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Getting Creative

Watercolour Techniques Made Simple

Learning watercolour when you’re a complete beginner can be a little overwhelming. There seems to be a whole strange new vocabulary that comes along with this art. Below I’m going to give you a list of some watercolour techniques to practice to give you the building blocks and help you get the most out of your watercolours.

I will describe how you can achieve each technique and then give you an example of where you might use it in your work. Don’t worry about having to master every technique before you start creating, you can get started on some projects right away and learn as you go!

Top Tip: When working with watercolour always work from light to dark, meaning do your light coloured washes first. Due to the nature of watercolour you cannot paint lighter colours (e.g. pale yellow) over darker colours (e.g. dark blue).

The techniques:

Wet-on-wet

This technique is used in watercolour paintings all the time. Wet-on-wet means that you are painting onto a wet surface.

This can be done in two ways. You can use a clean paintbrush and a clean pot of water to dampen the area you want to paint, then you pick up your colour onto your brush and paint it over the wet area. This causes the colour to ‘bleed’ out into all the damp areas and creates a very soft look.

The second way you can achieve this technique is by creating a coloured wash (see below) and then picking up a second colour on your brush and painting or dropping this into the first colour whilst it’s still wet. This helps the colours to mix whilst on the paper, it create gradients and a nice soft edge.

This technique is great for backgrounds, for example building colour behind trees or creating a sky. This technique may take a bit of practice to achieve the look you want and you have to work quickly before the paint dries.

Tip: if you’re using more than one colour, try preparing the colours in the palette before you start so they’re ready to drop in quickly.

Check out this great video on the wet-on-wet technique by Kirsty Partridge

Wet-on-dry

This is a very simple technique and simply means you are painting onto a dry surface. You either paint directly onto the clean paper, or you paint on top of another colour once the first colour is dry.

You can use this technique to add in details to your work. Using a fine brush for example, you can paint the branches of trees over the wash you created for the sky.

wet-on-dry watercolour technique
Artist: Jennifer Branch

Wash

A watercolour wash is a transparent layer of colour. You make up your chosen colour in the palette and then apply it to the paper. It can be applied on blank paper or on top of another colour once the first colour has dried.

Washes are usually done with a large flat brush to spread the colour evenly across the page.

It can help to think of a wash as a layer. Watercolour paintings are often made of many layers, starting with the lightest colours and gradually going darker.

This can ad depth to your paintings and you can use washes for any type of painting you do, landscapes or still life!

wash watercolour tecnique examples

Layering

As mentioned above, watercolour is all about layering. This means painting one colour on top of another, usually when the first layer is dry. This way you can add depth, shape, shadows and extra details you your work.

Just remember to do the lighter colours first! Watercolour is a transparent medium, so unlike acrylic paint you can’t add a lighter colour over a darker colour and expect it to show up!

Sponges

A sponge is a create tool to add to your watercolour kit. The most common used type is a natural sponge, although you could try using a dish sponge you’d get a different effect. It’s the airy, bubbly texture of natural sponges that works so well with watercolour.

These sponges can be used to both add colour and take it away.

For example, they can be used to layer on different shades of green, used instead of a paintbrush and in a dabbing motion this can create a foliage effect.

Or after painting a blue wash for the sky, you can use a clean sponge to dab some areas and ‘lift out’ the colour to create clouds.

If you are using a natural sponge you may need to dampen the sponge prior to use as they usually dry hard.

Splatter

The splatter technique can be really fun to do, it’s fairly unpredictable but is a great way to add texture to your work.

To achieve this watercolour technique all you need to do is pick the paint up on your paintbrush, hold it above your paper and using your finger slide across the bristles so that when the bristles ping back the paint flies onto the paper.

You can also second clean dry paintbrush to achieve this effect. Hold the clean paintbrush above the paper, take your paintbrush loaded with paint and lay it across the 1st paintbrush making an x shape. Tap the paint-loaded paintbrush against the other to get the paint to fly onto the page. This Youtube tutorial shows both techniques fantastically.

