guide to watercolor wash techniques

Complete guide to watercolor wash techniques

I knew I shouldn't do it !

I had just laid down a nice graded wash of watercolor for the background of a new painting. But it wasn’t perfectly even. You know what’s it’s like… you often think you can do better. So I went back in with a damp brush to play with the wash some more. I was hoping to smooth out the gradient…

Boy was I wrong.

I finished up with a very streaky watercolor wash !

So what happened ? How do you paint a successful watercolor wash?

Watercolor washes, whether flat or blended, need to be brushed quickly and evenly across the paper surface to achieve a smooth uniform result. You need to control the level of wetness of your brush and paper, and you can't waste time or you risk ruining the wash. Washes are said to be one of the fundamental techniques in watercolor painting, and they can be difficult to master !

Becoming competent with this technique takes practice, but there are some basic methods that will help you paint successful washes. And I’m going to go over them in detail below.

If you’re determined to get a grasp of this aspect of watercolor painting I have a suggestion.

Make lots of washes !

Don’t be afraid to invest in some paper and simply practice your technique again and again. It will be time and effort well invested.

Below you’ll find some step by step guidance and a whole load of tips to help you troubleshoot any less than perfect washes.

What is a watercolor wash ?

First a quick tip about terminology. You hear watercolor artists talk about washes all the time. But the term “wash” is slightly confusing since it seems to have a double meaning…

Firstly, when watercolor artists refer to a “wash” they often mean the wet paint you use to paint with mixed from water and pigment. When you mix some paint at the beginning of a new painting, this is called your “wash puddle”.

Secondly, the term “wash” also refers to an area of paint applied to the paper in a smooth, uniform zone of flat color, or a subtle gradient changing in tone or color. Washes are areas of a painting where you cannot see the individual brush strokes, and any transition of value or hue is gradual.

what is a wash in watercolor

I have to admit, I use both terms intermittently without any trouble, but for a beginner this can be a cause of befuddlement !

For the purposes of this article I’ll be talking about various types of washes in the sense of a painted area of paper, and the techniques employed for laying down a good watercolor wash.

Different types of watercolor wash

Washes are categorized into three main types. Flat, graded (also sometimes called gradient), and variegated.

A flat wash has the same uniform color and tone all over. A graded wash has a gradual smooth change in tone from dark to light. And a variegated wash has different color and tone in various places.

the different types of watercolor wash

Additionally watercolor artists commonly use either wet on dry or wet on wet techniques when they work, and both methods can be used to paint washes.

Some artists prefer one technique over another and always execute their washes the same way.

But you need to decide for yourself which method you prefer. So I’m going to describe every possible type of wash (flat, graded and variegated), and each possible technique (wet on dry and wet on wet), so you get a full picture of what watercolor washes are about and the choices you have.

Equipment and getting prepared before you start

If you set up your workspace properly before you start you’ll improve the probability of painting a decent wash. Because you need to work quickly, a bit of preparation will speed up your workflow.

An organized workspace is a good starting point. Clear your space of any unnecessary clutter for ease of movement. When painting washes I typically make sure I have the following:

A board which can easily be titled. Whether you stretch your paper or just fix it down with masking tape, wash techniques benefit from being able to incline the paper and use gravity to improve the flow of wet paint.

A jar of water which is not rinse water. Some wash techniques need clear water for pre wetting paper or diluting the paint strength. I usually use two jars whenever I paint, one for rinsing and another for a supply of clean water.

A watercolor wash brush. Washes are usually painted with large soft brushes. But you should try to adapt the size and type of brush to the size of your wash area. Think about the kind of wash you’re aiming for and choose your brush accordingly. Some brushes make the job easier than others. For example if the wash is small or irregularly shaped a number 8 round brush will probably do the trick. For large surfaces a 1” flat brush or something like a number 16 mop brush is a good choice. Squirrel hair is also a favorite because of it's excellent handling properties and its ability to hold a large reservoir of water (read this article for more details on choosing the best brushes).

