fundamental watercolor techniques

Fundamental Watercolor Techniques for Beginners (This is All You Need)

Do you find it frustrating? Reading about all those multiple, fabulous techniques for watercolor painting. Methods which are so obscure you’ll probably hardly ever use them!

Sure, it’s fun to know these things. But I don’t think that helps you progress with watercolor painting. 

So I thought I'd talk to you about the fundamental watercolor techniques that all watercolor artists strive to master. If you focus on these essential techniques, with practice your skills will improve. 

When you start getting into watercolors you’ll hear all kinds of technical jargon about different painting methods. For me, there are 4 essential “techniques” that you need to concentrate on when you paint. In technical jargon these are:

  • Wet on wet
  • Wet on dry
  • Dry on wet
  • Dry on dry

Confused?

Don't’ be. Below I’ll go into detail about each one. Strangely enough, I don't often see watercolor textbooks or blogs associate these 4 things together. For me, they’re the staple diet for most watercolorists. And the technique of “dry on wet” is hardly ever mentioned!

A good knowledge of these procedures will go a long way to help you understand watercolors and get the best out of this sometimes tricky medium.

So make yourself a cup of coffee, grab some paints, and let’s have some fun!

By the way, to better remember these terms, note that the first word refers to the state of your brush, and the second word refers to the state of your paper. So « wet on dry » means a wet brush applied to dry paper.

Why These 4 Watercolor Techniques are Important

4 fundamental watercolor techniques

There are lots of different things you will learn when you start painting, but to get the best out of watercolors you need to know how to exploit the “fluid” nature of this medium

These 4 techniques are all about controlling the flow of watery paint. If you can observe and control the wetness of your paper and your brush, it will go a long way to help you master watercolors. 

You may have already noticed how the paint behaves differently as you progress with a painting. For example, if you add a brush stroke to damp paper, the colors fuse and spread across the surface. Or if you don’t load your brush with enough paint then you can end up with broken, irregular brushstrokes. 

And water tends to dry fairly quickly, so time plays an important part in wetness control

If you take notice of what happens as your brush and paper dries, your level of control will inevitably increase.

Wet on Wet Watercolor

watercolor wet on wet technique

Wet on wet takes a bit of time to master, but it can be an incredibly useful part of your painting repertoire.

The name is self-explanatory. With this technique you apply wet paint to wet paper. The paper can be wet with clear water, or because of an earlier wash of color that hasn’t had time to dry.

Wet on wet gives you less control over your brushstrokes. It’s pretty much impossible to paint detailed shapes with this method. But you can effectively apply a lot of color to large surfaces.

Pigment from your brush spreads into the damp paper creating diffused patterns of color. It’s a beautiful effect, but until you learn to control the wetness of your paper and brush, watercolor tends to “do it’s own thing” when you use this technique.

One thing you will notice when you paint wet on wet is that the resulting colors tend to be lighter and less vivid. This is because of the large amount of water, the paint is inevitably more diluted.

Try this test…

  • ​Mix up a puddle of watercolor, then wet the surface of some watercolor paper with clear water.
  • ​Take a brush and dab some paint into the wet surface of the paper.
  • ​Now wait a few seconds and dab the brush onto the paper again.
  • ​Keep doing this as the paper slowly dries and observe the way the color diffuses.

Sometimes you need to be patient with wet on wet. Often you need to wait for just the right level of paper wetness to achieve the effects you’re looking for.

This technique is excellent for creating subtle variations in color and intensity, and for suggesting light and atmosphere (one of the reasons it is often employed for painting skies for example).

Wet in wet is often overlooked by beginners. I think it’s viewed as too unpredictable because of the free flowing nature of this technique. Next time you paint, why not try incorporating this method into your artwork.

Wet on Dry Technique (Plus “Charging in” and “Pulling out”)

watercolor wet on dry technique

Wet on dry watercolor means exactly what it says. 

It’s when you apply wet paint on dry paper. 

Unlike painting “wet on wet” where you wet the paper beforehand, with “wet on dry” you apply your brushstrokes directly onto dry paper. 

This results in shapes that have sharp edges. It’s the method of painting which gives you the most control over your paint strokes, and it's probably the most popular method of painting used.

When you paint a wet shape onto dry paper, all of the pigment will remain within the boundaries of that shape. It will only flow beyond those boundaries if you push the pigment further by expanding the shape with your brush. If you’ve been painting with watercolors for a while, then you have probably already instinctively picked up on this.

