When getting started with watercolor painting, it helps to know what techniques are available to you and what the possibilities of the medium are.
So I’ve compiled a list of 24 essential watercolor painting techniques that in my opinion are the most useful to know. Especially if you are a beginner. Many of these technique are great time savers and some are just fun to play around with but they are all great to have in your arsenal.
- Essential Watercolor Painting Techniques
- Texture Creation Techniques
- Masking Techniques
- Experimental Techniques
- Recommended Books For Learning More About Watercolor Painting Techniques
Essential Watercolor Painting Techniques
Dry on Dry
Dry on dry could refer to using undiluted paint straight from the tube on to dry paper but watercolor is rarely used this way.
I sometimes do this if I want to cover up a mistake but generally speaking, dry on dry, also called “Dry brush” is mainly use for creating texture effects such as tree bark or a rough rock texture.
Dry on Dry is a bit of a misnomer as the brush is, not 100% dry it’s just a bit moist.
This creates a rough streaky textured stroke that becomes even more pronounced and broken up when used on rough textured paper.
Dry on Wet
Dry on wet is when paint is used straight from the tube on to pre-wetted paper.
Wet paper causes the “Dry” paint to soften at the edges, creating a diffused shape but due to the thickness of the paint, it will not run uncontrollably.
Wet on Dry
Wet on dry is when dilute paint is painted on to dry paper. This technique is the most commonly used technique in watercolor painting. Painting wet on dry will give hard edges and the paint will not run outside of its borders.
Wet on Wet
The wet on wet technique is at the heart of watercolor and is probably the one technique that gives watercolor its unique look and most beloved qualities. A brush full of dilute paint is painted on to wet paper. The color will run and bloom and blend with any other color that is added. This technique is difficult to control but can give spectacular results.
For an example of a painting done entirely in the wet on wet take a look at my blogpost on painting watercolor starscapes and galaxies which includes a video too.
I have a whole blogpost on painting perfect flat washes. I like to go deep on a subject! But to summarise it briefly here. A flat wash is simply large a area of evenly applied paint. There shouldn’t be any obvious patchy spots, streaks or tonal variations. Understanding how to paint a flat wash is really the first step in learning how to properly control watercolor.
The easiest way to paint a flat wash is to use a large flat or round brush well loaded with paint the consistency of weak tea.
Your paper should be angled at about 25 degrees Paint a broad horizontal stroke across the paper. Because of the angle of the paper, gravity will cause a bead of water to form along the bottom edge of your stroke.
Then all you need to do is keep painting into that wet edge bringing it further and further down. As long as the edge stays wet you should end up with a perfectly smooth even wash.
A graduated wash is painted in exactly the same way as a flat wash but in this case the goal is to create an even transition from a dark tone to a lighter one. This is done by starting with a high pigment color mix on your brush.
After each horizontal stroke you are gong to add a little more water to the mix, thus decreasing the pigment to water ratio and making it lighter and lighter as you work your way down the paper.
You may need to have a cloth or absorbent tissue on hand to help contol the amount of water on your brush to suck up excess water from the bead if it threatens to drip and run uncontrollably.
When we first start painting with watercolors we have a tendency to try and find the “Right” color of the thing we’re trying to paint. In reality though, objects don’t have just one tone or color. light falls on them in different ways creating a range of light and color effects.
To paint a variegated wash you you are still following the basic principle of painting into the wet bead but this time you will have several different pools of color on hand that you will “Charge” your brush with as you are painting this creates beautiful transitions of color and tone that mimic the effect of light in the real world.
The strategic use of variegated washes in your work will really start to set you apart from the beginner artist, adding some real subtlety and sophistication to your work.
Glazing is the technique of adding successive layers of transparent washes one on top of the other. It can also be used to darken a color or create Secondary or Tertiary colors (E.g Yellow on blue makes green).
