The New Palette / Watercolor: Wet-into-Wet Demystified (full article)

PaletteMag_CoverWEB“All knowledge essential to the painting of a fine watercolor can be obtained from books, many book; teachers; and the subscription to the truth of the pragmatic theory that doing is part of the knowing.” … Edgar A. Whitney

The beautiful qualities of wetness, gradations and colors precipitating together on that wonderful white paper are responsible for reeling many of us in to the medium of watercolor. For me, it has been a lasting fascination for over thirty years. When I first tried my hand however, I quickly realized I had much to learn about how water and pigment work together on this surface to create something that I would be pleased with. Getting results that remotely resembled what I was hoping for seemed elusive. After quite a few years, I began to understand it much more as a balancing act than a conquest; the art of giving deference to the medium, interjecting action when required, and most importantly, carefully observing my successes and mistakes along the way. While this may sound tedious and less than encouraging to a watercolor newcomer, I like to instill the belief that while there is no by-pass, there are quite a few teachable and demonstrable concepts that can lessen the levels of frustration early in the game. 

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Wet-into-Wet, why bother? We know there are many approaches to watercolor that don’t require us working on squirrely wet paper. Beautiful paintings abound in books, magazines and juried exhibitions resulting from glazing on dry paper, or mingling with watercolor in a preplanned or “wet as you go” fashion. The wet-into-wet thing is personal, and simply a choice. As an east coast painter enamored with Appalachian mountain landscapes, I find that it enables me to translate the atmospheric (and often very humid) mood and feeling of a temperate rain forest better than any other method. Many who sign up for my workshops express a similar desire to learn this technique for these reasons. I have felt obliged to come up with a better way teach it other than that of trial and error, “hang in there, eventually, you will get it!”. Having taught Learning Skills and Strategies coursework to college students for many years, I relied on what seemed to help them synthesize complex or nuanced concepts into useful and retainable information; real learning, so to speak. Relatable visual models and analogies seemed to be a key component, and these could often be personalized for even stronger recall.  

Provided below is an overview of key concepts that I focus on early in my “Bold and Controlled” workshop. In addition to demonstrating and discussing processes, I facilitate a guided experiential exercise on the first day. I have found that when participants actually feel and experience some of the conditions I’m describing, it carries them toward understanding some important water/pigment dynamics that are occurring. In addition, they often see how they are unknowingly and repeatedly impairing their efforts. 

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For many years I structured my watercolor workshops in a rather traditional way that went something like this: 1) Intro, materials and palette set-up discussion, 2) Planning and surface preparation 3) A painting demonstration with discussion of how and why I am doing certain things along the route, 4) participant painting time with round-robin instruction. Each day of course, we address a new important concept; value, color harmony options, and maybe unique approaches or ideas for subject development.  

While there was nothing overtly wrong with this approach, too many students left at the end of the week still frustrated with the wet-into-wet approach; excited about certain aspects of the week but still a bit defeated in practice. They were not coming close to the results they had hoped to achieve. Thus, I found it necessary to revamp my approach and find out how to better convey to them what they were missing. After a number of attempts, they were still washing away their shapes, muddying their color, and mixing weak pigment pools on the palette; in short feeling neither bold, nor controlled! 

I decided that a new “day one” would dawn. My students would no longer create a rice paddy on their paper that floated away all their shapes. They would pick up rich moist pigment on their brushes (no more hardened tiny balls of paint in their palettes regardless of their stinginess). And, I was going to give them a visual model of how to understand and control the water/pigment dynamics from the start. This would relate to their palette color mixtures, the loading of the brush, and the wetness of paper surface. We would spend day one getting this down before moving on to all of the other complexities and topics involved in making great art. This was no small order. Read on and follow me through three of the key concepts of the new “day one”. 

  1. Proper Surface Preparation (AKA: the phrase “Wet-Into-Wet” is a Myth). Consistently setting up the ground and getting the paper to the proper level of dampness before painting is a big factor in success. Cotton Rag paper takes time to fully saturate. My rule of thumb is 15-20 minutes of heavily brushing or sponging water on BOTH sides of the paper while it rests on slanted Gatorboard (around a 15-20degree angle).  This will usually get you to the fully saturated place you need to be. I find that most still want to rush the process, as we are always anxious to begin. This a good place to introduce the more meditative mindset that watercolor seems to require of painters. Relax and consciously slowdown in this phase that you want to speed through! Once fully saturated the paper has no bubbles, quickly flops back to the Gatorboard when lifted, and is ready for phase two. 

