Wet-on-dry painting with watercolour refers to painting on dry paper, whether it has paint on it (dry paint!) or not.
Whereas painting wet-on-wet will give you soft edges and gradients of colour, paint marks on dry paper will have crisp edges and you can use the transparency of the paint to build layers of depth from light to dark.
This way of painting will give you a high level of control and enable you to get a more detailed finish.
Hard edges v soft edges
Try painting on dark paper and wet paper to see the effect on the edge of the paint.
To paint a little example of hard v soft edges, try this mountain scene:
- For the sky, paint a strip of clean water near (but not touching) the top of a piece of paper
- Paint a strip of sky colour across the top of the paper with the top of the strip touching the top of the paper and the bottom disappearing into the wet paper below it. This will give you a crisp top edge and the paint along the lower edge will spread into the water giving a soft, cloud-like edge
- Repeat the process for the mountains by painting a strip of clean water along the base of the paper
- Paint the top of the mountains onto dry paper to give a crisp line loaded with very pigmented paint
- Pull the paint from this line down the page into the wet paper below it with a wide brush, not all the way to the bottom of the paper though
- The paint along the lower edge will spread into the water giving a soft, misty effect
Useful for: Clouds, mist
Building colour in layers
As watercolour paints vary in transparency from colour to colour it’s good to try out overlaying different colours to check the effect they give.
- Paint stripes of colour onto a piece of watercolour paper
- When the first layer has completely dried paint stripes across it
- Notice which colours are more transparent and which are more opaque
- Notice which colours look more shiny and which look more textured or granulated – this can be useful for realistic painting effects
Increasing intensity of a colour by layering
Layering colours over each other once the previous layer has dried darkens colour and adds depth and richness.
Layering one colour
See the effect of layering a single colour:
- Paint most of the paper with a single colour (in this example green to resemble hills)
- When it has dried, paint over another layer, leaving some of the previous layer showing
- Repeat one more time
- Observe how the colour has darkened. In this example the paler green gives the impression of distance as colours tend to get paler as they recede into the distance.
Layering different colours
As well as adding a sense of distance, layering can add solidity and shine. This example uses different colours:
- Paint the first layer of a round object by painting the outlines in a dark but watered down colour onto dry paper with a wide brush
- Clean the brush and fill in the centre with clean water so the outline spreads into the centre to give a smooth gradient
- When the first layer is dry, paint with a pale yellow. The under-colour shows through to give subtle shading and the pale yellow gives a shiny effect
When working with watercolour it takes a while to get used to not using white and this can take a bit of pre-planning. One way to get around this is to leave gaps in the paint for parts of your subject. When working wet on dry you can make use of sharp edges left by your brushstrokes for highlights or windows. For example:
You might want to leave a white highlight but not have a crisp edge.
To soften the edges of a wet on dry brushstroke, use a clean wet brush to work into the crisp edge. It’s easiest to do this whilst the paint is still wet, but you can lift water when it’s dry with varying success depending on your paper. Remove excess paint by dabbing the edge with kitchen towel.
There are other ways to preserve the white of the paper when painting. These are known as masking techniques and I’ll tell you a bit more about them shortly.
Building wet-on dry layers
Be confident enough to keep building layers of colour until you reach the tone, richness and depth required, particularly if you’re aiming for realism in your painting.
Painting on dry paper gives greater control over ‘drawing’ which again is useful for realism.
It’s not easy to see at first how a painting will develop, but practice will show you how many layers you need and which colours work best with each other.