How To Improve Your Brush Control in Watercolor and Gouache

It’s an unfair world. No matter how much I work for it, I will probably never develop the amount of brush control I’d like to have in my watercolor and gouache painting.

The thing is, I’ve found that anyone can improve, and move along a narrative arc that brings them closer to their ideal, even if they never actually achieve it. It keeps life interesting to keep trying regardless.

Enough philosophy – here are the things I’ve focused on to improve my brush control in watercolor and gouache painting more and more each year.

  1. Sit down, comfortably.
    If you’re like me, you switch between sitting and standing, even in watercolor painting. (If you have never explored postures and positions when you paint, I suggest you give it a try.) Standing generally gives loose and dynamic marks to my painting, and sitting generally gives more control.
    When I explore sitting to work on brush control, I find that a straight posture, focused on giving my upper arm a comfortable length to the table is really helpful. I try to remember to keep my feet flat on the ground.
  2. Move the paintbrush holding arm, not the hand.
    Fix your wrist in a position without locking it uncomfortably and move your arm instead of your wrist. Pull even your tiny lines from the shoulder, tempting as it is to create them with wrist motions.
  3. Enlist help.
    By “help” I mean using your other, non-paintbrush hand. Hold your wrist if you want. Rest and leverage your working wrist on a fist. Try out different assists, and find something that helps.
  4. Turn, turn, turn.
    Flip the direction of the watercolor paper so that you are pulling (or pushing?) your line in the most comfortable direction for you, so that you have the best chance of success on lines that count. (When you’re in your sketchbook or journal or on a practice sheet, make all or most of them count, but don’t worry if you mess it up, just keep going.)
  5. Get a little weird.
    Pretend your hand holding the brush is actually a 3D printer or a laser cutter, and see what that does to the consistency of the line. Remember, you can’t exert more or less pressure until someone consciously dials in another setting. Beep beep boop! If you want machine-smooth lines, this will help.
  6. Slow. Down. Seriously.
    My illustration work is fast, gestural, grungy, and loose. And what holds it together are slow passages which are….not. Explore slowness, find more patience, take more time than you feel you have. Meet boredom head on, and see how you deal with it. Take full advantage of what linework has to teach you, and take full advantage of the meditation lessons embedded in this practice.
  7. Notice your weaknesses and give them love and attention.
    It’s easy to practice only the things you like doing and that you are good at. But that really isn’t practice – that’s doing. Doing is important, but practice is doing something you don’t know how to do until you do know how to do it.
    Notice the things that are bad in your execution, without beating yourself up, and move toward those. Give them extra attention. Give them more time.
    I notice that I have more control of horizontal straight lines which are drawn across the page than I have over vertical lines pulled down toward me. Guess which ones I fill more practice pages with?
  8. Most important? Breathe.
    This could be its own book, but try painting your line on the exhale only. Try painting lines that last the duration of the exhale. Make them long and slow. Make them count. Get your body and your mark in sync. Use your paint to teach you to relax as well as to focus. Even if your line doesn’t improve as much as you’d like it to, visually, it may just improve you right back.
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