Updated: Aug 20, 2018
Several Years ago in my watercolor class one of my students said as she was painting, “I’m just not using enough water.” She kept painting quietly concentrating and after a while we’d hear her declare again in a bewildered tone “I’m just not using enough water.” I believe she repeated the phrase a few more times that night until I eventually responded, “why don’t you?” We still laugh about that.
My student that day was right, she wasn’t using enough water which most of the time ends up leaving behind splotchy brush marks and spotty places difficult to smooth out. That is the tell-tale sign of working too long and the paper being too dry, and it becomes “overworked”. Every attempt to save it only leaves even more unwanted marks behind. So learning to stop in time before it’s too dry is a huge way to avoid all that frustration with splotchy problems. Putting the lamp in the right position where you can see the reflection very easily makes all the difference for me.
The amount of water you use is key, it will determine the result of each watercolor wash and how your brush strokes soften and diffuse.. or not. Of course sometimes you’ll need less water for more distinctive strokes and details in which case the "dry into damp” technique works wonderfully, but generally most watercolor washes work well to have a generous amount of water to start with, with a nice glossy reflection. This is assuming you’re painting flat on a table an not on an easel at an angle, in that case it’s hard to use as much water. I also like wetting my paper first most of the time, where some other methods are more direct watercolor on dry paper, leaving many hard edges and dry-brush texture.
How much water you begin a wash with determines the length of working time you have for that wash, more water equals more time, the less water you start with, the less time you have to work on that wash. So I like to start with as much water as possible while still having it dry enough to maintain some control. Finding a balance is the key. As you work on each wash, check the reflection, at the latter part of the wash I like to be finished before there is barely and reflection, if you keep working past that point then it’s in danger of being overworked. It’s time to put the brush down, let it be, and come back with a new layer when it’s bone dry.
So if you find yourself saying “I’m just not using enough water”, I encourage you to jump in, it is definitely uncomfortable at first but you’ll get used to it if you give yourself enough time and repetition. I say, use more water, immerse yourself in it! You’ll find your balance with time and practice. Happy swimming!