A – Z Glossary Of Watercolor Terms (With Pics)

A reader complained to me recently that they were confused by some of the “Jargon” of watercolor painting that I’d used in a particular post. I do try and steer away from using too many insider terms, or if it’s unavoidable, I always try and link to a post that explains the term in more detail. Having said that, it occurred to me that a comprehensive glossary of watercolor terms is something that I should have put on this website a long time ago.

So lets get started!

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The term “Abstract” is used to describe a painting that is non-representational. i.e the subject matter of the painting is not about the depiction of reality.

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Analogous (Colors)

Analogous colors are colors that are adjacent on the Color Wheel. e.g. blue, blue/green, green.

Back Run

A back run occurs when painting into a wet area of watercolor with a mix of paint that is more dilute than is currently there. This causes the paint to spread out (Bloom) and often leaves a cauliflower shaped pattern when dry. This is often considered to be undesirable but can also be done intentionally to create a textural effect.

Related Blog Post: 30 Beginner Mistakes & How To Fix Them

Bamboo Brush

An inexpensive natural haired chinese style brush (Often squirrel hair) that has a bamboo handle and is mainly used to create loose painterly strokes.

I love using this brush for natural looking foliage and skies
I love using this brush for natural looking foliage and skies

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes


A bead is the line of water that pools at the base of a Wash. Maintaining the bead becomes important when attempting to paint a consistent wash as streaks will occur in the if it dries out too quickly.


Binder is a substance that holds watercolor pigment in suspension. The substance used is generally Gum Arabic or synthetic Glycol.


Watercolor paper is often sold in a “Block”, which is a number of sheets of paper that are glued around the edges as opposed to loose. This minimizes Cockling and eliminates the need for stretching paper.


See Backrun


Watercolor canvas is similar to oil painting canvas. Watercolor canvas has been treated with Gesso to enable it to take water based paints.


Casein is a water based painting medium derived from milk. It’s properties resemble Gouache.


(See Backrun)


Is a technique that involves dropping a new wet color into an existing wash allowing them to blend ad create interesting variations of color or tonal value.


The brightness or hue of a color. Paint straight from the tube is at maximum chroma.


Cockling, or buckling, occurs when a sheet of watercolor paper is wet. This creates a series of uneven undulations or ridges which can cause problems when trying to paint. Cockling can be minimized by Stretching, using heavier Weight paper such as 140lb/300gsm or above, or by using a watercolor Block.

Cold-Pressed Paper

This is the most commonly used watercolor paper. It is a medium textured paper.

Color Wheel

The color wheel is a visual representation of the colors of the visible spectrum in order of Temperature laid out in the form of a circle. Color wheels can be useful to artists as they show the relationship of colors to each other. Color wheels can be used to develop color schemes.

Complementary (Colors)

Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. In other words, they are the colors that are furthest apart from each other in terms of hue and color temperature. e.g Red and Green, or Orange and Blue. Complementary colors contrast with each other when placed side by side. When mixed together they tend to cancel each other out, forming a “Muddy” neutral color.

Dagger (Brush)

A dagger brush has a straight edge and a sloping edge reminiscent of a knife blade. This brush is ideal for painting thin or tapering lines.

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes

Deckled (Edges)

This refers to the rough untrimmed edges of certain brands of watercolor paper.

Dry Brush Technique

When watercolor paint is applied to dry paper in a relatively undiluted form it creates a sparse textured effect known as dry brushing.


A stable stand, with an angled board that supports an artist’s painting .

Related Blog Post: What Do I need To Get Started With Watercolor?

Fan (Brush)

A fan brush is often used in watercolor painting for painting grass and foliage. It is a short haired brush with the hairs spread out out in a fan shape.

Flat (Brush)

A flat brush is a short haired brush with a straight edge. Flat brushes are generally useful for laying down washes of all kinds and are particularly useful for painting hard edged shapes such as mountains tree trunks etc.

Great for crisp hard edges, washes, buildings and figures
Great for crisp hard edges, washes, buildings and figures

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes


Glazing, or layering, is the technique of laying a thin wash of color over the top of another color which has dried. Due to the transparency of watercolor, this can have he effect of creating a third color or can simply be used to darken an existing color.


Gouache is similar to watercolor but is much more opaque

Graduated Wash

A graduated wash is painted like a flat wash except that more water is added incrementally to lighten the colour as the wash progresses. This technique can be useful for painting skies and seas etc.


As watercolor paint dries the pigment has a tendency to form small clusters, or speckles. This creates the effect known a granulation. This can be a desirable textural effect or an undesirable one depending upon context. Some watercolor paints and brands have a stronger tendency to granulate than others.


