Beginners: Watercolor Tips: Achieving Optimal Effects

11 Sep 2008

Toogood watercolorPainting with watercolor requires an understanding of not only the paints themselves but also how to apply them.


by James Toogood

Toogood watercolor Breakers on a Rocky Coast
Breakers on a Rocky Coast
2005, watercolor, 24 x 18. Private collection.

The predominate color in the water is Prussian blue, which has been modified with a number of other colors. For the most part, the “white” foam is composed of multiple pale applications of color. First I painted the negative space in between the foam to create this illusion. Later I used a small amount of Chinese white in a few places to complete the water. I also scumbled Chinese white to create the illusion of mist.

For some, a perfectly painted watercolor is one that beams with a lot of bright color and has a few well-placed darks and a fair amount of reserved pure-white paper. It’s direct, decisive, and economical—perhaps painted rather quickly. Of course this isn’t the only way to make a successful watercolor; nor do watercolors need to be painted quickly to be decisive and economical. Watercolors can be complex and economical at the same time. However, the medium rewards the thoughtful and deliberate artist, no matter how long the painting process. In fact, it doesn’t matter if it takes five steps, 50, or even 500—as long as the artist doesn’t take one more step than is necessary. To this end, it’s important to realize that although an individual’s approach to the medium depends on his or her creative desires, these are not enough. An artist must know the materials and how to use them.

In my watercolors, I seek a matter-of-fact, realistic look. My subjects are the people, places, and things that are familiar aspects of contemporary life. I try to make paintings that are approachable, engaging, and resonant to the viewer. They are carefully designed and fairly complicated. When complete, my paintings should be just as satisfying up close as they are from across the room.

I use a wide variety of watercolor techniques and frequently the paintings take me quite some time to complete. Striving to incorporate brushwork that is both descriptive and elegant, I build up many individual layers of color. Because of all these layers, my watercolors may have a gray scale that, rather than going from 1 to 10 (white to black), may run from 1 to 1,000! I want my paintings to have a boldness of color while having differentiated nuances throughout, even in the shadows. Therefore, I don’t reserve a lot of pure-white paper. I save that only for the highest highlights. I do reserve a lot of light paper that has been underpainted with pale tints of color, creating all kinds of distinct variations of “white” highlights. I continue that same approach throughout all the values in the painting.


Toogood watercolor Vestibule
2001, watercolor, 20½ x 14½. Private collection.

Over time most artists find that certain materials work better for them than others. I like to use artist’s grade 140-lb or 300-lb cold-pressed paper. I find hot-pressed paper is not as effective for layering and rough texture impedes making detail. Most good handmade artist-grade papers can be painted on either side, though this is not always the case with paper from a watercolor block. The texture on the reverse of the paper is often slightly rougher. Depending on the piece, I will work on either side of the paper.

I usually begin my painting by drawing directly on the paper with an F graphite pencil. Softer graphite has a tendency to come off during the subsequent applications of paint, requiring a lot of redrawing. Initially, harder pencils may damage the paper, but they can be very useful when drawing on a previously painted surface.

I use a variety of brushes—large and small, flat and round—made of materials that vary from synthetic hair to kolinsky sables. There is no standard in brush sizes, so it’s not always easy to compare sizes from brand to brand. Still, it is never a good idea to use any brush that is too small. A small brush won’t hold enough paint for many types of techniques. I recommend not using anything smaller than a No. 3 round.

Toogood watercolor Sunday Morning The Flatiron District
Sunday Morning, The Flatiron District
2007, watercolor, 22 x 29. Collection the artist.

After a careful drawing, I applied a light underpainting of cadmium lemon and a slightly deeper one of ultramarine blue over the areas of light and shadow. I could then treat these areas as if they were the white of the paper. After masking off the buildings with a combination of frisket paper and masking solution, I painted the sky in colors light enough to convey an early-morning feeling but deep enough to contrast with the light areas on the buildings. I then began a long series of washes and glazes on the buildings, street, and sidewalks. Notice how the value of the two “white” stripes in the street is actually deeper in value than the area of sidewalk in sunlight.

Color, Paint, and Pigment

The terms color, paint, and pigment are sometimes used interchangeably. They are related but distinctly different. Color is merely a sensation in the brain as a reaction to light. Pigment is a finely ground powder used as the coloring agent in paint. Paint is a material typically made up of pigment and some type of vehicle used to spread or carry the pigment over a surface.

The primary colors are yellow, red, and blue. Secondary colors are orange, green, and purple. They are made by mixing two of the primaries together; for example, yellow and red make orange. The remaining primary color, blue, is the complementary color to orange, and so on. Intermediate colors are made by mixing a primary and a secondary color together; for example, mixing orange and red makes orange-red. Mixing two of the three secondary colors together makes tertiary colors such as grays, browns, and olive greens. Tertiary colors are not as vibrant as primary and secondary colors.

