Learning to paint with watercolors is complicated enough. The late watercolorist and teacher  Ron Ranson advocated a minimalist approach of limiting the number of brushes a beginner should use as well as limiting their palette to only 7 colors. I’ll address the brushes in another post. As to the palette colors, they are Alizarin Crimson PR206 (cool) Burnt Umber PBr7 PY42 (warm) Lemon Yellow PY175 (warm) Light Red PR101 (warm) Paynes Gray PBk7 PB15 (cool) Raw Sienna PR101 PY42 (warm) and Ultramarine Blue PB29 (cool).

[Note: The alphanumeric designators indicate the main pigment or pigments used to produce the color while the warm and cool label speaks to the color’s “color wheel” temperature.] 

Ranson’s reasoning for this limiting of colors is to free the student from all the complex decisions created by potentially limitless color choices as well as allowing them to focus on really learning how to work with and mix their own colors with a very familiar set of base colors. Notice there are no premixed greens. ( I’ll address that in another post.) By being so frugal with the number of colors, you get to know them intimately and to understand how each color reacts with the others.  Below are my tubes of paints (21 ml size) on my plastic tray palette. You can click on the images to see them enlarged. 


In this practice exercise, I chose to paint a series of tonal washes using each of my palette colors plus Black. The tonal washes are meant to show three values for each color: a dark, and two middle values. They are painted with a controllably wet brush on dry paper.

From left to right, top row to bottom row : Black, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine, Raw Sienna, Alizarin Crimson, Light Red, Lemon Yellow, and Paynes Gray. You can click on the images to see them enlarged.


Previously, I talked about the paint brush as a sponge, there will be much more about brushes and how their characteristics as a sponge can be altered by their design and their bristle material. But that’s a deeper level of detail for the moment. For now, I want to stay focused on putting pigment on to paper and the “why and how” we can control that process.

Our next sponge is the watercolor paper itself. In a later post we will go in depth to learn about a lot of the details about the paper making process and the things that can affect the characteristics of watercolor paper.

For the most part watercolor paper can be described by four moisture states. It is either bone dry, 100% saturated, half wet / half dry or mostly dry (damp). Watercolor paper straight out of the package or pad is bone dry. Paint can be applied to it while the paper is still bone dry. The paint pigment suspended in a solution of mostly water actually floats on the surface of the watercolor paper until most of the water evaporates and the pigment is absorbed and remains deposited on the paper fibers. As you will see, it is much more difficult to regulate the moisture states of paper then for brushes. And, an important conceptual understanding about a sheet of paper and its sponge characteristics is that it isn’t homogeneous. You can think of the sheet of paper as potentially containing a vast number of sponge areas and these areas can exist simultaneously in different moisture states. That is to say that the paper can act like lots of sponges that when adjacent can influence each other. You may only be using one brush sponge at an instant but the paper is potentially many different sponges each of which will react differently to the brush and pigment. More on this later.

There are only four ways to apply paint to paper: (1) dry on dry (2) wet on dry (3) dry on wet (4) wet on wet. These are brush to paper area moisture relationships.

Dry on dry refers to using a damp dry brush to spread pigment on to bone dry paper. The paint is easily controlled and does not move once applied. This is one method of producing a rough brush texture effect. 

Wet on dry is similar to dry on dry. The paper is still bone dry, but the paint is applied using a “controllable wet” brush (half wet / half dry). This adds the ability to vary the value, lightness or darkness, of the stroke by varying the ratio of water to pigment in the brush. Like in the case of dry on dry, the paint does not move around on the paper once applied. This type of application gives you a hard, sharp edged texture shape. 822-633-0254

Dry on wet is painting on wet paper with a brush loaded with pigment and very little water. Basically a damp dry brush. This type of application produces beautiful diffusions of color and value, yet it allows for precise control of the painted shapes. This gives you a soft edge to your strokes. 4318470052

Wet on wet is similar to dry on wet as we are painting on wet paper but now with a “controllably wet” brush. This procedure is used when beautiful diffusions are required but when retaining a particular shape is not. This is the most difficult type of application to control and is probably most accountable for watercolor getting the distinction of having a mind of it’s own.   Notice as the paint moves on the paper there are soft vein like edges.




