Wet on wet – An exercise for beginners

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This small exercise is the first my students get to do in wet on wet technique. It is intended to create an understanding of how the technique works. Wet on wet means painting on an already wet paper. The exercise also trains the ability to draw fine lines with a brush, which is not as easy as you might think.

I used Arches paper for this, mostly because there was a piece of paper just the right size on the table, I’m lazy. But depending on the paper you use, this exercise works well, or less well. The paper is important in watercolor and especially in wet on wet.

The colors I use are French Ultramarine and burnt sienna, they are common in all watercolor boxes. If you don’t have them, buy them! They are very nice and useful colors. French ultramarine is a granulating color, the pigment grains are heavy and flocculating so they collect in a grainy pattern on the paper. Sienna is usually not granulating but flows smoothly and nicely over the paper. Therefore these two colors will separate slightly when painting wet with them, that’s neat.

The picture to be painted is a lake with sky above and between sky and lake a distant shore.


Step 1

Start by wetting an area of the watercolor paper that is the size of a playing card. There must be a lot of water. Let the paper rest so that the liquid is absorbed into the paper, in the meantime you can mix paint.

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Step 2

Mix the blue with the brown in a mixing cup, try to make the mixture quite bluish and dark. Since the paint will be painted on wet paper, you don’t need much water in the paint, water is already on the paper.

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Step 3

Make sure the water on the paper is evenly distributed. If necessary, distribute the water by tilting the paper or smoothing the surface of the water with your brush. If you have a lot of water on the paper, you can soak up the excess paint with the brush.

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Step 4

Start by painting a sky. Use a small brush, with a big brush you will just add a lot of liquid, that’s not good, liquid is already on the paper. Try to create a cloudy pattern, it’s a rainy day. Preferably with long evening clouds down towards the horizon.

Then you must repeat the same pattern but upside down in the lake under the sky. Of course, it is not possible to achieve an exact mirror image, but it is good if the surface of the water resembles the sky so that it gives the impression of being a reflection of the sky in a lake.

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Step 5

Now a shoreline on the other side of the lake is to be painted. The paper should still be wet. Use a color mixture that is significantly darker than the one you used for the sky and lake. Draw a horizontal line in the middle of the paper, if you use different pressures with the brush you will get different thickness of the line which will look like land in the near and far distance, maybe even like islands. If you want, after the line is painted, you can help with a little darker dabs here and there.

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Step 5

Let the paper dry completely, then paint some reeds on the picture. Tips on how to draw fine lines with a brush can be found here. Start with some flexible, quickly drawn straws, it is important that you are not too slow, in which case you risk them looking unnatural. Should a started line become too short, it happens easily when you paint quick brushstrokes, ignore it and paint a new one next to it. It will not be good to try to continue on an interrupted straw.

Next, paint some leaves on the straws, preferably using a calligraphic approach, start with the tip of the brush, press slightly to thicken the line and then release for a slender finish to the leaf. If all the leaves are in the same direction, it looks like it’s a bit windy. Also keep that in mind when making the initial straws. A little movement in the painting is good.

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This is the final result. Your image will be different. It is not possible to repeat a picture that is painted wet on wet.

Notice how nicely the brown color separates from the blue. The result would have been very different with a blue color that does not granulate. Having a little knowledge about how different pigments behave can be crucial to the result.

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