I like to use a palette knife to work on paintings and one day by mistake I didn’t dry it off after I had cleaned it with water. When I brought it to my painting it dripped water on the painting and I was disappointed that I’d let that mistake happen. But as I looked at the painting I saw that the water begin to interact with the paint around it and before long it had begun to do something I’d never seen before. It was intriguing. It looked like a delta at the end of a river. Here is a similar effect, enhanced by blacklight:


The water dripped onto the colored portion and thinned the paint. The black background was already wet black paint and the water spread out over it carrying the thinned colors along with it. I found that it worked better with dark colors of light ones, but that the effect was difficult to control and didn’t always even happen. I tried the same approach in many locations but it might only form a delta shape in one of them.

I wanted to understand more. I tried a bunch of different liquids aside from water: alcohol, dish soap, silicon oil, mineral oil, and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide worked like water and nothing else did. The others form cells, but the water does something different.

I started experimenting with water and with watery paint. I found that pure water on a painting can be interesting but once you begin to apply water you can no longer tilt the painting and use gravity to pull paint around. This tends to push steps involving water or watery paint toward the end of the process for a given painting.

The problems with water were that if too much was used it could cause the paints to blend or it might flow underneath the paint where it doesn’t have as much of a visual effect. It does have an effect, but if it doesn’t change what the painting looks like very much it isn’t that interesting to me.

In the photo below all the paints were mixed 50/50 with water and the background Prussian blue over a bunch of colors distributed around the canvas. Water was dripped on the canvas from various heights (with no paint in the water). The height diminishes from left to right, from about 3’ to about 1/2”.

C) The water drips in this area and the area above it were dropped from about three feet.

D) The water drips in this region were dropped from about two feet.

E) The water drips in this region were dropped from about one foot.

F) The water drips in this region were dropped from less than an inch.

What I found was much more interesting was thinned paint, used as water. I experimented with lots of different concentrations of thinned paint. I finally settled on a 50/50 mix of prepared pouring paint and water. I use a recipe of 1 part Liquitex Basics Acrylic Paint, 1.5 parts white glue and 1 part water when I mix my paints. The result is something very like water but with enough color to be seen on your painting.

Here is a practice canvas covered initially with iridescent white. I dripped thinned paint of various concentrations on it from various heights.

K) The yellow was thinned too much. I tried a 10:1 mix of water to mixed paint and it disappeared into the background. Perhaps a darker color would work better but even the darker colors faded out at lower concentrations. They look better when wet than when they dry when the concentration of paint is low.

L) this is a drip of red, thinned paint that was dropped from very close to the canvas. I was hoping it would form a delta, and it has the beginnings of that, but most of the thinned paint slipped beneath the background white color. You can see lots of other dots that have slipped below the surface and not interacted with the paint around them.

M) This one was dropped from about a yard above the painting. When it hit the paint exploded and you can see lines and dots of paint around it where small bits of paint went flying. Some slipped below but because there was so much force when it landed, it didn’t have a smooth edge. The smooth edge is an impediment to forming details like a delta. Where will the effect begin? No one spot is favored over any other and nothing breaks the tie. Whereas, with the chaos of exploding on the canvas there are lots of differences along the edges and some of the paint flows out and some doesn’t.

N) Smaller amounts of paint dropped from heigh enough record an impression of their explosive pattern. If the paint ends up thin enough it dries fairly quickly and that halts any kind of evolution involving the water.

O) Larger amounts of water, such as consecutive drops in the same place can interact and support each other.

P) When there is too much water the paint can blend (as if you were mixing colors). If the canvas isn’t completely flat too much water will find an edge and carry paint with it.

I put it all together and began working with larger amounts of paint dropped from high positions. Here’s a portion of a canvas where I dropped lots of dark purple paint drops in about the same area and let them all interact. I also dropped lighter purple drops of paint, but less of them overall. It may also have been that the light green background had begun to dry by the time the lighter purple drops were applied.

A) This area shows what I think was a single drop of purple paint from among a bunch of drops of paint that fill the upper-left portion of this image. They formed deltas all around them. I made more of the purple paint so its mixture was probably closest to 50/50.

B) The lighter purple drops yielded poor results. Either the canvas was too dry, or the concentration was off, or there was too little water. The area with B and the just to the upper left of it are among the best results with that color, but lots more dots did nothing at all. To be fair, the light green background was a thin coating on the canvas and not a thick coating of paint. I did experiment separately with dropping thinned paint onto a painting with a thicker coat of paint, and the drops slid under the paint and mostly disappeared.