You might paint wet-into-wet for several reasons. Lubrication is one of them. Just as an engine runs better with a bit of oil on its parts, so does a painting. Indeed, oil painting works its wonders because the oil medium is slippery and slow to dry and thus passages can be more easily blended, gradated, softened, even removed. Titian, one of oil’s earliest technicians and first masters, declared it to be the greatest discovery in all of art.
Another reason to paint wet-into-wet is the compounding of techniques. Even if you’re habituated to fast drying acrylics, this doesn’t mean you have to be victimized by their limitations. Popular slow-drying acrylics invite the use of lots of paint and permit all kinds of painterly outrageousness in realism and abstraction alike.
A rewarding technique is to really “grease up” (put on an overall layer of slow-drying medium as surface lubricant). In acrylic, you might try using Golden Open Medium as imprimatura. No, I’m not on Golden’s payroll. The lubricant layer can be clear or variously tinted and put on with a rag, brush or any number of other tools. After this, your colours slip and slide and mingle with abandon. While requiring above average skill in handling, they can add painterly efficiency, happy accidents, sly gradations and arresting effects.
Acrylic painters in particular need not give drying time a second thought. Even the slowest drying acrylics can be force-dried in hours or less. I find the most fun can be had with the yin and yang between wet and dry. When impasto areas dry they are easily scumbled (generally lighter, brighter colours dry brushed over the slubs and bumps of darker zones). Then, after further drying and further grease-up, it’s back to wet-into-wet for fresh new passages.
Perhaps the greatest reason to work wet-into-wet is to achieve a professional look. You might have noticed that the oils, acrylics and watercolours we really love to look at were at one time really wet ones. Further, many pros prefer a fresh look that belies the effort they’ve put into their work. By encouraging more fluid, cursive and longer flourishes, the professional’s prowess is revealed. After that, little dry strokes are not as much fun anymore.
PS: “The thicker you paint, the more it flows.” (John Singer Sargent)
Esoterica: Lack of freshness and flow in a painting can often be traced to miserliness on the palette. Sargent advocated, “No small dabs of colour — you want plenty of paint to paint with.” Working on a pre-lubed surface with gobs of unsullied paint, Sargent moved in an efficient order: “If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it toward the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.” With wet-into-wet you stand a better chance of maintaining a harmonious whole. Oh, and by the way, too many wet-into-wet strokes and you get “mud, mud, glorious mud.”
Mud and mothercolour
by Barbara Youtz, New Harbor, ME, USA
Those “too many wet-into-wet strokes” that give you mud have always been a plague to watercolorists and yet to oil painters they are good according to your quote from Sargent. Is this the same thing as a “Mothercolor”?
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. Mud happens when a variety of colours (usually three or more) are agitated together to produce an ominous tone like the bottom of your brush-cleaning bucket. Mothercolour is something different. This is one colour which is judiciously added to most or all of the other colours on a palette or in a composition, leading to a harmonious whole. Mothercolour generally works best with less than three pigments. A good exercise is to take a small palette of say three primaries plus black and white and add varying amounts of yellow ochre independently to all. You will see remarkably beautiful, sophisticated and related tones arising from this exercise. Another way to mothercolour is to glaze it with a transparent wash. Burnt sienna and Phthalo blue are two good mothers. One is a warm mother, the other a cool mother.
Van Gogh straight from the tube
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Talking about outrageous wet-into-wet impasto, I just read this in Van Gogh’s letters:
“…Painting it was hard graft. There are one and a half large tubes of white in the ground — yet that ground is very dark — in addition red, yellow, brown ochre, black, terra sienna, bistre, and the result is a red-brown that varies from bistre to deep wine-red and to pale, blond reddish…
I was struck by how firmly the slender trunks stood in the ground — I began them using a brush, but because of the ground, which was already impasted, one brushstroke simply disappeared. Then I squeezed roots and trunks into it from the tube, and modelled them a little with the brush. Yes, now they stand in it — shoot up out of it — stand firmly rooted in it. In a sense I’m glad that I’ve never learned how to paint.”
