Some see watercolors as an elementary painter’s medium, an entry-level material for those too inexperienced to move onto the tougher paints like oil and acrylic. This is an unfair judgment – watercolors are actually fun and versatile paints with underestimated amounts of creative potential.
In this guide, we’ll go over some popular watercolor painting techniques, and teach you what you need to know to pull them off! If you’re not ready for fancy techniques yet, consider checking out this introductory watercolor painting class and learn how to paint your first masterpiece.
Technique #1 – Flat Wash
Learning how to do a flat wash is the first watercolor painting technique you should learn if you’re serious about the medium. A flat wash is just a smooth, even layer of watercolors. This is best done with a large flat brush, which can minimize the amount of space you need to cover manually, and help keep the paint even.
Simply wet your brush with water and paint, and move the brush in a straight line across your page, applying a very gentle amount of pressure. Load your brush with an equal amount of paint and water, and continue this movement, very slightly overlapping the bottom line left by your previous brush stroke, and using the same amount of pressure.
If done correctly, this should produce an even layer of paint, covering a broad surface. It’s tough, but practice makes perfect. If you can match the precision and brushwork required to master this technique, you’re well on your way to being a great painter.
Technique #2 – Graded Wash
The graded wash technique is a step up from the simple flat wash in terms of difficulty. Instead of sheer precision, you’ll need some restraint as well, since a graded wash – as its name suggests – gradually lightens in saturation with each horizontal stroke.
Start out the same way you did the flat wash, with a flat brush, a moderate amount of paint and water, and a single, even brush stroke across the page. For the second brush stroke below the first one, apply slightly more water than last time for a lighter hue, or slightly more pigment for a darker one. It all depends on whether or not you want to go from light to dark, or dark to light.
Continue adding more water, or more pigment, to each sequential brush stroke, very slightly overlapping from the previous one for proper blending.
If you’re having trouble pulling off simple washes, don’t worry. Watercolors are tougher than most people think. Get a better grip on the medium with this watercolor painting tutorial for beginners.
Technique #3 – Wet in Wet
This is another one of the most basic watercolor painting techniques, and is especially great for the beautiful, blurred effects it can create.
For this technique, you’ll need a spray bottle of water, and a sponge. Start by spraying a light amount of water onto your paper, and taking the sponge to it to create an evenly dampened surface. Then, just paint over it!
If your watercolors are sufficiently wet, they’ll spread slightly outward with each stroke. This creates a beautiful, blurry blend of paints that is great for backgrounds, or particularly moody foregrounds.
Technique #4 – Dry Brush
Nearly the opposite of wet in wet techniques, the dry brush technique uses mostly dry paint on a dry surface. Because of the very rough, textured effect that dry brush causes, it’s recommended for use on objects in the foreground, or items of prominence in the background. This is especially the case if you’re using wet watercolor techniques for the rest of your painting. The sharpness of the dry brush portions will stand out significantly against the soft, dampened look of the rest of your painting.
Technique #5 – Spray Techniques
If you fancy yourself a modern day Jackson Pollock, you can use a large flat brush or a toothbrush to create splattered, sprayed effects in your paintings. Using a moderate amount of water mixed in with your paint, simply brush back the bristles with a finger and watch the watercolors splash all over the page!
You don’t want your brush to be oversaturated with water, since this will just produce large drips on the page, or risk making the paper too soggy. For more control over your artistic vision, you should first test this technique out on a blank piece of paper. For even more control, test it on both a dry piece of paper, and pieces of paper with varying degrees of dampness. This way, you can see how these different circumstances produce different artistic effects.
Technique #6 – Color Lifting
Instead of using a brush, you can use wads of tissue, and either load them up with paint and water to add color to your painting, or use them to dab paint and water that’s already been applied. This adds a softness to your paintings that can be used to create moody, impressionistic scenes or objects like clouds, and bodies of water.
Because of the way the tissue material lifts color and water off the page, it can also be used to create soft lighting effects, like rays of light or fog. If your paper is dry, you can lay down strips of paper over your painting, and dab in between to create rays of light that are sharp and straight on the edges, and blurry in the middle.
Technique #7 – Edge Softening
If you’re painting delicate details and find you can’t get the edges soft enough, this technique is for you. There are a couple ways you can turn those sharp, sudden edges into the soft, gradient blurs that make watercolors such a moody and impressionistic medium.
The first way is immediate. After you’ve painted your line, immediately rinse and dab the paintbrush until it’s damp, but not dripping wet. Then, paint along the line you want to soften. The slight dampness of the new line should be enough for the fresh wet paint to bleed into, but only as far as you’ve wet the paper. You can continue doing this to expand the size of the blurred edge.
The second way to do this is to continue brushing with quick, gentle motions until the paint loses its paint charge. You’ll basically be dragging the dampened, paintless brush closer to the edge you want to expand, creating a feathered blur effect along the line. From here, you can apply the technique described above to continue expanding the edge.
Want more watercolor painting technique tutorials? Check out this guide on mastering watercolor glazing techniques, or this creative watercolor painting module for a load of cool painting lessons.