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Do you feel like you're constantly fighting against your supplies when painting with watercolors? Feel like a failure after every single little mistake you make throughout your painting process? Do you frequently end up frustrated with yourself and throw away more paintings than you actually keep?
In today's post, I'll be sharing five common watercolor painting mistakes and what I personally do to fix them or avoid them altogether. By making use of these tips and tricks, you'll end up with a painting that is going to have way more positives than negatives.
When using watercolors, we cannot just simply cover up our mistakes with a new layer of paint. This artistic medium requires us to be much more mindful and delicate, even, right from the start of the painting process.
I use several different kinds of paint for my own work and when I make the switch to watercolors, it helps me to remember that I'm using this medium's transparency, in combination with the whiteness of my paper, to produce a wide range of values.
I am not covering up my substrate and layering paint, as I would with oils or acrylics, but using my paper in itself as my lightest value. This is what's going to help create watercolors' distinctive "glowing" effect.
There's way more of a chance that you'll produce a great watercolor painting if you do, at least, a bit of planning before starting, and are able to remain patient throughout the process.
It's also essential that you are aware of this medium's characteristics and have practiced basic exercises before jumping into a more complex subject.
I highly recommend reading my blog post titled 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting With Watercolors if you're just getting started.
All this said, it's important to know that you don't have to get frustrated with yourself and throw away a painting every-single-time you've made a mistake.
If you're mistake is small (which it should be if you're staying focused throughout the process), there most likely will be a way to make it less noticeable. There are also specific things you can do to avoid these mistakes in the first place!
For the time-lapse video included in this post, I painted a subject that I knew would be extra challenging for me and would allow me to demonstrate how I approach my mistakes on a real project.
Though I knew that my painting wasn't going to be "perfect" when that first mistake happened, I was determined to push through, and I'm happy I did. I learned a lot from it and will apply this knowledge in future paintings.
Five Ways to Avoid or Fix Watercolor Mistakes
It's important to understand that no mistake will be completely erased with any of these techniques. What you're trying to do is make them less noticeable, so that they don't distract from the great areas of your painting.
Mistake #1: Accidentally covering up your lightest areas (whites)
Make sure that you take time to plan and decide how you'll be protecting your lightest areas before starting with the painting process. You can do this by either creating a "map" for yourself (drawing small shapes around these areas using a pencil) and very carefully working around them as you're painting.
If you're painting a very complex subject with very small areas you want to protect, I recommend using masking fluid, as I did to protect the whiskers of this cougar.
To learn everything you need to know about using masking fluid with watercolors, visit my blog post titled Using Masking Fluid with Watercolors: Everything You Need to Know.
How to fix it:
Use the lifting technique to remove some of the pigment from your paper. If your paint is still wet, simply take your rag or paper towel and gently blot your paper with up and down motions (not sideways as this will damage the paper).
If your paint is already dry, no problem! As long as you're using decent quality watercolor paint, they can be reactivated by re-wetting them. All you have to do is rinse your brush well, remove excess water from its bristles and do gentle circular scrubbing motions in the area.
Don't go back in with too much water, though, and stay mindful about not damaging your paper.
Remember that the more wet your paper is, the more fragile it is. So once you've removed all you can, just let it go and allow the area to dry.
*It's important to know that different colors are going to have different staining qualities on your paper, and that the quality/type of paper you're using will affect the outcome of this technique.
*Also, the thicker the paper you're working on, the more scrubbing and lifting it will allow without you damaging it. These techniques won't work well if you're using lightweight paper. I love working on paper that's 140 lbs. and thicker.
Mistake #2: Laying down too much dark paint in the beginning stages or creating flat/stark looking shapes or lines
Remember that a good watercolor piece requires patience. Take your painting one-step-at-a-time and always start with light, translucent values and work your way towards darker darks incrementally.
Look at your reference and add your darkest values only where you actually see them (usually even these areas have somewhat of a variation in color and translucency in them in order to avoid flatness).
Generally speaking, you want to keep very dark/saturated colors only in the areas that really require them and make use of the medium's translucent qualities.
How to fix it:
Went a bit crazy laying down way too heavily pigmented paint mixture in a larger area (or sooner) than intended? Don't fret! Use the lifting technique described in the previous point using your rag to gently blot the area while it's still wet or use your clean, damp brush to do some scrubbing.
