Sunday, December 2, 2012

Painting with Watercolors: Going with the Flow

I wanted to write about technique, today, which is a bit of a departure for me. As a completely self-taught artist, I sometimes feel self-conscious discussing formal artistic concepts like technique. I have never heard these topics presented in an art class, so I've learned everything I know on the fly, which doesn't necessarily translate beautifully into prose. But there are some methods that have added a lot to my bag of tricks, so I wanted to share them, and some of the things they allow an artist (formally trained or otherwise) to do.

This discussion is about painting with watercolors, and how the paint behaves on paper when combined with water. I'll use some landscape paintings of mine to illustrate the ideas of "wet-in-dry" and "wet-in-wet," and what they do for an artist.

The terms "wet-in-dry" and "wet-in-wet" are delightfully self-explanatory, which is useful to an art school outsider like me. "Wet-in-dry" refers to applying wet paint to a dry surface. When painting "wet-in-wet," the surface is (you guessed it!) wet. Both methods can be used in all kinds of painting, but they have pros and cons for any medium, so they may be more or less practical for a particular one. Watercolors, however, have lots of room for both techniques, and depending on the desired effect, the artist may choose either or both for a given painting.

When painting wet-in-dry with watercolor, the wet paint hits the dry paper and the paper absorbs the water from the paint quickly, so there is minimal flow of the pigment. This makes wet-in-dry great for doing detailed work, or work that requires a firm edge. The tree in the example below was painted with a wet-in-dry technique:

watercolor tree painting, gnarled tree art, twisted tree painting, leafless tree, bare tree, gnarled winter tree, tree watercolor, old tree watercolor, dead tree painting
In addition to allowing hard edges and a level of detail that would not be possible on wet paper, wet-in-dry technique also allows effects like "edge darkening," in which pigment flows away from the center of a brushstroke and darkens the outer edge, as seen here:

When painting wet-in-wet, wet paint is applied to wet paper. The wet paper allows the paint to flow across the surface, which is great for doing washes (covering a large area with color) and also offers possibilities such as the smooth blending of one area of color into another, or into the white of the paper. I particularly like this technique for adding softness to sky and water in landscapes, and creating misty backgrounds. Here is an example of clouds painted wet-in-wet:

Both of these techniques have their uses in watercolor, and each in turn offers a whole range of effects that cannot be achieved with the other. I admit that until recently, my work was heavily weighted toward wet-in-dry; many of my paintings have a great deal of detail (which demands a dry surface), and I found it disconcerting to have the paint floating all over the place on wet paper. It was only after I accepted that allowing the paint to flow more freely could give me the soft effects that I often desired, that I embraced this very important technique. I have discovered through this learning process that in watercolor, controlling and directing the flow of water is just as important as applying the paint properly. My art is better for it, and the experience has given me a new appreciation for the value of stepping outside my artistic comfort zone.

The painting below utilizes both wet-in-wet and wet-in-dry techniques, and allows us to see how harmonious they can truly be.

watercolor lake painting, watercolor landscape painting, watercolor art, watercolor fine art, misty lake painting, misty morning painting, watercolor nature art,
"Ospreys at Dawn" - Watercolor on Paper - © Anna Bronwyn Foley, 2012


  1. I saw your painting on DPW and came over here to check out your blog. I don't paint in watercolor, but if I decide to try, your blog will be my first stop! I think it was brave of you and very generous to write about process when you felt self-conscious writing about it. I've read older posts, too, and enjoy the way you share on your blog.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Meredith! I am often nervous discussing process - I sometimes worry that the way I do things isn't the "right" way. But I love sharing the experience of painting with others, and it is such a joy when I can meet other like-minded artists!

    Thanks again, and best wishes,
    Anna Bronwyn