11 Essential Watercolor Techniques All Painters Need to Know

Watercolor Techniques

Photo: Palette of watercolor paints and brushes from Smile19 / Shutterstock.com
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Watercolor painting has long been a favorite medium of expression for enthusiasts and professional artists alike. Although you only need a brush and pigments to get started, watercolor is a material with many creative possibilities. By incorporating household supplies into your painting, you can create work that has interesting textures as well as fluid, carefree colors that showcase the best attributes of the medium.

Common Tools Needed for Popular Watercolor Techniques

You don’t have to look far for many of the supplies needed for watercolor painting techniques. In fact, you probably have some of them in your home right now. This is in addition to a watercolor paint set, paper, and wet media brushes in various sizes.

  • Table salt
  • Masking tape or rubber cement. Both of these items will be used to mask the paper so that watercolor pigment cannot penetrate it. Each works in a similar way, although rubber cement is painted on the paper and has more flexibility. In contrast, masking tape is easier to apply but works better if you’re working with straight, rigid lines.
  • Sewing needle
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Plastic wrap

Feeling confused about why you need rubbing alcohol to paint?  Don't worry—it's all explained on the next page.

11 Common Watercolor Painting Techniques

Flat Wash

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A flat wash makes up a majority of watercolor painting; it's such a basic technique that you don't even realize you're doing it. Simply dip your brush in water and paint and then spread it over your intended surface. (This is called a wash.) The important thing to remember is to make sure that your color looks even—a flat wash should appear as a single, solid hue on your paper. We use the flat wash in our demonstration of how to paint watercolor flowers.

This step-by-step tutorial shows you how to create a flat wash. 

 

Wet on Dry


Wet on dry is another fundamental approach. It’s created by painting a wash on paper. After it has dried, apply paint on top of it. Because watercolor is translucent, you will most likely see the bottom layer behind that stroke.

Kelogsloops, one of our favorite watercolorists, shares how he uses the wet on dry technique in his painting:

 

Graded Wash

A graded wash shows a transition from light to dark. Start by painting dark—load up your brush with the most pigment—and then drag it across the paper. On the next pass, add less pigment on your brush and swipe it across the paper so that it slightly overlaps with your first line. The two groups will begin to converge and eventually look like one. Repeat this process, adding less and less pigment, until you’ve got your desired tonal range.

Wet on Wet

The wet-on-wet approach showcases the best quality of watercolor paint—its ability to create beautiful ethereal washes. To produce this technique, simply wet part of the paper with your brush. (You can use either water or a little pigment.) Then, dip your brush into another color and lightly dot it on the wet area and watch as the pigment feathers.

This in-depth tutorial will show you the wet-on-wet (or wet-in-wet) technique in real-time. 

 

Dry Brush

Watercolor Techniques

Photo: Abstract dry brush on paper from Yeroma / Shutterstock.com

Dry brush is just as it sounds; take a dry (or mostly dry) brush and dip it into your paint. Afterward, spread it over a dry piece of paper. The result will be a highly textured mark that’s great for implying fur or hair.

Perfect your dry brushing with help from this video:

 

Masking Tape or Rubber Cement

Rubber cement (like masking tape) acts as a resist for watercolor. Apply this material in places where you don’t want the pigment to go. Once the watercolor is dry, peel the rubber cement or masking tape from the page. You’ll see the paper underneath. This is a great solution for preserving white paper among the rest of your painting.

 

Salt

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When applied to watercolor paper, salt will soak up some of the color and create a sandy-looking effect on the page. Begin by laying down a wash that’s “juicy”—you want to have some extra pigment on the paper. After you’ve painted the color, spread the salt on top of it. Once the painting is completely dry (it’s best to wait overnight), scrape the salt from the page.

Jerry's Artarama has an informative video on how to use salt to create a beautiful effect:

 

Lifting Off Paint

There are a few ways to lift paint from the page, and they all involve plastic—saran wrap being them most popular. Like the salt method, began with a wash that’s got some extra pigment to it. Then, place a sheet of plastic wrap on top of the painting; it’s best if you’ve crinkled it or have creased it. Wait for the paint to fully dry. The pigment will pool under the plastic and create an interesting texture.

 

Rubbing Alcohol

Watercolor paint and rubbing alcohol are akin to oil and water. Once you paint a wash, take a utensil (like a q-tip) and dab alcohol onto the wet surface. It will create an alluring effect that’s reminiscent of tie-dye.

In this short video, you'll see the rubbing alcohol technique in action:

 

Scratch-Off

Scratch-off, or sgraffito, involves scratching the paper to create small indentations. Start by painting a wash where you’d like the scratch texture to go. While still wet, take a sewing needle (or another sharp object) and drag it across the paper. Paint will fill the punctured surface and appear darker and more defined than the rest of your wash.

 

Spatter

 

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Warning: you're going to get your hands dirty with this technique. (But isn't that part of the fun?) The spatter technique will give a chaotic, Jackson Pollock-esque effect to your work. To create it, load your brush with pigment and use your finger to flick it onto your paper.

Don't want to get paint on your hands? Another option for spattering is to use a secondary brush and knock your painting brush against it. The force will release the pigment and it will transfer onto your paper. The downside of this method, however, is that you have less control over where the paint goes.

Watch how to splatter in this video:

Want to share your love of watercolor painting? Join our Art, Design, Photography, and Drawing Club on Facebook!

Related Articles:

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10+ Famous Watercolor Artists Who Continue to Influence Painting Today

Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met and Manager of My Modern Met Store. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.

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