Correcting Mistakes in Watercolour

Hours of work can be spoilt by one small slip. However, many mistakes can be dealt with, rescuing and perhaps even enhancing your painting.


Roman Canal,  Lincolnshire, (91/2X2rkins) by Peter De Wint (1784-1849), an English landscape painter of Dutch extraction. Image courtesy of The Tate Gallery


Watercolour paintings are perhaps some of the most subtle and vibrant works of art to be found in our galleries. Traditionally the colour is laid in thin washes, one on top of the other. The artist starts with the lightest tones in his composition and works through the range, finishing with the darkest, most detailed parts of the picture.

Take a look at the Peter De Wint watercolour. The artist started by laying down the sky and the lightest of ground colours. Gradually he added the trees and outlines of the cart. Finally he painted the details of the men and bushes. It is a superb example from one of the masters of traditional watercolour technique.'The luminosity of the colours is achieved by allowing the whiteness of the paper to shine through.

Like most techniques which look so effective and immediate, the mastery of them can be quite difficult and frustrating. What do you do if something goes wrong? It will help to go through some of the stages of De Wint's watercolour.

Most watercolour artists, including De Wint, sketched in the composition before they started to paint. They did not draw in every detail and then fill it in like a child's paint book. If you look closely at most of the old watercolours you can see the very faint pencil lines where the artist has indicated the main masses of the picture. The thin washes are laid down with a large brush charged with watercolour. A mistake at this stage, the wrong colour in the wrong place, can usually be easily rectified. Most of the natural pigments can be sponged out while they are still wet. You should use a small natural sponge. Fill it full of clean water and flood the area to be removed. Squeeze out the sponge and then dab the water from the picture. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to rub at the colour. This will certainly remove it, but it will remove the surface of the wet paper too.

The amount of paint that can be removed at this stage depends on the kind of pigment and the type of paper. Some of the modern paints, which are dyes rather than pigments, will immediately stain the paper and are difficult to remove, even when still wet.

Most watercolour paints, however, can be sponged out, even after they have dried. Yesterday's unsuccessful composition can be destroyed by holding the paper under the tap. Sponging out of colour is not necessarily used only to remove mistakes. If you look closely at the reflection of the boat you can see that the soft line of the prow has been deliberately achieved by carefully taking away some of the colour with a damp sponge. When the watercolour is dry, a more modern way to alter the composition is with a Mars Plastic eraser. This is a firm, white eraser made by Staedtler, notable because it leaves little or no residue behind. You can repaint over the area again and the paint will take. When handled with care you should be able to use this eraser to remove the dry paint layer by layer.

The highlights in a watercolour are usually made of small areas of unpainted paper. Look at the edges of the men's sleeves. What happens if you get to the end of your painting and find that these areas of highlighting have been lost underneath a layer of paint? De Wint has carefully built up the mass of plants in the river below the cart by laying darker and darker areas of paint. When this was dry he scratched the surface of the paint so that the paper showed through. Most watercolourists did this and, used with discretion, this technique can give the impression of brilliant flecks of light.

It is also possible to colour wash over these highlights. In this case you should carefully burnish the scratched area first. If the paper surface is roughed up the wet paint will take unevenly. De Wint has also used a small amount of white paint on the men's sleeves. This is another way of producing a highlighted area. Like the scratching out technique, it should be used with care. Too much white paint in a watercolour will dull the tones and the work will lose its luminosity. It is not a good idea to mix white with another colour in an attempt to cover up a mistake with an opaque wash. The flat, dulled area which will result will draw the eye and detract from the composition.

If the mistake occurs in a light, preliminary wash then you can cover it with a darker area of paint as the composition progresses. If it is in one of the later, darker areas then you will have to sponge it out and start again. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, if you do make a mistake in your watercolour, then stop and take a good look at it. Part of the joy of watercolour is its spontaneity. Most artists learn how to make good use of their mistakes.

Have a look at the line of trees on the right hand side of De Wint's painting. When he applied the dark green wash the paint bubbled and dried unevenly. De Wint realised that this looked just like the sunlight catching the tops of the trees and he left the paint as it was. Some mistakes in watercolour painting turn out to be happy accidents.


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