5 Reasons Watercolor Paintings Go Wrong — and How to Get Things Right the First Time!


Watercolors are notoriously unpredictable. Whether you're a newbie or have been rocking these paints for years, one thing is certain: Mistakes will be made.

And that's OK! Botch-ups are all part of exploring the infinite possibilities of this medium. Still, there are times when you'd like to get things right the first time. This guide will help you ID the five most common watercolor errors — and tell you how to avoid 'em.

1. Overworking the painting

Sometimes it takes only one wrong brushstroke for a watercolor painting to go from fresh and luminous to tortured and tired. When you find yourself adding — just one more! — detail or touch-up, it's probably time to step away.

How to avoid overdoing it

  • Try not to fuss too much over details.
  • Embrace bloopers and resist the urge to correct them (like lifting the color and scratching the paper).
  • Never attempt to soften a dried edge. 'Nuff said.
  • Try not to apply too many layers. The fewer, the fresher.

2. Painting into damp washes

Unless the painting is very wet or completely dry, hands off! Going back into a damp wash with a watery brush can result in unwanted back-runs and can ruin the under wash. (Yes, back-runs can sometimes be a good thing, but not when this isn't the effect you're going for!)

In the painting on the left, I added a form shadow while the first wash was still very wet. It blended in well because I had more pigment and less water on my brush.

The painting on the right shows what happened when I went into a wash that was only slightly wet. What was supposed to be a form shadow turned into a pale back-run. Don't let this happen to you!

3. Outlining the objects

When painting a background around objects , rookies tend to create an outline with dark color. Don't do it! You'll end up with an unnatural, cut-out look.

How to give your paintings a more realistic look

  • Vary the color and value around your objects.
  • Alternate the direction of your brush strokes.
  • Combine hard and soft edges.

The pictures above illustrate how this works. In the first sketch, the petals are painted with hard edges only and evenly outlined with green color. The flower looks like it's stuck to the background.

The second sketch is the "do." The combination of different colors, values and edges gives the image depth and focus.

4. Muddying the colors

Muddy colors occur when you try painting on top of a damp layer. Remember, you should only add paint when the paper is either very wet or completely dry.

Another mistake that can wreak havoc on your hues: mixing two or more opaque paints. If you have a tendency to get muddy colors, try to avoid opaque paints and minimize the number of colors you combine.

5. Giving up too soon

Like people, paintings usually go through a few awkward stages. Resist the urge to tear up your work and start over when things seem to be going awry. Keep the faith and you may be end up with a painting as fully realized as the one above.

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5 Reasons Watercolor Paintings Go Wrong — and How to Get Things Right the First Time!