Color theory states that any color imaginable can be made from the three primaries. But paints and pigments have physical characteristics that can sometimes limit mixing. Improper mixing can cause an adverse reaction, which is sometimes referred to as “going muddy.” Fortunately there are several ways to deal with this issue.

First of all, mud is a relative term, or to put it another way, one artist’s mud is another’s tertiary color. However, it is not quite as simple as that. How an artist mixes the paint is crucial. Whether two paints are mixed physically on the palette or optically by putting down one color and then layering a second over it will change the appearance of those colors in the finished painting. Sometimes it’s best to mix color; other times it’s better simply to grab a tube of paint that will yield the desired color. Analogous colors can be layered over one another to create an enormous range of intermediate tones. And there are endless varieties of lovely subtle hues within the range of tertiary colors. The interplay of tertiary color with primary and secondary color helps give me that natural look I am seeking in my own paintings.

How to Execute a Wash

1. Use artist’s grade paper.

2. Mix enough paint.

3. Tilt the drawing board at a slight angle and fully load the largest brush possible. Evenly apply the paint over the upper edge of the area to be painted. If applied correctly, a small bead of paint should form at the bottom of the brushstroke.

4. Reload and repeat this process, picking up the bead of paint from the previous brushstroke with the subsequent brushstroke.

5. Remove excess paint at the bottom of the wash with a damp brush. The excess paint can run into a drying wash and ruin it. A damp brush will wick up excess moisture more readily than a dry brush.

Watercolor Paints

Besides color properties, watercolor paints have a number of other characteristics that are enormously useful. The more one knows about these characteristics, the easier it is to achieve precisely the desired effect. Paints also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, which is why I use a number of different paints made from many different manufacturers. Among the characteristics I look for are whether the paints are staining or nonstaining; translucent or opaque; the paint’s body, or how thick and viscous the paint is; tinting strength, how it influences either white or other colors; mass tone (full strength); undertone (thinned with water or mixed with white); and granulation.

An extremely important characteristic is the pigment’s permanency rating or its ability to resist fading from exposure to light. Anything with an ASTM lightfast rating of I or II is suitable for artistic use. Anything lower than that should not be used in any form of painting, especially watercolor.

It’s worth noting that typically the pigments used to make paints are all the same regardless of medium. It is only the vehicle that changes. In oil painting, the vehicle is linseed oil; in acrylic painting, it is a polymer; in watercolor painting, the vehicle is usually gum arabic and glycerin. This means that if you know the characteristics of a pigment in another medium, you know its characteristics in watercolor. For example, all cadmiums are opaque regardless of medium.

Opacity and Transparency, Top (Mass) Tone and Undertone

For the most part, even when using naturally opaque paints such as cerulean blue and cadmium red in a watercolor, the artist applies the paint thinly enough that light still passes through each layer of paint, hits the paper, and bounces back out again (undertone). This optical mixing of the paint with the white of the paper is one of the factors that gives watercolor its sparkle—although many artists, including myself, routinely and successfully apply the color more heavily, in some cases so much so that eventually there are moments when it’s almost like it’s straight from the tube (mass or top tone). Furthermore, opaque colors, such as cerulean blue, tend to change less in their appearance from their top tone to their undertone. If done carefully, using a paint’s top tone and undertone together can open up a myriad of possibilities.

Toogood watercolor Low Tide Elbow Beach
Low Tide, Elbow Beach
2005, watercolor, 11 x 14½. Private collection.

To paint the sky I first applied a light cadmium-lemon wash over the cloud. I then masked the cloud with liquid mask and applied several washes of cerulean and ultramarine blue to the sky. After removing the mask, I scrubbed some edges of the cloud using a white sable to soften them. I dampened other edges with clean water and then dropped in some of the blue mixture to soften the rest. I created much of the interior of the cloud by working wet-in-damp. I built up layers of color throughout the rest of the painting, frequently using analogous colors to keep the color clean. Multiple layers of color created the effect of wet sand. Using a single-edge razor blade, I picked out the sparkly highlights on the water and the wet sand.


Once an artist understands the materials, the next step is water control. It begins with something as basic as knowing how and when to successfully apply washes, both flat and graded. A wash is a series of brushstrokes executed in such a way that, when complete, no brushstrokes are visible. A flat wash has an even amount of pigment throughout, while a graded wash changes the amount of pigment from more to less. This might sound simple, but not knowing how to properly execute a wash will produce paintings with meaningless, superfluous, and even distracting texture. Viewers will not know whether to focus on the texture on a wall or the unintended texture floating around in the sky. Mindless accidents are just as visible as any area of a finished watercolor.