By definition a sponge is any material which is able to absorb and hold moisture. We have established that any fibrous material, a paint brush, watercolor paper,  cloth or paper towels,  or “physical” household sponges can all be viewed as just sponges.


A sponge can be described by its current state of moisture retention. It can be bone dry or it can be totally saturated or it can be in-between in a state from moderately wet to almost damp dry. For our purposes we will use four simple names for sponge moisture states ; bone dry, damp dry, half wet/half dry, and saturated. Bone dry means totally dry with no presence of moisture content in the sponge. For all intent and purposes, a bone dry sponge will not freely wick up external moisture, it must be forced to begin absorbing moisture. To get a sponge to begin to freely wick up external moisture it must already contain some amount of moisture itself. As previously stated a saturated sponge is holding as much water or moisture as it can possibly absorb; it’s thoroughly soaked and no longer will absorb any more water. If we squeeze as much moisture out of a sponge as we possibly can, the sponge won’t be actually bone dry but will still contain a slight amount of moisture and we call this state as being damp dry. A damp dry sponge is “thirsty” for moisture until it again reaches saturation. Between being totally saturated and being damp dry, a sponge is in some state of being partially wet and partially dry for simplicity we will call this half wet/ half dry. 

A sponge will wick moisture based on its current percentage of saturation. At 100% saturated or greater, a sponge will not continue to absorb or draw off additional moisture. Moisture flows from greater moisture saturation to lesser moisture saturation between sponges. Because watercolor paint is pigment suspended in a moist solution, the flow or movement of pigment is from greater to lessor moisture saturation. Again, an important distinction is that 0% saturation, bone dry, will not actively draw/ attract moisture. There is a minimum threshold of moisture saturation, dampness, needed to start moisture wicking action. This is why moist pigment will not flow outside of an area of dampness on watercolor paper. The place where damp paper meets bone dry paper creates a hard edge boundary.

The key to control in watercolor painting is to regulate the differences in moisture saturation between your sponges, particularly between the brush and the paper, but also between areas of the paper itself. ( You can think of a piece of watercolor paper as an almost infinite number of adjacent sponges. )

The easiest place to regulate  the percentage saturation, the amount of moisture, is on the paint brush. As stated, a paint brush is a sponge. If it is totally dry, bone dry, it is essentially unusable for painting with watercolor paint. Remember a bone dry sponge will not freely wick up external moisture so a bone dry brush won’t actually absorb any pigment suspended in water. A paint bush must be first dipped into water to get it initially wet. This dipping in water results with the brush becoming 100 % saturated. A 100% saturated paint brush can’t hold any more water and is best described as ” uncontrollably wet “. 669-238-5476Touching the brush against a damp household sponge or a blotter of some type ( a roll of toilet paper or a hand towel ) will cause some of that saturated water to be wicked out of the brush. The longer the brush is in contact with the household sponge or blotter the more moisture is pulled out of the brush. So a quick touch gives you a half wet/half dry brush, usually called a ” controllably wet ” brush. With more additional touches against the blotter or if the brush is held against the blotter for a much longer time, it will approach becoming a damp dry brush. A key technique with respect to controlling the amount of water in the paint brush is to use some type of blotter to wick off the unwanted extra water. A drawback to this technique, is that if the brush is loaded with pigment and water some of the loaded pigment is also deposited on the blotter.  A second important technique for removing some of the water from a brush is to squeeze the bristles of the brush between your thumb and one of your fingers.  Specifically grabbing and squeezing the belly part of the brush close to the heel next to the ferrule. If the brush is loaded with water and pigment most of the pigment will be collected close to the toe/tip of the bristles so squeezing near the heel forces out a significant amount of the water leaving most of the loaded pigment. (850) 684-4623

More to come in Part 2 ….



