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‘Charging’ up your watercolor

‘Charging’ up your watercolor

Why do we always seem to paint so lightly with watercolor?

Why do our watercolors often lack that most dependable artist’s ‘best friend’, a dark passage? The omission rarely occurs for artists working in oil, acrylics or digitally. With those media, it’s easy to brush on black or a thick dark color straight from the tube, jar or digital bucket.

But with watercolor the medium is water: The ultimate ‘thinner-outer’  and ‘washer away-er.’ All that color on the loaded brush loses its impact when the brush hits the wet paper surface.  The rich dark promised by that glistening wet pigment never quite actualizes on the painting. The passage fades as it dries. The rich, dark/light contrast so essential in illustration and really all 2-D visual arts, including photography — eludes us again. 🙁

Of course there’s more to it than just those watering down attributes of H2O. For some reason with watercolor (and not so much with those other painting mediums) we’re more afraid to act brashly, to go in too dark, too soon. It could be our healthy caution sense. We’re loathe to guess wrong. We assume there’s no going back once we do.

Still we know that without those ‘deep darks’, the picture won’t hold up, or even show up across the room. It’s why there comes a time, a stage in every watercolor when we need to paint quite a bit darker than we think we should. I call it “pushing the darks.” And it’s why I like the above demo by UK watercolor landscape artist John Salmon. Early on in his process, he goes in, heroically with his deepest hues and colorful blacks.

Watch how he orchestrates his ‘value pattern’ with those sharp darks — and how beautifully it serves the scene.


A trick for creating decisive watercolor contrasts

But there’s a little more than Salmon’s mere good design sense going on here. There’s a bit of technology, too.

He’s invented his own ‘secret gadget’ for maintaining a firm control over his value and color intensities. And he shares it with you in a free six part tutorial you can read on his website.

John Salmon watercolor

‘Branching out’ – Watercolor by John Salmon, 9.75 X 5 inches

His odd little water dispensing device resembles a hummingbird feeder. He calls it The Watercolor Charger. 

The Charger ‘backloads’ clean water into your brush. You know how clean water serves as your painting medium as well as your brush cleaner, with watercolor? The Charger lets you pull in that clean water with the back, or ‘root’ of the brush  — instead of the tip. That leaves the brush tip free to do its #1 job, which is to pick up and carry the paint.

So instead of dipping your brush tip into a jar of clean water, to wash it or thin the pigment on it, you ingest the water from the back of the brush, near the ferrule. The water, with help from gravity, pushes out the beautiful liquid paint from the tip — instead of diluting or completely rinsing it away!

Salmon doesn’t try to sell you the Watercolor Charger. He shows you how to make your own with a giant paper clip and a reservoir (his Englishy word for ‘water dish.’) The technique requires a little instruction and practice, he says. So he teaches you, in text and videos in his free tutorial

He shows you different ways to use the Charger to create effective graded lines and shapes and hard and soft edges that are all parts of the grammar of painting.

It goes a long way in explaining the lovely impact of John’s work and how to achieve those intensely, evenly saturated color passages in your own — not throughout your painting, but where you need them most for design contrast.

You can thank John for his generous art, posts and process videos by leaving your comments and ‘likes’ on his blog, website and YouTube channel. He’d probably also love seeing your results with the Charger.

Austin SCBWI website header art by Marsha Riti

Austin SCBWI website header art by Marsha Riti!

Illustrator Tom Lichtenheld

Illustrator Tom Lichtenheld

Ready for the Austin SCBWI 2015 Writer’s and Illustrator’s Working Conference?

Check out the short interview with Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator of Chris Barton’s Shark vs Train and many other picture book hits.) Tom is part of the guest faculty for the upcoming Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) conference.

Registration begins Wednesday, December 10 for the annual conference that will feature in addition to Tom, Chronicle Books children’s division art director Kristine Brogno,  Beach Lane Books Publishing senior editor Aubrey Poole,  literary agents Jill Grinberg and Victoria Wells Arms and authors and author-llustrators Don Tate, Chris Barton, C.S. Jennings and Emma Virjan.

Marks and Splashes course banner

20 Percent Off the Marks and Splashes course!

It’s that time of year and the special sale code:  2014CHRISTMAS  will get you $49 off the regular tuition for Mark Mitchell’s incomparable Make Your Marks and Splashes! online course on children’s book illustration. (Yes, that’s me, if you’re wondering.)