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Here is where we dispel the myth. I always try and achieve a consistent dampness, not wetness with the paper prior to painting. Surface water can be lifted off lightly with a paper towel, or with a clean lint-free rolled terry towel. Do not apply much pressure to the surface in this process, as you don’t want to remove moisture within the body of the paper, only the surface glisten. When touching the paper with the back of your fingers the surface should feel damp. At this point, I suggest stapling the paper about ¼” from the edge of the Gatorboard with staples placed 1.5-2” apart all around the paper’s edge. If you follow this rather tedious prep description, you are ready to move forward with no backwards glances and can focus on the fun painting to come. The phrase Wet-into-Wet in my view, is often responsible for conditioning painters to begin on a surface that is far too wet. Let’s substitute the phrase Damp-into-Damp, for that is far more often the condition that will give us success. Keep in mind, this very quality of dampness is what creates the beautiful blends and gradations as we apply watercolor to the surface in a controlled manner. 

2) Achieving a pigment/water mix of the correct concentration to achieve our desired effect.  This refers to what mixture(s) we prepare on our palette and also what we pick up with our brush prior to moving to the paper surface. On this topic, I find too many painters err in the following ways: dried out pigments; mixing too small a working puddle of color for the area(s) they hope to cover; diluting palette pigment with too much water; and finally, loading far too much water versus pigment in the fibers of their brush. Stroke after stroke, they slowly and methodically flood their surface without awareness.  

3) Learning to observe and control the water content of the loaded brush, and the saturation level of the paper as we place our mixtures on the surface.

Just as Goldilocks discovered, there is a porridge for every intended purpose that is “just right”. I help students experience this in a hands on manner with an exercise called “True North” (described in the Wetness Compass model below).  It is important to see, feel and apply a correct mixture of proper pigment concentration on our perfect damp paper described above in order to understand the possibilities that await you. I prepare a large dense pool of a single pigment that has a wide value range, capable of going from very light to quite dark in value. Ultramarine or Prussian blue are examples of such. I also take great care to demonstrate how to load the brush, pull off excess water at the base of the fibers, and transfer this rich color to the paper with one long, slow, smooth stroke. Everyone in my class, one by one, comes up and paints a “True North” power stroke with my guidance using a very nice 1” sable flat brush that I provide.  This provides what I call a touchstone experience: they have just established a bold middle value shape that stays put on damp paper. If water was properly controlled in the brush, the edges of the stroke are slightly soft, but do not bleed or dissipate. For whatever reasons, I find this single experience often redefines their perspective on what painting with watercolor should feel like. Honestly, watching participant reactions during this exercise is one of my favorite moments of teaching.  

 A few of you reading this may be moving to the “Yes, …but.” side of the fence? A painting is complex! We use many differing pigment and water concentrations to achieve a variety of shapes and effects, and to achieve value and color goals that we have planned for.  This is true. Now we move on to a model that will enable them to reproduce or alter this single experience in a variety of ways.  Over time, this results in the ability to approach a landscape, abstraction, or any subject for that matter, in a confident and successful manner.TrueNorthSamuraiSteveNewhouse

With the True North stroke above, we have discovered how to achieve a beautiful and bold middle value shape by creating a certain set of conditions. But, we need the capability to shift gears or deviate from our touchstone in order to build a complete painting. Unless of course, we want a painting of all strong middle value and white paper. My final goal on day one is to give students a tool that will enable them to visualize how to move forward through a painting using what they just experienced as the frame of reference.  

I outline four basic actions available to them that are described via a model I refer to as the Wet Zone Compass. In relation to wetness and pigment concentration, I would utilize each of these modes at some point in the painting of a typical landscape. We already have experienced the first of these compass points, we know what it feels like, and how to set up the conditions to create it.  Our afternoon painting lab on day one focuses on a simple abstraction developed by using each of these modes. 