Choose your paper well. When you start out painting watercolors I recommend you use watercolor paper with a slight texture, in other words, cold press watercolor paper. Rough textured paper will make it more difficult to execute a smooth wash. On the other hand, smooth hot pressed watercolor paper can be quite unforgiving and will show up any irregularities in your wash.

Make sure you mix a sufficient amount of paint. I would suggest mixing up more than you need for the area you’re going to cover. There's nothing like running out of paint to spoil a good wash! Make sure the water and paint are thoroughly mixed so that you get a consistent hue. (For advise and tips about watercolor supplies you can read my recommendations here...)

Ready ?

Ok, here's the lowdown on the different kinds of washes you’re likely to use when painting.

Watercolor flat wash technique

Flat washes are used to paint shapes of continuous color which have no variation in tone and hue. The appearance is uniform and “flat”.

To execute a perfect flat wash with a wet on dry technique you need to paint in a fairly smooth, uninterrupted manner.

For wet on dry, speed is important because the paint needs to stay wet until you’ve finished painting the wash area. Similarly, with a wet on wet method, you need to paint your wash before the pre wetted paper dries.

wet on dry vs wet on wet flat wash

Wet on dry flat wash method

Painting a wash with a wet on dry technique simply means painting onto dry paper.

Begin by getting prepared (refer to the notes above if necessary). Incline the board with the watercolor paper by propping up the back edge. A 30 degree angle is sufficient but you’ll get a feeling for what works well.

Prepare a large amount of paint for the wash. Load your wash brush with paint and apply a horizontal line across the top of the paper. The paint will flow down the paper forming a bead at the lower edge of your brushstroke (a bead is an accumulation of excess moisture which forms at the end of a stroke).

wet on dry flat washes

Continue to paint with alternating horizontal brush strokes from left to right. Each brush stroke should be a little lower down the page, in the opposite direction, and slightly overlapping the previous stroke.

This will slowly push the bead further down the page. Reload your brush regularly so that you always have a bead forming at the base of your stroke.

technique for painting a flat wash

It’s all about the bead ! With each pass of the brush your paint should remain wet enough to form a bead. If the paint begins to dry, a line will form, and your final watercolor wash will be streaky.

When you reach the end of your wash, blot your brush dry and use it to soak up the bead at the bottom. If you don’t mop this up, you will see a backrun forming at the base of the wash. (A backrun is a feathery pattern which forms when a bead of moisture flows back into a settling wash).

mopping up the bead

Tips: ​If you see a line or hard edge beginning to form this can usually be scrubbed out when the following brush stroke is applied. Reload your brush and keep going.

Wet on wet flat wash method

To paint a wash using a wet on wet technique means you need to pre-wet the surface of the paper before laying down a wash. You need to paint your wash quickly because you don’t want your paper to dry before you’re finished.

Prewetting the wash area has the advantage of preventing the appearance of lines of dried paint.

Tip: With a wet on wet technique you want the paper to be wet, but not over saturated, or else you lose control over the paint. To know if your paper has just the right level of wetness hold it up to the light to check the level of moisture. The water should begin to be absorbed by the paper leaving a shiny surface, but you should not have pools of water moving around on top of the paper.

When you paint a flat wash using a wet on wet technique there are few important differences.

To begin with, you don’t need to incline your board. A bead will not form on a wet surface so you can paint on flat paper and simply tilt your board as needed to help the paint flow in one direction or another.

You’ll also notice that your wash appears lighter because you are essentially diluting the paint with the water that’s already on the paper. You can compensate for this by making your paint mix slightly stronger.

Wet on wet is also slightly more forgiving than a wet on dry technique. You can go back into a painted area and make corrections if needed. You can then tilt the board in different directions to even out the wash.

Begin by preparing your paper and mixing your puddle of paint, making the mix slightly stronger than the anticipated final color value. I recommend that you stretch your paper if using this technique because the increased amount of water will tend to buckle your paper. Alternatively use extremely heavy watercolor paper such as 300 lb / 640 gsm.

