the brush. It will move into the drier of the two, however pigment will be deposited onto the paper no matter which way the water flows.

Now back to dry on wet paint application. This means painting with a brush loaded with pigment and very little water. It produces the glorious diffusions of color and value that are so characteristic of watercolor. Yet it allows for control of shape. We'll use this technique the most often.

Most problems occur with the last two techniques (dry on wet, wet on wet).

Because there is a fine line between how wet the paper or brush should be. Here we get lost edges, paint running out of control, back runs (this occurs when water or very diluted paint is added to an almost dry area, pushing the pigment out of its place producing unwanted effects. (Fig. 7)

    Fig. 7 Sample of a back run
If you are able to control pigment and wet paper, you will take full advantage of this beautiful media. The degree of control and diffusion is relative to how wet or damp the paper and brush are.

So, lets learn how to control watercolor on wet paper.

Experiment 1

Thoroughly wet the paper. Next with a very wet brush scoop up paint and apply it to the paper. The pigment will "swim" out of control going where it pleases. There is no control, all edges are lost. This is wet on wet.

Experiment 2

Thoroughly wet the paper. Suck out the water from the brush with a damp paper towel. (Fig. 8) Scoop up pigment and touch the paper. You now have more control losing a degree of shape but to an acceptable level. (Fig. 9) Remember our earlier experiment. When you have a damp brush with the least water possible and apply the paint to wet paper, the pigment will go into the paper while the brush sucks up the water thus giving you the control.

    Fig. 8.

Fig 9.
Experiment 3

Thoroughly wet the paper. Wait about 1-2 minutes until the shine fades away (fig. 10).You can determine this by holding the paper up to the light source to see if it still glistens (This is the big secret for control) Now suck out the water from the brush with a damp paper towel and touch the paper with pigment. Now you will have good control where the pigment goes but still with the advantage of blurry diffusion.

Fig. 10 When the paper looks like this it is not a good moment to work on it!
From the three experiments from above we now know that the amount of diffusion all depends on how much water is in the paper or the brush.

Where to use diffused edges:

This has great advantages for landscape painting. Soft edges for foliage, background hills or mountains will give a nice feeling of distance. I have yet to see a sky painted with clouds in oils or acrylics look better than in watercolor. Foggy scenes are really enhanced in watercolors. Grass painted in wet paper with dry paint give such a nice soft feeling that will make you want to lie on the grass and a have a picnic. It is a great medium to give an impressionist look to certain areas you want out of focus.


Make sure you always use the best quality watercolor paper (the term is wrong because it is made from compressed cotton but used for the lack of a better word). I don't advise using the student quality watercolor blocks made from wood pulp sold at most art stores. The exception of this would be Arches blocks made from 100% cotton.

Once the paint is applied to wet paper you only have a couple of minutes to play with it. Once the paper loses the glisten resulting from the water not being totally absorbed, you run a big risk of ruining that area. So make sure what you will put on. At this stage I try not to improvise.

In case you ever run into trouble and wish to remove a painted area, check out the lesson on how to correct and regain white paper in watercolor.

Happy painting!


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  Johannes is a Canadian born artist who specializes in landscape painting in watercolor and oils. He has held exhibitions throughout Mexico, Canada, and Italy.

Besides painting, he has been teaching for over 20 years and feels proud for having helped so many amateur artists turn into professionals. He doesn't believe talent is necessary to become a good artist. Correct guidance and constant practice will achieve great results. He will not hold back "professional secrets". He is well known for his clear explanations.

Johannes is the resident WetCanvas! art reviewer, providing free electronic critiques of artwork submitted by our readers.