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Embracing the randomness of the watercolour 'wet-in-wet' wash - "Stony-creek frog"

Ever wondered how to instill a sense of freedom and looseness into your paintings? Interested in trying 'wet-in-wet' watercolour wash techniques but not sure where to start? New to working with watercolours but worried that it might all go horribly wrong if you relinquish too much control?

For a while now I've been meaning to get back to painting with watercolours. There's a softness and subtleness that can be obtained with watercolours that is usually missing from other types of painting media.

With most types of paints (acrylics, oils, gouache) or indeed drawing media (pastels, pencils, graphite etc), colour is laid down in precisely the pattern in which you apply brush or pencil/stick to the support, and moreover, the opacity of these media means that mistakes in colour application or pattern can be rectified and refined with subsequent layers - just wait for the paint to dry and cover with another layer of opaque paint (or use workable fixative with pastel and cover with more strokes). This is, of course, a boon for the novice who is not confident in application of colour, but it has its downsides too. Unfortunately, the opacity of these media inherently stifles subtlety, and in particular I tend to find that paintings done with acrylics are quite stilted and stiff.

There's a fine line between exerting too much control and too little when it comes to watercolours, however. Too much control and your paintings lack the subtle gradations of hue, patterns in tone and edge effects that can only be obtained by working wet-in-wet and with the media applications that make watercolour so unique (such as the use of salt or rubbing alcohol). Too little control and all the hues blend together into a muddy mess, or you get sharp colour edges where you didn't want them as the water and pigment dry in unexpected ways.

'Wet-in-wet' is a watercolour technique that I typically use at a larger scale in my paintings, when laying in backgrounds. It needs to be applied at this larger scale because water and pigment have specific properties that make them interact in a particular way - for example, obtaining colour blooms (by dropping concentrated paint onto damp paper) almost always has a minimum size - the pigment spreads out to a certain radius from the point of application, and can't be done at a smaller scale.

To use the 'wet-in-wet' technique successfully, it helps to follow these guidelines:

  1. Apply at a relatively large scale as described above (minimum A4 page size; 210 x 297 mm or 8.27 ×11.69 inches)

  2. Ensure that you first stretch your watercolour paper if it is thinner than 600 gsm in weight (see this post for hints on how to successfully stretch watercolour paper). After stretching your paper, make sure it is completely dry before you continue to the next step (the tape must be secure!). ​​​​​​​​​​

  1. If you need to reserve areas of white - either mask them (masking tape or fluid) or paint around them (my current personal preference is the latter, as masking fluid has some drawbacks as I'll talk about in another post).

  2. Use a wide soft brush (like that shown Fig. 1) to dampen the entire surface of the paper even beyond where you think you might like to use the wet-in-wet technique - pigment sometimes behaves in unexpected ways and rushes out to the edges of dampened areas leaving you with unsightly drying lines of pigment where you were hoping for soft blended hues.

  3. Carefully judge the relative dampness of the paper for evenness (uneven drying will create the unpleasant lines above), and degree.

  4. ​Is there a layer of water sitting on the surface (when viewing the reflective shine, does the surface appear completely smooth)? Too wet! Wait a bit! Applying pigment to very wet paper usually leads to pigment spreading in very uncontrolled ways.

  5. Is the paper buckling, with water pooling in some areas and little paper hills in other areas? If so, you need to start again with paper that has been stretched properly! Applying washes or wet-in-wet techniques to buckled paper is generally a frustrating exercise as the pigment pools in undesired ways and you usually get 'drying lines' as the water recedes.

  6. Is the paper 'almost dry', whereby paint applied to it doesn't spread evenly? If so, you need to apply more water.

  7. You need to find a happy medium - not too wet and not too dry - this is a matter of judgement and experience, so test it out again and again (apply pigment to see the effect on test sheets) until you're comfortable with what the dampened paper should look like.

  8. Choose a highly transparent watercolour pigment, and dilute it evenly in your palette before loading your brush. I find that avoiding the 'granular' or more 'semi-opaque' hues helps to avoid muddiness. Typical examples of granular hues include caerulean blue and cadmium yellow, whereas prussian blue and lemon yellow are highly transparent (Winsor & Newton Artist's watercolours).

  9. Gently touch your pigment and water-loaded brush to the damp surface in the areas you'd like colour to be most dense. Some techniques you can try include:

  10. Colour blooms occur where you touch pigment to damp paper - sometimes these blooms dry with smoothly blended edges, and sometimes they form little frilly edges as the pigment spreads out (both effects can be very attractive)

  11. Adjusting the angle of your paper if you'd like to get a sense of 'flow' in a certain direction (otherwise pigment will tend to flow according to where the water is pooling most)

  12. Sprinkle salt granules to the damp paper on top of where you have placed pigment and let them sit undisturbed while the paper dries (they will create white snowflakes on your paper, where the pigment will not be present)

  13. Drop rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) to the paper to get rings of white where the pigment is resisted (looks a bit like bubbles).