Enjoy lively lessons, video interviews with illustrators, a supportive student community, and critiques of your work in constructive live group sessions. Learn more here — and don’t forget to paste in that sale code! (Good only while the holidays are upon us!)

Find the secrets of writing ‘Chapter Books’ from awesome authors and editors in the genre

The Chapter Book Alchemists

The Super Special deals end Wednesday, December 10 for the spectacular five-week e-course, The Chapter Book Alchemist that begins January 12. Read more about it and grab it at the early bird price while it’s still available here

Students are raving about how much they enjoyed and learned from Mira Reisberg’s recent Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books. And the latest offering from her Children’s Book Academy — this one on the hottest thing happening in children’s publishing now, ‘chapter books’promises to be yet another ‘hit the bull’s eye’ e-courses that we’ve come to expect from her in the children’s book creation genre.

It’s called The Chapter Book Alchemist. It starts January 12. Registration has begun and you can read more about it here.

Chapter Book Alchemist e-course

Course starts January 12 at the Children’s Book Academy

In the five-week course, you’ll meet and learn from award-winning children’s book author (and former New York City comedian) Hillary Homzie, and an advisory pro team of top practitioners and editors, along with your moderator-mentors, author-illustrator Mira Reisberg and reading specialist Mandy Yates.

Not only are Chapter Books one of the favorite categories in children’s publishing these days, they can also be one of the most wildly creative for author-illustrators, incorporating tons of imagery (and potential licensing opportunities.) Get the scoop and see the introductory video with Hillary Homzie here.

* * * * *

Zero and One KicksCheck out the new publisher’s Kickstarter campaign by my friends, author-inventor Jeff Byington and folk artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Kim Frey. Jeff and Kim are pathfinding members of the Marks and Splashes Online Learning Community. 

Their Kickstarter is for upgraded paperback and eBook versions of their picture book for all ages, Zero and One, as well as a hardback and coloring book versions, t-shirt, character prints and presentations. You can learn more and support them here.

About The Author

Mark Mitchell

Award-winning children's book author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell teaches classes in watercolor and children's book illustration at The Contemporary Art School in Austin, Texas.


  1. Kalpart

    Nice technique. I will definitely use these technique in my illustrations or paintings.

  2. carmelle

    I enjoyed watching your video. I am new to watercolor painting, so this was fun to watch.

    • Mark Mitchell

      Wonderful, Carmelle! It’s almost as fun to watch some watercolor videos as it is to paint watercolors, sometime. Thank you for writing.

  3. Virginia Rinkel

    I thoroughly enjoyed watching this video and the switching of brushes, and even brush ends. I have never used the 45 degree angle clear plastic end to ‘pull out’ watercolor. Great technique. After the wording about please comment, and the final picture is seen again, I really see how you – what, must have pressed really hard to push the paint out to create the whiter leaf forms on the lower left – right?
    Will certainly look forward to your next videos posted on this person.
    Thanks Mark for sharing this.

    • Mark Mitchell

      Thanks, Virginia, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this and will be trying some new techniques as a result. I’m glad you’ve found the tutorial videos on his (Salmon’s) site, too.

  4. Jan Watford

    Wow! Very interesting. I love watercolors and can see how this could be a valuable technique. It is a constant concern to keep enough water flowing onto the brush for that fluid look and feel so I will be excited to try this.

  5. Kimberly Echols

    I love this. Thanks for sharing your work.

  6. Aileen

    Thank you for sharing your talent..i will show your works to my son. this is wonderful

  7. Marie

    Très jolie aquarelle. Merci.

  8. John Salmon

    Gosh Mark Mitchell, I’m both surprised and delighted to have found your article. Thank you very much, it made interesting reading. It was really nice to read the positive comments from your readers too.

    • Mark Mitchell

      John, Thank you so much for your message, which I just now saw! Everyone who sees your videos (and beautiful work) is so impressed!
      I also show your YouTube videos to students in my watercolor classes at The Contemporary Austin Art School at Laguna Gloria.
      The students and I love how you tackle the problem of water control in your brushes! Thank you for these great videos and the articles that accompany them.



  1. 'Illustrating' with watercolor - How To Be A Children's Book Illustrator - […] Illustrating with watercolor requires thinking deliberately about the pattern of darks in the overall painting’s value pattern (light, midtone…

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