Watercolor techniques are the foundation of this beautiful and expressive art form that has captured the hearts of artists and admirers alike. With a diverse range of techniques at their disposal, watercolor artists can create stunning effects, textures, and moods in their paintings.
There are eight fundamental watercolor techniques: wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, dry brush, glazing, lifting, gradients and washes, salt technique, splattering. Pulling in color, blooming, sponging, rubbing alcohol, scratch-off, masking, dry-on-dry, dry-on-wet, variegated wash, and scumbling are additions to basic ones.
Mastering these techniques is essential for any aspiring watercolorist, as it allows them to fully harness the unique properties of this versatile medium. In this article, we will dive into various watercolor techniques, providing you with the knowledge and inspiration to take your watercolor skills to new heights.
Essential Watercolor Techniques
Watercolor painting offers a world of possibilities when it comes to techniques, allowing you to create a diverse range of effects and styles.
Mastering these techniques is key to unlocking your full artistic potential. Here are eight essential watercolor techniques to help you on your journey.
As the name suggests, this technique involves applying wet paint onto an already wet surface, creating a soft, diffused look.
The wet-on-wet technique is arguably the most well-known and beloved watercolor method.
This method is perfect for creating dreamy backgrounds, smooth color transitions, and blending colors seamlessly.
To execute the wet-on-wet technique, begin by wetting your paper with clean water using a large brush. While the paper is still damp, apply your paint, watching as the colors spread and merge naturally.
You can continue to add more colors or water as needed to achieve the desired effect.
Contrasting with the wet-on-wet method, the wet-on-dry technique involves applying wet paint to a dry surface.
This method results in sharper, more defined lines and shapes, making it ideal for adding details or creating more structured compositions.
To use the wet-on-dry technique, simply wait for your paper to dry completely after laying down your initial wash or background. Then, apply your paint with a brush that is wet, but not dripping.
The paint will remain where you apply it, allowing for more control over the final outcome.
3. Dry brush
The dry brush technique is another way to achieve crisp, textured effects in your watercolor paintings.
This method involves using a brush with minimal water and paint, allowing the bristles to skim the surface of the paper and create broken, textured lines.
To use the dry brush technique, start by removing excess water from your brush, either by dabbing it on a paper towel or gently squeezing the bristles.
Load the brush with paint, and then lightly drag it across the surface of your dry paper. Experiment with different brush sizes and angles to create various effects.
4. Glazing or Layering
Glazing is a technique that involves layering transparent washes of color to create depth, luminosity, and subtle color shifts in your paintings.
This method is particularly effective when using watercolors, as their transparent nature lends itself well to this layering process.
To begin glazing, first ensure that your initial layer of paint is completely dry. Next, apply a thin, transparent layer of color on top of the existing paint, allowing the underlying layer to show through.
You can continue to build up layers in this manner, always waiting for each layer to dry before proceeding. Glazing requires patience, but the results can be stunning.
Lifting is a technique used to remove or lighten paint from your paper, either to correct mistakes or to create highlights and texture.
This method is particularly useful in watercolor painting, as the medium’s water-soluble nature allows for easy manipulation and correction.
To lift paint, first wet the area you wish to lighten with clean water using a brush or a damp paper towel. Then, gently blot the area with a clean, dry paper towel or sponge, lifting the paint from the surface.
The amount of paint you remove will depend on the pressure applied and the number of times you repeat this process.
6. Gradients and washes
Gradients and washes are fundamental techniques for creating smooth transitions and large areas of color in your watercolor paintings.
Washes can be flat, with a consistent color throughout, or graded, transitioning from one color to another or from dark to light.
To create a flat wash, wet your paper evenly and then apply a consistent layer of paint, using horizontal or vertical brush strokes.
For a graded wash, start by applying a concentrated amount of paint at the edge of your paper.
As you move across the paper, gradually add more water to your brush, diluting the paint and creating a smooth transition.
To achieve an even gradient, work quickly and maintain a consistent angle with your brush strokes.
Practice is key to mastering gradients and washes, so don’t be discouraged if your first attempts don’t turn out perfectly.
7. Salt technique
The salt technique is a fun and experimental way to add interesting textures to your watercolor paintings.
By sprinkling salt onto wet paint, you can create a variety of patterns and effects, depending on the type of salt and the wetness of the paint.
To use the salt technique, first lay down a wet wash of color on your paper. While the paint is still wet, sprinkle salt over the desired area.
As the paint dries, the salt will absorb the water and pigment, leaving behind unique patterns and textures. Once the paint is completely dry, gently brush off the salt to reveal the effect.
Experiment with different types of salt, such as table salt, sea salt, or kosher salt, to achieve a variety of textures. Remember, the wetter the paint, the more dramatic the effect.
