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Basic Watercolor Techniques Explained

Updated on October 20, 2016
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Watercolor Made Simple

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Start Small

There are as many different ways to paint a single subject as there are artists with brushes. I will try to give you just a few examples and you will have to find the one that best suits you and your style.

Wet-On-Wet With Salt

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Wash or Wet-On-Wet Technique

By wetting a large area and then pouring, streaking, dotting, or painting on large areas, as soft and muted background can be made. You can wet the whole paper by dipping it in a sink, or wet a small area at a time by painting on water with a brush. This allows you to mix colors directly on the paper and achieve gradation and soft edges.

A color wash can be applied on dry paper if only you will work with a large brush and fast strokes taking the paint puddles down the paper. At the bottom of the wash, dip out the excess water with a towel or a thirsty brush.

A variegated wash can be applied by loading the brush with lots of color in the beginning and then only adding water after that. Each stroke makes the color lighter. Again, at the end of the wash dip out the excess water with a thirsty brush or towel.

“Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

— Paul Klee

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Great for Details

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Wet-On-Dry Technique

Painting wet color directly on dry paper is called wet-on-dry. This is the usual method of painting details. It is more controlled but can be streaky if painting large areas. To do this you must make sure you are painting only in dry areas. If you paint one area next to a wet spot, the two will “bleed” together. You can achieve hard lines and hard edge shapes with this method. You can draw or scrape lines in the dry paper as well. To soften hard lines, you must take a brush loaded with clear water and go over just the edge of a hard shape. This drags some of the paint from the edge and blends it with the clear water of the brush causing a gradation of value.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”

— Wassily Kandinsky

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Masking Fluid

Masking fluid is applied to areas you want to stay white such as the whiskers and eye lashes on these zebras. You paint it on with a cheap nylon bristly brush. If it is ruined, it is not real loss. If there is nothing else to use but one of your good brushes, you must first coat the bristles of the brush with soap. Then dip into the masking fluid and paint for a short while (no more than 5 minutes). You must keep rinsing the brush and then reapplying the soap before dipping into the masking fluid if you want to save the brush from ruin.

Masking Fluid Details

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Great For Wallpaper Designs

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Dry-On-Dry Or Dry Brush Technique

Naturally, your brush is not really dry for the dry brush effect. But once you have loaded color onto your brush you blot it on a towel or piece of paper so it is almost dry before painting. You will get a streaked, scruffy look. This works well for tree trunks, rocks, grasses, and as in this picture, textured background like a woven fabric.

“Any art communicates what you’re in the mood to receive.”

— Larry Rivers

Labor of Love

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Glazing Or Layering Technique

Layering is the method of building up the depth of value needed for dark background or deep shadows. It is not good to try to make your shadows as dark as you want the on the first coat or layer. For that you would need to paint with pure “pudding” straight from the tube and too often what you achieve is not a glowing transparent color but dried cracked goop. In this picture I layered a color of dark blue in the back ground and waited for the picture to dry. Then I layered on another color like deep purple. After that dried I layered another coat of brown and indigo. The result is a deep rich background that still has the illusion of transparency.

I also used a photo of my dad for this because he has been departed now for more than a decade. I remember when he made some rocking horses for my little girls and wanted to immortalize the memory in paint. In the photo of Dad's workbench it was covered with debris and work in progress. There was no way I could paint all that so I eliminated much of and it "cleaned-up" his workbench for the painting. He would have appreciated that. Also notice the hair on my Dad's arms was done with masking fluid.

Tea Roses

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Brush Techniques

Damp Paper Problems

On nearly dry paper it is easy to create the “blossom” some call it or the “cauliflower” or explosions. If you are not careful of the washes already in place a puddle may form. These puddles will dry leaving a distinctive rim that will ruin a good painting. Some places on your painting won’t be harmed by a “blossom,” but you will not want one in a sky or face. Once the puddle has dried into a blossom, it is impossible to change. You must catch the puddle forming and dip out the excess water with a thirsty brush or towel immediately before it begins to dry.

You can tell if the paper is damp, not wet, by looking sideways at it. There should be no sheen to the paper. If there is a sheen, it is still too wet; wait a couple minutes. On damp paper you can make soft lines run slightly. You can make dapples for tree leaves appear soft and in a fog. For this you must use more pigment on the brush and less water. I use the damp method for making shadows in petals on flowers and under things. The edges of the shadows will appear soft but not run all over the paper.

Beware The Blossom

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Grandma Moses

“If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens."

Sponging

Flowers, bushes, and especially trees can be painted quickly and easily with sea sponges. The wool grade sea sponge is the best for this use.

In “Lakeside” I used the sponge for the flowering trees using pinks and oranges. However I forgot one of the cardinal rules of art, not to divide you paper in half with a hard line. Even thought he colors draw your eye into the picture, the hard shoreline leads the eye out of the picture again. I broke up the hard line with a second bank and a rock but it still has the tendency to lead you away from the focal points. Lesson learned.

