Introduction to Watercolor Methods

I used as a resource for some of the information below.  If you would still like to know more about painting with watercolors, I strongly recommend their website.

Watercolor can be one of the most beautiful painting mediums, allowing you to achieve a multitude of effects.  It is also one of the most challenging.  You will need patience and practice to master the techniques.  Don’t expect your first painting to be a masterpiece.  You will be introduced to all of the basic techniques and will be allowed to do some practice of each technique before beginning your final project.  You will be expected to use some of these techniques in your final painting.  As the most common technique is the watercolor wash and variations thereof, it will be the primary focus of the following text.   

The Flat Wash

Pigment Characteristics

The type of pigment you use has a major effect on the quality of the wash results, yet this topic is rarely mentioned in art handbooks. Painters are usually left with the impression that all paints are the same and should be handled the same. Quite the opposite is true.

Although pigments differ on many physical attributes, the paint behavior in a wash depends primarily on three things: (1) the weight of the pigment particles in water, or their specific gravity; (2) the distribution of the pigment particle sizes; and (3) the difference in hue between the small and large pigment particles.

Unfortunately, an important complication is lurking in the background: there is more in the paint than pigment. If pure powdered pigment were completely mixed with water, then those three pigment attributes (and the tendency of the pigment particles to clump together) would determine most of the paint behavior as it dried. But the paint also contains many other paint ingredients, including gum arabic, glycerin, corn syrup or honey, dextrin, fillers, brighteners and dispersants. These invisible ingredients are also dissolved or suspended in the paint solution, and they affect how the visible pigment disperses, flows, settles and backruns when diluted with water and applied to paper.  However, the more water there is in the solution, the less effect vehicle ingredients (gum, glycerin, dextrin, humectants) have on pigment behavior. So all paints tend to become more similar, and all pigments tend to show their true granulating or flocculating character — though in more delicate colors — when they are highly diluted.

The Importance of Tilt

The Tilted Wash is the commonly recommended approach. You begin the wash with the paper tilted to a small angle, and apply the paint to dry paper from top to bottom of the wash area. You can adjust the force of gravity on the water by changing the tilt of the board: below a 10% slope there is very little pull, and above 25% the pull is very strong.

You normally use a straight or scalloped stroke (to be explained shortly), and pull the wash bead downwards as you go. Finish off with strokes that do not add more paint, so that you use up what remains of the wash bead in the bottom of the wash area. Use a slightly damp brush to soak up the extra paint that may have beaded at the bottom edge.  Then do not apply any paint to this area or any areas that border the wash area edge until the next class period. 


settling of pigment particles in a wash stroke
brushstroke is viewed from the side, on a tilted surface

At the moment the paint is applied to the paper, the mixture is equally thick across the width of the stroke, and the paint is evenly mixed (left). Immediately, however, the wash solution flows down the slope of the paper toward the bottom of the stroke; as it does so, the current carries many of the largest particles with it (middle). By the time you have filled your brush to make the next pass, the water has come to rest in a wash bead at the bottom of the stroke (right). This contains the largest and heaviest particles that were applied to the paper. Because the bead is no longer flowing downwards, the particles settle in place onto the paper.

With some paints, this does not create much of a problem, but with others, stripes can appear in your wash from leaving the bead in the same place for too long.  You can also lessen the striping effect by using scalloped brush strokes, to be discussed next.

Watercolor Wash Brush Stroke Types

Now, what pattern of brushstrokes should you use? The diagram below shows the three basic types of wash stroke patterns.

Straight                     Scalloped                 Crossed

The straight brushstroke (left) is the commonly recommended approach. The strokes are made to overlap just enough to break the wash bead at the bottom of the previous stroke. The top edge of the brush passes through the bead in the stroke above, breaking the tension along the bottom edge and allowing the excess paint and water to flow across the width of the new brushstroke and form a new wash bead along its bottom edge.

You must alternate the direction of the brushstroke to keep the pigment coverage even: either by brushing in the opposite direction over the stroke you have just made, or by switching direction from one brushstroke to the next. If you always start at the left (or right) edge of the wash area, the bead is large on that side and small on the opposite side, where the brush has little liquid left. This can cause irregularities in the wash color, or blossoms.

The straight stroke is fine for average pigment washes, but with active or heavy pigments it causes three annoying problems.

·        You are locked into a fairly mechanical rhythm, completing one horizontal stroke all the way across the page before starting the next, which limits your ability to handle complex edges or cutout shapes, such as clouds, in the middle of the wash.

·        You must work as quickly as you safely can, because the longer the time between strokes, the more visible imperfections will result. If you're using heavy pigments, the bead quickly collects the largest and darkest pigment particles. These stripes will show up very clearly when the wash has dried — even though they may not be apparent while the wash is still wet.

·        Finally, the action of brushing in alternating directions can be awkward to manage with one hand.

The scalloped brushstroke (center) solves these problems by creating an irregular, broken pattern to the wash strokes, freeing the artist to add new paint randomly over the entire surface of the wash. Each scallop creates its own small bead, which is picked up by the new stroke coming underneath it, so the timing and flow of paint can be manipulated with great accuracy. The scalloped strokes can be placed at any point along the bottom edge of the wash, to add paint or move a bead that has been resting for too long.