  • True North – A Strong Mix of Pigment and limited water will give us our middle-value shapes.  I point out that while there is often a “value” parallel in relation to this wetness model, this depends upon the inherent value range of the pigment chosen 
  •  East – Wetter Stroke with Less Pigment –  A sky or a foreground with strong light hitting the surface might be good examples of “going east”.  My analogy and reminder of this option is that our East coast is often much more humid, a wetter environment, than out West. East conditions often occur early in the painting process, as the sun rises here first! An example I demonstrate of moving East is a relatively wet, atmospheric sky using a warm underpainting with just enough pigment to tone the surface, then followed by a slightly stronger blue overtop of similar wetness.  
  • West – As we move to our West option, we think in terms of strengthening the pigment in the mix significantly, and reducing the water. To generalize, this action is usually reserved for the mid-point of a painting at the earliest, and typically comes more in to play in the later or finishing stages as we choose to intensify color or deepen value in certain areas. An example I use in demonstration of moving West would be in achieving a deep value blue-green band of Ponderosa pines flanking a Montana hillside.  So, stronger pigment, less water in the mix, and often by point in the painting process where West mode is called for, we have a less damp, maybe even dry surface. I am able to produce the necessary contrasts and hard-edge shapes as needed, by going West.  
  • South – Ah, the mysterious South. What could “going South” possibly involve? Generally speaking, when we refer to a painting going South we are likely not too happy about what is going on. I use this directional reference to remind painters that we can not only create shape and color, we can remove and alter it during or after the process. For whatever reasons, I see this as an underutilized option, or in this model, Compass direction. If we have mistakenly moved too far East, we can remove wetness with a damp brush and careful “lifting out”. We can create directional movement and contrast in a “too uniform” sky or foreground via the same process. Too often, we only think of lifting out color or wetness as a repair tool for an area that has been overworked, or when we have reached a certain level of dissatisfaction. I try and demonstrate that the South options, can serve as creative tools in the same vein as placing color with a brush.  

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The above process and model as described may sound a bit complex and challenging to envision and implement. I debated if isolating this aspect of the watercolor learning curve was warranted, or if it fell into the category of overthinking; too cerebral of an undertaking. But, I took the risk because I felt too much frustration from my participants who were investing in my workshop. Fast forward past five years of trial, error and revisions on my part from inception: feedback tells me that it is quite helpful for most, and sometimes very enlightening for a few. They certainly aren’t transformed overnight into water control artists, but there are often a number of a-ha experiences much earlier in the week. If nothing else as we move into the concepts of value, shapes and color harmony as the week progresses, they at least know why their efforts are not coming to fruition. This alone imparts a bit more confidence and a willingness to continue. I enjoy overhearing conversations during our painting labs in vein of, “I went too far East in my mixture and my mountain washed away”.  

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So, think about getting out your compass and set your bearings on True North! The best learning models are personalized. Mine grew out of an affection for the outdoors bordering on obsession, thus the compass was meaningful and easily remembered. When struggling with nuanced processes, one of the best things we can do is to provide ourselves with a simplified frame of reference, an underlying bone structure in a sense. This enables us to slowly layer on more complexity as we get more comfortable with process. Test my model or better yet, create one of your own! 

Everything depends on the lenses through which we view the world. By putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.”
Parker J. Palmer

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Wes Waugh – Juror’s Statement

Juror's State

When asked to serve as a juror for an exhibition, I like to provide the participants and organizers with this overview. Many painters are often curious as to how a juror reaches his or her decisions about award selections, particularly the balance of subjective versus objective influence and decision-making. First, there is no set formula and very little written information on the subject. This is my personal philosophy that I have developed over the years with guidance from my own teachers or colleagues who also serve as jurors. The  link below will open a PDF that provides this information.

Wes Waugh – Juror’s Statement

Noyes Capehart Long – An Artist’s Reflections

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Defiant Warrior, 2004 (Private Collection) Noyes Capehart Long

“It stood there like a defiant warrior, girded in the splendor of the silent autumn day.”

In 1998 I participated in a week long workshop in Banner Elk with artist Noyes Capehart Long. I had been introduced to Noyes by my teacher, Joe Miller, and was intrigued by his work and processes, especially his mixed media approaches. With my graduate work I had discovered the work of Carl Jung, and had become very interested in the connections and crossroads of art, psychology and archetypes. When I first discovered Noye’s artwork, I immediately identified his art as a manifestation and melding of these three areas. For me, it remains very unique in this consideration, a personal bridge of sorts that I constructed where visually, Capehart equals Jung I suppose. Noyes also effectively incorporates a literary component with his visual imagery, and this reinforced for me the important role that journaling and a free-association method of creative writing can play in the development of artwork.

During that week in Banner Elk, I learned to view making a painting, as Noyes refers to it, as an idea; one brought to fruition by tools and mediums that the idea calls out for. An artist who subscribes only to formulas and constantly uses the same tool box for all projects and efforts may not be listening carefully or paying close attention to the task at hand.

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My Father, 2008 (Private Collection) Noyes Capehart Long

“The first time my father saw my works on exhibition, he moved cautiously from picture to picture, as if afraid they might begin speaking in unknown tongues.”