Brush the whole surface of the wash area with clear water. The paper should be evenly wet before you lay down a wash.

wet on wet flat wash painting technique

Apply your paint mix across the whole surface of the paper as quickly as possible while the paper is still wet. You don’t necessarily need to apply horizontal brush strokes like you do with a wet on dry technique,  just get the paint down as quickly as you can.

Help the pigment to spread evenly across the surface by inclining the board in various directions. Eliminate any excess paint by letting it seep to one side and blot up any excess moisture to avoid backruns.

One of the downsides is you now need to wait a while until the wash is completely dry before painting on top of it.

Tips: ​If you’re impatient, get your hairdryer out and dry the wash quicker !

Wet on dry vs wet on wet conclusions for flat washes:

Ok… I know what you’re going to say ! That first wash looks streaky !

As you can see from the results, a dry wash with uniform color is more difficult to pull off than than a wet on wet wash. Colors blend and diffuse more easily with wet on wet and it’s pretty difficult to avoid streaks with the wet on dry method (I was doing this on a hot day and taking my time, which maybe had an effect on the end result). But it IS possible to get a smooth wash with wet on dry… Promise ! Even if wet on wet seems easier for a beginner, the downside is your paper will buckle and warp like crazy unless you stretch it first. Wet on wet is also a little more difficult to control since you can’t always predict where the pigment will flow (you’ll see this especially with the variegated wash later). And wet on wet washes always dry lighter, meaning you may have to lay another wash on top to get the values you require.

Watercolor graded wash technique

A graded wash changes in value from dark to light. It’s the kind of wash often used for painting sky backgrounds in landscapes. It can be tricky to get the transition exactly the way you want, but like with flat washes, practice makes perfect ! Again, we'll be looking at both wet on dry and wet on wet methods.

wet on dry vs wet on wet graded wash

Wet on dry graded wash method

To paint a wet on dry graded wash you use a very similar technique to a flat wash. The difference is you need to dilute your paint mix as you progress down the page.

Prepare enough paint mixture to finish the entire wash. Start in exactly the same way as for a flat wash by inclining the board and painting a horizontal brush stroke with a bead at its base.

At the place you want your wash to become lighter in tone, add a couple of brush loads of clean water to your paint to weaken the mix. Load your brush with this diluted mixture and continue to paint horizontal passes with your brush.

graded wash painting technique

As before, work quickly so the paint doesn’t dry and try to maintain a bead at the base of each brush stroke.

Continue to add water to your palette to dilute the paint mixture. Your final brush strokes can be applied by just dipping the brush into clear water and applying it directly to the page. Don’t rinse the brush clean, because you want a bit of pigment to remain on the brush head.

The wash will become lighter and lighter as you continue down the page.

Finish the wash by mopping up any excess moisture at the base so you don’t get unwanted patterns from a backrun. Let the paint dry before applying any new washes.

Wet on wet graded wash method

Again I recommend using stretched paper or very heavy grade watercolor paper with this technique.

A wet on wet graded wash technique is similar to the wet on wet flat wash technique. Remember to mix a stronger paint solution since it will be diluted by the water already on the paper.

You begin by pre wetting the paper. However this time you want the board to be inclined, and you should paint using horizontal brush strokes as if you were painting wet on dry.

Add full strength paint to the top of the paper, moving down the page with alternating brushstrokes. Next use a diluted mix of paint or add clear water to your brush and start painting the transition from dark to light. You want the paint to seep into the area of saturated paper below.

Incline the board some more to spread the paint across the wet paper surface. You can move the board at various angles to help achieve an even gradation of color.

Tips: ​When you’re happy with the result, don’t forget to remove any excess paint to avoid backruns. Leave the paper to dry flat so the paint pigments don’t continue to move around.

Watercolor variegated wash technique

A variegated wash is a blend of two or more colors. This kind of wash changes in color or tone across its surface. Again this can be painted using a wet on dry or wet on wet method, but personally I find the wet on wet technique much easier because it encourages the different colors to blend. If you’re practicing this kind of wash for the first time I suggest you stick to just two colors to begin with.

wet on dry vs wet on wet variegated wash

Wet on dry variegated wash method

You will need two separate mixes of color ready to go in your palette. Begin the wash in exactly the same way as you would for a wet on dry flat wash. Paint alternating horizontal brush strokes with color no.1. Your board should be inclined and you should try to always have a bead of moisture at the base of each stroke.