Watercolor ground is an acrylic based primer that allows a degree of absorbency. This enables a watercolor artist to paint on surfaces which would not usually be suitable for watercolor paint such as printer paper, thin card or even materials such as wood or stone.

Gum Arabic

Is the powdered resin of Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal trees grown in sub-Saharan Africa it is used as pigment binder in watercolor paint

Hake (Brush)

The Hake is a traditional wide short-haired, long-handled Japanese brush into which goat’s hair is stitched. The Hake brush is useful for painting natural looking foliage and skies. It was popularized by artist/author Ron Ranson.

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes

Happy Accident

An unintended and unforeseen event that occurred during the course of a painting which nevertheless resulted in a desirable effect.

Hard Edge

The edge of a shape that is sharply defined, as opposed to Soft Edge.

Related Blog Post: How To Paint Hard & Soft Edges In Watercolor

Hot Pressed Paper

A type of smooth un-textured watercolor paper, often used in medical or botanical illustrations. Hot pressed paper tends to be less absorbent than cold-pressed paper.


Quite simply, a hue is a color. This is independent of it’s intensity or brightness.


This refers to the brightness or dullness of a particular color

Kolinsky (Sable)

Is a species of weasel found in Siberia. The most highly prized and expensive watercolor brushes are made from the tail hairs of the male of the species.

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes


See Glazing

Lifting Out

Lifting out is the technique of lightening or removing an area of paint from the paper with a damp paintbrush.

Line & Wash

Line and wash is the technique of combining ink pen drawings with with watercolors. Traditionally this was done with dip pens but can also be done with markers, biros and Rapidograph style engineering drawing pens.

Related Blog Post: How To Use Ink & Watercolor

Loose (Painting style)

The loose painting style is characterized by a quick and impressionistic approach to painting. Many watercolor artists love to work in this style because of it’s spontaneous and lively appearance.

Lost & Found Edges

When the tonal value of the edge of a foreground object begins to matches the tonal value of it’s background the edges of the object start to become indiscernible against the background. This creates the appearance the optical illusion of a disappearing edge but the brain still interprets the edge as being present. This is often used to create a deliberate effect. A found edge is the reversal of this.

Mop (Brush)

A mop brush is a type of Round Brush that has a thick hair at it’s base tapering into a very thin tip. The mop brush is very versatile and can create many different kinds of strokes.

Related Blog Post: Illustrated Guide To Watercolor Brushes

Masking (Fluid)

In watercolor painting, white areas are usually depicted by preserving the white of the paper. Masking fluid is a rubbery fluid which can be painted on to the watercolor paper and once dry, can be painted over preventing water from seeping through on to the paper. Masking fluid can be removed with gentle rubbing and peeling once the paint is dry.

Related Blog Post: Tips For Using Masking Fluid

Masking (Tape)

This is a sticky paper tape that can be used to mask off a white border around your painting or to mask off an area of your painting that needs to be preserved.

(Frame) Mat

A Mat is a “Window” of card that sits inside a picture frame between the glass and the painting. It has the aesthetic function of creating a clean border around your painting and the practical function of separating the surface of the painting from the glass.


Watercolor medium is a substance which can be added to watercolor paint to create effects that couldn’t be obtained purely with water, such as texture, gloss or glitter.


Mud refers to the dull earthy neutral colors that result from mixing colors that contain too much of their complementary hue. e.g mixing a red with a green.

Related Blog Post: How To Mix Colors The Right Way, How To Mix Perfect Greens

Natural Hair (Brushes)

Brushes that contain animal hair such as squirrel, sable or goat

Neutral (Colour)

Dull muted grays and browns. Neutrals can be mixed in a number of ways. e.g mixing 3 evenly spaced color wheel colors, mixing complementaries.

Related Blog Post: How To Mix Colors The Right Way

NOT (Paper)

Is the British convention for referring to Cold Pressed watercolor paper, it simply means “Not hot pressed”


This occurs when you carry on adding more and more to a painting when it would have been stopping at an earlier stage would have resulted in a livelier fresher looking piece of work. This is rather subjective and can be difficult to judge. Try and evaluate what you’re trying to achieve with every single brushstroke before making it rather than just mindlessly piling on more.


A palette is a surface for mixing paint on. Watercolor palettes often contain a number of wells or depressions so that the paint doesn’t run. palettes are often made of white plastic but the best palettes for watercolor are pure white and porcelain. Palette can also refer to a color scheme or selection of colors.