One of our challenges early in the week was to develop a painting completely from an emotional idea, rather than from a visual construct, such as a photograph, sketch, etc.  This was initially a struggle accompanied by significant resistance for most of us. However, it resulted in an “ah-ha” moment of sorts and I began to understand where the true strength of any good painting originates.  I reflected back to the childhood experience of listening to the spring frogs while fishing late into the night at our lake cabin.  “Frog Song” emerged almost magically, once this idea was affixed to the task.

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This past week I had the opportunity to spend an hour with Noyes, our first time visiting in a few years.  As always, our conversations inspired me and brought about a creative energy that often seems to go dormant in the winter months. As an artist, the winter in Boone often has me waxing a bit nostalgic, and much of the work that Noyes creates fits well with this mode. Noyes is now 82, has completed four novels in addition to a joint exhibition of paintings this past year, and is now doing some research on an upcoming book I am most excited about. For me, he is the epitome of an artist and role model, mining the vein of creativity to its fullest.

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Below is the preface to the UNCTV.Org documentary (view by clicking the image) that you may enjoy watching.

“At the end of the day, as they put away their quills and brushes, they realized anew that art is but mere illusion” 

In January of 2008, Director Morgan Potts and a film crew from UNC-TV spent three days in the High Country filming and interviewing me for a planned Our State segment on my Private Diary Series, scheduled for release in June of that year. A major portion of filming was done at a selected site between Boone and West Jefferson, a deserted house that I have painted several times during my forty years of residence in Watauga County. This superbly done 10-minute segment below, directed by Potts and filmed by Mike Burke, won an Emmy Award…. Noyes Capehart Long

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Access Noyes Capehart Long Website

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Inspiration Needed? Check Here:

One of the greatest things about art and artists is the sheer diversity of both. While there is no shortage of “social media” negatives, one of the big positives, at least for me, is the opportunity to view art and converse with artists from all over the world. If you are the least bit like me, you may scroll through a multitude of painting images and all of a sudden one of them practically knocks you off your feet. For whatever reasons, we “connect” and want to know more about the work and the artist. That is kind of a magical thing really, because it is more often than not, inexplicable. The images/artists posted here reflect those personal experiences for me. I suppose you could consider it my own “Best of Show” gallery.  I may also post appropriate quotes or notes of interest about that particular artist. If the artist is living, I always make an effort to ask for their permission to use the image in a post, and I will always reference their website at the very least.

I occasionally come across other inspirational resources that may not be directly related to painting or visual fine art in general. I enjoy sharing some of these with my workshop participants and this seems a good venue to post these images or links. I have found that all (or most) art or creative endeavors share similar processes, especially as to how experience and share motivational energy. Maybe a few of these will also be powerful for you, but it might be even better to start your own collection to draw from when you are feeling the need to gain a new perspective or just re-charge your batteries.


Ocean Park 24 / Richard Deibenkorn

Ocean Park 24 / Richard Deibenkorn

“In a successful painting everything is integral, all the parts belong to the whole. If you remove an aspect or element you are removing its wholeness.” Richard Diebenkorn / Ocean Park 24


Foggy Morning Maine / Thomas Schaller

Foggy Morning Maine / Thomas Schaller

A masterful watercolor!

Foggy Morning – Maine (Owl’s Head Harbor)Thomas W Schaller – Watercolor.
18×24 inches – 11 Nov. 2015 / image used with permission from Tom.


Cheng Khee Chee Koi Demo

Cheng Khee Chee demo of Koi using saturated wet process (middle stage of painting)

I have had the fortunate opportunity two study with Cheng Khee Chee on two occasions. My first opportunity to closely observe his “shape-lifting” process from a saturated abstracted background is something I will always remember. I finally understood that timing (patience) and observation were as critical as any of the other components we study and obsess over.


Joe Miller Artist and Motivational Master

Joe Miller – Artist and Motivational Master

I suppose it is humanly possible to become a successful artist without being greatly influenced and encouraged by others along the way, but I’m not sure I could ever fully embrace this belief. And, who would want THAT kind of success?  Learning to paint is tough.  It is easy to cash in your chips, and shove all of those supplies in a closet until you can pawn them off on some future niece or nephew that shows artistic promise. This man has literally helped thousands of people hang in there through the early phases of the learning curve. He does so with humor, compassion and with a little “reality therapy” thrown in to the mix.  He also helps them acquire great supplies, which is no small part of the equation. This is my favorite photo of Joe Miller, my #1 teacher, mentor and friend.


