Why Watch the Paper?

Watercolours are NOT difficult as most people seem to think:

  • All it takes is watching the state of your paper,
  • When to apply your brush,
  • Watching where you put your brush,
  • And how much liquid on your brush and paper.
  • How the quality of the paper makes a difference.
  • And lastly how to control the condition of your paper.
Watch the watercolour paper.

A5 watercolour: The old road to the homestead.

Watching the state of the paper:

It’s important to always watch the condition of your watercolour paper before applying paint:

  • Wet-in-wet: If your paper is too wet, you will get very blurry washes and vague shapes. Why? Because paint runs very easily on wet paper. Therefore things will only be blurred where you have pre-wet the paper.
  • Wet-in-dry: That is, wet brush on dry paper. When the paper is dry, you’ll get sharp-edged brushstrokes. Dry paper gives you sharp-edged detail.
  • But if you want soft-edged brushstrokes and contour edges, wait until the paper isn’t too wet or too dry. The stage of dampness depends on how blurred you require the result.
Remember the stage or state of wetness, dampness or dryness of your paper controls the condition of the effects you are trying to create.Waiting and judging for the right moment to apply your paint is called `timing’.

 Spreading your paint:

  • If you have trouble spreading your paint: It’s because you don’t have enough liquid on your brush, and the paper is too dry. If your brush is big and fully loaded (with water and paint) and your paper is wet, the easier the brush will flow over the paper.
  • Basically it’s the amount of liquid that controls any wash. That is: how much liquid there is on your brush and on the paper.
  • If the paper is dry and has textured tooth (rough surface), you will get a broken-colour-wash of colour. The reason why, is because paint only covers tips and not enough paint to fall into the hollows of the rough textured paper.
Watch how paint spreads over tooth.

What ‘tooth’ means and how paint spreads over the tooth on textured paper.

Timing of application:

It is just the matter of judging the state of your paper, whether the paper is dry, wet, damp or semi-dry, before you apply your brush:

  • If there is a pool of water (and paint) on your paper, mop it up quickly before you have a disaster.
  • If there too much liquid on your brush you’ll get `cabbage’ wash effects.
  • If your paper is wet, the paint will run very easily.
  • If the paper is shiny, it’s still wet.
  • If the paper is semi-glossy, it’s starting to dry.
  • If the paper is starting to go dull, it’s damp.
  • If the paper is matt, it’s dry.

 How to see the state of the paper:

I often get the question at this stage of instruction: “How do you see how glossy the paper is or not?”

If you are not seeing the difference, place your painting between you and the nearest window. It is easier to see this during the day.

The more you paint, the more you get your `timing’ right. No one can actually tell you what really occurs unless you observe and experience it for yourself.

Watch what you are doing: Be careful where you place your brush. Watch how your brush spreads its hairs. Don’t rush, watch how the paint spreads and blends.

 The quality of the paper:

  • Thin paper cockles and buckles badly. Pools of water collect in the valleys of the paper.
  • Wood-pulp paper, eg: blank newspaper, goes yellow in time.
  • Avoid acid-free paper, it goes yellow in time.
  • Hot pressed paper is very smooth. The paint sits in globules on its shiny surface.
  • Very absorbent types of paper suck up liquid too quickly, to make it easy to spread paint. You need more liquid to apply unbroken smooth washes.
  • Thick textured paper needs more liquid to fill in the valleys of the `tooth’. A damp brush catches only the tips of the tooth because there isn’t enough liquid on the brush to run into the tooth valleys of the paper’s texture.
  • On the other hand thick textured paper is perfect to make dappled segmented effects. First wet your paper and fully load your brush with segmented pigments.
  • Fine tooth, semi-absorbent cold-pressed paper gives you smooth blends and gradations. This creates beautiful atmospheric washes.
  • You need to practice often to learn how to handle Waka-sen and Jito-shi Japanese papers. Some artists use rice paper instead. I don’t think Japanese papers are available in South Africa.

Environment control:

Working out doors your paper gets dry quicker than if you were working indoors.

  • Place a piece of wet velt or dish-clothe on a light panelite board. The velt helps to keep your paper damp. The size of the board depends on the size of your watercolour paper. You don’t usually work with big sheets of paper when working outdoors. The wind is sure to give you opposition.
  • Spray or sponge your paper with water, both sides before starting to paint.
  • To hasten the drying time when working indoors, place your watercolour painting on a dry towel. This allows the air to circulate and dry your paper.
  • If you use a hair dryer to quicken the drying time, the paper buckles and the paint dries unevenly, especially if the paper is thin and of poor quality.
  • Controlling soft-edges: Say you are painting a bowl of flowers and want to keep the petal edges delicate. Soften the edges of the flower’s contour edge with a clean wet brush. And keep it somewhat wet until you get around to painting around it.


The best water to use for watercolours:

  • Very hard water is inclined to precipitate the pigment particles, ie hastens vapour to form solid deposits.
  • If you haven’t any soft water, try using rainwater or distilled water instead.

For more tips on watercolour, check out the free downloads of watercolour books.

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