This was written in September 1882, a couple of months into his first plein air oils.
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Wet-into-wet requires the ‘zone’
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
‘Wet into wet’ — just the expression makes me drool in anticipation of the painterly delight to be had. You are right, though, when you say that above-average skill in handling is required; I have fallen into the mud on many an occasion. Face first. Wet-into-wet works best when you are in the zone, the angels are singing, and you can do no wrong. After you have sweated blood to get there, in other words.
Accidents for visual joy
by Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA
I am a watercolorist and that is one thing of many that truly interests me the way the wet into the wet reacts with watercolor – often what comes out by accident is a lot better than what I had planned. Even reading about this wet-into-wet makes me want to get back to painting again. My husband died in December and I am having lots to do to get things in order again and of course miss him so much. Watercoloring would help me if I could just get back at it.
(RG note) Thanks, Bev. Our condolences to you for the loss of your husband. You might consider regrouping with simple exercises. Make a pile of wet-into-wet blends on scraps of paper. Happy accidents will attract your attention. So absorbed, you will begin to lose your feelings of loss. Greater, more complex projects will emerge. “There’s nothing to it but to do it.” At times like this it’s easier said than done, but it is nevertheless often done.
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Paintings call what to do, when
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
Like children waiting their turn for attention I’m working two large canvases simultaneously. I work my oils and sometimes acrylics wet-into-wet during certain stages of the painting… usually the earlier ones. However, then I’m compelled to slow down my process, allowing for drying-time. Only then am I ready to charge onward creating glowing and/or dulling of particular areas within the subject. I’ve been glazing and scumbling well before I learned they had actual names! While one portrait is drying sufficiently, I turn to the other canvas for its time of “attention”! I don’t attempt to give equal time to these canvases because painting can be orchestrated just so much. One needs to allow for lucky accidents and spontaneity which happens despite careful planning. I oil-up, dry, smear, scumble, glaze, scrape and knife wet-into-wet, wet-onto-dry. Whether one is a contemporary abstract painter, impressionist or representational painter, I’m a proponent of being flexible as to using slow or fast-drying paint as standard operation.
The only thing standard about painting is staying focused on what the painting is “calling” me to do and when! A humbling task for sure!
Tribute to a wet-into-wet
by Brenda Jacobsen, CT, USA
Last weekend I painted 3 small seascapes — thank-you gifts for teachers. Working wet-into-wet for me this past week has been particularly rewarding. Taking time to mix the paint color on the palette and putting it on the canvas, then moving it around (without overworking) in a sensitive fashion, holding back and letting go with the brush — these are all components of this process and my daily challenge as an oil painter. Plein air painting forces me to work this way because the light and weather is always changing and complex. Paintings are far more interesting to view when they aren’t easy to copy. Wet-into-wet paintings I think are hard to copy. Another piece of advice you once shared. Working wet-into-wet allows for an element of surprise for the painter and the spectator. I am much happier with my most recent seascapes and Cake painting than even others I completed a few weeks ago. Your letter and teaching moment from Sargent only spur me on to keep exploring the process of painting in this manner. I can’t help believe that the satisfaction I am seeing from this wet-into-wet process is what the teacher is describing when she emailed two days ago, a thank-you note for the painting… (Believe me I am not trying to puff myself up here — I am on page 3 of a 1000 page novel as you said before as well!) But her comment to me means a lot.
“When I got home, I sat in front of it for a long time, taking in the colors, the calm, the stillness of the marsh. I love it, Brenda. I really do. Your work has already brought a wonderful peacefulness into my home.”
Wet-in-wet in watercolor
by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
Naturally, the watercolorists saw your “wet-in-wet” and instantly thought there might be something in it for them. Not to take away from the Oil and Acrylic painters, but there is some common ground with wet-in-wet for watercolor just as in the latter.
By wet-in-wet I speak of painting with watercolor onto or “into” watercolor paper that has been saturated (filled with water). This wet to damp environment will slow the drying time. One of the cumbersome and frustrating issues with watercolor can be the thirsty sponge called “paper.” It doesn’t take long for water to be absorbed and then dried with bone dry paper.