The “obvious control secret” for painting with watercolors is to control the water. Wow, who would ever have thought about that ? (sarcasm warning) Obviously, controlling the water is critical, but how do you control water ? After all, it’s not like we have a valve on a faucet. As I alluded to in the previous post, it’s all about sponges. Or to be clearer, it’s all about sponge characteristics. In scientific terms it is related to capillary action. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical. A sponge will absorb or release water depending on the amount of water currently being held by the sponge. There are two extreme states of water containment in a sponge. Bone dry is a term for a sponge state where the sponge contains absolutely no moisture. Saturated is a term for a sponge state where the sponge is holding as much water or moisture as can be absorbed; it’s thoroughly soaked and no longer will absorb more water. There are in theory many in-between states, but for our purposes we will only talk about two other sponge states: moderately wet and almost dry, also referred to as just damp. Now, here’s a revealing concept. Sponge characteristics are not restricted to those porous rubbery like household accessories that we call sponges. All fibrous materials have sponge characteristics. A paint brush has bristles that are fibrous (we will talk more about the different kinds of brush bristle materials and their different unique sponge characteristics later). A paint brush is therefore a sponge and subject to exhibiting predictable sponge characteristics. Paper is a material manufactured in thin sheets from the pulp of wood or other fibrous substances. In the case of quality watercolor paper, it is made from 100% cotton fibers. Therefore watercolor paper is a sponge and also subject to exhibiting predictable sponge characteristics. We now have an established relationship between paint brushes and paper; they are all sponges. Watercolor paint is fundamentally pigment suspended in a solution which is mostly water. Water interacts with any sponge according to the characteristics of that sponge itself and its sponge state at the time of the interaction. At any given instant in time, our various sponges will each exist in their own different sponge state and therefore their individual interaction with water will differ. The interactions of water with these sponges, each which exists in a different sponge state at that instant, is the essence of controlling the water in watercolor painting. 

We are approaching an understanding of what has to happen for control during the watercolor painting process, thus we will finally know what to practice. Going forward, we will begin to explore these interactions and how to use this knowledge to guide our practice.

Why A Tennis Racket Has Strings

If you have been following my earlier posts, then you know that I intuitively knew that there was a gap in my understanding of watercolor painting. It wasn’t some magical secret but it also was not as obvious as many artists, who write books or make YouTube videos on watercolor, think. The title of this post may seem strange in a blog about watercolor painting, but I bring it up to make a point. Many years ago I started to learn to play tennis. My friend and I were both beginners and we would go out on the tennis court every week and try to hit a tennis ball back and forth over the net. The ball went everywhere except where we wanted it to go. We had virtually no control of the ball. We could get a tiny amount of control by very gently tapping the ball, but that’s pretty worthless. As I look back, the tennis ball seemed to have a mind of it’s own. Does that sound familiar? There had to be a way to control the ball, to make it fly over the net and drop down into the court inside the lines. Lots of people knew how, but what was the “obvious” missing connection between the tennis racket and the tennis ball. Then one day, I read an article that explained the “how and why” of controlling  a tennis ball. It is all based on the direction of the spinning of the ball and the rotational speed at which it spins. The strings on the racket when brushed over the ball impart spin and the acceleration of the racket head moving those strings across the surface of the ball at contact controls the speed of ball rotation. It’s all aerodynamics. The point is that you can “hit” a tennis ball all day and never have any real control. But you can “brush” your strings across the surface of a ball imparting spin and rotational speed and land it on a dime on the other side of the net. It takes practice to really master this control, but if you understand what has to happen, then you know what to practice.

So an interesting clue toward gaining control of watercolors might lie in the domain of fluid dynamics, most specifically capillary action. After all, water, a key component in the “water – pigment – paper” relationship, is a liquid, a fluid. And that leads to sponges. Tennis rackets have strings to help create control and watercolor painting control is all about sponges. Next post is going to be really enlightening….