Spare Me All the Dirty Details

Moonrise, La Giudecca, Venice by JMW Turner, 1829, watercolor painting, 8 7/8 x 11 1/4.
Moonrise, La Giudecca, Venice by JMW Turner, 1829,
watercolor painting, 8 7/8 x 11 1/4.

Delicacy, luminousness, light, and color–these are what you can expect when you look at a watercolor painting. But details? Heck no–or at least, not much. With watercolor art, you just aren't going to see a lot of minutiae in a painting because of the medium's fluid, unpredictable nature.

But watercolor artists who have faced this challenge and still want to incorporate some of the particulars of a scene they are painting are not without recourse. First, power lies within the tools you use. A round brush can make broad strokes as well as fine ones, and spotter brushes have a fine point that can be used for precision detailing.

One of the watercolor lessons I will never forget has to do with going in after a painting is done to create detail or textural effects. You can use a razor, toothpick, even a fingernail, to scratch away the paint. Or blot away color with a cotton swab or blotting paper while it is still wet. You can also work wet on dry, because the dry surface of your paper won't allow newly applied wet paint to spill around as easily as when the paper is wet.

Mostly though, I say play to the medium's strengths. When you are looking at a scene, rework it in your head to reduce detail to a handful of dots or dashes, and don't be timid about allowing your natural brushstrokes lend themselves to the "detail" you may want to capture. Work with what you have, and you might just find that the detail you want can be had other ways!

Watercolor painting is all about experimentation, allowing the painting to be a visual adventure, and letting go. In Best of Watercolor digital download, you'll find the artist instruction and techniques that can get you there, and the inspiration that will allow you to enjoy every step of the process along the way. Enjoy!

P.S. When you are working in watercolor, how do you incorporate detail? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

9 thoughts on “Spare Me All the Dirty Details

  1. Courtney

    When looking back over contemporary American watercolors, one will find that they are generally more detail oriented than European watercolors. This may be partially influenced by the dry brush techniques so skillfully handled by Andrew Wyeth. I personally enjoy working in a dry brush technique over a more fluid lay-in. The dry brush approach gives me the capability of working in details and textures that might be possible only with watercolor.

    Gary C. Eckhart

  2. Watercolor is so easy to change; lifting wet paint with a tissue or damp brush. Lifting dry areas by wetting and using a “scrubber” or soft brush or using white Gouache. Also negative painting to bring out interesting spaces. These are my favorite ways to alter a painting, particularly for details.

    Nina Allen Freeman

  3. I incorporated two forms of detail in this watercolor painting of rainbow vases with incised into the paper lines making cartoushes on the vases themselves and also with pen and ink in the vignetted scene below of the ancient Egyptian potters making clay pots. Nancy Pink

  4. Contrary to what you have said, doing detail in watercolor is easy. You have to stop thinking of it as a wash. Try painting with watercolor pigment straight from the tube. Or if you prefer wet on wet painting, you can create fine, multiple edges by layering wet washes over dry ones. And don’t forget watercolor pencils and other water coluble pencils that leave lovely tracks in water.

  5. Courtney,
    Your take on watercolor is severely limited and ignores those of us who believe that watercolor is so much more than just a soft blur of images. Your commentary made me not want to even consider the magazine.

  6. Thank you all for your feedback. There is still so much I’m trying to figure out about the medium myself, so it was great to hear about your own methods and recommendations. Keep them coming!

    EVC, I’m actually glad to hear that I don’t have the full picture of watercolor yet. That means there’s a lot more to see and take in. Definitely please send any images of artwork or resources you think would be great for me to utilize. And definitely give Best of Watercolor a chance if you are so inclined. I just flipped through it again and I think you’ll find that it is on the same page as you–watercolor is not just a blur of images. Very insightful. Thanks for pointing this out to me. All best!

  7. I’ve actually seen some extremely detailed watercolor paintings and illustrations. some artists choose to use pens or fine brushes to create a linear look.

  8. Thanks for all the feedback on this! I think there’s definitely room to explore more of what watercolor has to offer–and I know I’m really open to that so thank you for all the info.

    EVC, I totally agree that watercolor is not just for creating soft, blurry images and Best of Watercolor is certainly going to reinforce your take on that too. If you decide to order the magazine after all, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.