Wet-in-Wet and Wet-in-Damp

A number of watercolor techniques perform well on premoistened paper. I work on premoistened paper frequently, and each time I take into account the amount of moisture already on the paper before I begin painting. When preparing the paper for wet-in-wet, I make sure the paper is evenly wet, not puddling, but to the point where there is a slight sheen of moisture to the paper. When preparing the paper for wet-in-damp, on the other hand, I want the paper to be evenly moist, but there is less moisture and no sheen to the paper.

When working on premoistened paper, the artist typically drops paint onto the paper, allowing it to spread or bleed across. The moisture already on the paper helps draw the paint from the brush, facilitating the technique. How these techniques turn out is dependent, in part, on the ratio of paint to water. This is especially important if the artist is working back into wet paint such as a wash. If the subsequent application has too much water in it, the weight of that water will push the wet paint already on the paper out of the way. This is called a bloom. Also when working into wet paint, there is an “open” time during which one can continue to work. As the paper begins to dry it will no longer draw the paint from the brush and the artist may unintentionally begin to pick up some of the paint already on the paper.

Toogood watercolor Manor House Upper Slaughter
Manor House, Upper Slaughter
2005, watercolor, 11 x 14. Private collection.

I carefully scumbled cerulean blue here and there on the grass to create the feeling of the dew. Cerulean blue mixed with Chinese white helped achieve the feeling of the mist along the stream.

Overpainting, Glazing, and Scumbling

For a while during the painting process it is possible to continue building layers of washes. Eventually, to make sure you don’t disturb the underlying paint, reduce the amount of water that is in your paint mixture. This application is called a glaze. A glaze is a thin, even, controlled transparent layer of paint. It is a type of overpainting because it is applied over a previously painted surface but done in such a way that the underlying paint is still visible. One way to think about the difference between a wash and a glaze is that when applying a wash there is a bead of paint at the bottom of the brushstroke. When applying a glaze, the artist has reduced the amount of water only to the point where there is no longer a bead.

A scumble or scumbling is a thin layer of opaque paint, typically rubbed or scrubbed over a previously painted surface. Even though the paint used is opaque, it is applied in such a way that the underlying painting remains visible. It is often applied more randomly than a glaze, but it is not haphazard.

Softening, Scrubbing, Drybrush, and Scratching

Toogood watercolor Smith’s on Eighth
Smith’s on Eighth
2007, watercolor, 21 x 30. Collection the artist.

In this piece I wanted to make the lit areas seem so bright that the viewer would feel as though he or she needed to squint. I also wanted a very strong contrast between light and dark. At the same time I wanted to have enough visible information in both areas to make all the variations in the texture of the wall readable. This required a clear understanding of paint properties and careful, multiple applications of many different paints, building up countless changes in value throughout the painting.

Toward the end of the painting process, a number of other techniques are useful. One is drybrush, which, like glazing and scumbling, is a form of overpainting and looks best when applied to a previously painted surface. It works best on paper that has some texture itself, so often I will use the rougher side of the paper if I expect to be doing much drybrush during a particular piece. Another almost opposite technique is softening a still-wet brushstroke with a damp brush. I use this technique to paint everything from clouds to portraits. Still another is scrubbing out color with a damp brush. Store-bought scrubbers, which can be purchased at any art-supply store, work well for this, as does any old bristle brush. Typically I use an old white sable synthetic. Scrubbing can be done to soften edges, or sometimes I use it to pick out clouds from a smooth wash. Of course this technique will not work very well on staining paints.

A variation of this technique is to use a Pink Pearl eraser. It won’t pick up quite as much pigment as scrubbing with a damp brush, but is very useful for more subtle effects. Finally, I sometimes like to scratch out highlights with a single-edge razor blade.

Brush Marks

Occasionally there are times when painting a watercolor that an artist may wish to draw with the brush. Unlike when painting a wash and a glaze, these brushstrokes are meant to leave clearly visible brush marks. Typically I make brush marks later during the painting process. They can be descriptive, decorative, or both. Descriptive brush marks can be used to paint everything from foliage to water, falling snow, and even concrete. Even more important, a brush mark should be an elegant thing in itself. Before it’s a tree limb, before it’s an eyelash, it’s a mark in watercolor, and as such should be as beautiful as possible. When done well, these marks are idiosyncratic and individual.

In the end, no matter how economical or complex an artist desires his or her paintings to be, the marks made, from the first wash to the very last brushstroke, are the vocabulary used to convey thoughts and ideas through the language of watercolor. The medium offers endless opportunities to find the techniques that best help an artist discover a unique voice.

About the Artist

New Jersey resident James Toogood studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. The subject of more than 35 solo exhibitions, he has participated in numerous group shows, including those of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, winning many awards. He frequently juries exhibitions and was an awards juror for the 2006 American Watercolor Society annual. Toogood has written many articles and contributed to several books, and his work is widely collected throughout the United States and abroad. He is represented by Rosenfeld Gallery, in Philadelphia. He teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. He also conducts watercolor workshops throughout the United States.

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