Lay this stroke down in a graceful, light, movement — don't daub or dither with it. The shape of the stroke should not be mechanical, but varied to fit the location and shape of the specific wash area you paint with each stroke.

If banding occurs in the scalloped wash beads across the wash area, the irregular shape and placement of these bands will make them much less noticeable and create a subtle textural variation that blends well into the overall watercolor effect.

Finally, the crossed brushstroke (right) is the most aggressive. The paint is laid down with short, overlapping strokes.  Except for the strokes at the top of the page, the start of each stroke crosses over the end of a previous stroke. The brush is used almost with a scrubbing emphasis, so that any collection of heavy pigment particles that may have formed is dispersed by the new stroke.

Other Watercolor Techniques

Laying Multiple Washes

An interesting variation of the traditional wash is to lay multiple wash solutions over the same area. This is unavoidable if you are painting multicolor gradients: a blue sky shading down to a yellow haze along the horizon (which fades gradually back up into the blue sky). Each wash is painted separately, with whatever technique seems appropriate.

This approach produces especially luminous clear skies, and also luminous dark areas such as hills and shaded undergrowth.  Many artists use multiple washes to great effect, laying down successively darker layers of the same color to get luminous, rich darks.

The main caution is to let the previous wash dry completely before starting the next wash. Especially bad things happen when you lay a wash over a previous wash that is still at a moist or damp wetness. The paper will look dry, but the moisture under the surface can erupt in blossoming, uneven diffusion, broken wash beads, muddy pigment mixtures, and other ghastly surprises.

Graded Wash

This technique is used to make a color fade from dark to light.  It is done just like a traditional wash except one must dilute the paint with more water with each vertical pass, creating a uniform fade. 

Another variation on this technique is to fade from one color to another, such as a sunset with red near the bottom and blue sky on top.  It works best to have all of the intermediate colors pre-mixed in separate wells of the palette.  Another way to do a fade is to do one color faded from dark to light and let it dry completely.  Then turn the paper upside down and do the other color on top of the first wash, fading from dark to light.

Thin-Line Graded Wash

A thin-line graded wash is created by starting with one thin line of highly concentrated paint.  The line can be straight or curvy.  Next, a flat brush is dipped in clean water and is dragged just underneath the thin line.  The brush can be rinsed and run over once more to make a wider line if desired.  The key to creating a good thin-line graded wash is to work quickly.  Do not leave the thin line setting for too long before brushing over it with clean water.

Wet On Wet

Wet on wet is probably the most dramatic of water color techniques, but also one of the most difficult to control. To produce wet on wet apply each new color without allowing the previous one to dry.  Because the paper is wet, any colors applied will bleed into each other, producing very soft, moody effects. When painting wet on wet one should take care to ensure that colors following the initial wash contain less water, in some cases use pure color. If the water content of successive colors is to great they will either diffuse into nothing, or worse still cause unsightly ‘run backs’, a condition where the water flows back into areas you didn’t mean to apply paint.  Although ‘run backs’ are generally frowned upon, they can be employed to produce interesting results with practice.  The importance of the water content when painting wet on wet cannot be stressed enough.  In fact, a more suitable name for this technique would be dry on wet.

Another variation of this technique is to wet an area with clean water and then apply highly saturated paints (don’t add much water to them).  The more water you have in the area, the more the colors will swirl.  Less water will create more smooth blends as the color disperses across the paper.  You can also tilt your board different directions to help control the flow of the paint. 

Dry Brush

By this time you have successfully created an overall wash, and then worked darker washes into the picture, thus defining the basic shapes. Your painting is mostly laid out, but is now lacking in fine detail.

Dry brush is the almost the opposite watercolor technique to wet on wet. Here a brush loaded with pigment (and not too much water) is dragged over completely dry paper. The marks produced by this technique are very crisp and hard edged. They will tend to come forward in your painting and so are best applied around the center of interest.

These processes require that the paper be dry or you will lose the fine edges. Dry your paper. The biggest mistake in dry brushing is not having the paper dry!!

For grass or similar textures, you can use an old stiff bristle brush, tooth brush, or anything with a little arthritis in the bristles. Simply scrub it into the paint on your palette and dry brush it where the grass should be. Don't press too hard - the idea is a light dusting so that the individual bristles make individual lines. The dry brush is excellent for all textures, weeds, rocks, old wooden barns etc.

Take advantage of the spring of the bristles to create fine stems, weeds, branches, etc. It works well to hold it by the very tip of the handle. Aim it straight down and flick it across the paper in a somewhat jerky motion, letting the natural spring of the bristles guide it. Thus you create natural looking stems or branches.


In summary, most watercolorists use a combination of these techniques in their paintings, usually in a specific order.  The groundwork is usually laid down with a series of washes (flat, graded, or thin-line graded), on top of which the other techniques are applied (such as dry brush and wet on wet).  Practice and patience are the key ingredients to the production of a nice watercolor piece. 

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