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The Basics of Watercolor Techniques

No matter if your focus is on watercolor techniques from generations past or modern watercolor trends, you are bound to learn a handful (or more) techniques on your journey to becoming a watercolor artist.

In this article, you will learn the watercolor basics like blending, highlighting, and masking as well as more advanced techniques like drip and splattering. 

With a combination of these watercolor techniques, you will see your abilities blossom and you’ll be on your way to beautiful art.

This tutorial was created by artists who have handpicked supplies just for you.
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Best Watercolor Techniques to Learn

Below, we have highlighted some of the most common watercolor techniques as well as some more advanced techniques for those who have been watercolor painting for a while.

We have divided techniques into categories; beginner, intermediate, and expert level experience. Have a look at some of the techniques and follow the links for more explanation.

Note: The surface which you paint on has an effect on the watercolor texture. Rougher surfaces will create texture naturally. On smoother surfaces, you may take extra steps to receive the desired texture.


5 Beginner Watercolor Techniques

Flat wash

A flat wash is an important part of watercolor painting; it’s such a basic technique that you probably won’t even know when you’re doing it. Simply dip the brush in water, coat it on your intended surface, and then brush it evenly throughout. It’s important for the paint to look even, a flat wash should look like one solid shade on paper. 

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques flat wash

Graded wash

A graded wash is intended to move from light to darkness. Start with your darkest paint, load the brush with plenty of pigment, and then run your brush smoothly across the paper. 

On your next stroke, add less pigment to the brush and move the brush along the paper so that it overlaps slightly with the first stroke or area. The two strokes will begin to merge and eventually become one with different colors. Repeat this process and add less and less pigment until you reach the desired tone swatch.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques graded wash

Wet on dry

Another important approach is the practice of wet on dry painting. This is done by painting the paper with more than one coat. Once dry, another layer of paint is to be applied to it. Because of its consistency when activated by water, you will likely see the bottom layer being drawn out by the second coat.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques wet on dry

Wet on wet

The traditional wet on wet approach is intended for high-quality watercolors to show-off their ability to create beautiful, unearthly tides. To create this technique, just moisten a piece of paper with a brush (you can use water or some activated pigment.) Then, dip the brush in a different color (after cleaning, if necessary) and dot the brush a little above the wet area. You should see a feather effect play out in front of you as the pigment bleeds.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques wet on wet

Dry brush

A dry brush technique is pretty much exactly what you’d expect; take a dry brush (or, at least, very lightly dampened) and dip it in paint. Then, lightly stroke it on a piece of dry paper. The result is a very gently textured line, ideal for skin or hair.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques dry brush

9 Intermediate Watercolor Techniques

Layering

Since watercolor is a liquid-based, thin medium, you should make sure that the paint accumulates gradually. This is another advantage of the medium as the ink can be mixed directly on paper. 

Take the ink and leave it on the paper. Let it dry and repeat the process with a different color. You will notice that where they intersect, the pigments mix and acquire a different color. Ideal for toning up a subject’s skin.


Blending

Because the paints are on a wet surface, they’ll blend slightly and create a natural gradient in the tones. You can control how neat or painterly a gradient comes out by the wetness of the paint.

Usually, a watercolor wash uses only one color, but you are able to add great perception using several gradient shades. Start by adding pigment or paint to a wet surface.

Then, place a second color, or a stronger hue of the same shade, or a completely different shade, next to the first one.

Since the colors are on a damp surface, they can be easily mixed to create a natural blend of shades. Moisture in the paint allows you to adjust the quality of the gradient.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques blending

Highlighting

Without using masking paper or white paint, highlighting is very dependent on the paper you use. We recommend Windsor and Newton 100% cotton rough grain watercolor paper.

First, lay down a graded wash and let it dry. The rest includes intricate blade work. Take a sharp knife and cut your highlight from the layer of paint. Don’t press too hard or too soft. It’s about finding the right pressure that peels the layer of paint away from the white surface behind it.

