to Watercolor Methods
I used Handprint.com 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.
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.
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.
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
Importance of Tilt
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.
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
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
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.
action of brushing in alternating directions can be awkward to manage with one
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
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
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
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.
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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