When you reach the moment that you want to make the color transition, rinse your brush and load it with color no.2. Start painting again, adding the new color to the existing bead of the previous color. The two colors will blend together where the second color was introduced producing a variegated effect. You will probably need to rinse your brush before the next brush stroke because your brush will be contaminated by the first color.

variegated wash painting technique

Continue until you reach the bottom and finish the wash in the same way as for a flat wash by removing the remaining bead.

Tips: ​​It pays to have your two colors already mixed so that the first wash doesn’t have time to dry when you make the change from one color to another.

Wet on wet variegated wash method

Prepare your paper and your paint. For best results use two mixes of fairly concentrated paint and stretched or heavy watercolor paper. As with other wet on wet methods you need to pre wet the paper in an even manner.

Whether you incline the board or not is up to you and depends on the result you’re trying to achieve. If you want a smooth linear transition from one color to another then try tilting the board. If you want a random blend of colors then you can leave the board flat and just incline the board afterwards if you need to move pigment around the paper surface.

When your paper reaches the correct level of wetness (shiny but with no puddles of surface water) , apply your first color.

If you’ve tried the other exercises above you’re probably getting used to the effects created with a wet on wet technique. Use whatever brush strokes you feel like, horizontal if you want a linear appearance or just drop color onto the paper from the brush in a random pattern. You can either cover the whole surface with a flat wash of one color then add a second color while the wash is still wet. Or you could paint one area and then apply another color to an adjacent area of the paper.

The wet paper encourages the paint pigments to flow across the surface in a diffuse manner. Your two colors will spread and blend together to create a variegated effect.

So long as the surface remains shiny wet you can blend two colors together, but at some point the paper starts to dry. The paper may still look moist but at this stage there is very little surface flow. If you continue to add wet paint to damp drying paper you will probably end up with blooms and backruns (those feathery patterns caused by liquid flowing into a wash which has started to dry). For this reason, like with most wash techniques, you need to work quickly while the stage of wetness is just right.

​Tips: You can also lift color off the page with a blotted brush or a sponge for example. This is the kind of method used for creating white clouds in a sky wash.

​Watercolor washes around complex shapes

It’s one thing to paint washes over large areas or big shapes like in the exercises above, but it gets much harder when you have to paint a wash around a complex shape!

With time and experience you can probably develop enough confidence in your brush control to lay washes around any shape you want to reserve on the paper. But for us mere mortals who struggle with this, here are a couple of tips.

For a start, pre wetting the wash area is advantageous when painting around complex edges, because the longer drying time gives you more time to paint accurately. Using a wet on wet technique effectively extends the time your have to complete your wash.

Alternatively, you can use watercolor masking fluid (also known as watercolor frisket). Masking tape also works but make sure you use the “low tack” variety so your can remove it without damaging the paper surface.

Pre wetting before a wash vs dry paper

So now you know, the three main types of watercolor wash (flat, graded, and variegated) can be painted using two techniques: wet on dry or wet on wet. I suggest you try each technique to see what suits your style of painting best. Hopefully the guidelines above will help you paint successful washes.

As you have probably figured out, pre wetting the paper has some benefits. This type of technique is slightly more forgiving and allows the artist to do some corrections while painting a wash. Wet on wet can improve the evenness of the wash and help to hide brush marks. It also gives you a little more time to work on your watercolor wash. This is a real advantage for certain pigments which have a tendency to dry more quickly. Blending is very smooth with wet on wet so it’s especially useful for graded washes or variegated wash types.

But the downfall with wet on wet is that you really need to stretch your paper if you want to keep control over your painting. When the paper buckles the paint pigments tend to gather in the dips wrinkles of the paper making a smooth wash almost impossible. Soaked paper also takes more time to dry so you need to be patient !

To make life easier, I try to make sure I have a few sheets of stretched paper ready to go !

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