Splattering is a playful and expressive technique that can add a dynamic, spontaneous quality to your watercolor paintings.
By flicking or tapping your brush, you can create random patterns of paint droplets, adding visual interest and texture to your work.
To splatter paint, load your brush with a moderately wet mixture of paint and water.
Hold the brush above your paper, and either flick the bristles with your fingers or tap the brush handle against another object, such as a pencil or the edge of your palette.
The paint will splatter onto the paper, creating an unpredictable and organic pattern.
You can use splattering to create a variety of effects, such as stars in a night sky, foliage on trees, or texture on a sandy beach.
Experiment with different brush sizes and paint consistencies to achieve the desired effect.
9. Pulling in color
Pulling in color is a watercolor technique that involves applying paint to a surface, pulling it across with a brush, and allowing the colors to flow and blend naturally.
This method helps create soft transitions and organic shapes. To achieve this effect, first wet the paper with clean water.
Then, using a loaded brush, gently touch the wet surface with the paint, allowing it to spread and mix with the water.
Another technique is to apply paint on the surface and pulling the colors across with an unloaded (partially wet or a dry) brush. You can introduce multiple colors, letting them blend together seamlessly.
Blooming is a technique that creates irregular, flower-like shapes by adding water or color to a still-damp wash.
This effect occurs when the added water pushes the pigment away from the area, resulting in unique shapes and textures.
To create blooms, first lay down a wash of color. While the wash is still damp, drop clean water or a different color onto the surface.
The new addition will disperse the existing pigment, creating the blooming effect.
Sponging is a versatile watercolor technique that uses a sponge to apply paint or remove it from the paper, creating unique textures and patterns.
To sponge paint onto the paper, dip a sponge into your paint mixture and dab it onto the surface.
You can experiment with different types of sponges, such as natural sea sponges or synthetic ones, to achieve various effects.
To lift paint with a sponge, wet it with clean water, wring out the excess, and gently dab the sponge onto the painted surface.
12. Rubbing alcohol
Sprinkling rubbing alcohol onto wet paint can create interesting textures and effects in your watercolor paintings.
The alcohol repels the water and pigment, causing it to disperse and form distinctive patterns. To use this technique, first apply a wet wash of color to your paper.
While the paint is still wet, sprinkle or drip rubbing alcohol onto the surface. The alcohol will interact with the paint, creating unique textures as it dries.
The scratch-off technique involves using a sharp tool to scratch away dried paint, revealing the paper beneath and creating thin lines or highlights.
This method is useful for adding details, such as hair, grass, or tree branches, to your painting.
To execute the scratch-off technique, wait until the paint is fully dry, then use a sharp tool like a craft knife, stylus, or the edge of a credit card to gently scrape away the paint layer.
To ensure you’re giving it appropriate time, read our article on how long does watercolor take to dry completely.
Masking is a watercolor technique that involves applying a masking fluid or tape to protect certain areas of the paper while painting.
This allows you to preserve the white space and create sharp edges or intricate designs. To use masking fluid, apply it to the desired area using a brush or applicator, and let it dry completely.
Then, paint over the masked area as desired. Once the paint is dry, carefully remove the masking fluid to reveal the preserved white space.
15. Dry on dry
The dry-on-dry technique involves applying dry paint onto a dry surface, resulting in a rough, textured effect. This method is excellent for adding details, such as fur, grass, or bark, to your painting.
To achieve this effect, load your brush with paint and remove excess water. Then, gently drag the brush across the dry paper, allowing the paint to skip and create a textured appearance.
16. Dry on wet
Dry-on-wet is a technique that combines the characteristics of both dry and wet applications. By applying dry paint to a wet surface, you can create a mix of defined and diffused shapes.
First, wet the paper with clean water. Then, load your brush with paint, removing any excess water, and apply it to the wet surface. The paint will spread, creating a combination of sharp and blended edges.
17. Variegated wash
A variegated wash is a watercolor technique that creates a wash with multiple colors that blend and transition smoothly into one another.
This method adds depth and interest to your paintings, as it combines a range of hues in a single application. To create a variegated wash, first wet the paper with clean water.
Then, apply your first color to the wet surface. While the paint is still wet, introduce the second color, allowing it to blend with the first.
Repeat this process with additional colors, ensuring they merge seamlessly.
Scumbling is a technique that involves using a dry brush to apply a thin layer of paint over an existing dried layer, creating a subtle, textured effect.
This method is excellent for adding depth, atmosphere, or visual interest to your painting. To scumble, first ensure the underlying layer of paint is completely dry.
Then, load your brush with paint and remove most of the water. Gently brush the paint over the dry layer, allowing the texture of the paper and the underlying color to show through.
