Watercolour painting is often considered the most difficult of mediums to work with yet at times I also feel it is the easiest. I have pondered this for a while and decided to look at the major mistakes a beginner watercolour artist often makes that would cause him, or her, to feel the medium is so difficult. I remember when I first started it was all a bit of a challenge, but because I was challenge driven I had no problem continuing on to a good level of success. Now, while the challenge is still there, I have found I am able to be a lot more relaxed with my painting and the watercolours almost seem to paint themselves at times.
So what are these mistakes students make when painting with watercolours?
Common Watercolour Painting Mistakes
Here is the list I have come up with after reviewing the common problems I have observed during my classes and workshops. If you are having major trouble with your watercolour painting then a review of this list should hopefully result in you spotting the cause of your difficulty so you can correct it!
1. Too much water
If you find you can’t mix a strong color and your watercolours always look too light and washed out. Then you are putting too much water in your mixes. The darkest darks are mixed with almost pure watercolour paint and no water. Now this would be too strong in almost all instances but I mention it too give you perspective on how too much water can hinder your ability to mix a strong dark color.
Have a look at where the excess water is entering your mixes and you will be well on the way to correcting this. You could be washing your brush each time before you pick up more color when it is not necessary, you could have so little paint in your palette that you try to make it cover more area by adding more water, etc.
2. Too little water in your watercolour painting washes
If you try to do a wash over a large area of your painting with a brush with very little paint in it you will not end up with nice clean watercolour washes. The big washes should usually be done with a fully loaded brush – one which will drip if head vertically with the point down.
3. Painting into damp paper with a too wet a brush
Painting into a damp (where the shine has left the watercolour paper) wash is dangerous as it can cause watercolour mud to develop but there are times when doing so can create just the effect you want. The trick is to have less water in your brush than on your paper and you will be fine as long as you do not continue to fiddle!
4. Not waiting till a wash is totally dry before laying a glaze over the top of it
This is a very common one. Not only should the surface of your paint be dry but the paper below must be thoroughly dry as well. Otherwise as soon as you wet the surface with your glaze you risk disturbing the wash underneath as it can quickly re-liquefy due to the inherent dampness of the paper below.
5. Using a wrong sized brush for the shape being painted
A very small brush will take too long and too many brush strokes to cover a large area, this will lead to a rough look to your watercolour paintings. While too large a brush used for a small shape will make it too difficult to judge its water content and can lead to the under painting being washed away.
6. Poor quality paper
Some watercolour papers are just too absorbent acting like blotting paper. They are not only false economy as you will not be able to produce nice work on them but they actually hinder you from learning how to do nice clean washes. A wash must be able to flow down the paper. Paper like that made by Arches and Saunders Waterford are very good. Why give yourself a handicap when you first start to paint with watercolours by trying to get away with inferior paper.
7. Trying to paint too large too soon
If you are just starting out with watercolours then I suggest you paint small to begin with about 16th (approx 19 cm x 14cm) or 8th sheet size (approx 28.5cm x 19 cm). Then build up to larger sizes as you get comfortable with the smaller. Some people find they prefer to paint small while others prefer larger work.
8. Poor quality watercolour brushes
Round watercolour brushes need to hold lots of water and pigment, and have a enough (but not too much) spring that their hairs bounce back to a nice point when the wet brush is tapped on the side of your water container. If the larger brushes don’t have a nice point it will increase the frequency with which you have to move down to a smaller brush which wastes valuable time. A good watercolour brush lets you use if for longer when painting before there is a need to pick up a smaller brush. I have written more about what to look for when buying a watercolour brush in another article on this website.
9. Not pre-mixing your starting watercolour colors
Before starting your under painting a good practice is to pre-mix the main colors you will need for your wet into wet wash. Otherwise if you start painting with your first color and then have to quickly mix your second and then your third you will not end up with a nice clean wash as the first one will dry too fast. Time is a very important factor “once you start your watercolour painting” so why waste it mixing colors.
10. Starting to paint before thinking through the steps you will need to take to successfully complete your watercolour painting.
If you just start painting without a plan of attack you could find yourself running into difficulties which could have been avoided with some forethought. You may have needed to mask an area, painted it in a difference sequence, etc.
The above is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things that can make watercolour painting difficult but they are the main ones. In later articles I will be expanding on each of the above points. For the time being if you are having problems with your work there is a good chance that if you scan down the above 10 point list you will spot the item (or items) causing your trouble.
Finally remember not to take it too seriously. It is much better to tackle a painting just wanting to have fun as it will show up in your final result. I have a related article you may be also interested in which covers how to fix a watercolour painting which you can find on my sister website at www.paintingwithwatercolours.com