In this lesson, we’ll first go over some important techniques for getting your watercolor paints onto your paper, then we’ll discuss some fun techniques you can use to achieve different effects. Read through the text first to learn what all the different terms mean. Then, at the end, you can watch a video and try out your hand at painting some of the different effects discussed in this lesson.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Types Of Washes
Flat wash: A flat wash is one of the most important techniques you will use in watercolor painting. To do a flat wash, you will mix your paint with water until you get the desired color, then apply it to your dry paper with a large, flat brush, working in horizontal strokes starting at the top of your page and working your way down. Each stroke should overlay the previous stroke just slightly. Use long strokes to minimize streaking and unevenness in the wash. It works best if your paper is at a slight angle.
Here’s a good tutorial video by Bob Davies on creating a flat wash in watercolors:
Graded wash: A graded wash is similar to a flat wash, but instead of maintaining the same amount of pigment, the color will begin to fade out as you go along. This is done by only loading your brush with pigment at the beginning, then allowing the brush to run out of paint as you continue painting. By changing the water-to-pigment ratio, you’ll get different results. For instance, if you have a lot of water and very little paint, you’ll get a very light color. By having less water and more paint, you’ll get a much deeper, more bold color. Experiment with your paints, trying different water-to-pigment ratios to see what sort of different results you get.
Variegated wash: Similar to the other two washes we discussed, the variegated wash uses multiple colors and allows them to bleed into each other to create an interesting effect that would be good for painting sunsets.
Wet on wet: Start by wetting your watercolor paper thoroughly with clean water. Wait a minute or two until there is still a sheen on the paper but no puddles. Next, select or mix the paint color you want to use. You should add a little water to your paint so it is the consistency of milk. It shouldn’t be too thin or too thick. When the wet paint is applied to the wet paper, it will “bloom” and colors can blend easily into each other.
Learning how much water to use takes a lot of practice, but after a while you’ll be able to predict your results. Experiment with different consistencies of paint and with varying degrees of paper wetness until you like what you see. You can tilt the paper slightly to help the colors mix, but don’t overdo it or you won’t be able to see the separate colors any more.
Wet on dry: Wet into dry means that you’re using wet paint (mixed with water) on dry paper. This technique will give you sharper edges and is good for the detailed portions of your painting. The paint won’t bleed or run like it did with the wet into wet technique because the dry surface of the paper absorbs the pigment before it has a chance to.
Dry on dry: Dry on dry or dry brush technique is when you load your brush with pigment (not much water) and apply it to a completely dry piece of watercolor paper. This technique is useful when you want the texture of the paper to be highlighted or want more of the white paper to show through your paint.
Dry on wet: With this technique, you will apply relatively dry pigment onto wet paper. It will give you a similar amount of control as the wet on dry technique combined with a little of the bleeding effect you get with wet on wet painting.
Exercise One: Make Abstract Art
Before you begin any sort of representational watercolor painting, it’s helpful to learn a few of the techniques by making some abstract pieces to get used to the way the paint moves.
Watch this 12-minute video by Kelly Eddington of Art Food Kitty all the way through once to get comfortable with the different techniques she presents.
Once you’ve done that, get out a sheet of watercolor paper and divide it into small rectangles (about 3” x 5”). Lay out at least two paint colors and try painting one of each technique: flat wash, graded wash, variegated wash, wet on wet, wet on dry, dry on dry, and wet on dry.
When you’ve completed your abstract watercolors, send a photo to us using our submission form here!
Other Watercolor Techniques
While most of the time you’ll be using a brush and water with your watercolors, there are a variety of other useful techniques that can make your paintings interesting and the process of painting really fun! These techniques include masking fluid, lifting, using household materials, and other fun techniques. Let’s explore them now!
Also called liquid frisket, this is a sticky gum-like substance that you can lay down on areas on your painting to protect them from subsequent layers of paint. For instance, if you know where a highlight is going to be and don’t want to accidentally paint over it with another color you can first paint over it with the masking fluid. This protects the white of the paper. The masking fluid will firm up and when completely dry, can be painted over, leaving the area underneath pure white. When you’re finished with it and the paint is completely dry, simply roll it off. Liquid frisket can be purchased for around $5 at an art supply store or online.
To apply it to dry paper (never wet—it will never come off!), pour a little masking fluid into a small container (a plastic lid to a water bottle works fine) and use a small brush whose work is dedicated solely to that of applying masking fluid. Clean the brush with water and dish soap first, leaving a little dish soap on the brush to protect it from the masking fluid. Once you apply the masking fluid, you will need to clean the brush again because it tends to gum up the bristles as the fluid dries. You may need to clean the brush several times during the process of applying the masking fluid to your painting.
Here’s a video by Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies to show you how masking fluid is applied, used, and removed. The first masking fluid container he uses has a brush built in to it, but that’s not always the case. At the end, he uses a special rubber remover tool, but you can just use your fingers (make sure they are clean!).
You can also apply the masking fluid with a toothbrush to splatter white dots (helpful for sand) or with an old fashioned drafting ruling pen to create very fine lines. Also, you may find it useful to “soften” the hard paint edges created by the masking fluid. To do this, use the lifting method described below.
Learning how to paint on the paper is very important, but it can be just as worthwhile to learn a few methods for lifting it off as well.