George Bellows National Gallery image

George Bellows Exhibition at The National Gallery, September 2012 / painting “The Big Dory”

On a lengthy flight Joe Miller and I got in to one of our deep discussions, and he made a remark that really stuck with me: “No matter how hard we try, it seems our egos always get involved with our art life in some way or another”. Sometimes I get a little full of myself. Maybe I have pulled a pretty decent painting out of one I thought destined for the scrap bin, or perhaps I start reflecting on my “body of work” and begin to feel a bigger than healthy sense of accomplishment. A sure fire remedy for the big head is to go visit a historic gallery during a major exhibition. I had the opportunity to see the George Bellows exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. in 2012. I pulled the following notes from my journal, and reflect on this experience of viewing emotionally intense, massive oil paintings in room after room of the Gallery. A sure-fire dose of humility comes from time committed to such an exhibit; the work of a rare and prolific master artist. I left very inspired, but also felt that the only thing we really had in common was a shared middle name (Wesley).

“The George Bellows exhibit was mind blowing for me. Mostly familiar with his grim early 1900’s boxing club paintings, I was amazed at the design, color and the large scale of his body of work. What he accomplished by his death at age 42 from appendicitis (in 1925) was amazing. I left needing to learn a lot more about George Bellows over the coming years, and I guess that is what art museums are all about. A side note: In 2005 Bill Gates purchased Bellow’s 1910 “Polo Club” for $27.5 million. Also, a big reminder that photos and digital images of paintings are not paintings (a finger pointing at the moon, is not the moon). We must see the real thing to fully appreciate art and the artist!”


Geoffrey Gorman / Red Fox

Geoffrey Gorman / Red Fox

I discovered the work of artist Geoffrey Gorman in a gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona a few years back. His animal sculptures are created from natural materials, discarded metal, manmade material scraps, and found objects fascinated me on a number of levels. They seem to embody the spirit of the animal with great sensitivity, they are very unique as art objects, and they would appear to be fun (though challenging I am sure) to create. He is a great observer of animals and the natural world, and also draws inspiration from writings and poetry, which he often posts along with images of one of his works. I hope to be able to take a workshop with him at some point down the road. Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that Geoffrey posted along with this image:

I found a dead fox

I found a dead fox
beside the gravel road,
curled inside the big
iron wheel
of an old tractor
that has been standing,
for years,
in the vines at the edge
of the road.
I don’t know
what happened to it –
when it came there
or why it lay down
for good, settling
its narrow chin
on the rusted rim
of the iron wheel
to look out
over the fields,
and that way died –
but I know
this: its posture –
of looking,
to the last possible moment,
back into the world –
made me want
to sing something
joyous and tender
about foxes.
But what happened is this –
when I began,
when I crawled in
through the honeysuckle
and lay down
curling my long spine
inside that cold wheel,
and touched the dead fox,
and looked out
into the wide fields,
the fox
vanished.
There was only myself
and the world,
and it was I
who was leaving.
And what could I sing
then?
Oh, beautiful world!
I just lay there
and looked at it.
And then it grew dark.
That day was done with.
And then the stars stepped forth
and held up their appointed
fires –
those hot, hard
watchmen of the night.

by mary oliver

(image and info posted with the permission of Geoffrey Gorman)


David Bowie Audi Ad 1990's

“Never mind the stares – If I’m going to do something that could be provocative or artistically relevant, I have to be prepared to put myself in a place where I feel unsafe, not completely in control. I have no fear of failure whatsoever, because often out of that uncertainty something is salvaged, something that is worthwhile comes about. There is no progress without failure. And each failure is a lesson learned. Unnecessary failures are the ones where an artist tries to second guess an audience’s taste, and little comes out of that situation except a kind of inward humiliation”. David Bowie (1947-2016) R.I.P & Thanks for the great music.

I began listening to David Bowie around age 15 (1973!). He enabled me to understand the important conceptual relationship between the “artist persona” and the creative results, whether it be manifested in music, painting or any number of other mediums. He also demonstrated that art transcends gender, and for me this promoted an open-mindedness toward others regardless of my perceived levels of their masculinity or femininity. Looking back, I think this was a unique perspective for a teenage southern male to have at the time. I have referred to this passage in my workshops for many years now. I think it emphasizes the importance of a developing artist to be willing to confront fear, fail in their efforts, and to never submit to prioritizing the pleasing of others over the weight of being self-fulfilled by your efforts.