Watercolour is a wonderfully versatile medium—there are numerous watercolour techniques you can use to change the appearance of your painting. To improve your painting skills, it’s essential to get to grips with some watercolour techniques, and try them out for yourself.
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Get to know your supplies first
When you feel in tune with your watercolour supplies, you will have more command over your materials to achieve the sort of effects you want.
The type of paper, types of watercolour paints and brushes you choose will impact upon how you use watercolour techniques and the appearance of the finished artwork.
Hot pressed watercolour paper is best for techniques like lifting and detail work. This type of paper is smooth and is the least absorbent of all the three types of cotton based papers. If you choose hot pressed paper, it’s good practice to use lighter washes of colour.
Cold pressed paper is more suited to heavy washes and layering colour. Paper with a rough texture is the most absorbent type and can take heavier washes of colour. Use the texture of the paper to your advantage—you can create some interesting effects—like the illusion of detail in landscapes.
If you anticipate that you will be using heavy washes of colour, stretch your watercolour paper first to prevent it from warping and buckling. The stretching process is relatively easy and you may already have some of the supplies you need to do it. Stretching the paper prepares it for washes and multiple layers of paint.
Some watercolour pigments are coarser than others. When spread on the paper, these course pigments granulate, creating texture on the surface. If you use granulating watercolours in conjunction with a rough textured paper, colour may start to collect in some areas and you will be able to see the visible grounds of the pigment.
Find the information of whether a pigment is granulating or not on the paint tube, or from information on the supplier’s website.
Some pigments are more powerful and permanent than others. Those that are marked ‘St’ on paint tubes will stain a surface. These colours cannot be lifted completely from paper with a wet brush or sponge. By having an awareness about which colours stain and which don’t, you will know when to use a medium to cleanly lift colour from the paper.
Brushes come in an array of shapes, sizes and fibres. Synthetic fibres are more springy than natural hair, so they require a lighter touch when applying paint. Round sable brushes taper to a sharp point. Sable brushes are soft, but they have a ‘snap’ to them, meaning they retain their shape when moved.
Flat and mop shaped brushes are brilliant for creating washes and blending. Round brushes are versatile as you can vary pressure to achieve thicker or thinner brushstrokes—this makes them especially suited to painting in detail.
To read more about the different types and brands of watercolour brushes, read our guide.
Watercolour mediums can help you achieve certain techniques. For example, by using a fixative, you can fix paint in place to create a waterproof layer.
You can also get mediums that aid with cleanly lifting colour from the paper. This works brilliantly for staining pigments that are not otherwise easy to lift. Read more about watercolour mediums here.
11 watercolour techniques
A flat wash is an even wash of colour. It’s the most basic of all the watercolour techniques, and likely the technique you’ll be using most often.
The colour should appear as a solid tone, with a flat appearance. Artists use this in backgrounds, or as a first layer for a sky colour for example. The wash can be made into any shape.
Round brushes are great for creating solid washes in small areas of your paper, but if you want to create a larger wash, go for a mop or flat brush. Use the largest brush possible for the space you intend on creating the wash, as you will want there to be fewer visible strokes.
To use this technique, ensure the brush is loaded with enough colour and apply light pressure, being as careful as possible to create an even finish.
Start by applying paint to the paper and overlap strokes. Pick up pooled colour from the paint stroke and drag it across until it looks even. If you’ve used masking tape, paint tends to concentrate around the edges of the tape. Even this out with a damp, clean brush.
If your first wash looks too transparent and uneven, you could wait for it to dry then paint another wash over it to smooth it out.
This is similar to creating a flat wash. The effect involves gradually changing the lightness and intensity of the paint layer across the space. Start with a highly saturated wash, then, halfway through, dip your brush in diluted colour. By using less colour you can create a faded appearance.
Alternatively, create a wash with a first colour, then dip your brush in a new colour to create a two toned gradient.
This watercolour technique involves lifting colour from the paper to reveal layers beneath. Use something absorbent to lift off areas of the paint while it’s still wet.
To remove small, detailed areas, use a dry brush. You could get creative and find something to use from around your house, like a cotton ball or a sponge. The lifting technique works better on hot pressed paper compared to cold pressed and rough paper as it is less absorbent.
