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We’ve All Been There
Watercolors can be a bit persnickety — especially for beginners. While watercolors might seem like child’s play, you’ll quickly discover just how challenging this medium can be. The challenge is part of the fun of watercolors, but running into the same obstacle over and over again can be frustrating. After years of playing with this medium, there are several watercolor mistakes that I have experienced again and again. Allow me to let you in on these 7 mistakes so you can make sure to avoid them!
7 Watercolor Mistakes to Avoid
Using Cheap Paper
One of the worst watercolor mistakes you can make is using cheap paper. Adding water to paper makes it buckle, warp, and sometimes even disintegrate. Yes, watercolor paper can be expensive — especially if you don’t have a lot of money to dump into this hobby. But I promise you that you will never be satisfied with your painting if you use cheap paper. Paper is the foundation of every single piece of art, and if it is cheap, the entire thing will look cheap. You can use the finest watercolor paint in the world, but if it’s being painted on flimsy paper, it simply won’t turn out the way you want.
You don’t need to get the best paper available. Canson has some affordable 140lb watercolor paper that you can cut into smaller pieces for practice. Later, when you are more experienced and ready to create full-bodied pieces of art, you can try a higher grade of paper like Arches. But whatever you do, don’t buy budget paper. Buy cheap paints and cheap brushes before you cheap out on the paper. Trust me, I’ve gone down this road, and it only leads to misery.
Buying Expensive Materials Right Away
While you definitely should drop money on decent paper, you shouldn’t take that approach with the rest of your supplies. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on expensive watercolor paints in the art community. I can see the allure. High-end paints are damn sexy. However, I want you to take a step back from the fancy Daniel Smith watercolor tubes and take a breath. You don’t need that artist grade paint. And you definitely don’t need paintbrushes that cost $10 a pop.
If you are just beginning, then you need to practice with student grade materials. In fact, I would even suggest you buy one of those cheap watercolor pan sets to get yourself started. That is exactly what I used in high school art classes. You don’t need expensive materials to learn the foundations of watercolor painting. You need to learn how to direct the paint, maintain a desirable water to pigment ratio, and control your brush. Fancy materials won’t help you do that any better than cheap materials.
You may even find that expensive paints and tools will get in the way of progress because you’re afraid of “wasting” your valuable paint. You obviously won’t make any progress if you’re too afraid to even use your supplies. So take my advice and go cheap on your paints and paintbrushes until you’re comfortable with your skills. You can always upgrade your tools later. If you want to shop around, here is a list of my favorite materials (which includes some very affordable brands).
Not Letting Layers Dry
Watercolor is a test in patience. And it does test you, no matter how experienced you become. At some point, every watercolor artist has tried to continue painting despite a layer not quite drying yet. Either you try putting a new layer on a partially dry wash or you try painting right next to a wet bit of paint, and bam. Suddenly colors are bleeding into each other, and you’re left trying to furiously dab away the errant pigment. It’s happened to all of us, but it’s something that can take a few failed attempts before it really sinks in.
If you are frustrated by the dry time of your watercolors, then consider investing in a heat tool. I originally bought my heat tool for another purpose, but quickly learned that I could use it to speed up the process of painting. You have to be careful not to overheat the page and make it curl (or damage your work table). But in moderation, you can help cut your dry time in half.
A very common and irritating watercolor mistake is accidentally mixing or muddying your paints. You can quickly turn your sunny yellow into an unexpected tan or a beautiful purple into a cool grey if you aren’t careful. So how do you fix this? There are a few things that may contribute to muddy colors.
Firstly, you need to be using at least two water jars, not just one. You use one jar to clean off your brush and the other to add clean water to your paint to dilute it. Keeping two jars instead of just one ensures that you aren’t slowly contaminating your paint with the ghost of old pigment. You’ve seen how dirty your jar of water can get after a painting session. Imagine how that dirty water can affect your final painting. Thankfully, the solution here is straightforward — get another jar with clean water and you’re all good.
Second, you can be getting muddy colors due to a messy palette. Your palette doesn’t need to be squeaky clean — mine certainly isn’t. But if your paints or mixing area is too messy, you can accidentally contaminate your painting. Give your palette a wash every once in a while and refresh your colors to help keep this at bay.
Watercolor is largely dependent on timing. You need to work fast sometimes to make sure to get the effect you want. Working too slow can result in streaky strokes, hard lines, and less of a blend than you wanted. It can be extremely irritating to find that the section you are working has dried prematurely or left unpleasant marks on your art. That is why it is so important to work quickly. While watercolors test your patience in the dry time, it tests your speed during the actual act of painting.
The work time of your painting will vary drastically depending on the paints you use, paper quality, brushes, and even the climate of your area. Someone in an arid environment will experience much faster dry times than someone in a humid climate. Basically, I can’t give any tips on solving this watercolor mistake because it will vary from person to person. What I can tell you to do is practice. Try using a wetter brush and less pigment. Experiment with wetting the paper before adding pigment. Get to know how your paints react with your paper using your brushes. After a bit of trial and error, you will begin to get a feel for how quickly you need to work while you are painting. Once you have this valuable experience, you will run into this mistake less and less.
When you sit down to paint, it can be tempting to immediately put your brush in your watercolors and get to work. But a little bit of prep goes a long way. With timing being so key, it helps tremendously to have your supplies ready and waiting. Nothing gets in the way like having to pause painting and wet a color or dilute a pigment.
Instead, make sure to take a few minutes to prepare before you begin painting. Get your jars of water ready and positioned near you. Have your paintbrushes waiting nearby. Make sure your rag is available so you can clean your brushes as you go. And most importantly, check that your paints are ready to go. Take an eyedropper and wet all the colors you want to work within a session, or simply wet them all. If you’re using liquid watercolors and you want some diluted paint, make sure to have some clean wells in your palette ready to go. Just take a moment to think about how you want to paint and prepare accordingly. This small step can make a big difference when you’re in the thick of painting.
Trying to Achieve Total Control
In most art mediums, the artist has tight control of their tools. Acrylics, oils, pencil, pastels… you can trust that these mediums won’t go off and do anything on your own. But watercolor is a free spirit. If you turn away for just a second, you might look back only to find your paint has run down the page or bled into a forbidden area. Watercolors dry with unexpected textures, patterns, and color variations. Generally speaking, they are hard to control.
While you certainly can aim for a disciplined control of your watercolors, you need to know that you can only go so far. Water is wild and has a mind of its own. If you try too hard to control it, then you are missing out on the best characteristics of watercolor and making it much more difficult for yourself. Instead, you need to embrace the whimsey. Understand that watercolor is about going with the flow. You can direct the flow, nudge the flow, and influence the flow, but you ultimately cannot control it. Once you stop fighting this trait, you can begin to use it to your strength and wield watercolors in a new way.
Watercolor Mistakes Are Natural
If you have experienced one or all of these mistakes, then congratulations! You’re actually doing pretty freaking great. Mistakes only happen when you are trying, and trying is the only way to get better. This medium takes some adjusting and making silly watercolor mistakes simply means that you are growing as an artist. So go out there and screw up as many times as you can. Make a mess. Splash paint everywhere. Get your hands dirty. Just create something, have fun, and keep playing.