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Edges in Watercolor

Edges can be broken down into a simple concept for watercolor.  It’s either wet paint on dry paper to create a “hard edge”  or wet paint on wet paper to create a “soft edge”.  The combination and use of these 2 edges in watercolor is called a “variegated edge.”  However, edges can be created in a variety of ways.  Every artist will use edges to create a certain “effect” or “impression” in his/her watercolor.  

Edges in watercolor also have their roots in flat, graduated or gradient and variegated washes. A simple tonal study using a single color as a gradient wash will get you started in understand wet into wet soft edges for instance.

“Denver near Lingers” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints) This early painting that I did in 2018 as a plein air painting in Denver, CO shows how I experimented with a simple variegated pre-wash and then used water to create some blooms as reflections while the paper was still damp. I used color unity (red-violet) to unify my painting using a variety of edges.

For me, I like to paint most everything wet into wet and save the dry marks, increased tonal work and texturing when the paper is either damp or completely dry.  This works for me.  I re-wet the paper and push paint around. I lift and texture at different times of painting. I don’t always follow the classical rules to painting watercolor. But then again, experimentation is something that I enjoy in Watercolor. Sometimes I’ve come across some unexpected and delightful effects.

I think as an artist, you have to do things that you feel completely comfortable doing.  This includes things that you can rely on and duplicate in painting after painting.  

With this said, I will discuss some classical concepts on edges as they pertain to Master works and some of my own works included.  

There is a lot to comprehend in the following information and don’t expect to conquer it all in one painting.  These concepts take hours and hours of practice and years of refining to make them efficient and reproducible time and time again.  In other words, the more you DO , the more edges will become second nature without having to think about them.  

I liken breaking down edges and painting like trying to break down a golf swing.  You can get bogged down into thinking of edges as steps in time while watercolor painting.  As in the golf swing, if you try to break it down to every little movement and nuance, you begin to lose the overall picture of what you are trying to do.  However, learning these steps will eventually enhance your overall work and paintings.  

The following concepts is something that I learned in Frank Eber’s workshop as well as other workshops that included such great painters as Herman Pekel, Vladislav Yeliseyev and Iain Stewart.  

As you will see below, I have learned certain techniques in my approach to painting that combines some of the concepts taught by both Vladislav Yeliseyev and Herman Pekel. (see below in our first ZOOM class meeting).

In some of my more recent paintings, I’ve exploited the use of washes, painting wet into wet and exploiting various edges.

I’ve also learned concepts of edges from the great John Lovett.  (Johnlovett.com)   

You can also read his article on EDGES at https://www.johnlovett.com/edges.

I also have a companion article that discusses edges called “The Ingredients to a Winning Watercolor“.

CLASSICAL CONCEPTS OF WATERCOLOR EDGES

Watercolor effects can be divided into 2 (two) basic compliments, 1) Paper to water ratio or wetness of the paper and 2) Consistency of pigment to water ratio or thickness of paint. 

When you begin to understand how water/ paper/ paint mix together and at what time in the painting process (Watercolor Timing), you will have a handle on the effects you are trying to create.  

  1.  Paper Wetness and Edges

WET PAPER

The paper is completely saturated with water and runs freely over the paper.  This is the best time to make graduated and gradient washes and mix colors together on paper.  This usually begins as the first wash or even a “pre-wash”.  This creates what we call a “SOFT-UNCONTROLLED EDGE”.  

  • Weak paint (95% water to 5% pigment) will run and freely mix on paper.  Thicker pigment will ‘explode’
  • Best time for water reflections and translucency of watercolor
  • Best time for Luminous skies and underwashes

MOIST PAPER

This is when there is a SHEEN on the paper and no puddling of water.  Water is basically absorbed almost its maximum, but is just beginning to dry before it gets damp.  This creates what we call a “SOFT-CONTROLLED EDGE”.    

  • This is the best time to get ATMOSPHERIC and MISTY EFFECTS.  
  • A good time to lift paint by paper towel or a dry brush to absorb water and paint. 
  • You cannot scratch out paint because it is too wet.  
  • Some paint can be pushed around with a palette knife depending on the consistency of paint. 
“Golden Temple Japan” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints) . I painted this in 2018 for my son who returned from a trip to Japan. I used moist paper to create a misty atmosphere while painting the trees and the foreground. This created soft-controlled edges in this painting.

DAMP PAPER

The paper is almost dry, but still a little wet.  This is when paper will buckle and not lay completely flat.  This is the best time to create TEXTURING EFFECTS that include broken edges and shapes.  This creates what we call a “MEDIUM-CONTROLLED EDGE”.  The thicker or stronger the paint mixture, the more “LOST AND FOUND” the edges will appear.  .  An increase in water to paint mixture will create blossoms/blooms/cauliflowers and texturing effects.  The underlying pigment will easily lift off in this stage of dampness.  This is especially true when the paint mixture is strongest (25% water/75% pigment)

  • Creates loose and impressionistic effects and lost and found edges
  • This is a stage when I often re-wet the paper just before it’s dry and texture/lift pigment.
  • This is a stage I can re-wet paper to a moist stage and ‘push’ paint around.  
  • This is the best time to scratch using the palette knife or lift paint.  

