watercolor techniques for beginners

10 Essential watercolor techniques for beginners

The unique fluid and transparent qualities of watercolors are what lend incredible beauty to this art medium. Having said that, these same characteristics are what beginners find unforgiving. For this reason watercolor painting has the reputation of being difficult to learn.

I remember when I started painting with watercolors it was a struggle to get the paint to do as I wanted. But that’s probably because I ignored some of the basic techniques that watercolor artists use to control their work.

So what are the most important watercolor techniques that any beginner should know and learn?

Some of the most fundamental techniques that beginners should know include watercolor Washes. Flat, Graded, and Variegated are all techniques any novice should learn. Wet on Dry and Wet on Wet techniques help to understand how to paint hard or soft edges and how to blend with watercolors. Techniques such as Dry Brush, Scumbling, and Splatters are useful for adding texture to your artwork. And the method of Reserving Whites and Lifting Off are unique to watercolor painting and important for creating highlights and controlling values in your painting.

Below I’m going to explain in detail all of these techniques and how they can help improve your watercolor painting skills! All of these things are great to know for any beginner who wants to get a better grasp of this tricky medium. Practice them as often as you can, but above all, enjoy the process and try not to be a perfectionist!

What you might think of as an “imperfection” is exactly what gives watercolors their special and extraordinary expression !

So have fun!

Wet on dry technique

The term wet on dry means exactly what it says. With this technique you apply wet paint onto a dry surface. Whether you’re painting onto clean white paper or a previously laid wash of color, the surface must be dry. Wet on dry is a fundamental watercolor technique and probably the method of painting artists use the most often.

For this reason it’s a method which demands some patience, because you need to wait between brush strokes so that your next stroke doesn’t bleed color into the underlying layers of damp paint.

Watercolor paint always dries lighter in tone than when it’s wet. The first washes you lay on paper often appear light and flat. Watercolor artists usually build up depth and intensity of color by applying successive layers (As you can guess, this technique is closely associated with glazing). In this way you can add darker values and richer colors which have texture and interest.

One of the tricky things with this dry surface technique is when you want to paint large areas of colored wash. If the paint dries too quickly while you’re working you can end up with unwanted streaks in the wash area. You need to have a good grasp of flat wash and graded wash techniques to overcome this problem (see further down).

The use of wet on dry doesn’t exclude the use of other painting techniques. I often see artists combine an underlying wash of wet on wet with wet on dry details which give sharper edges.

wet on dry example

You can use wet on dry to produce crisp sharp edges. In fact it’s probably the only way you can add detail to your work. It's a technique favored by artists who enjoy precision.

Because of the liquid nature of watercolors, paint will flow to wherever there’s moisture. If the surface is completely dry, there is no flow, and the brush marks remain where they are placed. The paint will remain within the boundaries of the wet brush mark.

But this doesn’t mean that wet on dry is only used for sharp edged shapes. You can also produce smooth edges to shapes when painting wet on dry. For this you need to learn how to blend watercolor paint with a wet on dry method.

Glazing

Glazing sounds like a complicated technique but it’s actually quite simple. Glazing is another word for “layering”. The notion of layering in watercolors is important, as you’ll probably discover the more you paint. Unlike a lot of other art mediums, watercolors are transparent. This means that each brushstroke you lay down onto paper is visible underneath every subsequent layer of paint. This transparency is what gives rise to the technique of glazing.

There are a few important things to keep in mind about glazing:

  • Each layer needs to be left to dry before applying a new wash of paint. For this reason, glazing is essentially a wet on dry technique of painting. Wet on dry basically means applying wet paint to a dry surface. Painting into a wet surface does not produce the same results and would be considered a wet in wet technique.
  • When you glaze, the natural transparency of watercolors effects the color appearance of a painting. Each new layer alters the color of the layer underneath. If you glaze with different colors you are basically mixing colors on the paper.
glazing technique simple exercise

As a beginner I think the best way to approach glazing is to build your paintings gradually by working from light to dark. Applying several layers of watercolors develops the depth and intensity of the painting. Always paint your very lightest tones at the beginning of a new painting by applying thin, diluted washes rather than strong, thick paint. Each new layer of paint progressively increases tonal values and modifies colors. Applying multiple glazes helps control shifts in hue and tone.

It’s often a good idea to test the color palette you intend to use to see the effects of color mixing. I recommend you do some color preparation on a separate sheet of watercolor paper before starting a new project. This helps you judge the transparency of your chosen colors and how the colors will mix when layered.

You can do this by creating a quick glazing chart at the beginning of each project, or if you want to get to know your paints better, make a big reference chart for all your paints! If you want to know more about making glazing charts, take a look at my tutorial !

example of a glazing chart

Watercolor blending technique

Blending, (going from dark to light) is one of the hardest techniques in watercolor. It requires a certain amount of brush control and a well practiced technique. But blending is essential for achieving gradual transitions from one tone or color to another and give a sense of three dimensional form to your artwork.

