Using watercolour ‘wet on wet’ just means painting onto wet paper, whether the paper is wet with water or wet with paint.
It is perfect for creating creating smooth transitions and gradients of colour, as well as for soft lines.
It is important to work out how much water and paint to use when painting wet on wet or you can be left with unintentional marks (which can become features!).
The easiest way, rather than launching into a full-on painting, is to practice first with some paint application exercises.
Use a large sheet of watercolour paper and tape off (I used framing tape as it’s less sticky than masking tape, which can leave a residue) some small squares that you can fill with paint. You’ll be left with a paint effect ‘sampler’ that you can refer to when it comes to planning your paintings proper.
Wet on wet exercises
Here are some exercises to try when learning to use wet in wet effects.
To paint a gradient of tones of one colour:
- Wet the paper with an even film of water everywhere but the very top strip.
- Load your brush with colour and paint along the top strip.
- Paint side to side, down into the wet part of the square and down the page.
- Your colour will dilute as you paint and fade out, leaving a colour gradient.
Tip: When painting skies, use kitchen roll or sponge to dap the paint while it’s still wet to remove it and leave white ‘clouds’
Useful for: skies
When painting gradients of more than one colour it’s good to use colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel, as these are harmonious and will not result in muddy shades.
- Wet the paper everywhere but the top strip.
- Using the same technique as before, paint side to side onto the wet paper, switching from cool yellow to warm yellow to orange as you go down the square. The colours will gently blend into each other.
The trick is to wet the paper so it stays wet enough while you apply the colour (so you need to work quickly) , but not so wet that the water pools.
Useful for: smooth gradient surfaces, skies, calm water
Abstract wet in wet background
For a soft and loose effect, you can create ‘abstract’ colour patches. Try to use colours that are near to each other on the colour wheel so you don’t get brown muddy pools.
- Wet your square with an even coat of water.
- Paint loose patches of colour into the water alongside each other and watch the paint spread and merge.
- If the paper gets too dry, add more plain water.
Useful for : backgrounds, skies, clouds, decorative and abstract effects
You can repeat this process with other materials to achieve different effects:
- Sprinkle salt on top of the merged colours while they’re still wet.
- Once the salt is dry, lightly brush it away.
Useful for: landscape, moss, stormy effects
- Rest the clingfilm (slightly crumpled) on top of the merged colour, while the paint is wet.
- Remove the clingfilm when the paint is dry.
Useful for: landscape effects, water, fabric, abstract effects
Within a shape
- Draw a simple shape, lightly in pencil and paint water within it.
- Paint loose patches of colour into it.
Useful for: loose patches of tone and colour, realistic and abstract work
In the picture above, I scratched marks onto the leaf with a pin before painting on the colour.
What can go wrong
Using too much water
If you use too much water you can get some unintented effects and your smooth gradient may develop pale patches with hard edges called ‘cabbages’ where the pigment has bled out to the edge of the pool.
It can depend on the pigment itself how badly this creates lines.
You can correct this while it’s wet by using the corner of a kitchen towel like a ‘wick’ to draw out the excess water carefully (or you could lay it on top to absorb the water and paint and try again once it’s dry, it all depends on how it disturbs the rest of your painting).
When it’s dry, you can go back and work into the hard edge with a clean wet brush to soften it.
If you like the effect, and want to use it as part of your painting, then you can add extra water into your colour wash or spray it on with a water spray bottle. It’s wirth practising first though!
Not using enough water
With wet on wet effects it’s important to keep the paper damp and work quickly so pre-planning of colour is advisable. Keep a water spray handy while you work as none of the effects above will work on dry paper.