DRY PAPER

Wet paint, no matter what the consistency, will create SHARP EDGES on DRY PAPER.  This creates what we call a “HARD-CONTROLLED EDGE”  

  • Sharp edges
  • Staccato paintings in light
  • Positive and negative shape painting
  • DRY BRUSH TECHNIQUE
Joseph Zbukvic is an example of an artist who completely understands the power of edges in watercolor. His understanding of timing which he terms “The Watercolor Clock” is a way for him to put into a visual language his artistic vision using edges and his signature brush work.

II.  PAINT PIGMENT CONSISTENCY AND WATER RATIO

Remember that increasing pigment also increases TONE irrespective or color!

WEAKEST  (95% water/5% pigment)

This is usually a base or under-wash.  This is best done when the paper is either pre-wetted or dry to create a ‘bead’ and graduate a wash on wet paper.  On dry paper, it will dry much lighter.   It will create soft-uncontrolled edges on wet paper.   This should only be in the tonal range of 1-3 for most paintings.

WEAK  (75% water/25% pigment) – an increase in one-quarter TONE.

This can be used in a first or second wash to increase tonal value.  It can be used over a moist and damp paper to create distant hills, clouds, lost and found shapes and medium-controlled edges.  On dry paper, you can achieve some dry brush marks.  

HALF AND HALF (50% water/50% pigment)

This can be used after the pre-wash and stronger pigments have been laid down and dried to create a half tone and relatively solid shape.  This mixture will be almost the same tonal value put on wet as it will be dry.  This is a mixture of paint that I use for most of my gray and mid tone values. It is classically used in the ‘second’ wash giving structure to a painting. Tonal values can range from 4-7 considered “midtone” values.

It is best for using wet paint on dry paper to achieve positive and negative shapes, hard-controlled edges and dry brush.  

STRONGER  (25%water/75% pigment)

This is used to increase a full tone in tonal values and used along the 7-10 tonal scale to paint in the darker darks.  On wet paper, this will bloom and explode and on moist/damp paper will produce a highly controlled contrasted edge. 

This is the time in painting when you want to juxtapose your lightest and darkest values and make them sharp and focal.

This is my favorite stage of painting and when dampened will provide a variety of textures and granulations.  This is also the paint consistency where I can re-wet the paper after this area is damp-dry and lift and/or create texture.  Many times, I’ll even increase this consistency of paint to 95% pigment and only about 5% water for my richer tonal work.  

STRONGEST (No water/100% pigment out of the tube)

This is basically paint out of the tube that is used for highlights and the final brush work including fine lines, whiskers , eye reflection and lines in my portrait works. In other types of painting such as cityscapes or landscapes it is used for traffic lights, figurative work, street poles, fence posts and the final dry marks of a work.  This is the strongest tone of any color.  I reserve this consistency of paint for the final and finishing touches in a work.  

Herman Pekel is another Australian Artist who understands the use of edges and tone to create the feeling of distance and vastness in his work. He is one of the premier landscape artists in Watercolor.

Much of what I have learned has been techniques and concepts that I took from both Vladislav Yeliseyev and Herman Pekel’s instruction. My technique has implemented the technique of Vladislav Yeliseyev in his approach to the loose under-wash and implementing richer pigment and texturing that I learned from Herman Pekel.

In my last ZOOM class for the WSST, I highlighted some of this technique.

In this screen capture from our first ZOOM class for the WSST, I showed how using a light underwash is used as a base wash. I paint much of this wet into wet and let the 3 primary colors mix freely on the paper. I leave white of the paper and try to paint wet into wet in 2 distinct stages.
After the base wash is in, I add richer paint onto wet paper to achieve a lost and found edge on paper. This is the point in my painting when I consider increasing tonal values and juxtaposing my light and darker tones. Once the paper is dryer in the damp stage, I will then only begin to lift and texture may painting.
Once all my tones are in, I then allow the paper to dry and dampen. This is the time I begin to lift paint , create softer edges if necessary and texture my painting. I will even allow the thicker paint to completely dry then re-wet and lift for additional texturing.
It’s not until the painting is completely dry, that I will come in a detail the work adding the strongest paint and dry brush detail work. As you can see, even in the darker areas of the painting, the underlying wash still comes through because much of this was done wet into wet to allow the colors to mix on paper.

Again, EDGES are an important concept in Watercolor and this medium provides the greatest amount of freedom to exploit these properties. I hope that this will help you in your painting!

If you are interested in joining us for our second WSST ZOOM Paint-Along and meeting, please send an email to WSSTXORG@gmail.com to be placed on our list. Our second ZOOM meeting is scheduled for November 22nd, Sunday from 1-4pm CST. Hope to see you there and happy painting!

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