If you have an area that you’d like to put a soft highlight in (a ripple in the water, a highlight on an apple, etc.) instead of painting white on top as you might do with oil, you’ll actually lift the paint from the paper. There are two ways to do this:
1) For paper where the paint has completely dried, lightly scrub the paper with a damp brush where you want the highlight to go and then blot with a paper towel. I find it works best if the brush is relatively stiff (flats work better than round brushes). Don’t scrub hard, just a little to agitate the paint.
2) For work in process, where your paint is still slightly damp, you can lift paint with a “thirsty brush”. Take a brush that is almost completely dry but not completely and use it to absorb the paint where the highlight is. This technique will give you a softer look which works better when trying to portray round surfaces, like the highlight along a tree trunk, etc.
You’ll also find that different types of paint are easier to lift than others. “Staining” colors are more difficult to lift while “sedimentary” colors lift more easily.
Another trick for lifting paint from dry paper is to use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (make sure it is the kind with no additives). This works best for areas where you want a sharp edge like the white masts of boats that are white against a blue sky. Use painter’s tape to mark off an area to expose the small section you want to return to white. Dampen the Mr. Clean eraser with clean water and squeeze out all excess water. Then scrub the area lightly. This will “clean” all the paint of the paper and bring you back to white. Remove the tape and voila! Beware this tends to damage the paper fibers, so if you try to paint over that area you will notice the difference.
Using Household Items For Watercolor Effects
There are several different items we’re sure you have around your house that can produce some interesting effects in your watercolor painting.
Yes, regular old table salt is a great way to add some lovely texture to your watercolor painting. Working with wet watercolors on wet paper, sprinkle a little table salt or sea salt (different sizes of salt grains will have different effects) onto an area wait for it to dry. Once it has dried, it will leave little spots of lighter color where the salt has soaked up some of the water and pigment. You’ll get different effects depending on how wet the paper was to start with.
When it is fully dry, you can simply brush the salt off the paper and into the trashcan or a sink. Here’s a video from Jerry’s Artarama showing you how to use salt in a watercolor painting:
Rubbing alcohol can also have interesting effects on your watercolor. You can drop it onto your painting from any sort of dropper, put it in a spray bottle, or apply it with a q-tip or cotton ball. Here’s a picture of what happens when you apply rubbing alcohol to a wet watercolor painting:
Try crumbling plastic wrap or wax paper and putting it on top of wet paint. I put a book on top to keep it from moving. Then after an hour, when you remove the wrap, all kinds of interesting shapes and textures are formed.
You can use two different methods of stamping: applying paint or removing paint. Make a puddle of fairly thick paint in your palette and then dip a sponge, piece of bubble wrap, a piece of textured cardboard, etc. into the paint and stamp it on your paper. This is a great way to add interest to an abstract painting.
The second method uses lifting. Dip your “stamp” into a small puddle of clean water, and apply it carefully to an area of dry paint on your paper. Lift it off and immediately scrub the surface with a rough towel. This will lightly lift some of the paint off the paper and give you a subtle impression of light colored stamp pattern.
Whether it’s a white wax crayon or a white candle, you can make your own wax resist by drawing with the wax first and then painting over the top of it. Paint won’t stick to the wax, leaving it white (or whatever color you put the wax on top of).
If you want to remove the wax, wait for the paint to dry completely then cover it with a paper towel and iron it with a low temperature iron. The wax will melt and soak into the paper towel and you’ll be able to paint on that area again. Be careful not to get wax on your iron—you don’t want it on your clothes later on!
Some artists use this technique in multiple layers, getting darker and darker, then crumbling the wax and painting a final dark layer. When the wax is completely removed, it looks like a beautiful batik!
Other Fun Techniques
A lot of artists do things to the surface of the paper before they start painting. For example, acrylic gesso is extremely popular to create all kinds of great texture on your watercolor paper before you start. You can apply it somewhat thickly and then stamp it with corrugated cardboard, bubble wrap, or anything else with texture. When you paint on top of it, all of that wonderful pattern comes through. I’ve also seen some artists who will paint the surface of their paper using textured gesso to correspond to where the mountains and rocks will be in their landscapes. Also, because gesso is not absorbent like the watercolor paper, you can get more textured effects when you apply the paint. By having some areas with gesso and some without, you get interesting contrasts.
Some artists have gone to explore collage as well. You can collage interesting Japanese rice papers down or old newsprints, etc. and then cover with acrylic matte medium and paint right on top.
This person is using tissue paper to create texture before painting on top:
Many artists use watercolor crayons or watercolor pencils on top of their watercolors to highlight a certain area. And some have been very effective combining pastel with watercolor.
This painting by Bette Coningsby is done with pastels on top of watercolor:
There has been a huge explosion in “watermedia” with artists experimenting with all kinds of things. I know one artist who used black tar in part of his painting. Pretty much anything goes!
Exercise Two: Experiment With Texture
Try experimenting with texture using something from around your house or studio space.
Watch this video on watercolor special effects again by Kelly Eddington:
After you watch the video, experiment with salt, rubbing alcohol, or one of the special effects she presents in the video.
Once you’re done with that, experiment with something truly surprising! Can you come up with the next coolest thing in watercolor painting? Send us a photo of your results using our submission form here!
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about different watercolor techniques and tried some fun experiments with household materials.
Next lesson: Basic Color Theory