Any shape you paint with watercolor has a tendency to form a hard edge when it dries. Unless you smooth out and blend the edge before the paint dries then lines and edges will appear.

What makes blending with watercolors more difficult than other mediums is that watercolors dry more quickly. The process of blending with watercolors can be achieved using either wet on dry or wet on wet techniques.

The advantage of wet on wet blending is that the paint stays wet for longer, giving you more time to play with the paint and blend colors together. However, wet on wet blending can be unpredictable. You have less control over the movement of pigments and paint can spread in a slightly haphazard way. With experience you can gain a certain amount of control over wet on wet blending if you learn to use different degrees of surface wetness to increase or limit the flow of paint on the paper.

Wet on dry blending can be achieved by pulling out color with a clean blotted brush.

Let’s say you paint a flat shape onto dry paper and you want to blend one edge. Paint will only flow where there is moisture. So you need to encourage movement by expanding the shape with your brush. If you continue to paint with a brush loaded with paint, you’ll just increase the size of your wash area.

watercolor blending technique

Rinse your brush then blot it on a paper towel to remove most of the moisture. If you use a brush loaded with clear water then you will get a backrun which produces a feathery pattern in your damp wash. Brush the edge that you want to blend and pull the paint outwards with the damp brush. Pigment will disperse into the dampness and will be diluted in strength. Continue to clean and blot your brush repeatedly and brush the edge until it blends completely.

All of this needs to be done fairly quickly before the paint has time to dry.

Wet on wet technique

Wet on wet is a wonderful technique for producing amorphous shapes and soft edges. The term “wet on wet” means exactly what its name implies, you apply wet paint onto a wet surface. You begin by dampening the surface of the paper with clear water, then you charge the water with pigment from a loaded brush. The resulting washes have soft blended edges. Colors run into each other to create beautiful textures.

If you drop a new color into a previously laid wet wash of watercolor, the new paint tends to push the existing pigment around. As the paint dries the colors bleed together. Adding paint in this way is known as charging.

wet on wet effects

The downside of this technique is the lack of control. Pigments spread according to the wetness of the paper and not just in the areas where you apply your brush. If your paper is very wet, the spread of paint will be large. If the surface is only slightly damp, the paint will spread over a very short distance. With a little experience you can use the different stages of paper wetness to produce the effects your desire.

The large amount of water used for this method of painting can cause watercolor paper to buckle and wrinkle, sometimes making it difficult to paint properly. Unless you use really heavy watercolor paper I suggest you stretch your paper to avoid this.

This technique is only really useful for soft blurry forms, and you won’t be able to paint well defined forms. For example it’s Ideal for painting clouds !

The flat wash

When artists talk about a flat wash they mean an area of paint which has uniform color and tone with no visible brush marks. This is a very satisfying technique to apply and once you have a grasp of the basics it’s not too difficult. It just needs a little practice.

To perform a successful flat wash there are two different methods which most watercolor artists use. Perhaps the most frequent is to use a wet on dry approach. But it’s also possible to make a great flat wash by using a wet on wet technique.

You can do a quick comparison of the two techniques for yourself. Before painting ​a flat wash you should mix a good quantity of paint, ​so you don't run out while laying the wash.

To paint the wet on dry flat wash you paint with a series of alternating horizontal brushstrokes, starting at the top of the paper and gradually working your way down. Move the brush from left to right and tilt the paper at a slight angle so that the wet paint flows downwards. This action creates an excess of wetness at the bottom of the brush stroke which is known as a bead. Keep loading your brush with fresh paint so that you always have a bead of moisture, and carry this bead to the bottom of the page.

flat wash technique

With the wet on wet technique there’s no need to tilt the paper. You begin by dampening the whole of the paper, and this dampness encourages the paint to flow across the surface and blend smoothly. There is no particular style of brush stroke needed, just paint the area of the wash all over before the wet paper has time to dry. If the wash seems uneven, you can incline the paper in whatever direction needed to spread the pigment around more uniformly.

With both techniques always blot up any left over bead or wetness to avoid a backrun from forming. The wet on wet technique gives you more time to play with the paint since the paper takes more time to dry. But the heavily soaked paper will tend to buckle which means you may need to stretch the paper before laying this kind of wet wash.

The graded wash

A graded wash is the next level up in difficulty compared to a flat wash technique. A graded wash changes gradually in tone from darker to lighter. The transition should be smooth, and as with a flat wash, individual brush marks are not apparent.

Graded washes can be painted wet on dry or wet on wet. The method is practically the same as for a flat wash, but instead of applying the same strength of paint over the entire wash area, this time we gradually add clear water to the paint mix so that it becomes more and more diluted.

try both methods to see what you think. It’s sometimes easier as a beginner to use a wet on wet method because of the extended drying time, but I encourage you to practice both. After all, practice makes perfect !

