Five of my Favorite Watercolor Tricks

 

Watercolor is a notoriously difficult medium, but I've learned a few tricks that make it more manageable. Below is my top five list of the most helpful and frequently used techniques in my tool belt. I hope you find them useful!

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1. WORK IN LAYERS FROM LIGHT TO DARK

Because watercolor is a transparent medium, it's important to build up your layers from lighter colors to darker colors. In the little mountain scene below, you'll see that I started with my yellow sky, then did the light purple mountain in the distance, and finally the dark mountain in the front. 

Tip: When working in layers, let each layer dry before moving on to the next. This takes a little bit of patience, but it's worth it! If the paper is still wet when you apply the next layer, you'll end up with a strange, blendy mess. 

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 The sky was the first layer.

The sky was the first layer.

 Then I added in the distant mountain.

Then I added in the distant mountain.

2. FADE EDGES WHEN LAYERING

You may notice in the photos above that I let the paint slightly bleed over the lines while I built up the layers. This was intentional! Like I mentioned before, since watercolor is transparent, the lower layer is visible below the upper layer. It's important to soften the edge that will be overlapped so that you don't see a hard edge beneath the second layer. This will make more sense in the photos below. 

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Tip: To soften the edge, paint the shape you want, and then fill your brush with clear water. Run the clear brush along the edge of your painted shape, gently touching the paint so that the water pulls it into the paper. 

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As shown in the righthand image below, a hard edge is visible beneath the second layer, whereas the softer edge is much more seamless. 

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 Wet with a clear brush.

Wet with a clear brush.

3. "ERASE" BY WETTING AND LIFTING

Watercolor can be fairly unforgiving, but it IS possible to fix mistakes! Let's say a stray droplet of paint went somewhere it shouldn't have. Before it dries, you can remove it by wetting down the spot with a brush full of clear water and then blotting the wet spot with a paper towel. 

Tip: You do need to work quickly, because as soon as that water evaporates, the pigment will be fairly well absorbed into the paper and much harder to erase. You can still lighten, or nearly erase the dried pigment, by scrubbing your wet paintbrush over top of the spot and blotting with a paper towel. This won't fully remove the dried pigment, but it will lighten it some. 

 Blot with a paper towel.

Blot with a paper towel.

 Works like magic!

Works like magic!

4. BLEND AND SHADE WITH WATER

The ability to blend with watercolor is one of its most powerful assets. The key to blending with watercolor is, well, water! Two common ways to do this are:

  1. Create a shape using clear water and add your paint into it.
  2. Create a shape using paint, and then use clear water to spread out/fade the paint. 
 I added water first, then painted the edge to create a rounded effect.

I added water first, then painted the edge to create a rounded effect.

 I painted the dark purple shape directly on the paper, and used my clear brush to fade the edge into the paper.

I painted the dark purple shape directly on the paper, and used my clear brush to fade the edge into the paper.

5. USE TWO WATER CUPS

This tip will save you many trips to the sink to refresh your water. If you have two cups of water, designate one as "clean" and one as "dirty." If you are switching colors or removing paint from your brush, rinse it off in the dirty cup, and then use the clear water to paint with. That way you're not painting with dirty water or constantly needing to dump out your cup.

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*BONUS TIPS*

A couple of bonus tips, for good measure: 

First, keep a scrap piece of paper next to your main paper for testing out colors and shapes. I ALWAYS have one and I think it's saved me from quite a number of mistakes. 

Next, have a paper towel nearby to wipe off excess paint or lift up excess water from your painting. Paper towels are your friend!

And finally, don't be afraid to "waste" paper. Yes, watercolor paper is a little bit pricey, but it IS replaceable! Don't put too much pressure on yourself to make every painting perfect. The ones that don't "work out" are still very valuable in helping you learn. 

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I hope these tips are helpful, wherever you are in your watercolor practice. Sometimes the simplest changes can make a big difference. For another guide to getting started, you can visit "My Painting Toolkit," which will walk you through a list of my favorite supplies, for both beginners and more advanced students.

Happy painting, friends!