2 Techniques

art struggles beginners paint tips

In the interest of "work smarter, not harder" & "done is better than perfect" in 2023, I'm resurrecting some blog posts I started months (or even years) ago and posting them in whatever state they're in. 


There are only 2 techniques in watercolor.

You read that right. There are only two (2) techniques in watercolor: wet on wet, and wet on dry.

Everything else is just icing.

Now, getting these two things right (especially the wet on wet part) takes YEARS to master. I still consider myself a watercolor beginner, and I've been working with watercolor for almost 3 years. 3 years is both a long time and a super short time in the scheme of things, especially when I compare myself to the big watercolor names out there, many of whom have been painting for multiple decades.

Now, I'm very firmly in the "I want to read everything camp, so podcasts and video can f*ck right off," so the explanation of these two watercolor concepts will be text based. If you are the opposite (no shame!), the whole damn internet caters to your style, so a quick search should serve up some video goodness.


Summary: Uncontrolled, harder to get the balance right

Practice: Wet an area of paper with water or a thin, watery paint color. Pick up the paper and move it a bit so you can see the amount of shine from the water on the page (use this to judge how wet/dry a painting is). Rinse your brush and pick up a different, darker pigment. Use less water in your brush, or really work the brush in the paint to make sure you get more paint than water this time.

half circle yellow to teal to dark blue

A wet-on-wet painting - no hard edges to be found

Touch the brush to the wet area on your paper. The paint from the brush should spread out quite widely and quickly from the mark you made. Some paints "explode" more than others, but all watercolor should move quite a bit. You should NOT be able to get a hard line with this technique. If you do, the paper was too dry and you've moved on to the other technique, wet on dry.

Grow: Tilt the paper various directions to see how the paint moves. Let the paper dry a bit and try it again to see what changes. The mark will spread less and get harder lines the more the paper dries out. Check the paper's shine level to see how quickly its drying.

Notes: This is the technique that still gives me fits. Getting the right balance of water/paint on the brush to the level of wetness on the page is SO HARD. If the brush is too wet, you'll get a bloom. These can add tons of texture and interest, but I'm still learning how to make them when *I* want to, and not just when I've messed up my water balance.


Summary: Controlled, adjustable

Practice: Pick up any color of paint with your brush, of any consistency. Do NOT wet the paper beforehand, and make your mark with the brush. You should see a hard line exactly where you placed and moved the brush. Simple, right?

Grow: Rinse your brush and use the clean water to smudge or change the shape you made. Use less water on your brush and much thicker pigment and draw a long line. As the paint runs out you'll get "dry brush" marks.

A wet-on-dry painting - lots of hard edges

You hopefully noticed that there's always one part of the process that is wet--the brush. There's gotta be some water in the process somewhere, or watercolor pigment just ain't gonna do a thing.

So from a beginner to a beginner, it gets easier. But it does take time and practice. I secretly hoped to shortcut those when I was starting out, trying to buy just the right supply to give me a huge bump in skill. None of the brushes, paints, or accessories I bought let me cut the line though. (The only thing that made a huge difference right away was changing from cheap paper to 100% cotton paper.)

The thing that works is keeping a mindset of openness & playfulness. You have to enjoy the process, because there is no end to this journey of watercolor art. You'll find a groove, maybe plateau for a while, but as long as you keep playing, experimenting, and pushing against the edges of your comfort zone, you'll never be bored.

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