Use glazing to mute a color that is too bright. (E.g. by painting a thin wash of purple over yellow. One thing that glazing cannot be used for due to it’s additive nature is to brighten a dull color.
One of the most appealing aspects of watercolor is its transparency. One color can be painted over another and the first color will still be visible but altered in some way by the subsequent color.
The important thing to remember is that you can only apply a glaze over another once it has completely dried or you run the risk of creating back runs also known as cauliflowers. This is when one color partially spreads into another leaving unwanted cauliflower-like marks when it eventually dries.
The other issue to take note of is that glazing works well due to the transparency of the medium, however, some watercolors are much more more transparent than others.
Manufacturers will often tell you whether a particularly pigment is transparent or note using the the following abbreviations.
T – Transparent
O – Opaque
SO – Semi opaque
ST – Semi Transparent
Sometimes this information is not available however so the simplest method is to test for yourself by painting over black and observing to what degree the color remains visible.
Too much glazing can cause a light painting to get dark quite quickly so it’s best too exercise caution and glaze in thin dilute washes. Like salt in cooking you can always add more but you can’t take it away.
O.k. that’s not entirely true you of course remove paint by lifting out but this method is best for lightening small areas of your painting.
For example creating a highlight on water.
To lift out a an area of paint from a dry area of wash take a brush which is relatively firm and springy. A synthetic flat brush is perfect for this or you could even use the kind of stiff hogs hair brush normally used in oil painting.
Dip the brush into clean water. The brush should be moist but not dripping wet. Slowly but firmly drag the brush across the surface of the paper. Clean the brush by wiping it on a cloth and repeat until the paint starts to come away.
You don’t have to use a brush to lift out areas. Tissue paper can be used to great effect to lift out clouds for instance. In this case the paint will need to be relatively wet in order for this to work effectively. The drier your tissue paper is, the harder the edges will be so for creating softer edges make your tissue more moist but not so wet that you create drips and runs.
Texture Creation Techniques
Spattering is a quick easy way to add texture to a painting. You can flick paint with an old toothbrush or by tapping a paint loaded brush against the handle of another brush.
I’ve used spatter in numerous ways. It’s perfect for adding to a sandy foreground texture to a seascape or adding stars to a galaxy as in my previous blog post.
Salt can create some fascinating textural effects but timing is all important if you put the salt on too soon or too late nothing much will happen.
Try painting a flat wash and then just before the shine goes off the paper sprinkle a little salt on there and wait for a few minutes. You will begin to see lots of little marks, like snowflakes start to appear as the salt absorbs moisture repels the paint.
This technique, although, not one that you will use every day in your paintings can be really useful when painting abstracts or even for something quite specific like grass grass covered in dandelions or rock textures.
The water repulsion properties of rubbing alcohol can be used in a very similar way to salt, The timing is not quite so crucial though but the result is much less subtle you can still create some very interesting effects though
Masking with Tape
I have found that masking with tape is most effective for creating simple borders and geometric shapes around my paintings, or for dividing the paper up into multiple painting “Windows”.
This is useful for creating greetings cards or for creating muliple iterations on a theme. These skies and starscapes for instance. You can use masking tape wherever you need to create a separation of sky and land for instance.
I don’t recommend trying to cut out shapes from from masking tape though. It’s difficult not to end up scoring the surface of your paper which will show up as thin dark lines when you paint over them.
Masking with liquid frisket
Liquid Frisket is a latex solution that can be applied in order to preserve white areas of your painting. Liquid Frisket is best applied with an implement such as a rubber tipped “color shaper” rather than a brush.
If you allow the frisket to dry on a brush it’s basically ruined.
Liquid Frisket is usually white or a pale yellow color. I prefer to use the colored one because it’s easier to see it when you come to remove it.
To remove frisket rub it lightly back and forth with your fingertip till it starts to come away then slowly peel it off .
Don’t pull too quickly as you don’t want to tear the paper.