Lakeside Painting Mistake

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Fence Posts

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Rocks

Rocks are fun to paint but there are a few simple things to remember about them. One is to be sure to keep the shadows in mind. If the light is coming from the left, then all the shadows on your picture must be on the right, including on the rocks. If the light is coming from the right then all the shadows are on the left. Remember to use colors. It is too easy to think of rocks and use grey/black or brown. Rocks and their shadows have more color than that. Use warm and cool colors. If the rocks are warm the shadows should be cool (blue and purple). If the rocks are cool (blue-greys) then the shadows should be warm (orangey-brown and reddish). I like to use yellow ochre and then add purples and blues in the shadows. I also like to add dots of cadmium red pale (a red-orange) to give the illusion of iron oxide in the rocks. Iron rusts in the elements and turns orange.

Another trick is to take a cheap ½ inch stiff, nylon bristle brush or a toothbrush and splatter dots onto the rock for the illusion of granite. First dip the nylon brush into water, then into a color, like purple or red or indigo. The trick is to use more water for a large splatter and less water for a finer spray. Then use the handle of another brush to pull the bristles of the brush back toward you. If you push the bristles toward the paper, then the spray will come toward you and spray you in the face. The rocks in “Rock Party” were splattered with orange, purple lake, yellow ochre, and indigo.

Rock Party

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“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”

— Paul Gardner

Bunny

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Kermit the Frog

“How important are the visual arts in our society? I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course I could be prejudiced. I AM a visual art.”

Rose

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Wrinkled Paper Effect

I love to use this effect with flower pictures and my angel series. It gives it a background that is not too busy but has lots of character. I think it gives my angel series the look of a stained glass church window.

First draw the picture in pencil. Then wet the paper thoroughly front and back. It is works to paint the paper with water as long as the paper isn’t too large that it has time to dry before you can finish front and back. After the paper is wet, wad it up as if you were going to throw it away. You must be carful not to tear it. Wet paper is easily torn. Then carefully unwrap the wadded paper and spread it out to paint it. It may look as though you have ghost images from your pencil drawing, but ignore these as they will disappear as soon as you paint. Use a large brush, 1 inch flat or better, and paint the background any colors you desire. It will bleed into the main subject slightly but that is not a problem. Make sure you have not left any holes without color.

Once you have painted the background, put it somewhere to dry undisturbed. This may take a couple of hours as you have saturated the paper. After it is completely dry you can paint the main subject. It will be a little difficult to paint around the wrinkled paper but not impossible and well worth the effort. This technique gives you a three-dimensional quality you could not achieve any other way. You will be impressed with the results.

“When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget I have ever seen a picture.”

— John Constable

A Flick Of The Brush

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Brush Techniques: Flick

Hold the brush upright and make flicks with the brush. Only the tip of the brush hair touches the paper. The flick makes the point at the end of the pine needles and grasses. This techniques works for bare branches in winter as well.

Grasses

Grasses should always be in clumps or groupings. They never stand in rows like a line of soldiers. They tend to lean one way or another and they are of different heights. In the painting, “Lakeside” the grasses around the rock do just hat. They look natural because they vary in height and color and they are sporadic, some leaning one way and some another.

Another method of making grasses is to scratch the wet paper. Wet the paper, add colors like green, yellow ochre and even Prussian blue, then using the wooden end of the brush, scratch grasses. Remember to lean them and vary the heights. Always paint grasses from the ground up, the way they grow. This way they will have pointed ends and to rounded ones. This appears more natural. By scratching the paper, you are bruising it and that causes the paint to soak into the bruises giving the grasses depth.

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 14 months ago from Fresno CA

      AbsorbArt,

      Thank you. I loved doing it and often painted with paper so large I had to wet it in the bathtub. I think it did make an interesting effect. I mostly don't paint that large anymore. I haven't really the space for it but I still love the effect. I did a demonstration of this effect for an artists group I belong to and when I started wadding up the paper to make the wrinkles everyone gasped. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • AbsorbArt profile image

      AbsorbArt 14 months ago from United States

      Painting watercolor on a wrinkled paper is such a good idea! The way it looks in the pic with the angel holding a rose is amazing!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Sam,

      How kind of you. I appreciate the comment.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thanks everyone for commenting.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Great tip, WiccanSage. And so true. Some packaging isn't quite clear if you don't know what you are looking for, you can easily fall into that trap. And some paints made in China say watercolor when in truth they are really Tempura colors, which is not the same at all. It is only soluble in water but doesn't act like the flowing soft watercolors do. Thanks for commenting.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Great tips. One thing that I learned the hard way was to be careful of your paints-- beware of low-cost starter kits. My first 'watercolor' paints came from a kit my hubby got me. It turned to actually be acrylics-- I love painting with acrylics, too, but as you know, don't exactly work the same as watercolors. Frustrated the heck out of me until I read the label. Watercolors have just such a great, soft look though. Great hub, thanks for the instructions. I'm still learning.

    • samtebbutt profile image

      Sam 3 years ago from Ireland

      What a beautifully presented hub page about watercolour painting.

      Written from love and experience of using the medium.

      Love your paintings Best wishes Sam