9 Reasons Watercolor Paintings Go Wrong — and How to Get Things Right!

Watercolors are notoriously unpredictable. Whether you're new to watercolors 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 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.

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, we added a form shadow while the first wash was still very wet. It blended in well because we had more pigment and less water on our brush.

The painting on the right shows what happened when we 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 watercolor objects, rookies tend to create an outline with dark color. Don't do it! You'll end up with an unnatural, cut-out look.

To make your paintings look realistic, there are some tricks for painting a background that don't involve a harsh outline:

  • 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 what you're aiming for. 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. Making Unwanted Paint Marks

Did you make your brush too wet and a pigment dripped into the wrong spot? Or maybe you smeared the paint with your hand and now have a big mess. No matter how an accidental mark was made, there's an easy fix.

Wet a clean brush and brush over the spot of paint to diffuse it. If the paint is fresh, this might be enough to remove it enough that it's not noticeable when painted over with the correct color. If the color is still showing, mix the correct pigment with opaque white acrylic paint and brush over the spot — think of this as "fine art white-out." You might need two or three coats to fully cover the mistake.

6. Bleeding Colors

If you paint two wet watercolors too closely together, there's a good chance they'll bleed into one another. If this happens, dip a clean brush in water and brush over the bleeding area to soften it. Let the two colors dry, then go over the area with the correct color — making sure to let each space dry completely so the colors don't bleed together again. You might still be able to see the mistake, but it'll be much less noticeable.

7. Splotchy and Uneven Washes

There can be so many causes to uneven watercolors: maybe you let part of the wash dry before finishing; maybe the paper was warped and caused pooling; or maybe you rested your hand in an area that was still wet and removed some of the pigment with your skin.

The best way to fix uneven washes is to prevent them: you can watch a tutorial about laying washes to get all the techniques. But if unevenness happens, there's a way to soften the splotches: wet a brush and add a water glaze over the space, then follow up with one or two coats of watercolor.

8. You Used the Wrong Color

If a color didn't turn out the way you envisioned, never fear! If you want to replace the original pigment with a darker color, simply paint over it. You might need a few coats to get the color you want, so be sure to let it dry between layers.

If you want a lighter color, you can't just paint over it with your correct pigment. Instead, paint over the area with a thin layer of acrylic white, then add the correct watercolor.

9. 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 end up with a painting as fully realized as the one above.

Learn More Now

Discover the basics of painting with watercolors, including expert tips, tricks and project tutorials, in our class Startup Library: Painting With Watercolors .

Meet Kateri Ewing and ground yourself in the fundamentals of watercolor paint. Kateri examines key topics, including staining and granulating effects, lightfastness ratings, pigment numbers and more.

December 21, 2018
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9 Reasons Watercolor Paintings Go Wrong — and How to Get Things Right!