Watercolor is the easiest painting medium in terms of the demand of the medium being water, brush, paper and watercolor. However watercolor is also incapable of control, sure there is some element of control but total control is impossible. The more you try to control it, the more unforgiving it becomes. Many times the easiest way to master watercolor is to let it do what it wants and be pleasantly surprised by the results. Repeat and try again.

Surprising may not be the word most people like, especially if you need consistency in your work. What I mean by surprising is that its easy to have fun with watercolor. You can endlessly experiment and get different results every time. Thats something that I value in my work and need in order to keep me interested. Discovery is an important part of my inspiration. Most if not all of my work is created with watercolor, it's a medium that can be tricky but with the right tips and techniques you can be well on your way to mastering this fickle medium.

The materials you use for watercolor are a lot fewer than say oil painting however that doesn't make knowledge of the different types or qualities any less important. Some would say it matters even more to know in order to achieve consistency. 


When it comes to watercolor the paper can be just as important as the watercolor itself. Depending on your need the type of watercolor paper you choose to use can determine the success of your painting.
There are two types of watercolor paper, (three if you really want to get finicky but these two are the most important to know).  These watercolor papers are separated by their 'press' type which determines the tooth of their paper. By press I mean the way in which the paper is made, from that pulpy pile of paper materials how it is gradually flattened and dried into the sheets of paper you know and love. When talking about tooth I'm speaking about the texture of the paper, how rough or smooth the surface of it is. The more tooth a paper has, the rougher it is and vice versa. Different brands offer different amounts of tooth within their paper selections, so it doesn't hurt to try a great deal many brans before you settle on the paper you like.


Hot press watercolor paper is smooth, as smooth as watercolor paper can possibly be. The positive attributes of hot press paper is the ability of the paint to spread smoothly across the surface. For example fine lines can be made without breakage or many layers of paint spread evenly. Large amounts of watercolor can be tricky on this paper, especially if the weight of the paper is too thin. If you're going to be using a lot of paint, I would suggest heavier weight (300 LBS and up).


Cold press watercolor paper is rough, and has a beveled surface or a lot of tooth. Not to be confused with rough press watercolor paper, cold press maintains an element of smoothness to ensure your brush doesn't get torn up when painting.
This paper is amazing for large amount of watercolor as the tooth holds a lot of moisture and can retain a lot of abuse as it absorbs the water through the layers. This means that the paper itself takes longer to dry while hot press dries instantly on the surface.
However it is not very good for minute details by brush, and layers of watercolor will not be as noticeable as a hot press paper because oftentimes the previous layer is not fully dried.


Brushes are also very important when painting with watercolor as they determine the flow of the watercolor, the consistency of its application and the fineness of any line work you wish you carry out. My favored brand (and many others) is the Winsor &Newton Series 7 Sable brush, however these have been recently banned because of the animal's near extinction. These brushes last for a long time if you take care of them, and seeing as these may be gone for good I say buy in bulk. Substitutes for this brush may be hard to find, its wonderful at holding liquid and keeping a fine point however those are really the criteria which you need to keep in mind. Look for brushes with real hairs, synthetic ones tend to not be able to hold water like real hairs do and also tend to dry out faster over time thus breaking. Winsor & Newton makes another series called Kolinsky that is close to the Sables. If you're looking for something less pricey and can't afford real hairs for now their Cotman series is also very good, but being synthetic means the hairs will eventually become brittle. 

I've tried many brushes, and subsequently ruined many and I can't stress enough the importance of quality over quantity and caring for your brushes as well! Winsor & Newton has guidelines to take care of their brushes including a warm soapy bath after every use, but if you're like me you'll forget about the soap most times. The most important thing to remember when caring for your brushes is to never scrub them, always rinse with water after every use, shape the brush into a point (by flicking your brush sharply downward), and let dry standing up. An excellent soap for cleaning your brushes is The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Of course if you do ruin a brush, these can always be repurposed to use for making interesting rough lines which I discuss more below. 


Mediums in watercolor are very tricky, and I've only just started using them. However I can see their usefulness, I just don't trust them. The medium above when added to watercolor makes the paint fluid, but not transparent. Its more opaque like a watery acrylic, or a colored ink. The downside of this is that it doesn't blend well and when added with water it starts to shellack itself onto the paper. (Which you could also use that to your advantage, if you wanted a distressed look). 