Undesirable edges, blossoms and frustrating moments for mixing and blending occur. It’s bad enough that watercolor requires multiple brain functions to accomplish a painting. Wet paper lets the brain study the tasks at hand without confusion.
Soaking the paper either with multiple washes of water by brush on the front and back, letting it stand in shallow water for about 5 minutes or by any other means takes the thirst out of the paper. The “medium” as I call it (or water) for the most part now resides in the paper. One intermediate preparation I use via Frank Webb, is to roll a clean towel over the surface to take some of the sloppy surface water away but not dry it. No, I don’t concern myself with loss of sizing nor do I waste time stapling and taping the paper. Four bulldog clips (one in each corner) hold the paper just fine as it begins to dry.
The application of pasty consistency paint into this wet paper allows mixing to occur as the paint and water flow naturally seeking the drier parts of the paper. Repeated blending, scraping through colors, softening edges etc are all more easily accomplished as the paper has not dried, thus paint has not dried. If more flow is desired, add a touch of water to the brush. Note: The paint cannot be dried hard in the palette. It has to be tube consistency.
Colors are more saturated, brighter and less flat than working on that dastardly dry paper. Harder or rougher edges are accomplished by drawing water away from a region with paper towels, leaving larger areas still moist.
For me, it’s the best way to work watercolor. I highly recommend it for beginners as well.
Storage of paintings
by Danielle Zaikoff, Montreal, PQ, Canada
Thank you for addressing the question of protecting the paintings in your previous letter. Your letters are always interesting and full of useful information. Now I would like your advice or that of other members of the Art community on how to store acrylic paintings. (I haven’t been with a gallery in the past few years and I have a large number of paintings, 30 x 30 inches or more, stored in the basement). I wrap them to prevent dust seeping in while in storage. I have written paint manufacturers and asked some art teachers but none came with a definite answer. Can an acrylic painting be wrapped in normal brown paper or can the acidity affect the painting over time? Can it be wrapped in a plastic sheet or is there a risk of sticking over time? Could a painting be stored in a non-heated space, such as a shed, considering our Canadian climate in Montreal, and thus be exposed to a wide range of temperature variations over the year.
(RG note) Thanks, Danielle. I’ve never seen a problem when paintings are wrapped in brown paper — even after a decade. Many galleries do it. Film or “vapor barrier” plastic is best and has the advantage of visibility. Wrap it tight and seal it with shipping tape. I’ve never had plastics stick to acrylics while stacked vertically. Garden sheds and unheated outbuildings in alternately hot and cold, moist and dry climates are not good. The relatively stable temperature of a basement or attic is better. In my experience, moisture and bugs are the biggest problems. Canvas, particularly, deteriorates when subjected to ongoing moisture. Mildew sets in and aids the decay. A small beetle I call Buggus arteatus eats the size or glue in canvas. I think it’s the same little bugger that eats books, leaving areas that look like Swiss cheese. Some eat whole libraries and become very smart. If you have carpenter ants or termites in your home, keep an eye on your stretchers or wooden panels. These pests particularly like pine. If you truly treasure your stored paintings you should spray around the storage area at least twice a year with Raid (an aerosol house and garden bug killer).
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Against the Odds
oil painting 48 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Zoe Evamy of Facebook who wrote, “YES! After thrashing around with acrylics and bristle brushes, my watercolour heart despaired! The best result I’ve had so far on canvas is painting outside under an umbrella on a rainy west coast day. That plus Golden’s fluid extender.”
And also Chris Rich, also of Facebook who wrote, “A great reminder of what a watercolor should be… especially when you get caught up in the dibbs and dabs.”
And also Jill Charuk of Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I’m totally stymied with my whole painting headset these days. I put down the brushes and picked up the palette knife to create a large piece. The paint disappears from my palette like it was ice cream. I will go through all my half tubes of oil paint before I finish this. I think that is a good thing. But I am now off to the art materials store to buy new tubes. Best part… no cleaning of brushes.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Wet-into-wet…