Tips on Water color

Tips on Water color

Artists have enjoyed the charm of water colours for many centuries. Constable, Cotman and Cezanne used them to great effect. Beginners, too, can get excellent results after a little practice; the medium has a lot to offer. Please print these few pages and use them as helpful instruction.

Water colour's loveliest feature is its transparency. The white of the paper shines through the colour, giving a feeling of light and sparkle to the picture. See our above description of Masking Fluid for detailed tips on it's use for maintaining the whites of the paper.

This brightest white, the white of the paper itself, however, won't be striking unless there are other, not quite as bright, parts to your work. There are many gradations of light.

Ways to lift paint to retrieve the lights: If the paint is still wet,use a tissue, a soft towel or a damp brush to blot up the paint. f thepaint has dried, use a stiff brush that's slightly damp. Gently scrub the paper and blot it with a tissue. Clean the brush and try the procedure again. Don't scrub too hard or too long or you'll risk damaging the paper.

When using water colour, the two main things to remember are that you should always work from light to dark, unlike with poster paints and oils, and that if you want white in your picture you should normally use the white of the paper; i.e. leave it unpainted wherever you need some white. Also, normally it is best to make very dark colours by mixing the other colours in your set, rather than using black.

Water colour paints are made from coloured pigment and gum arabic and are used by diluting them with water. (See the Factory Tour section) Depending on how much water you add, you can get pale, delicate colours or quite strong ones, to suit the different effects you are aiming at.

It is important not to overwork the painting, or you will lose that beautiful translucency that is essential to water colour. It is far better to spend time testing your colours on a piece of scrap paper before you start than to keep going over and over a painting in an attempt to improve the colour. The best water colour paintings have a look of freshness and spontaneity, so be bold.

If one painting does not work out quite as you had thought, just have another try!


For sketching your picture, an ordinary pencil will do; an HB or B will be fine. Remember that the pencil drawing will show through the transparent paint when you have finished. You could also try using NO pencil at all, which gives you a very soft, flowing effect. Brushes range in size from 00000, the smallest, to 14, which has a very large head. The thicker a brush is, the more paint it will hold at one go. So use a large brush for a wash and a small one for fine details. To keep a good point on your brush, smooth it back into shape with your fingers while it is still damp. Store your brush with the hairs pointing upwards.

Laying a wash

This is one of the basic water colour techniques, [It will give you an even 'wash', a liquid layer of diluted water colour over a larger area of paper; for example, in a sky]:

Have everything ready if you stop for any reason, you will get hard edges which you will not be able to erase. Mix up enough paint for the whole of the wash as you will not have time to mix any more when you have started. (To get an idea of how much you will need for the area you have to cover, you could practise with plain water on a spare piece of paper.)

Tilt the top end of the board your paper is resting on up a few degrees to make the diluted paint run towards you. Fill a brush with paint: for a very large area you would need a large brush. Drag the brush carefully along the top edge of the paper, noticing a bead of paint that will build up on the nearest edge.

Now reload the brush and repeat the action, overlapping the bead edge of the last brushstroke. Continue down the paper like this until you have covered the area. Clean up the last bead of paint at the bottom with the end of the brush.

There are many variations of the basic wash and it is worth experimenting. Try graduating a wash by adding more and more clear water as you go down the paper (as the sky fades towards the horizon); or blend colours together gradually or sharply to give interesting sky effects sunsets, clouds, water, mist...

Wet into wet

This very soft, flowing technique relies on the action of wet washes of paint on the paper. You will need heavy paper to be able to do it.

Either flow two washes into another on dry paper, or wet the paper with clear water first and then try adding colours. They blend beautifully perfect for skies, water, reflections, misty hills and so on.


Wax-resist technique

This technique gives a softer, fuzzier look than masking fluid. Use an ordinary candle to draw on your painting: when you come to paint on those areas you have waxed, the paint will run off. (This cannot be rubbed off as masking fluid can, and may discolour in the future.)

Scratching out

Working on good-quality paper gives you access to this technique, as it has the strength and thickness to stand up to it.

To add sparkle to a picture, try scratching the painted paper carefully with a sharp knife. This will take off the surface and give you little touches of pristine white paper. If you do this in horizontal strokes you will find it useful for points of light on water. It will also enliven a flat area, or correct a small mistake. Do not overuse this technique, and do not try to overpaint as the surface has been removed and will now behave differently from the rest of the paper.

Another way of removing colour you have already applied is wiping out or blotting. Try this for soft cloud effects. Simply blot a wet sky wash with a paper tissue to remove some of the colour.

You can also use this technique where a colour has turned out too strong: just wet the area with clean water and blot some of the colour off. It will not work so well where you have used a staining colour such as Viridian Hue.

Framing Your Work

Water colours need to be framed behind glass to protect them form dust and damp. Remember not to hang your paintings in bright sunlight, or you find that some colours will fade.

More on Watercolor

Matting and Framing Works on Paper:

Often the most challenging and exciting framing and artwork presentation is of works created on paper. Because the ground--paper--is not substantial enough to stand alone (as is a canvas panel, a work on masonite, or stretched canvas), it requires special handling.

Watercolor is one of the most popular paper art forms, and because of the colors used in the paintings, it offers some of the most diverse opportunities for creative expression in matting and framing. Following are several comprehensive ideas for matting and framing different weights of watercolor paintings.

How to Choose Watercolor Paper (the following 4 tips were taken from an article by Tom Fong (published in the Artist's Magazine,) with the authors permission. The author is an artist and instructor living in Alhambra, California. He can be reached via e-mail at fongfam@juno.com):

1) A Tip For Beginners:

Practice and perfect laying washes down on cold-pressed paper before trying a more challenging surface. You'll get the most control and uniform responsiveness out of cold-pressed paper.

