Getting the most out of your palette
Since the time man first made his mark on the wall of his cave, the
art of creating paintings has been in transition. Over the centuries
that have passed, many giants have experimented each adding a
distinctive touch to the application of paint to a surface.
In water colour painting, my aim is to help you, identify some
problems in your own work and to provide logical solutions to those
problems. For ease of reference it's divided into three sections colour,
composition, and problem subjects.
Colour mixing in water colour can be both fascinating and
frustrating. Sometimes magical things happen, other times a colour will
turn to mud for no apparent reasons.
This deals with the practical problems involved in controlling such
an unpredictable medium as water colour and shows how to avoid the
pitfalls of both muddy colour and weak, wash out colour. You will
discover how to improve the vibrancy of your colours by mixing them
wet-in-wet or applying them transparent glazes, and to show how to
control colour relationships to create better painting.
In water colour, there is no more thrilling sight than that of large
soupy washes of colour being brushed onto a sheet of sparkling white
paper and allowed to diffuse softly together. The effect is magical and
I consider wet-in-wet washes are the very foundation of watercolour
Yet so many beginners miss out on all this fun because they are
afraid that they won't be able to control wet washes. Instead they sit
tight-lipped and hunched over the page, making dry little marks with dry
paint on dry paper.
Then they wonder why their watercolours don't look like water colours!
Learning to control water colour washes can be nerve-wrecking at times,
but it is also exciting and exhilarating.
Composing a picture in watercolour presents its own particular
problems. One has to plan things carefully in advance because you can't
paint over mistakes as you can on oil paint. The scene on this page was
painted on a cloudy day by the Kelani river, and I have titled the
painting 'Down the Kelani River'.
Observe the dark shady clouds and the atmospheric effect of mist
expressed to show a downfall of rain at any moment.
The river scene with the boat as the centre of attraction in relation
to their surroundings gives a dramatic impression of the sheer scale and
grandeur of the natural world. Notice the man standing on the edge of
When you are painting figures in a landscape it is not necessary or
desirable to make them highly detailed. Challenge yourself by painting
the figures directly, without first drawing a pencil outline as I have
You will observe this whole painting does not express any details
including the distant hut and the boats anchored by the side. In this
painting reflections expresses the smooth glassiness of the water
through the use of contrasts of light and dark tones.
Some of the painting problems, one would experience in watercolour
are streaks and runs forming in watercolour washes, for example painting
the sky, water, reflections in water, shadows and proper use of colour
It's a good idea to try out different watercolour papers and test how
they respond to wet washes. Different papers behave in different ways,
depending on what materials they are made from and on their surface
In watercolour there are four ways to apply paint to the paper; Wet
on dry; dry on dry, dry on wet and wet on wet. Generally you should aim
to include at least two different kids of brush-strokes in painting to
give it variety and textural interest.
Dry on Dry
When pigment is picked up as a dry brush and skimmed lightly over dry
paper, a ragged broken stroke is created. This method known as dry
brush, can be highly expressive in suggesting rough, weathered textures
or the sparkle of sunlight on distant water. Never labour dry-brush
strokes. Use quick light movements. This technique works best on a
medium or rough drawing paper that helps to break up the paint.
Wet on Dry
Controlling shapes is easy when you apply paint to dry paper with a
wet brush. The paint remains right where you put it and dries to a
clean, hard edged shape. If over-used, however, this method can make a
painting look rather stationary and lacking in atmosphere.
Glazing (coat with a glossy surface), however, is a wet-on dry method
that will enrich any watercolour painting. When a thin transparent wash
is applied over another dry colour, the effect is more vibrant than when
two colours are mixed together on the palette.
Never attempt a glaze unless the underlying wash is bone-dry,
otherwise the underwash will be disturbed and the colours will mingle
and turn muddy.
Always work quickly and lightly when glazing. Don't glaze more than
two or three layers of colours. Use only the transparent pigments such
as alizarin, crimson and viridian. Opaque pigments like cerulean blue
and yellow ochore are not suitable for glazing.
Dry on Wet
In this method a 'dry' brush is loaded with pigment and applied to
wet paper (damp). The applied 'swims' on the wet surface before settling
into the fibres of the paper forming a shape with diffused edges.
Because the paint is relatively thick it doesn't spread too far and
attractive effects are shown while retaining some control over the
shapes you make.
Wet on Wet
This is the most beautiful, the most expressive, and least
controllable method. Again the paper is wet, but this time more water is
carried in the brush.
The deposited pigment, being more diluted, floods out and into the
wet paper and creates exciting diffusions and colour interactions that
you could never equal if you planned them.
To get good results
Not only must we learn these four techniques of applying the paint to
the paper, also we must learn how to look at things with a seeing eye.
It will not guarantee you instant results. Constant practice is the only
way to get good results.
If you ever become discourage, remember that for every masterpiece
there is a stack of discarded 'failures'. But it is through our failures
that we learn and discover something new that we can carry over to the