Otherwise, there are other ways to highlight in watercolor using white paint like suggested above.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques highlighting

Rubber cement (or masking tape)

Rubber cement (like adhesive and masking tape) is used as a tool for techniques in watercolor painting. Use this material where the pigment should not reach. Once the water-based paint has dried, remove the rubber compound or tape from work. You can see the the original, untouched paper below. This is a good way to keep white paper for the purpose of highlighting or other reasons.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques masking tape rubber cement

Salt

Watercolor is a matter of making sure your layers pop and texture stands out. Salt can create an interesting texture with little effort because the salt crystals absorb water and leave a unique pattern in the pigment. Coat some watercolor paint on a surface and sprinkle it with salt while the paint is still wet. Leave it alone until it dries and then brush (or simply blow) off the salt. This technique is useful for adding texture to natural surfaces such as rocks and water.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques salt

Rubbing alcohol

Water paints and rubbing alcohol are comparable to the way water and oil react. After painting a surface, take a tool (like a cotton ball) and dot the wet surface with alcohol. You should see a sort of blending of colors.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques rubbing alcohol

Scratch off

As you could have guessed, this method involves scratching the paint to create crevices of lighter shades or whites. 

Start by adding a wash to wherever you want to texturize. When it is still wet, take a sewing needle (or any other sharp object) and drag it through the paper. The paint will fill the perforated surface and will look darker and more distinct than the rest of the area you washed.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques scratch off

Sponging

You might have an extra sponge laying around the house — this is also a tool for watercolor. Mix the pigment in a small bowl or tray, dip the sponge in the paint and dab it on paper. You can add more water and get different effects: drier application is better for plants or animal flesh, while wet application is better for the oceans, rivers, or clouds.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques sponging

Splash

The splashing technique is often associated with watercolor markers and transparent films in which paint is applied to the sheet, sprayed with alcohol or some other liquid, and pressed to your canvas to create a blend of all colors seamlessly and without picking up a paintbrush.

This can also be achieved using a plastic Ziploc bag and liquidy paint.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques splash

5 Expert Watercolor Techniques

Lifting

Sometimes it is necessary to take out some color. Even if you can’t make the paper 100% white, you can remove the color to correct the error or adjust the shade to better fit with reality. Wait until the watercolor has dried to the paper and use clean water to highlight the area you want to lighten. Allow it to rest for a minute and then soak up the water with a paper towel. You will see that the lighter color stands out from what you have painted.

The Basics of Watercolor Techniques lifting

Splatter

To add a little pizzazz to your art, you can try a watercolor technique like splattering. This can help realize special effects.

Keep the brush between your thumb and middle finger. Pull the brush’s bristles with your index finger and let it fling forward. This method is a bit unpredictable, but it can give very creative results, so I strongly recommend trying it.


Scumbling

Scumbling is a very common watercolor technique for experienced artists. Many use this technique to make soft pigment shades and light layers. It is basically layers of color in soft intermediate layers that create the right tone and appearance. Take a dampened brush to your watercolors and watch the magic. As you keep adding color, keep adding water to your brush. It can be easily abused and create a mess of a look, so remember less is often more.


Plastic wrapping

There are several ways to remove paint from a piece of art, and most involve plastic wrapping, that’s why we added it to a list of home remedies that could act as your watercolor supplies and tools. 

As with the salt, you start by adding a wash to your piece – perhaps you added a little more pigment than you had planned. So, you should place a piece of Saran wrap over your work; preferably it will be wrinkled or crumpled. 

Wait until the paint is completely dry with the wrap over it. The pigment accumulates underneath the plastic and creates an unexpected texture, but once you pull the plastic back, you will have achieved your desired outcome.


Negative painting

Before putting brush to paper, you must have a plan when it comes to watercolor. The light colors are especially critical. That’s what negative painting is all about. 

It is important to maintain brush control when painting on the edge of where you want to start a negative space. Load the brush with moist pigment and apply paint along the edge where you want negative space to begin. Then, move the paint away from the edge of the line to fill in the area where you want the pigment to start.


Other Techniques and Styles 

Japanese watercolor

Take a look at some inspired Japanese watercolor styles and pieces of work as well as a tutorial here.


Chinese watercolor

Take a look at some inspired Chinese watercolor styles and pieces of work as well as a tutorial here.


Common Tools for Watercolor Techniques

Are you an artist on the budget? Well, that’s OK. We have plenty of at-home remedies for you. Here are some tools used for watercolor techniques you might have sitting in your home right now:

Still looking for more techniques? This tutorial will teach you much more about modern watercolor techniques. Use that link to sign-up for two months of free Skillshare courses on us.

This tutorial was created by artists who have handpicked supplies just for you.
Click below to shop with a 30% discount.

About the Author: Watercolor Classes

Hello, and welcome to our site. We've been passionate about watercolor for years and have learned a lot along the way. We hope our tutorials and tips will help you out on your watercolor journey. Let's make art together!

1 Comment

  1. This was very helpful for me, as a new painter. The explanation of terms allow me to understand some explanations giving by other instruction

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