Be gentle while you remove as much pigment as possible and allow to dry before attempting to do anything else in that area.
You can also use the pulling/spreading technique in order to dissipate the concentrated pigment into a larger area. Of course, you don't want to spread that pigment into areas that are meant to be white or affect other colors you've already placed, so be careful.
I've found, dissipating that stark line or edge into a gradient really helps remove that flatness that we've mistakenly created. Do what you can and leave it. Move on to work on other areas of your painting.
Later on, when the area is completely dry, you can go back in and make any overworked areas less noticeable by adding more paint carefully and playing around with values/washes.
Mistake #3: Bleeding colors (when you didn't plan for them)
It's really essential for you to know the different effects that watercolors allow and when to use different techniques. I wouldn't recommend moving onto a complex piece if you haven't practiced simple exercises that will allow you to know your medium's characteristics.
If you want to know more about the essential watercolor techniques you should be aware of and specific exercises that you should definitely try before moving on to painting specific subjects, I highly recommend checking out my free Watercolor for the Total Beginner Mini-Course.
Essentially, when you place a paint mixture on a previously wetted paper, it will expand/bleed/intermix. This is referred to as the wet-on-wet technique and will lead to a blurred-out effect that you, most likely, do not want in some areas of your painting.
Before starting with your painting process, give thought to what areas you want blurred out, and which you want more definition in. The more defined you want an area, the more important it is for you to wait for the previous layer of paint to dry before applying more paint on top.
How to fix this:
Gently blot your paper with your paper towel immediately when this intermixing starts happening in order to prevent it from expanding more. Allow it to dry completely.
If the mistake is small and the color left behind is faint, chances are you will be able to add more definition to the area with subsequent layers once it's dry.
Mistake #4: Creating muddy colors
How to avoid this:
The very best thing you can do in order to avoid muddy colors to begin with, is to take time to test and experiment how the pigments you're planning to use mix together. Before starting to paint, give thought to the color palette needed for your composition. Plan the exact colors you'll be using, and keep your palette limited (5-6 colors usually works for me).
I cannot paint without my scrap piece of watercolor paper beside me that allows me to constantly test out color mixtures and transparencies throughout the process.
Know and understand the Color Wheel and the relationships between colors. Explore Analogous and Complementary colors, and decide how you want to approach deepening color values and creating shadow effects.
Take time to do exercises before even attempting to paint a complex subject or else you'll end up frustrating yourself more than you need to.
In the third class of my free Watercolor for the Total Beginner Mini-Course, I walk you through several color mixing exercises, which you'll find extremely useful!
*Don't mix more than 3 different colors together, unless you know what you're doing.
How to fix this:
If you've mistakenly laid down a muddy color on your paper, try to absorb what you can while it's still wet and allow the area to dry. There are some cases in which adding a light wash of a brighter color on top, will make the mistake less noticeable.
Mistake #5: Overworking or damaging your watercolor paper
If you're anything like me and you enjoy using techniques like scrubbing, lifting and layering, buy decent quality paper that's at least medium weight or thicker (140 lbs. and heavier). I personally cannot work on thin, flimsy paper.
However, even when using thick, quality paper, it's essential to learn when to stop and allow your paper to dry. The more experience you gain, the faster you'll be able to recognize when your paper needs time to recoup!
In the video included here, you'll notice I jump around a lot. If I do something I don't like, I absorb/lift what I can, and leave it. I work somewhere else and come back to that area to fix it later. I do not obsess over imperfections and move on with the process.
How to fix this:
Damaged paper simply cannot be fixed (unless you want to cut that part off). Of all the mistakes mentioned in this post, this is probably the deadliest, so stay mindful throughout the process so it never gets to this point.
Try not to get to obsessive over your mistakes, take a learning experience for what it is, and move on with the work you can do.
To finish up this post, I want to encourage you to not get frustrated over small mistakes. There is a certain beauty behind imperfection, and what you should be striving for with each piece is progress.
Trying to chase perfection with every single drawing or painting you create is probably going to end up hindering you and not allowing you to move forward as fast as you could.
Thanks so much for reading!
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