Masks are a lot of fun, and a great way to create interesting marks on your paper. For more brushy but less predictable masking try using rubber cement (above, far right). This comes with a brush applicator so no need to ruin one your brushes for this. Another mask to use is masking fluid, (above, center) this stinky foul smelling yellow liquid will most definitely ruin your brush so I would use an old cheap brush and cultivate it as your designated mask applicator. This mask is excellent for fine details and small areas. Neither of these masks are archival so it will yellow your paper over time. 



Wet on wet is a technique in which you saturate an area of your paper with either water or watercolor paint and then work into that already wet area with more water or more paint. This technique is good for blending colors, mixing colors or creating washes. It can also make interesting watercolor textures by use of another technique in which you drop pigment into a wet area of the paper and let it soak into the paper. The difficult thing about this technique is knowing how much water to use before you oversaturate your paper. When you use too much water or pigment the paper tends to warp (or buckle) and will eventually melt into a blob of color. Therefore it's very important to space out your wet on wet sessions in order to avoid this from occurring. You can also use a hair dryer to dry your page, but sometimes this will push the pigment and water around the page. 


Sponges are great for creating different marks or applications of paint onto your page. You can also use them like an oversized brush to wet or paint large areas of your paper. The type of sponge that you get is important, you should always get a sea sponge or natural sponge. They hold moisture better than their synthetic counterparts and also won't tear and wear as easily. Their natural growth and formation makes for beautiful organic marks. Pre-wet them by soaking them in water. Always make sure to rinse them out after use, and let air dry. 


Using salt in watercolor paintings may seem unusual to you, but actually its a very simple trick many artists use to create interesting marks or formations on their paintings. I've used big chunks of salt to create star formations in my paintings and finer salt grains for minute more subtle details. The salt acts like a sponge, leaching the water from where it touches the painting.

On the right you can see that I sprinkled some common table salt onto a painting and right away the salt soaks up the pigment and the water.

When it dries there will be little white spots where the salt was, and the salt can be easily brushed away.

There is no real technique to this, so try it out first. Practice with it to see how it reacts in different scenarios, such as with ink or with different grains of salt.


Dry brushing is a lot of fun, and it can be a really easy way to create interesting lines or add textures in your work. Dry brushing works best on Cold Press paper because the roughness of the paper captures the ink quicker. That being said you can keep a small sliver of cold press paper by your desk and use it to wipe off excess ink before using the brush at your preferred dryness. Dry brushing has been used in ancient Chinese paintings and can have a beautiful smokey effect when used correctly. The brush is important to this process, and I favor using really old brittle brushes that have loose hairs or broken split ends. This allows for an optimal amount of variation in the line. It also creates really interesting marks that you wouldn't normally be able to achieve on purpose. 
The only way to really master dry brushing is to practice again and again this technique of mark making. 


I talk a lot about practice makes perfect in this post, and thats because you'll never be able to fully understand a medium until you've work with it a lot. There's a famous saying from the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell in which he repeatedly mentions the 10,000 hours Rule which simply states that the key to success in any field or any task is to practice it for 10,000 hours. This may seem like an impossible achievement in any lifetime but when you break it down its really not. All of these techniques are within the spectrum of mastering watercolor, and in order to master watercolor you have to practice it for 10,000 hours.
Practicing what you know isn't always the way to discovering the tools to success though. Another key to mastering an art is by experimenting. Once you've learned the foundations of painting thats the time when you should throw it all away and open your mind to the possibilities of these practical uses in unpractical applications. That's what I'll be discussing in my next post, the importance of experimenting.

Yupo Paper and Ink

I hope you enjoyed this post. 

1 comment:

  1. One of the reasons for using watercolors as a medium is using wet colors on wet paper. Getting the wash to behave the way you wanted it to can be difficult to control, thus making consistency difficult to achieve. I'm glad it was one of the topics covered in your post. I'm sure a lot of artists will find your post helpful, Melody. Thanks for sharing!

    Tara Barrett @ BlissFull Living Studio