A day or two is o.k. but Frisket shouldn’t be left on your painting for too long or it will become more difficult to remove.
Masking With Water
You don’t actually need to use anything other than pure water to mask your painting and in some ways it can work as well if not better than liquid Frisket. You need to work quite quickly though becase if the paper surface becomes too dry then this won’t work.
So let’s say that you have an object such as a dark tree that you want to paint against a pale sky, no masking is required because you can easily paint dark over light.
But what if the light was reversed as you might see in an impending rainstorm now you have a light tree on a dark background. You could paint the tree first but you want to paint the sky wet into wet to take advantage of the inherent properties of watercolor.
Try water masking by wetting around the outline of the tree with plain water then you can “Drop in your dark sky, tilting the paper in different directions allow the colors to swirl and mix and the paint will only flow into the wetted areas leaving your tree untouched for painting later.
Pouring paint encourages you to literally go with the flow. This is basically wet into wet painting but instead of brushing the paint on, you are going to pour the paint on to pre-wetted paper.
The effect is much more unpredictable but you can create some wonderfully dreamlike atmospheric effects, if you’re prepared to let the paint just do it’s own thing.
Painters such as Kanta Harusaki and Nita Engle create some amazing wet into wet effects by pouring the paint onto wet paper. Check out this stunning video by Kanta Harusaki demonstrating his techniques of pouring and masking.
Tip: Make sure you have lots of absorbent kitchen roll to hand if you try this. You’ll need it!
I use a small atomizing spray bottle in various different ways. I use it to keep the colors on my palette wet. However, it can be used in other ways. It’s possible to create interesting textures.
Try spraying on damp paint rather than wet paint. The water droplets create a grainy texture that can be quite appealing.
Try experimenting with a larger spray bottle (Like a Windex bottle). I have one with an adjustable nozzle that can produce a range of spray from fine droplets to a thin jet.
Spray bottles are particularly useful when painting clouds as the random spatter of the water produces a mixture of hard and soft edges, perfect for clouds. See my post on painting stunning skies.
A damp sponge can be used to create patterns and textures. Again, particularly useful for lifting out areas of sky to create cloud shapes. Except that instead of painting the sky around the clouds (Negative painting). You paint the sky and lift out the clouds with the damp sponge.
Scraping out paint is great way to add blades of grass and tree branches. Cracks in rocks etc. The best implement I have found for scraping out is my steel palette knife.
I recommend using a steel bladed palette knife like the one above. You’ll find it on my list of recommended art supplies here.
You could also use the handle of your brush or a pocket knife or even just your fingernail will do.
Scraping out from a moist creamy consistency of paint will leave white strokes. Scraping out from a very wet tea consistency will score the paper and leave dark lines. It’s useful to know how to make both marks.
This is another technique that I picked up from watching Kanta Harusaki’s videos. Take a piece of plastic wrap and roll it into a ball. Dip it into some green paint and hey presto you have instant foliage.
This isn’t the only technique I use for creating foliage but the beauty of this technique is its speed. It’s an efficient way of creating controlled patches of randomness. which is one of the most difficult things to do as an artist.
A wax resist can be used with a stencil to create lettering like this. Simply use a candle or a white crayon in the same way as you might use masking fluid.
As I’ve touched on previously, natural looking textures and randomness in general are difficult for us as artists to reproduce. So why not use natural objects to create that randomness. You can dip objects such as stones tree bark and bits of foliage to create textures.
I created the multi-colored strokes above by dipping one side of a fan brush into Cerulean Blue and the other into Purple. Finally I dipped the brush again into Alizarin Crimson.
With a combination of brushstrokes and scraping out. You can create some beautiful blended effects. This could be particularly useful for creating grass and foliage
Stencils can be used to add color with a brush or to subtract color with a damp cloth
Is there a favourite technique that you like to use that I haven’t mentioned here? Let me know in the comments section below and I’ll add it to the list!