  14. A relatively dry brush (that is, drier than the paper surface itself) on wet washes can lift out both excess water and pigment, but the effect can be difficult to do well

  15. Touching a brush loaded with clean water to a settling colour wash can spread pigment from the applied area creating clear blooms (although these usually dry with smooth gradations and aren't very apparent due to the addition of extra water and the added time for colour and water to blend as it dries)

  16. Once you've laid the pigment on the damp paper (and salt/rubbing alcohol etc), do not interfere with it as it dries. This will lead to the pigment becoming more uniform in its location, or the loss of the salt/alcohol effect (because the salt crystals need to re-form as the paper dries, and if spread out, they cannot do this).

  17. To assist with speeding drying, you can use a hair-dryer on a gentle setting directed over the paper (moving around so as not to burn one spot). Sometimes if you find you have uneven drying (which can cause unsightly drying lines), you can use the hair-dryer to even up the drying process by concentrating on the wetter areas.

If you're planning to glaze several hues over each other (as I've done in the example below), ensure they don't together comprise tertiary colour combinations (ie, browns), for example, use cool lemon-yellows with cool aqua-blues rather than purple-blues, and warm purple-blues with cool purple-reds. Complementary colour combinations (purple and yellow, red and green, orange and blue) work well when placed side by side, but not one on top of the other! On top they make brown tertiaries! For example, remember that the primary colours are red, yellow and blue, and the secondaries are green, orange and purple. If you mix three primaries you get a tertiary (or if you mix a secondary with the alternate primary). So purple and yellow make the tertiary brown, which leads to muddiness!

I took this photo (Fig. 2) of a stony-creek frog (Litoria wilcoxii) on our recent camping trip to D'Aguilar National Park just north-west of Brisbane. The adult male frogs in bright yellow-green breeding colours were abundant all along Neurum creek, sitting out in the open along the gently-sloping rocky/sandy shore. I also recently purchased some Ay-Up narrow-beam head spotlights which make spotlighting (and photographing) nocturnal wildlife much easier!

I liked the setting that this little frog was in, and also the general composition of the subject. In Fig. 3 I've drawn in the main compositional lines that draw the viewer's eye towards the frog - it was important to maintain these lines in the finished painting.

​ ​

For the background of this painting I wanted to experiment with wet-in-wet wash techniques, in combination with some interesting textural elements added by applying salt. Although the rock surfaces of the original photo were predominantly grey, avoiding browns, greys and blacks in paintings often leads to more interesting and subtle layered effects, so I instead chose to emphasize the purples and blues that I could see.

I laid a first wet-in-wet wash with ultramarine violet, applied salt granules and dried it with a hair-dryer (see WIP 1). Once the first wash was completely dry and I had brushed off the salt, I then applied a second glazed wet-in-wet wash with indigo, focusing on those compositional lines to help draw attention to the frog subject (WIP 2). For each of these washes I reserved the white of the paper for the frog details by simply painting around the general shape with water before laying the pigment down.

After both glazed washes were dry, I started to investigate the shapes and patterns I had ended up with from the somewhat unpredictable washes. I wanted to use the patterns where possible to provide a base for the details that would go on top. In WIPs 3 and 4 I have scumbled on dilute yellow and green to the areas that I will later build into moss on the rock. I've also added a base wash of yellow to the frog to tie it to its environment at this early stage (WIP 4).

The background at this stage was entirely too cool in hue (due to the purple and blue washes), so to liven it up a bit I used wet-on-dry with very dilute naples yellow to add some warmth to the paler areas of background rock (note that I didn't add the yellow to the highly pigmented areas as this would have led to muddiness).

I then proceeded to add detail to the frog itself (WIP 5), and started to work on adding shadows to the mossy areas beneath the frog (to ground the subject in its environment rather than having it appear to 'float' ​on the background; WIP 6).

The final stages of the painting involved extending the detail of the moss around the base of the frog as well as the shadow patterns (WIPs 7 and 8).

In this painting I used quite a stylized technique to add lacework shadows between clumps of moss (as you can see in WIPs 9 and 10). I'm still not completely certain that the painting is finished, but I'm at the stage where if I do too much more I might easily ruin it, so it is probably a good place to stop! ​

In the zoomed image you can clearly still see the background areas where wet-in-wet washes were applied, and the effect of the salt crystals (particularly on the lower left and lower right of the image above). In fact, glazing the background in this way with more than one wet-in-wet wash layer tends to give a semi-translucent appearance to the final painting - an effect I quite like!

Have you used wet-in-wet watercolour wash techniques before? What approaches do you find work best for you?


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Laura is a visual artist, veterinarian, conservationist and disease ecology Research Fellow trying to juggle a multitude of passions - and she's too stubborn to drop any of them! She is particularly fond of bush walking, rogaining, camping (especially with her mother, Jenny), bird watching and photography. She lives with her partner Pete in sunny Brisbane, Australia, and dreams of having an art studio in the rainforest!