Jill Poyerd

Many years ago, I was thinking about the best way to explain how watercolor works. Almost all brush painting falls into one of three forms of application. These are: controlled, semi-controlled, and uncontrolled application methods. Understanding control when you apply paint can help you understand how watercolor works. 

I like to relate it to riding a horse. When you jump on the back of a horse, you grab the reins and squeeze your calves to direct the horse. Unless your horse is very stubborn, you have complete control. You control the pace he moves, when he starts and stops, and the direction he follows. In painting, your hand and the brush are the “reins and calves” that control where the paint will go.

Now let’s picture the same horse, but this time placed in a corral without a rider. In this situation, the horse can go wherever it wants to, but only within the confines of the fence. It has freedom, but it’s within defined limits. This is true of semi-controlled painting as well. The artist establishes the boundary (the “corral”) by applying an area of water or paint to the surface. While it’s still wet the artist can drop more paint into the painted area. It can only travel within the wet surface and not beyond, with a few exceptions.

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And finally, imagine that same horse set free in the wild where it can run wherever it wants. There is no corral and no rider to limit it. This relates to uncontrolled painting. In this case, the entire surface (or a large part of it) is wet. The artist then applies fresh paint where it can flow at-will throughout the wet surface.

Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Controlled paint application

A controlled application is when an artist loads their brush with paint and strokes it on dry paper. The paint can only go where the artist places the brush. This can apply to many, many types of brushstrokes. The overarching concept is that you’re applying paint to a completely dry surface. It is controlled regardless of brush load, dilution, or level of pressure. Some examples are glazing, blends, directly painted lines, and dry brushing.

Glazing and blending

Two similar brushstrokes are glazing and blended strokes. They both involve painting strokes of paint that connect at the seam. They each create one solid shape, free of brush lines or visible seams. The difference between the two is the level of opacity. Opacity is how much of the layer underneath shows through. Glazing is very transparent, and blended strokes are more opaque. The strokes are controlled since the artist applies fresh paint to dry paper. They determine where the strokes will connect.

Direct painting

You can also apply watercolor paints as directly painted lines. These strokes involve loading the brush with paint, then stroking it across the dry watercolor paper. The mark remains as part of the finished product. This relates to strokes like basic lines, dabs, hatch marks, or repetitive directional lines.

Dry brush

Another form of controlled brushstroke is the dry brush mark. The standard dry brush application involves a very lightly loaded brush, stroked gently across the surface. You hold the brush at an extreme angle so that the bristles glide along the hills on the surface. 

A dry brush can also refer to a similar stroke called feathering. You first apply the brush firmly and then sweep the brush off the surface, leaving a disappearing trail of paint. 

Scumbling is yet another form of dry brush mark. The lightly loaded brush skips and jumps along the surface. It leaves areas of the dry surface visible throughout the painted section. 

No matter which direct painting method you use, the paint will only go where the artist places it. Each can result in some very interesting textures.

2. Semi-controlled paint application

Semi-controlled application refers to applying paint to a pre-wet area on the surface. By wetting the paper in a specific shape or in a specific part of the painting, you’re telling the paint where it can go. You’re setting the boundaries, much like setting up a fence for a corral. You can create the shape with a brush wet only with water or with paint. You then apply fresh paint within that wet area of the surface where it can only spread within the set shape.

Let’s look at four ways you can apply the paint this way: 

Water spraying

Water spraying is spraying droplets of water in a single location on the surface. You then drop in fresh paint wherever the grouping of droplets are. The paint can only flow within the connecting water droplets. This results in an interesting and spontaneous design. The artist decides where to spray and where to place the fresh paint within the haphazard shape.


Another semi-controlled paint application method involves wetting an area of the surface with a brush. You then drop in some pre-mixed paint using an eyedropper or a brush. The paint is then allowed to spread throughout the wet region at will. You can tilt the surface to encourage flow. This creates a free and often interesting effect within the confines of the established shape. 

Shape pouring

A third method follows the same process as the drop-in method. Instead of applying the paint with an eyedropper or brush, you pour the pre-mixed paint into the wet shape. The difference is the amount of paint involved. Pouring usually relates to more than a few drops of paint, but not so much that it breaks out of the established wet border.

Wet-in-wet direct

You can also wet an area of the surface and then directly paint with your brush onto the wet area. Basically, direct painting but on a wet surface. This is a fourth semi-controlled method, and it results in a diffused line. The amount of diffusion depends on how wet the surface is or how diluted your paint is.

3. Uncontrolled paint application

The last control method is uncontrolled application. In truth, there is still an element of control. The idea is that the entire painting surface is wet either with water or paint. You then apply fresh paint onto the surface. At that point, the applied paint can pretty much spread anywhere.

This wet-in-wet technique relates to many application methods. These include pouring your paint, wet glazing, and wet splatter.


One of the most common paint application methods where the entire surface of the painting is pre-wet is referred to as pouring. This involves pre-mixing paint to the desired dilution and then strategically pouring it onto the pre-wet surface. The artist does have an element of control. This comes from choosing where to pour the paint within the piece, whether they tilt the painting surface to move the pigment, or how much liquid they apply. Once down, though, there is a loss of control. The paint can technically spread throughout the surface. This is one method where experience helps increase the artist’s level of control.

Wet glazing

Some artists paint glazes of color on a pre-wet surface. This involves wetting the surface with water, situating it at a low tilt, and then applying thin paint with a wide flat brush, beginning at the top of the surface and working your way down. Each stroke should connect along the seam. The result is an overall thin layer of color.

Wet splatter

You can also use creative methods like paint splatter on a fully wet surface. This technique involves loading your brush with paint and then flicking it over the pre-wet surface to release droplets of paint. You can also tap the brush over the surface with your finger to release the droplets. This is a slightly neater way to create the same effect. It results in diffused, sporadic spots of color that make an interesting and subtle textural effect.

Choosing a paint application

These are three overarching forms of paint application. Factors like pigment intensity, paint dilution, amounts of water on the surface, timing, and brush pressure influence each. Once you understand your control options, you can choose the type of brushwork that will help you achieve your desired effect. 

Page Last Updated: February 2021

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