So what are the two most important ingredients for watercolour painting? Well it is not the paint or pigments, its water and time!
Obviously the quality of the watercolour paper, brushes and paints you use will be important to your painting success but without a thorough understanding of water and what happens to it over time you will find yourself really working hard to keep up with what is happening on your watercolour painting surface.
Water is the unique difference between watercolours and most other painting mediums. It is the water that allows watercolour pigments to flow and create those beautiful wet on wet passages that can lead to some wonderful works of art. Depending on the consistency of your watercolour mixes, i.e. the water to pigment ratio, you can alter the tone of a passage either moving it forward or backward in the picture plane. You can also control how the mixture leaves your paint brush (more water and it flows easier and quicker but it will also have a lighter tone). It alters your ability to create a dry brush technique effect or a range of soft wet on wet passages.
In additional to water, time is a key factor because as soon as you start painting on your paper surface the clock starts, the water in your watercolour paint washes will begin to evaporate and this will effect what happens on the surface of your paper. If you want clean wet on wet washes then you have to add these while the shine is still on your paper. By this I mean the shine you see on the paper if you hold it at an angle against the light and is caused by light reflecting off the very wet surface of you paper. If you want more controlled wet on wet shapes without pigment flowing too far then you many need to wait a little time till the paper surface is a little dryer, probably at the stage where it is just losing its shine, or you can add more pigment and less water to your paint mixture. If you wait even longer (more time), until the paper is just damp you are in a dangerous or beneficial stage of drying. This stage is dangerous as any unintended water droplets on your paper or very wet brush strokes will disturb the paint already on the surface of your painting and can lead to the creation of “mud”. However it can be a useful stage if you purposefully want to use this effect to create certain surface textures like that on old Venetian buildings or on the surface of dry fields, etc.
Finally if you wait until your watercolour wash is totally dry you can lay another glaze over the top of it to change its color and tone while still retaining watercolour’s beautiful transparent quality. The trick here is to make sure that not only the surface of your painting is dry but that they whole paper is bone dry all the way through. If you do not wait long enough you risk redissolving the underlying watercolour paint and you could again end up creating watercolour mud!
If you master these two ingredients you will find paintings you used to consider complex now will become more simple watercolour paintings. Of course once you become more comfortable at this level you will no doubt want to tackle even more difficult paintings in the future – this is part of the nature of watercolour painting and developing your skill as a watercolourist.
Hopefully the above has given you an additional perspective on watercolour painting and these two very important but often overlooked components of this medium. Because one doesn’t usually have to pay for water and time I think their importance is often overlooked. I hope that thinking about these two ingredients helps you progress as a watercolour artist.