Common Watercolor Problems

Over the past four years, I've written (and recorded) a LOT about watercolors!  Writing and recording all of this has given me not only a lot of experience, but I've had to do a lot of research and painting over the years

While you're still learning watercolor your three big hurdles are:

  • Too cheap/small brushes
  • Too cheap watercolor paper, wrong kind of paper
  • Cheap watercolor

Getting these three things right- right for YOU- will solve a lot of your problems

Problem:  Every element of the piece feels disjointed
Causes:  Elements were painted individually, rather than painting the piece as a whole
Solutions: A toning wash beneath (a griselle) will create unifying shadows that create a consistent light source, a consistent shadow type, and will provide a layer of color that will influence further layers.  

Problem: Large areas in the watercolor piece appear scrubby or patchy
There's a few possible causes for an issue like this!  One cause is using brushes that are too small for the area you're trying to fill,  like trying to paint a large area with a size 4 round.  Another is using a synthetic or hog bristle brush that's really too stiff for watercolor, and will lift up prior layers.  The third is using cheap watercolors- they tend to go down muddy and opaque, and don't really allow for some of the layering and translucency effects that watercolor is known for.
Solutions:  In the future, try working with a much larger brush to cover large areas, and try switching to round brushes that allow for both broad strokes and finer applications.  The more you paint, the more confidence you'll develop in your ability to handle a brush.

Problem: Watercolors won't dry, take too long to dry, are pooling
Cause:  High humidity outside, overloaded the paper with water, paper isn't absorbing the water
Solutions:  Allow your piece to dry in front of a fan or a well-ventilated area for several hours, or use a hairdryer to speed up dry times.  Avoid painting if it's raining out.  NOTE:  Hair driers can sometimes cause further problems- they can cause some colors to go chalky, paper to wrap, and may push puddles of paint.

Problem: Watercolors look dull, opaque, dingy - EX Artist Loft Field Test
Common Cause:  Using cheap watercolors.  Cheap watercolors may have binders like dextrin and glycerin, and may have optical brighteners to make the colors look bright in the pans.  Optical brighteners make colors more prone to lifting, more opaque, and layer poorly.
Solution:  There are lots of affordable watercolors that handle well!

Budget:  Yarka Children's Watercolors

Student Grade: MozArt Komorebi, Kuretake Gansai Tambi

Professional but Affordable:  Daniel Smith Essential Six,

Common Cause: Using cellulose paper.  Pigments sit on top of cellulose paper, rather than soaking into the fibers, and are more prone to lift up during washes and glazes.
Solution: Adjust your painting technique to suit the paper, or switch to a cotton rag paper.

Common Cause:  Using hotpress paper.  Like cellulose paper, pigments sit on top of hotpress paper (even cottonrag).  Hotpress paper is not designed to handle multiple washes or thin glazes the way coldpress does.
Solution: Try painting on cold press watercolor paper.

Problem:  Can't blend out watercolors
Common Causes:  There are several possible issues that can cause an inability to blend your watercolors! Using wrong type of paper, super low humidity day, waited too long, even the wrong types of brushes!

Common Cause 1:  Wrong type of paper. 
Solution: KNOW YOUR PAPER!  Experiment with it, do test swatches, and play around with any new paper before you commit to a larger piece.

Common Cause 2: Super Low Humidity
Solution: You could buy a humidifier, but I find it so much more effective to just understand when the humidity is low, and change my painting choices to suit the weather.  If you need more open time, consider prewetting the paper with clean water first to encourage blending, or oversaturating a smaller area and then using that to blend out. 

Common Cause 3: Wrong Type of Brush:
Solution: I find synthetic/natural hair mixes and natural hair brushes work best for blending!  There are all sorts of affordable, long lasting options on the market.

Inexpensive Brushes I love:
Hake Brushes
Sumi Brushes
Silver Black Velvet Brushes
High Quality Squirrel Brushes

Problem:  Watercolors bleed into each other
Common Cause: Paper is still damp on the interior, didn't wait long enough for it to dry
Uncommon Cause:  Paper is damaged structurally, as in knicked by a knife or graphite.  You may also be using the wrong type of paper for the type of watercolor you want to paint- this includes sketchbook paper, some cheap mixed media papers, etegami paper (a watercolor paper designed for bleeding)

Solution:  Allow paper to dry full, try again with more saturated, less wet washes and glazes.

Problem: Paper Buckles and Warps
Cause:  Paper is drying unevenly, or shrinking as it dries.  Paper may not be heavy enough for watercolor (for western papers, 90lb and above)
Solution: Stretching your watercolor paper or securing it in some fashion

Problem:  Paper Buckles and Warps even though I stretched it
Causes:  Watercolor paper has a 'memory'- if you stretch watercolor paper on a humid day, you may have issues with buckling and warping every time you saturate the paper.
Solutions: Try to wait for low humidity days to stretch watercolor.  Barring that, just be aware that this is an issue you may have to deal with.  A tight, secure stretch will help mitigate these issues.

Common Problem: Consuming too much paint/paint seems to go too fast
Common Cause:  Student grade paints are full of fillers- extenders that allow companies to include less pigment in each pan or tube.   This means you need to mix more paint to achieve desired saturation.  More expensive paints have a higher ratio of pigment to binder, and will stretch further in the long run.
Common Solution:  Work towards replacing the student grade watercolors you own with professional watercolors as they run out.

Common Problem: Watercolors are really prone to lifting up when trying to layer, tend to become muddy
Common Cause: Cellulose papers, like Canson XL, mixed media papers, or Strathmore's watercolor paper (that isn't in large sheets) don't' absorb water or pigments into their fibers- the texture of the paper comes from embossing onto the paper and the paper may contain a lot of external and internal sizing to give it structure.  So water and pigments sit on the surface of the paper and are more likely to be removed with repeated glazes or washes.
Solutions:  Consider switching papers- With cottonrag papers, the pigments get into the fibers
so they're less likely to unintentionally lift up. 
Switch up your watercolor technique to utilize fewer layers

Common Problem:  "Watercolor isn't erasable/correctable"
Common Cause:  Lack of knowledge or staining watercolor pigments.  The smaller the particle size, the more likely a color will stain the paper.  Granulating pigments are unlikely to stain the paper.
Solutions: You can lift w/c while it's still wet with a paper towel. If it's dry, wet it, then scrub gently with a soft synthetic brush to reactivate the pigments.  Dab it with a paper towel.  If you want to reprime and rework the area, you can use a watercolor ground to make corrections.


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