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Letting the Paint Work for You

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After last month’s newsletter (“Watercolor – Teaching the Unteachable” Aug. 2009), I received a whole bunch of enthusiastic emails. I’m thrilled that what we talked about resonated with you, and I thank you for taking the time to drop me a line and let me know. I figure that everybody has now painted thirty or forty wet-into-wet watercolors, totally understands “tempo”, has become “one” with the medium, and is sitting around scratching their heads and saying “Now what?” So I thought it would be a good idea to do a follow-up newsletter, demonstrating some practical applications for the wet- into-wet technique.

Because there are an infinite amount of approaches to any given painting, I generally spend a bit of time cogitating on how I can best let the paint do most of my work. I look for passages that I can paint wet-into-wet and leave totally untouched. Sometimes the whole painting can be painted wet-into-wet, start to finish. At other times, I might choose to paint the “block-in” wet-into-wet, or maybe large masses like the sky, foreground, foliage etc. I look for passages I can paint once, wet-into-wet, that can stand by themselves at the completion of the painting. This not only simplifies the process, but these wet-into-wet areas are a nice foil for the more finished areas of the painting.

I painted some demonstration paintings, and photographed stages, to give you a better idea of some possibilities for using the wet-into-wet technique.

I also want to include that all of these paintings were painted with a one-inch flat and two rounds: a no. 8 and a no. 10. The round brushes were Cheap Joe’s “Legend” Kolinsky Sables. I’ve had them for a few months, and I’ve been painting with them regularly. I needed to see how well they would hold up over a period of time, and if the points were going to wear out. They passed all my tests. They hold a lot of paint, they’re very sensitive and they handle well. At first, I was a little suspicious because they are about half the price of all the other Kolinsky sables. So, if you want a great brush, at a decent price, this is the route to go. I’m not getting paid for any endorsement; I just thought this might be of interest.

Wet-into-wet  -  Start to Finish


“Flamenco Dancer”

Because this painting was a straight shot from wet to dry, I was unable to stop and take photos in-progress. It would have totally destroyed the “tempo”. I painted around the light-struck areas of the face, hands, collar and sleeve. All the rest of the painting was handled continuously from wet to barely damp. There’s a huge element of risk and discovery when employing this approach (especially when you loose the drawing in the first ten minutes). However, when they are successful, they are exciting, alive and definitely “one of a kind”.



Wet-into-wet Block-in


“Fez – Morocco”

In this first stage, you can still see my basic pencil sketch. I try to keep my drawings simple. Mostly they are indications to give me some direction. If they are too rendered, I tend to want to tighten up and stay within the lines.

Saving some key white paper (I can always paint over it later), I begin with a light yellow wash, and charge in warm and cool tones, working in some darker values as the wash dries. I’m giving the watercolor free rein, and allowing it to “set the stage” for the finishing process. There is a major element of “discovery” here. I’m permitting the watercolor to be my partner, and suggest the direction I’ll take when finishing the painting.


Now I find some simple architectural details on the distant walls, cutting out some hooded figures under the arched doorway, and a couple on the left. I put some shadow under the burro’s packs and pay a little attention to the foreground figures.

I pay more attention to the burro, put in some ground shadows and finish the foreground figures.

I finish the burro, suggest some faces under those hoods, put some faux detail on the arch and paint some random calligraphy on the bundles in the foreground and the shadows. Note that a good deal of my initial block-in remains untouched.


Connemara Coast 20 x 15

I found a block of T.H. Saunders 140 lb. cold press in one of my studio cabinets. I have no idea where it came from, but the price on the back is $11.95, so I suspect it’s pretty old.  I decided to use it for this painting.

This initial step was painted wet-into-wet, start to finish. I cut around some areas, so that I would have some whites to work with later. The sky, those distant trees, and the entire foreground will remain untouched for the rest of the painting. With the completion of the block-in, I have finished off about sixty-five percent of the painting.

A lot has happened since step one. I was having so much fun, I forgot to stop and take an intermediate photo. That’s O.K. The main lesson here is about the block-in anyway. Briefly: I painted in the headlands, the cottage, covered the stone walls and the foreground rocks, and put in some middle ground foliage and a pine tree.

I suggest the cows economically, and that’s pretty much it. I did no additional painting to the out-of-focus distant trees or the foreground. The wet-into-wet block-in left me with a nice array of soft to semi-soft edges, and they are a great foil for the hard edges on the building, the rocks and the cows.



Here are three examples of a wet-into-wet block-in and the finished stage:

Covarrubias - Spain

block in

River Ayung – Bali

block in



block in


Wet-into-wet  - Large Masses

River Plain – Yelapa 15x20

Although I generally eschew the use of frisket, it sometimes is convenient as a means to an end. After laying in a simple pencil drawing, I put various dabs of frisket on the upper sand bar and a couple of strokes in what will be the upper tree mass. I wanted the freedom to swing the brush without having to cut around a bunch of little shapes.

I begin by using a big flat brush, wetting the upper two thirds of the painting, and then jumping in with some diluted warm tones.  I work back in with various combinations of yellows and blues, letting the foliage suggest it’s own shapes to me. I add some Alizarin Crimson and Venetian Red near the hut and the lower part of the jungle. The addition of some cooler grays keeps these areas from jumping out. As the main wash dries, I continue to cut out palm leaf shapes, and focus the edges of the hut and the shapes that will become boats. Notice the beautiful variety of edges. Even the hut remains out of focus. I add some of the local beach color to the sand bars. I scrape some trunks out of the foliage, and as the mass comes down to an almost dry stage – I quit. When this whole passage is completely dry, I rub out the frisket to expose shapes for potential gulls. I won’t be touching that foliage mass for the rest of the painting.


Cutting around the two sand bars, I handle the water in a similar manner, with similar color combinations. I purposely keep it out of focus and make the general thrust of the passage vertical, with a few small, hard horizontal streaks (white paper), which I tone down when the passage is dry. These three or four small, hard streaks give a surface to the water.






When the paper is absolutely dry, I remove the frisket on the upper sand bar. All that now remains is the finish work.


That left side of the beach seems a bit muddy to me, and I don’t like that big horizontal running the entire length of the page. So I very gently (without scrubbing) lift the pigment off of the beach to about the middle of the left boat, bring some foliage down to the waterline and add some diagonal shadows to connect the water to the upper portion of the painting. I put some cool shading on the undersides of the gulls, some shadows on the sand bar and add a few Cadmium Orange beaks (I put a few in the reflections also). I paint the boats, give the hut some attention and suggest some texture on the sand bars and the beach. With the hard edges of the sand bars and the gulls, the broad, soft masses of the jungle and the water seem to recede a bit and act more like supporting actors to the main characters.

Have a general plan of attack. Take a little time to think your painting through. Keep your drawings simple. Allow the watercolor to be your partner. Ask yourself if there are areas of your painting that can be handled wet-into-wet, where you allow the watercolor to do the work. Learn to paint those passages interestingly, and leave them alone.

Plan in advance, but once the painting begins and you see the watercolor suggesting a direction – go with it. Give up to the Muse. Practice your scales, and then let that “inner” self play the music.

Happy Painting!