A first clean wash is really important for a successful painting. If your first wash is dirty, it not only affects the look of the painting, it also affects your moral negatively! Imagine you set up your painting materials and did a good drawing. Then comes the first wash. All seems well and good until you did something irreversible and messed up the first wash. It will really kill your motivation to continue painting. The thing is, it’s not so much about what you should be doing to keep the wash clean, is more about what you should NOT do.
I paint with my paper tilted. I find this easier to create a nice clean first wash. It’s easy to create a watery mixture and load your brush with it. With your brush filled with watery paint, it is easy to move the brush across the paper. The bead will form due to the amount of water on the paper flowing down. You use the bead to continue the wash down smoothly until you spotted something you don’t like on the top of the wash. Maybe you’ve missed a spot, maybe you don’t like the color, or maybe you want to change the value. After some thought, you decided to dabble at the top of the wash and see if you can make it better. And with that, disaster happens. The water seeps into the paint that’s half dry and horrible edges starting to form. When you see that, you starting to panic and you try to fix it by digging back into it even more. The more you try to fix it, the dirtier it looks.
When the wash is drying. The best thing to do is to leave it alone.
What watercolor frustrates a lot of people is the lack of control they have. However, this is also the most unique property of watercolor compare with other mediums. The more you understand watercolor, the more you can enjoy the process. As you start to slow down on your first wash to paint around the highlight, you are also letting the top of the wash dry. Even if you are not entirely happy with how it looks at that moment, just let it be. Because watercolor dries lighter (especially the watery first wash), chances are the first wash will fade quite a bit. The flaws you see will likely fade back especially after you paint some darker shapes in. But if you are not able to resist the urge and go back to tamper with it, you are very likely going to ruin it. So let it flow and let it dry. Unless it is completely dry, you don't know for sure if it will actually resolve itself. A clean wash will really motivate you and will give you a huge confidence for the second and third wash. On the other hand, a dirty first wash can really kill your moral to continue the painting.