Tips for Mastering These Watercolor Techniques
Mastering watercolor techniques is a rewarding and fulfilling journey that can lead to stunning works of art. To help you on your path to watercolor mastery, here are some essential tips to keep in mind.
1. Importance of practice and experimentation
The key to mastering watercolor techniques lies in consistent practice and experimentation.
Watercolor is a unique medium with its own set of quirks and surprises, making it essential to spend time exploring its capabilities. Try out different techniques, combine methods, and test new ideas.
The more you experiment, the more you’ll learn about how watercolor behaves and how to control it to achieve your desired effects.
Remember that even experienced watercolorists continue to learn and grow, so don’t be discouraged by initial setbacks. Embrace the learning process and celebrate your progress along the way.
2. Using quality materials
Using quality materials can significantly impact your ability to master watercolor techniques.
Investing in good-quality paper, paints, and brushes will provide a better foundation for your work and make it easier to achieve the results you desire.
When selecting paper, opt for a heavier weight (140 lb or 300 gsm) and choose one specifically designed for watercolor, such as cold-pressed or hot-pressed paper.
Read our article on the Best Watercolor Papers to find a worthy suggestion.
This type of paper is more absorbent and can withstand multiple washes and layers without buckling or tearing.
High-quality watercolor paints offer better color vibrancy, lightfastness, and overall performance.
Choose artist-grade paints, which contain a higher pigment concentration and fewer fillers than student-grade options.
Lastly, invest in a set of quality watercolor brushes made from natural or synthetic fibers, such as sable or taklon.
A good-quality brush will maintain its shape, provide better control, and ensure even distribution of paint.
3. Understanding color mixing and theory
A fundamental aspect of mastering watercolor techniques is understanding color mixing and color theory.
Knowing how colors interact and combine will enable you to create harmonious color schemes, vibrant mixes, and stunning effects in your paintings.
Take the time to familiarize yourself with the color wheel and learn about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, as well as complementary and analogous color schemes.
Experiment with mixing different colors to see how they behave together, and create a color chart to use as a reference when painting.
Keep in mind that watercolor paints can appear more transparent and lighter when dry.
As you practice color mixing, you’ll develop an intuitive understanding of how to achieve the desired shades and tones in your work.
4. Developing patience and layering skills
Patience is a critical virtue in watercolor painting. Many techniques, such as glazing and layering, require you to wait for each layer to dry before proceeding.
Rushing through these steps can lead to muddy colors and unintended effects.
Cultivate patience by working on multiple paintings simultaneously, allowing one piece to dry while you work on another, or by taking breaks to step back and evaluate your progress.
Layering is a powerful technique in watercolor painting that can add depth, luminosity, and complexity to your work.
Mastering the art of layering involves understanding when to use wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, and glazing techniques, as well as controlling the transparency and consistency of your paint.
Practice building up layers of color, and observe how different techniques and color combinations affect the final outcome.
Number of Watercolor Techniques and the Most Commonly Used One
Watercolor painting is a diverse and versatile art form that offers countless techniques for artists to explore.
As such, it’s common for people to have questions about the various methods and approaches. In this section, we’ll address a frequently asked question related to watercolor techniques.
We discussed eighteen watercolor techniques in a previous section. Artists continually innovate and discover new methods for using this medium.
However, there are several essential techniques that every watercolorist should be familiar with, such as wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, dry brush, glazing, lifting, gradients and washes, salt technique, and splattering.
Each of these techniques offers unique effects and can be used alone or combined to create a wide range of styles and textures.
Additionally, many artists develop their own personalized techniques through experimentation and practice, further expanding the possibilities of watercolor painting.
The beauty of this medium lies in its flexibility, allowing artists to find their own distinctive approach and style.
What is the most commonly used watercolor technique?
The most commonly used watercolor technique is arguably the wet-on-wet method. This technique involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface, resulting in soft, diffused effects and seamless blending of colors. It is popular for its ability to create dreamy backgrounds, smooth color transitions, and organic shapes.
However, it’s essential to remember that the wet-on-wet method is just one of many watercolor techniques, each with its unique characteristics and applications.
A skilled watercolor artist will often employ a combination of techniques to achieve the desired results in their work.
Our article on the most expensive watercolor artists is a fun read.
The key to mastering watercolor painting is to familiarize yourself with a variety of techniques and learn when and how to use them effectively.
Watercolor painting is a captivating and rewarding art form that offers endless possibilities for creative expression.
By exploring and mastering various techniques, you can unlock the full potential of this versatile medium. So, gather your brushes, paints, and paper, and embark on this exciting journey of discovery.
Embrace the learning process, experiment with different methods, and most importantly, enjoy the beauty and magic of watercolor painting. Your artistic journey awaits!