Unlocking Watercolor Mastery: The Watercolor Secret Every Artist Should Know

Nov 20, 2023

Today, I'm going to share with you the watercolor lesson that has most dramatically transformed and improved my paintings. 

In 2017, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a workshop with Joseph Zbukvic, one of the greatest watercolor artists of our time.

I learned a lot of great things, but there was one thing that really helped me to make the progress seen above. I started to not only to see progress in my work, but to understand how to paint certain scenes that I didn't have any clue how to paint before that.

The Game-Changing Advice That Transformed My Artistic Journey

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What I Admire about Joseph Zbukvic's Paintings

There is much to admire about Joseph Zbukvic's watercolor paintings. He is a master, and one of the first artists who really made me excited about watercolor. 

I am amazed by his ability to portray atmosphere.

Painting by Joseph Zbukvic

I am transfixed by the way he paints so loosely.

Painting by Joseph Zbukvic

I am transfixed by the way he is able to choose the right details that pull the whole scene together

Painting by Joseph Zbukvic

What is "the Bead?" 

But the lesson I learned when I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Zbukvic has to do with something completely different. 

It's about "the bead." The bead is what Zbukvic calls the wet edge of your painting

Joseph emphasizes the importance of using the bead, coming back to the bead, and directing that wet edge around the scene. Keeping the bead alive in this way helps you to connect the different shapes in your scene together. The trick is to add new colors before the first color dries on your paper. You'll start on one area of the painting and you are painting right into the next shape.

The result is a more powerful, connected painting where different colors mix together on the paper in a really compelling and dynamic way.

Creating the Large, Connected Shape

When we first learn to paint, we often focus on the many separate little pieces around the scene. And we kind of miss the big picture.

When you start to paint with the large connected shape in mind, and you allow these colors to mix on the paper, you can create these big, beautiful, connected washes that have different colors blending together on the paper. 

When I was a beginning watercolor artist, I missed those value connections because I didn't really know that I should've been looking for them.

Here are a few examples of those early paintings. 

You can see that missing element - that lack of connected shape - results in an overworked and weak watercolor painting. When I learned to use the bead and to find these large shapes of the scene, I painted in a much more connected way. That made the biggest difference for me.

My Watercolor Process: How to Use the Wet Edge

So now that you know what the bead is and how powerful of a tool it is in watercolor painting, let's talk about practically how you can do this in your own paintings.

My approach to painting - and a very common approach - is to paint from light to dark. So I often break up my paintings into three washes.

The first one is the lightest values around the scene. You paint a nice fluid, wet in the wet wash all over the paper, thinking about your lightest values.

Then you come back in and you paint the middle value shape. That's the tricky part. You want to squint and look at your scene and find the large middle value shape of the scene and the connections of the scene. And so this is where the bead is really most powerful. So when you are painting, have a plan for that large middle of a shape before you start painting it. You want to reload your brush often to keep that value consistent, because when the paint dries, it's going to be a little lighter than it is when it's wet. So you have to compensate a little bit for that.

So you want to go in with a fully loaded brush and paint and then reload your brush and come right back to a wet edge. Always come back to the bead and that is how you keep the bead alive. If you can practice this, if you can work on this, it's really going to make a big difference in your watercolor paintings.

Finally, you'll come in with your third wash and add the darks and details. 

Related Blogs

Improve Your Art Through This 3-Step Watercolor Painting Process

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Stop Overworking Your Paintings!

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