How to Fix Almost Every Mistake in Watercolour

Everyone makes mistakes; whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned painter with years of experience. Understanding how to navigate and correct your mistakes is an essential skill that every artist should master. The approach you take will depend on what your problem is, and whether your paint is wet or dry. I’ll take you through every technique I’ve learned: from lifting unwanted paint and using creative cover-ups, to strategic blending techniques.

Your Paint is Light or Dark

It’s Too Light:

If you’ve painted a section that’s too light, one of two things may have happened:

  1. you may have added too much water, diluting the pigment
  2. you might be working with a paint that has a drying shift

Watercolours tend to look darker and more vibrant when wet, but as the water evaporates and the paint dries these characteristics can change. We call this a ‘drying shift’. Reds are notorious for being much more saturated when wet, and many Cadmium pigments become paler when dry.

Solution: Monoglaze! Let your first layer dry before applying another wash of the same colour over the first.

It’s Too Dark:

If your painting is too dark, you can lift the colour back off the page (techniques to do this are called ‘lifting’). There are a few ways to do this, depending on whether your painting is wet or has dried.

If your painting is still wet:

  1. Using a Clean Damp Brush: take a clean brush and dampen it very slightly. You want your brush to be a little wet. If your brush is wetter than your paper, it will dump water creating a bloom. If it’s totally dry, it won’t soak up water as well.

    Apply your a-little-wet brush to your paper, and watch it soak up the excess paint. It’s a bit like painting in reverse. When your brush if fully loaded with paint, just rinse it off, pat it down a little, and repeat.
  2. Using a Paper Towel: This is the best for large areas; just grab a clean piece of kitchen towel and apply it directly to the paper. Add pressure, then remove. It will soak up the paint, just like soaking up a spill on the kitchen counter!

If your painting has dried:

Some colours are more staining than others. Staining Colours are absorbed deeper into the paper’s fibres, making them perfect to use in a painting where you will be using many layers, but also makes them difficult or even impossible to lift. Blues, Greens and Violets are more likely to be staining colours, but the behaviour of individual pigments varies greatly.

Non-staining colours can be lifted from the paper after they’ve dried, without leaving a stain behind. Just wet your brush, and then work it over the area you want to lighten. If you’re trying to lift a larger area, you may want to use a harder bristled brush to do this, so that you don’t damage the point on any of your favourite brushes.

Don’t be aggressive: you can still overwork your paper. You’re just trying to agitate the dried paint enough that it bonds with the water. Then you can use kitchen towel, or a dry brush to soak it off the paper.

Your Paint has Splattered

If your painting is wet:

Take a clean piece of kitchen towel and immediately soak up the splatter. Alternatively, take a dry brush and use the tip of it to pick up the unwanted paint.

If your painting has dried:

Assess where it is; can the splatter be worked into the painting? Are the colours around it staining, or will they be easily lifted to? If you have to lift it, take the tip of the smallest brush you have, and gently work over the splatter. Use a kitchen towel or dry brush to lift the unwanted paint.

If you have an unwelcome white spot, try to reapply the original colour. If you can’t get the stain out, you could try mixing titanium white with the original wash colour, in order to cover it.

You Paint outside the Lines

If you accidentally paint outside of the lines, run a damp brush or damp rag over the edges to soften them. Alternatively, you can use Titanium White to cover any small imperfections around the edge. NB: I wouldn’t recommend using Titanium White to cover larger areas.

Your Washes look Blotchy or Streaky

4. If you have an area of your painting that looks blotchy or streaky, all you need is a damp brush. Run it over the areas you wish to lighten or lift, and gently blend the colours together.

Your Paint is Muddy

This is by far the most difficult problem to fix. My first suggestion would be to lift the paint (see: Your Paint is Too Light or Dark). If you can’t do that, I would suggest mixing a small amount of white or opaque paint to cover the muddy colours below. Using white is my last recourse, as layering any more paint on top runs the risk of creating even more mud and looking flat. Use Titanium White, which has a higher covering power than Chinese or Zinc White.

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