Begin your washes in the same way as described above. At the moment when you want to start the transition, add a couple of big brush loads of clear water to your paint mix. use this new diluted mix to continue the painting underneath your full strength wash. Keep diluting and moving down the page until you reach the bottom. You can even use clear water for the final brush strokes if you like.

Don’t forget to mop up any remaining moisture (even if it’s clear water) to avoid a backrun from forming at the base of the wash.

The variegated wash

A variegated wash is an area of color which changes in color and value across its surface. You can mix as many colors as you want with this technique. Watercolor artists use this method often for creating interesting shifts in tone and blended colors.

The technique used is very much the same as for painting a flat or graded wash, and you can apply either a wet on dry, or wet on wet technique. The colors bleed together in a slightly unpredictable way producing very appealing results.

One quick tip… Make sure you have a good quantity of each color prepared before you start painting. You don’t want the paint to start drying or the wash will end up with streaks or blotches !

If you want a complete and detailed explanation about watercolor washes, I’ve written a full length tutorial here...

Reserving whites

With watercolor painting the purest form of creating white is by reserving whites so that the white of the paper is free of paint. It’s the white paper which generates the light tones in a painting. The most effective way to achieve sparkling highlights or bright white shapes is to reserve them by painting around them.

The transparent nature of watercolors allows the white of the paper to show through, and darker tones are only achieved by applying more layers of darker pigment. For this reason it is important to plan where you want the paper to remain white. Sometimes it can be a big help to make a value study of your subject before painting the final artwork. This helps you anticipate where the paper needs to stay white.

There are a few different ways of reserving white. The first is simply to paint around any white shapes. Painting around a shape with a wash of color will leave a hard edge. This works well for very glossy objects but for more matt surfaces you will need to blend the edges.

Painting around complex objects is more tricky. You generally want a consistent wash background around any object. This becomes difficult when painting around complicated shapes. So in this case you may need to use masking fluid (also known as frisket). Masking fluid is basically fluid latex which is painted over the area you want to protect. Once the masking liquid is dry washes can be painted over the top. After letting the paint dry completely you can remove the masking without damaging the paper. Masking frisket can be painted in shape you like.

Artists occasionally also use wax resist. With this method you draw over the area which must stay white using white candle wax. This is a quick and quite accurate way of reserving white, but the downside is that the wax remains on the paper !

Another alternative for achieving white in watercolor painting is to remove paint from the paper surface after painting. This can be done by lifting off or by scraping the paint. For example you can lift pigment off the paper using a clean damp brush. You can do this while the paint is still wet or to a certain degree when the paint has dried. You brush should be damp but not soaking because you want the brush to wick paint from the surface. Scraping is done with any sharp object but artists usually use a razor. Be careful with this technique however since it tends to damage the paper.

Watercolor dry brush technique

Dry brushing literally means painting with a dry brush so that color only partially covers the paper. This brush technique produces broken lines of color and is very effective for adding texture to a painting.

I would recommend you use this technique in combination with others. As an example, the artist Chien Chung Wei uses this technique beautifully. Try looking him up !

To get the hang of this brush method it’s well worth grabbing a few spare sheets of paper and do some experimenting. In general it works best on paper which has some texture, so cold pressed or rough watercolor paper is ideal. It can be quite punishing for your brushes so don’t use your best ones ! Also it tends to work better with stiff brushes. Goat hair is a good option or some sort of bristle brush.

dry brush technique

As you might have guessed, the wetness of the brush needs to be controlled for this technique to be successful. You need to move your brush with fairly rapid linear movements. As your brush skims across the paper the dry paint adheres to the raised textured paper surface, but doesn’t sink into the crevices.

Watercolor scumbling

Scumbling is a brush technique for adding texture to your artwork. You use your brush with a dabbing and scribbling action to create patchy specks of color. Dabbing repeatedly in this way creates loose dots of texture which can be varied in tone or layered on top of each other. This technique is great for adding detail.

Scumbling is a technique which originates from oil painting. It’s used to add scattered dots of lighter colored paint to create highlights. Because oil paints are opaque, this works well for creating areas of lighter color. But because watercolors are transparent, scumbling works differently. With watercolor you begin light and finish dark. So scumbling is added in stages to create darker dots of texture over spots of lighter toned paint or untouched white paper.

It’s an excellent technique for adding textures for masonry, fur, hair, feathers, leaves, foliage etc.

watercolor scumbling

Any kind of brush can be used for scumbling, but in general it seems to work better with short tufted brushes. If you find yourslf stabing and sraping quite hard then maybe don’t use your best brushes ! Scumbling is a wet on dry technique. You begin by laying down base washes of color or an initial pattern of scumbling. These first layers must be dry before you start dabbing texture over them. Also your brush should not be too wet.

It’s a very easy technique and it provides a good level of control. Use your brush to create irregular shapes any way you want, by randomly dotting or stroking the paper.

Try experimenting with scumbling to see what effects you can get.

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