If you anticipate that lifting will be a central technique to your watercolour painting practice, you could look into getting Yupo paper. Yupo is completely non-absorbent and made from a type of plastic. Watercolour lifts straight off this paper. You can achieve some pretty unusual effects when using this watercolour surface. If you choose to use this paper, it’s essential to use a fixative when you finish or a fixative medium between layers.
Use a lifting medium to cleanly lift colour from any type of paper. Some watercolour pigments will stain more than others. Staining pigments seep through paper fibres, making it difficult to cleanly lift those colours. To prevent this from happening, apply the lifting medium to areas of the paper you want to keep intact. Leave the lifting medium to dry on the paper. Then apply your watercolour paint. Get a clean brush and lift away the colour. Even staining pigments won’t discolour the paper.
Paint on wet paper
Dampen the paper before adding paint. Watch as the colour feathers and splays across the page. By wetting large sections, you can create uncontrolled shapes that move across the paper in directions of their own. Create a more controlled flow of paint by applying thin lines of water with a brush first, then dipping colour into the water passages. The beauty of watercolour is in its unpredictability, use this technique to harness it.
Wet on wet paint
Painting wet on wet, is simply applying paint to a layer that is already wet. Watercolour dries fast so it’s essential to be quick if you want to achieve this technique in areas of your painting. Colours will bleed into one another, giving a soft appearance.
Wet on dry paint (glazing)
By painting wet on dry, you can create sharp edges and layers of glaze. As watercolour is a transparent medium, top layers of colour will alter the tones of layers beneath. You can use glazes to alter the colours, darken areas and create fine details.
One medium that will help with painting wet on dry is this watercolour fixative medium. Add it to the colour and it will dry waterproof. You can then add separate layers of colour to your painting without having to worry about colours bleeding into one another. When using this medium, make sure to clean brushes and palette thoroughly before it dries.
Masking prevents colour from making contact with the paper. You will need either masking tape, masking fluid or wax resist to achieve this. I recommended using masking fluid or wax resist to prevent watercolour from sticking to detailed areas of the paper and masking tape for around the edges of the paper.
Masking fluid, can ruin brushes, so apply with the end of a paintbrush, or an old brush. To lift masking fluid from paper, simply peel away.
As masking fluid is made from latex, it dries quickly and can feel sticky when painting it on paper. By getting a masking pen you can create accurate fine lines. The pen can be used to create a consistent line width with the fluid.
The wax resist medium works wonderfully, but bear in mind you can’t peel it away from paper like you can with masking fluid.
To pick up masking fluid, consider getting this tool to remove quality masking fluid from a variety of surfaces.
This is a fun technique to try. Get some rock salt and sprinkle it over wet paint. Salt absorbs moisture, so pools of colour will collect around the salt leaving interesting patterns and texture.
Apply salt to the layer of paint you want to alter when it’s still wet. Sprinkle the salt crystals where you want the texture to be. Then wait for the paint to dry completely. Brush away the salt crystals lightly.
Be mindful that because the water puddles build up around the absorbent salt crystals, the layer may take longer to dry compared to if the watercolour was more evenly spread across the paper.
Get creative with how you use salt—use it for underwater scenes, it would make for amazing texture in a galaxy scene, or experiment with some abstract pieces.
Paint from the tube
Painting straight from the tube will allow you to achieve thickness and more opacity in your work. By not adding any water to the paint, you can play with the darkness, and saturation of the colour will be much more intense. You may need a springy brush, like a synthetic in order to move the thicker paint.
A dry brush has a different shape to a brush that is saturated with water. Bristles separate and so different kinds of brushwork and textural effects can be achieved. Broken, organic looking strokes can be created, to emulate the texture of wood, rocks or grass.
To create this technique, dip your brush in paint, then wipe excess water and paint on a paper towel. Make sure your brush has pigment in the bristles, but that it isn’t loaded with paint and water. Then drag the brush across the dry surface.
Think about the shape of the brush you use. If you paint with a fan shaped brush, when the bristles are fairly dry, they will splay. This allows you to create the illusion of multiple blades of grass, or leaves.
Scumbling is a type of wet on dry technique used to create darker patches of paint over a lighter surface. This technique is especially suited to painting foliage, stones and organic texture.
Apply a wash of colour and let it dry. Then, make sure your brush isn’t too wet, and dab the texture where you want it to appear.
Watercolour techniques: Pin it!
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