2) Rough Paper:

A textural effect is what you'll get when you paint on rough paper.

3) Advice to Experienced Artists:

As an artist you should learn to use all papers-and try a variety of brands. different papers vary in brightness and also in how they react. Try myriad techniques on different papers to get an idea of how the paper can help you achive your goals.

4) Hot Pressed Paper:

Hang onto your hat when you put a wash on hot-pressed paper-it's hard to control... I'd say it would be very suitable for two distinct kind of painters: 1) people who like to do fine drawing using a pen or a small brush working on dry paper, or 2) experimental painters who like to drop color on and tilt the paper, letting the paint reveal an image. I like to do abstracted flower images on hot-pressed paper.

Lightweight Watercolor Paper:

If heavy water and washes are used on paper weights such as 140 pound or lighter, the paper usually curls and buckles--it does not lie flat. Some artists, however, are not concerned with this fact. They simply choose their matting color, cut the mat, and frame the work, virtually ignoring any "pillowing" or "puffing" of the surface. This might work for some, but for others, a flat look is desired.

There are several ways to accomplish this flatness. One is very simple and straightforward. Lay the work out on a clean, flat surface; cover the completely dry work with another smooth, flat item--such as a sheet of old Plexiglas. Weight the covering heavily and let the artwork rest beneath this weight for a couple of days.

If this is less successful than you had hoped, very carefully and very lightly dampen the back side of the watercolor and repeat the process above. Wait a full two days before lifting off the weight and then plan to mat and frame the work immediately. The purpose of hurrying is to insure no atmospheric moisture is reabsorbed into the paper prior to framing.

A curious thing about paper is that it starts out a slurry (thick "soup") of fibers and water and then seems always willing to reaccept and hold moisture, ready at any opportunity to revert back to its original state. For this reason, once a work is dry, flat and smooth, it is advisable to get it framed quickly.

Medium Weight Watercolor Paper:

A paper with more weight, say 170 pound to 300 pound, is usually pretty flat upon completion of the drying stage of the work. These weights are the most commonly selected papers for watercolor, and the heaviest papers offer the best stability. They require no weighting and buckle little, even with heavy water applications. They can be easily hinged behind the mat, backed with an acid-free substrate, and framed. Even though the cost of the heavier papers, like 300 pound, is higher, they present the fewest mounting and framing challenges.

Heavyweight Watercolor Paper:

Double and triple thick sheets of watercolor paper will lie very flat, are very sturdy, and can handle an incredible amount of surface wash and water without the slightest bit of bowing. These are a delight to paint on because they are so stable. However, with all of the wonderful painting options come some negative aspects. The sheer weight of the paper makes it difficult to archivally mount and mat. One easy solution to the weight dilemma is to create what is called a "sink mat." This is a collar or edging placed around the perimeter of the watercolor that holds it in like a fence.

Begin by measuring the image area you wish to be visible. Always allow at least a 1/4 inch overlap around all edges of the work (1/2 inch is better). Next plan the width of matting you wish to surround the image. Cut an acid-free backing board the finished size. Place the art on this backing and use strips of material the same thickness as the artwork to "collar" the artwork in place. Glue the strips to the backing on all four sides around the artwork. The only step left is the cutting of the decorative matting that will surround the image in the frame. When it is cut, glue it to the strips and weight it overnight. What holds the work in place is the surround "collar," the backing, and the top decorative mats. The artwork is not glued down or taped down and will not slip out of place because it has no place to go; it is held tight. This is one of many archival mounting techniques that work very well with watercolor.

Color choices in current decorating trends indicate that more light mat colors are used, as top mats and border widths are wider than average. Drama and emphasis can often be accomplished by matting with very wide borders, especially on small works. Which colors to use should be dictated by the work itself. If the mats and frame match the colors in the work, it will be timeless. If you mat and frame to match the sofa, the work is not allowed to reach its full potential and it will never look its best. Let the artwork dictate color.

Framing is the final element in the presentation of watercolors. Contemporary works of almost any style go well in metal; and natural, realistic subjects look well in wood frames. Choosing a wood frame with a tone repeated in the work is wise because it will automatically tie the artwork to the frame and look very cohesive.

A Palette of Plenty:

""Use more paint!" This lesson had a sudden, dramatic impact on my technique. In the past, the conservative dabs of paint on my palette complemented the "light touch" of my work. One evening during a watercolor class, my instructor, Connie Tucker, squeezed what seemed like an excessive gush of precious ultramarine blue onto my palette for a sky wash I was about to start for my landscape painting. The result? a stunning sky backdrop and a stunned student who immediately learned to use more paint for deeper colors and livelier paintintings. Now I load my palette and brush with color so I paint with the intensity, power and contrast that create excitement and passion." Laura Scheper, Lexington, KY (The Artists Magazine, Feb. 04)

Let's end off with a wonderful note we saw from a watercolorist (Craig M. B., Las Cruces, NM) in Watercolor Magic Magazine: "Every year, I donate a few paintings to be hung in senior centers, public buildings... Not only does it feel good to use my talents for charitable purposes, I also gain exposure as an artist in the community. Plus at the end of the year, I can deduct the cost of the materials I used for these pieces on my income taxes."

The Flow factor by David Pyle, The Artist's Magazine, Sept. 2005

Is watercolor best suited to tight detail or loose, gestural, expressive application? The answer is yes to both water-color is versatile because of a phenonomenon called hydrogen bonding. Without going all chemical on you, hydrogen bonding is why water forms into droplets when airborne. It's why bellyflops hurt (your front side has to force apart many hydrogen bonds.) It's why snowflakes form in such breathtakingly beautiful crystals. And it's why there's such a variety in the ways in which watercolor can be applied, from drybrush to washy applications.