Definitely practice this one before adding it directly to your painting! Try different concentrations (strengths) of paint, holding the brush at different distances and try different brushes.

Brushes with firmer bristles work well for this technique, and I often use an acrylic brush. Some people also like to use an old toothbrush, and this works just as well!

Splattering paint can add and fun texture to your work and looks great on looser style watercolour paintings like the one below.

You colour also try splattering some white acrylic or gouache onto a night sky to create stars, just cover the parts you don’t want to get paint on with a sheet or two of plain paper.

Splatter watercolour technique bird example
Image from mymodernmet.com (Artist: Dean Crouser)

Stippling

Instead of applying paint in lines or washes, stippling is adding paint with little dots. For darker areas you have a greater number of dots and keep them closer together, for lighter areas use fewer dots and keep them further apart.

A small paintbrush is good to use for this technique and you can play with different strengths of paint, stronger colours will work well in the shadowy areas.

You can create entire paintings using the stippling method, like the example below, or you can just use it on a small section, for example to add flowers to a field or to add individual leaves to a tree.

You could also use a stippling brush to create a similar effect, used fairly dry when picking up paint, this brush can be dabbed onto the paper to create a cross between a splatter and a sponge-like effect and is great for creating bushes and trees.

stippling watercolour technique elephant painting
Image from designstack.co (Artist: Ana Enshina)

Pen and ink – mixed medium

This is one of my favourite watercolour techniques to use, I love the way you can transform a watercolour painting and add so much detail with just a pen. I’ll be doing a full post on this technique soon!

There are two ways you can use a pen with watercolour; over the top of dried paint to add finishing touches and detail or as an outline which you then paint over.

You can use any fine liner on top of your painting when it’s completely dry, but if you want to paint over the pen line be sure to use a waterproof pen. These are my absolute favourite and they last forever.

The paintings below show wonderful examples of how pen can be used to create a unique look to your paintings.

Masking fluid

Sometimes there are parts of your painting that you want to stay white, as you can’t paint light colours over watercolour (unless you use mix-medium and use a gouache) masking fluid is one of the best ways to achieve this.

You can buy masking fluid pens, but more commonly it comes in a little pot. You can apply it directly to your paper using a brush and once it’s dry you can paint over it. To remove the masking fluid just rub over the area using clean fingers.

Masking fluid is useful for keeping any parts of your work from being covered with washes or layers you’re applying, once everything is dry you can remove the masking fluid and go back in and paint the masked areas with another colour.

Tip: Masking fluid is really hard to get out of your brushes so don’t use your good brushes to apply it, you could try coating your brush in soap before dipping it in the masking fluid to make clean up easier.

Rough/smooth paper

The type of paper you use is not exactly a watercolour technique, but can change the final look of your work. There are 3 main types of watercolour paper; ‘Hot pressed’ (HP) & ‘Cold pressed’ (NOT) are smooth papers and ‘Rough’ is a highly textured paper.

Hot pressed is the smoothest type of paper and is useful if you want to create a painting with lots of fine details. Wet-on-wet techniques do not work well on this type of paper, but it is good if you plan to use ink to outline your work.

Cold-pressed is a medium textured paper, but still pretty smooth. This paper is good for those just starting out as it is generally more absorbent than hot pressed paper (and therefore less likely to buckle) so you can try a variety of techniques.

Rough paper as the name suggests has an uneven surface. This paper is very absorbent, and the texture is great for a ‘looser’ watercolour style. The watercolour pigment can deposit itself unevenly on this type of paper and look ‘granulated’ but is great for expressive work and many artists favour it for painting landscapes.

Tip: all these paper types come in different weights measured either in grams per square metre (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb). The heavier the paper the more absorbent or thicker the paper is. 140lb watercolour paper like this one, is one of the most common weights and has a mid-range price tag.

I hope you enjoyed this article on watercolour techniques and found it useful. You may also like Introduction to watercolour and Getting started with watercolour for more tips and tricks.

If you’re looking for supplies check out my Amazon list here of my favourites.

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