A common issue for beginners is figuring out the paint / water ratio. Last mini-lesson we had a look at what effect water has on our paintings, but now it's time to have a closer look at how we dilute our paint before putting it on paper.

The thing is... there really is no right or wrong. It entirely depends on the look you're going for. Paint that is fresh out of the tube is at it's richest and at the darkest value you can get that colour. Diluting it will lighten that colour significantly, depending on how much water you use. It's not often that we paint with pigment straight from the tube though. It is thick, gluggy and often too saturated. Remember: WATERcolour. So how do we know what to do to get it where we need it?


I highly recommend you create some value charts (pic above) to see the scale of darkness to lightness you can achieve with one particular colour.

Start with paint fresh out of the tube and paint a square. Then dip your brush in water (don't swirl it around, just let a bit of pigment run into the water), swipe off any excess water and paint the next square. It should be a little bit lighter. Repeat this until you get to an almost clear square.

HOWEVER - adjust as you go! It's not a perfect science. There is no recipe for how long to dunk your brush in water, or how much moisture should be on the brush, or a measurement of pigment - just use your eyeballs. Create the chart by ensuring each square is a slightly different colour. If you washed off too much, just get a lil bit of pigment from your palette and add some in manually. If it's still as dark as the one before it, lift some colour off - mixing the square back around so it doesn't dry weird. This shouldn't be a stressful activity, we're just creating a range of colours from dark to light.

You can do this the "lazy" way as well - simply put down some pure pigment from the tube, wash some off your brush, then with a fully loaded brush 'pull' the colour down with water. You'll run out of moisture before the colour has disappeared, so repeat the dragging process as many times as you need to get the range of values out of it. Don't overwork it or tip the page, or it will dry weird and not show an even spread of colour. Use these as a future reference for ROUGHLY how much to dilute a colour. Again, not a perfect science. Use ya eyes!


Click for video

You can often 'feel' whether the paint is too thick. Check out the attached video - you can see how thick it is at the start of the video - it's a big blob on my brush! If it's fresh from the tube and thick, it should pull on the bristles on the palette as you mix it around, and not spread easily on paper either - giving the dry brush effect. If you want this darkness and effect - all good, but if not, you need to dilute it.

On the flipside, you should be able to see (and feel) if the paint mix is too diluted and watery. You want somewhere sort of in the middle. Enough pigment to get a mid-tone on the page, but not gluggy and not super watery. Again, it depends on the look you're going for. By aiming somewhere in the middle, it makes it easier to lighten or darken in - opposed to going from darkest to lightest value, especially if it's a staining colour.


Ever put paint down on the page and realised it was way too thick / dark? Or maybe it's too light and watery and now there's a puddle? Mix on the palette! You'll see in the video I've attached that I start out by adding water directly to the palette to dilute the mix. Then, so I'm not flooding the palette after a couple squares, I go directly from water jar to page. At the end I make the blob too watery, so I show you how to soak it up using the paintbrush.


The biggest tip I can give you is to EXPERIMENT! Unfortunately there is not a "one-size-fits-all" solution, because we all use different brushes, paint and paper. But, YOU can figure out what works for YOU and YOUR supplies! So play around, take notes, use them for future reference. Be mindful when you're painting, take it slow and treat it like a science project. It sounds tedious but playing around will help you learn FAST. Try diluting on the palette. Try diluting on the paper. Make value charts. Pay attention to how it feels through the brush, or how it spreads on the paper. It will soon become second nature.

Again, there is no right or wrong, so don't be discouraged. You simply need to play around some more and problem solve. That's the great thing about watercolour - it's unpredictable, but it's also forgiving. If you stay in the moment, you can spot a "mistake" and correct it before it dries. It's all about getting familiar with your supplies and learning how to problem solve your way out of a situation.

Most importantly - HAVE FUN!