One of the good things about wet on dry is that you can create interesting blends of colors during the painting process. Just paint a wet shape, then dab in another color with your brush. This is a technique known as charging in. You can easily change values and hues in this way, and get some pretty amazing results ! And if you use lots of water in your mixes, this gives you more time to play with the paint.

When you connect two wet shapes on dry paper, pigments and colors will flow into each other, with the wetter brushstroke flowing into the slightly dryer washes. 

With wet on dry you can also easily blend edges. When a diluted, watery shape joins with a stronger mix of paint, the two blend together to make a smooth gradient, from darker to lighter. This is a blending technique known as pulling out. This works best when the watery wash is dryer than the strong wet shape (remember water always seeks a state of equilibrium, and flows from wet to dry).

Dry on Wet Technique

watercolor dry on wet technique

This technique isn’t often talked about, but it can be used to create beautiful subtle shapes. 

The term “dry on wet” is perhaps slightly misleading. It implies a dry brush on wet paper. But of course your brush is bound to have some wetness if you have paint on it. However, to apply this technique, your paper should be wetter than your brush

To do this effectively you can use paint which is only very slightly diluted with water. I’ve even seen some artists apply paint directly from the tube into a wet wash.

The advantage is that you can create subtle details and depth to a painting. And because your paint is almost non diluted the color appearance of the shapes will be more vibrant.

Give this technique a try. You have to keep a close eye on the wetness of both paper and brush, but it will also help you to become more familiar with your paints.

Dry on Dry Technique

watercolor dry on dry technique

Otherwise known as the “dry brush” technique, dry on dry is when you paint with a very dry brush onto dry paper.

Dry brush is great for adding textured brushstrokes to your artwork. When you drag a dry brush across the surface of watercolor paper, paint will drop onto the raised bumps of the paper, but the lower indents of the textured paper remain white. For this reason, I find that the technique works best on rough watercolor paper.

Artists often use a flat brush for this method. Test your brush on a spare piece of paper to make sure you have the right level of moisture on the brush. If you’re using a round brush then you’ll get better results by painting with the side of the brush rather than the tip. Hold the brush almost horizontal and skim the brush head over the paper.

dry brush with a round brush

You also need to move the brush over the surface quickly.

This technique is great for adding texture and can be used to imply movement to a subject.

Watercolor is a Transparent Technique

As you’ve probably discovered, unlike other art mediums watercolors are transparent

When you put down layers of color, the transparency of watercolors ensures that all the underlying layers of paint remain visible. 

As a result, some people say that watercolors have the reputation of being unforgiving. That might be true when you’re starting out, but your skills will improve. All you need is a little knowledge, and better painting methods. Oh… and practice!

As you study the techniques above, keep in mind that they can all be used together

And because the paint is transparent you can build up a painting using various different techniques to achieve the final effect. 

Using just one technique on its own is rarely enough to complete a painting. 

By the way, building up layers of paint in this way is often referred to as “Glazing”. Glazing is considered a technique in it’s own right. But layering paints is almost inevitable when you paint with watercolors.

Example of a Multi-technique Watercolor Painting

Here’s a quick example of a painting where I’ve tried to incorporate all of these techniques during the painting process.

It’s a painting of a rooster (you can download the sketch template here if you want to try this yourself). During the painting I tried to keep in mind each of the 4 fundamental techniques outlined above.

watercolor multiple techniques step by step


Once you’ve finished your sketch, use a large brush with clear water to dampen the paper around the contour of your sketch. You don’t have to wet the whole surface. Just create shapes where the paint can begin to diffuse.

We’re using a wet on wet technique to start painting the main shapes of the rooster, letting the color spread into the clear water. Change colors and let each hue diffuse into each other as you continue to fill in the shapes of the rooster.

Let the paint begin to dry. While the paper is still damp you can apply a dry on wet technique to add delicate textures to the tail feathers and body.

Leave the painting to dry. Now you can add some sharper edged details using a wet on dry technique. I used this method to add details to the head and the feathers of the tail and body.

Using a dry brush I used a dry on dry technique to add some interesting textures to the tail feathers and the underside of the bird.

The colors I used in this painting setup a wonderful complementary color scheme. For info I used the following hues:

  • ​Prussian Blue
  • ​Burnt Sienna
  • ​Quinacridone Burnt orange
  • ​Quinacridone Coral
  • ​A touch of hansa Yellow Deep

​(You’ll find some of my paint recommendations here).

Get to grips with these basic techniques

As I hope you can see, each of the different methods of painting add their own level of interest to watercolor painting. Using more than one technique is a great way to give depth and variety to your work.

Give these techniques a go next time you paint!

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