Palette Knife

A palette knife is an implement that consists of a short handle and a diamond shaped “Blade”. Palette knives are more commonly used in oil and acrylic painting fro applying and mixing paint. In watercolor painting palette knives can be used to scrape out lines and create random looking textures.


Pans are small thumbnail sized paint containers that slot into portable trays. Pans are most often used for painting in small sketchbooks and outdoors


Pigments is the substance that gives paint its color. Pigments can be natural or synthetic

Plein Air

Plein Air, or En Plein Air means the act of painting outdoors.

Related Blog Post: Pro Tips For Plein Air Painting

Primary (Color)

Red, Blue and Yellow are called the Primary Colors because they cannot mixed from other colors but all colors can be mixed from them.

primary colours

Rigger (Brush)

A rigger is a watercolour brush with long thin hairs. It is useful for painting thin lines such as the rigging on ships, hence the name.

Rough Paper

Heavily textured watercolor paper

Related Blog post: watercolor paper, everything you need to know

Round (Brush)

A very commonly used watercolor brush with hairs that taper to a fine point. The round brush is a versatile brush that can be used to paint a variety of brush strokes.

A very versatile brush. It can be used for painting washes, fine details and broad strokes


A dry brush technique used to lift paint from or add color to an area of the surface


Sizing is a gelatin based substance used in the manufacture of watercolor paper. Sizing slows the absorbtion of the paint so that most of the pigment remains on the surface of the paper.

Soft Edge

Soft edges are edges that are indistinct and blurry. In watercolor painting this can be achieved by painting Wet On Wet.

Related Blog Post: How To Paint Hard & Soft Edges In Watercolor

Split Primaries Palette

The primary colors are red , yellow and blue. A split primaries palette, is a palette of 6 colors consisting of three warm and three cool primaries. For example Cadmium Red, New Gamboge and Ultramarine, and Alizarin Crimson, Lemon Yellow and Cerulean Blue. The purpose of the split primaries palette is to enable a watercolor painter the greatest range of warm and cool color mixing options with the fewest colors.

Related blog post: How To Mix Watercolors The Best Way

Staining Colors

Some watercolor pigments have smaller particles which means that they flow very smoothly and have intense color saturation whereas others are more sedimentary producing more of a granular effect. The “Pthalo” colors are particularly strong staining colors and therefore should be used with a bit more restraint.


The process of stretching paper is done in order to prevent Cockling. The process is as follows. A sheet of watercolor paper is wetted on both sides and then taped or stapled down to stiff board and allowed to dry.

Related Blog post: watercolor paper, everything you need to know

Synthetic (Brushes)

Synthetic brushes can be made from Nylon, Polyester or Taklon. They tend to be stiffer and springier than natural haired brushes.

Temperature (Color)

Colors are divided into cool and warm. Colors that lean towards Red/Yellow are considered to be warm colors and colors that lean towards Blue/Green are classified as cool.


A small sketch or painting produced in preparation for the creation of a larger work.


Color tints are generally created by adding white to a base color. In watercolor it is done by adding water.

Tube Color

Watercolor is available in tubes or pans, In tube form the paint is squeezed on to a Palette like toothpaste in pans the paint is in solid form and needs to be reactivated with water.


Value refers to the darkness or lightness of a color.

Vegan Brushes

Vegan watercolor brushes are brushes made from synthetic fibers but have similar properties to natural hair brushes.


A wash is a large solid area of colour. Washes are often used to depict skies, or seas etc.

Wash (Flat)

Is the technique of laying down a large area of even, consistent color.

Related Blog post: How to paint a perfect flat wash

Wash (Variegated)

A variegated wash is a wash painted with different colors in a wet into wet blend. Variegated washes are a signature technique of watercolor painting. They are often used to convey the natural scattering and bouncing of light and color that occurs in real life. Variegated washes can also be used to create abstract patterns and effects.

Related Blog post: watercolor techniques you need to know


The thickness of watercolor paper is referred to as it’s weight. When measured in pounds (lbs) this refers to the weight of 500 sheets. Or it can be measured in gsm. i.e. Grams per square metre. Heavier weight paper is more expensive but is more resistant to cockling.

Wet on Dry

This is the technique of painting wet paint on to dry paper. This creates crisp hard edged shapes.

Related Blog post: watercolor techniques you need to know


This is the technique of painting wet paint on wet paper. This creates the signature blended appearance of watercolour.

Related Blog post: watercolor techniques you need to know


Yupo is a synthetic polypropylene watercolour “Paper”. Unlike traditional watercolor paper Yupo does not absorb water so the effect it creates has a distinctly different look in comparison. Learn more at yupousa.com

Related Blog post: watercolor paper, everything you need to know

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