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What, exactly, does the term wet-on-wet refer to and how can we use these techniques to create beautiful paintings with watercolor? Do you love watching artists create those awesome washy watercolor effects, but find that things don't end up as expected when you're trying them yourself?
In today's blog post I'll explain what wet-on-wet effects are, how they can be combined with wet-on-dry effects to create awesome paintings, and a few essential tips to apply when using these techniques. I'll also explain how to do different effects like blooms, splatters and runs. Make sure to check out the video included in this post to see me in action!
Wet-on-wet refers to the act of applying fresh paint onto a wet surface or on paint that is still wet rather than onto a dry surface or a layer of paint that has already dried. When using these kinds of techniques, we get colors that blend or intermix with each other.
It's important to understand that this painting technique isn't exclusive to watercolors, but can be used with all traditional painting mediums (watercolor, gouache, acrylic, oils) and it can be used in a variety of ways.
First and foremost, when working with watercolors, it's essential to understand that when a paint mixture is placed on paper that is wet (either because it has been pre-wetted with clean water or because a previous layer of paint hasn't dried), the paint mixture will expand, creating a blurred out/fuzzy effect.
Opposite to this, when we place a paint mixture on paper that is dry (either because it's a fresh sheet of watercolor paper or because the previous layer has completely dried), the newly placed paint will not expand, leading to sharp looking lines and defined shapes.
This principle is essential to grasp and it's important for beginners starting out with watercolors to know that wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry effects complement each other to create beautiful paintings.
By combining them, we're able to create a visually pleasing contrast, bring attention to focal points by adding sharper detail to certain elements, add depth to a piece, and many other things.
It's important for beginners to practice both kinds of techniques, and start giving thought to how they can be used in a particular piece before actually starting the painting process.
How and when you use wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques in your painting process will depend on what subject you're painting and what effects you're personally going for.
Generally speaking though, the first layers of paint should be translucent and paint mixtures should contain more water than pigment.
As the painting process moves forward and subsequent layers start being placed, paint mixtures contain less water and more pigment.
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5 Essential Tips to Have in Mind When Using Wet-on-Wet Techniques
1. Use medium to heavier-weight paper with enough tooth/absorbency
Paper makes a huge difference when painting with watercolor and can often be the reason why our wet-on-wet effects don't turn out as expected.
No matter what kind of painting medium we're using, it's absolutely essential to give thought to what paper or support we'll be painting on before starting a piece as this will directly affect both our painting process, as well as its overall outcome. When painting with a water-soluble medium like watercolor, we should use a paper that is intended for this purpose.
This said, when we're planning on using lots of wet-on-wet effects like the ones described in this post, it's best to use a medium (140 lb.) to heavier weight (300 lb.) watercolor paper, as anything thinner will warp and possibly even shred throughout the process. You also want it to have some degree of tooth or texture to it, as this will help ensure that water/paint mixtures will be absorbed when placed upon it.
Watercolor paper can certainly be difficult to grasp, as there are so many different types and formats available. In my blog post/YouTube video Watercolor Supplies for Beginners and Things You Must Know, I go much more in depth into watercolor paper and explain a few other important aspects in regards to watercolor painting supplies.
2. Give thought to the colors you'll be using
Because colors will be intermixing a ton when using wet-on-wet techniques, it's essential to do a bit of planning to ensure that we won't create unwanted hues accidentally.
Though one of the beauties of watercolor is the fact that it has a mind of its own, skilled artists are able to have at least some level of control over the 'chaos'. They have practiced water control and have a good idea of what's going to happen when a certain paint mixture is placed in a specific area, using effects to their advantage.
Skilled watercolor artists have not only become masters at managing the combination of paint and water, but they also know the importance of planning color. This Element of Art is an important aspect behind making a painting look harmonious and balanced. We're also able to create very striking visual effects when planning our color palettes and giving thought to how we'll actually be using it throughout the painting process.
Color shouldn't be an afterthought or something that happens accidentally.
In the video included in this post, you'll see how I create my warm and cool color studies separately. The reason I do this is because I know that when Complimentary Colors mix together, they create grayed out/dull tones. Complementary Colors mute each other out and, in these studies, I wanted my colors vibrant and saturated.
3. Keep your water clean
Using murky water when painting with watercolor is a huge no-no, no matter what kinds of techniques you're using. Dirty water will affect your paint colors and may even make your piece appear dirty.
When working wet-on-wet we're not only using a lot of water, but we're also usually working at a faster pace because we're using the freshness/dampness of an area to create beautiful effects. It's important to ensure that we're not accidentally dipping our paintbrush into dirty water and placing this water on our paper!
I've known of artists that use two or even three cups of water as they are painting. One idea could be to use one glass of water to rinse color off your brush and a second one to dampen it with clean water. Whatever it is you decide to do, make sure you're constantly checking on your water throughout the painting process.
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4. Constantly give thought to how much water is already on your paper and how much water is in your brush
The outcome of our wet-on-wet techniques will greatly depend on how wet/damp the specific area of paper is, as well as how thick or watery the paint mixture that we're placing upon it is.
I would recommend beginners to practice creating a wide range of paint mixtures, from watery/translucent to thicker/heavily pigmented mixtures, and see what happens when they are placed on slightly dampened paper vs. puddles of water.
In the video included in this blog post, you can see me play around with large puddles of water/paint mixtures. While puddles allow for a lot of exciting movement, they are certainly difficult to control and can lead to unwanted effects like backruns and splotchiness if we're not careful!
Generally speaking, if your paper is already very wet, it would be best to stay away from laying down a very watery paint mixture on it. In principle, for backruns not to happen, you have to make sure that there is less water in your brush than there is on your paper. Another option to avoid backruns and undesired splotchiness would be to allow your paint layer to dry completely before going back in with another color.
If you've wetted your paper too much accidentally, you can always absorb some excess water with a paper towel or with a clean (dry or slightly dampened) brush.
5. Know when to stop
When I was first starting out with watercolor, I didn't understand that watercolor paper can only take a certain amount of 'beating' before it has to be left alone to regain its strength. Even if paper is specially intended for use with water, it's essential to understand that wet paper is fragile paper.
With watercolors, we must stay mindful of when we should stop, as continuing to work over and over on one same area will definitely lead to overworking our paper (even when using the heavier weight variety). Beginners starting out with this medium tend to lay down paint mixture over paint mixture and try to fix mistakes or make changes in one same area, damaging the paper.
When we've made a mistake, it's best to do a bit of gentle lifting when the paint is still wet and then allow it to dry completely. What I like doing, is ignoring my accident for a bit and working on other areas of my painting while that one dries. Other times, I work on two pieces at once and jump back and forth from one to the other, allowing paint layers to dry.
Often, we can make mistakes less noticeable by doing a bit of work in the area once the initial layer has dried. We can add more washes of color, lift some more, or even to a bit of gentle scrubbing at this point.
Check out my blog post titled 5 Common Watercolor Painting Mistakes and How to Fix them for ideas on fixing accidents and avoiding them altogether.
Watercolor Wet-on-Wet Techniques
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