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10 Watercolor Techniques Every Beginner Should Know!

When you get started with watercolor, it can be intimidating. New medium, new techniques to learn. Not to mention the fact that you have to control water on paper! Below I have compiled a list of techniques that are used frequently in watercolor and are a great place to start your practice!

#1 Wet-on-Wet vs. Wet-on-Dry

One of the first terms you might hear in watercolor is wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry. What does it mean? Wet-on-dry means that you are putting wet paint (because of course the paint is wet, it's watercolor!) on dry paper. Wet-on-wet means you are placing wet paint on a wet piece of paper. Each of these have their own purposes and have different outcomes and effects

Let's start with wet-on-wet. This technique is great for more precise placement of color and brush strokes. If you place the paint on a dry sheet as shown in the image below as long is it isn't touching any of the other strokes it will stay right where you put it. The edges will stay crisp and you have more control.

On the other hand if you pre-wet your paper and then make the same brush strokes without them touching they will bleed with the water and edges will soften the pigments might even start to blend together. This is the beauty of the wet-on-wet watercolor technique everythign becomes soft and moves slowly across the page as it dries. Depending on how wet your paper is will change the amount of bleeding and blending that occurs on the page. Less wet means it will stay closer to the original strokes, really wet might mean you place a brush stroke at the top of the page and a lot of the pigment ends up at the bottom of the page. In the image below I wet the paper a medium amount. Well, actually I wet it a lot and then I let it soak in until I could start to see some of the texture through the paper as you can see you can still see the placement of some of my brush strokes, but the edges are soft and they start to bleed together.

#2 Flat Washes

Flat wash in watercolor refers to placing a solid color across an entire are of the page and at first this might seem simple. Your first instinct might be to just start painting the color across the page as you want and occasionally dipping into more color, occasionally running out of pigment in your brush and then trying to move extra around the page. Sometimes, this works, but most of the time it doesn't. What you can't see until it starts to dry is that without a plan the paper underneath was drying at different times and that is going to lead to an uneven coat of color.

In the image below first notice that the painting to the left I filled willy nilly with color and there is variation within the wash. This can at times make an interesting background that has texture and depth, but if it wasn't what you wanted that can be frustrating. Let's explore two ways to get a nice even wash of water. The first of which is my favorite the drip line technique to make a flat wash. In this technique we move more methodically down the page, adding our pigment at an even and predictable rate, this means that the paper can dry evenly behind it.

Here's how to do it:

1. For this technique to work you need to hold your painting at an angle so that the watercolor will be dripping down in a predictable way.

2. You also need to mix up more than enough of the color in order fill the entire page.

3. You fill your brush with as much of the color as it can hold.

4. Meet the taper of the brush to the page that you are holding at an angle and make a horizontal stroke across the page. Notice how much of a dripline has formed from having the page at an angle, if you don't see a line of water at the bottom of the stroke you made refill your brush and make a light stroke over the same area depositing more color.

5. Refill your brush and make another stroke right under the first one touching the tip of the brush to the dripline and pulling it down as you move horizontally across the page.

6. Repeat refilling your brush with color and moving down the page until you get to the bottom. It's better to end the wash with too much water at the bottom rather than run out!

7. Once you get to the bottom tap your brush off on some rags to dry it and then use your brush to suck up that extra water that has collected.

If using the dripline technique sounds like too much of a hassle there is another way. You can use a wet-on-wet flat wash technique for this. Start by wetting the entire page. If you have a flat wash brush, it will be handy here. Let the water soak in a bit so that no standing water stays and you can start to see the grain of the paper through the water.

After the page is wet you can dip into your color again and just place it on top, you don't need to be very careful with the placement as the wet-on-on wet technique will soften imperfections.

The main downfall of this technique is that you will be desaturating your color by adding it to the wet page and so it might make a lighter than expected wash of color requiring you to add more layers once dry to get a better saturation of color.

#3 Lifting

One of my favorite watercolor techniques is lifting. Not only can it be used to help fix mistakes, but it can be used to add highlights or even some fun elements.

There are a few ways to lift watercolor. When the watercolor is wet you can simply dry your brush off and then swipe it off as shown in the image below.

Another fun way to lift color while it's wet is to use a different supply like a sponge, or my favorite, a paper towel.

While the color is still wet simply press the paper towel onto the page and where you pressed it will remove some of the color. This will work to different degrees depending on how staining your color is.

Finally lifting color isn't just for when the paint is still wet. You can actually lift many watercolors once they are dry, again depending on how staining they are. Below you can see a sample of dried watercolor.

Simply wet your brush tap it off so that it's just damp. Then using your brush lightly scrub the page where you want to lift the pigment. This can be a little risky and possibly ruin the texture of the paper if you scrub too hard, so go lightly!

And just like that you can remove dried pigment!

#4 Layering

Layering is another one of my favorite watercolor techniques The key to layering is working on top of a previous layer that is completely dry. Seriously, let this dry or the layer won't go as planned. If you're impatient like me, you can use a hair drying to quickly dry the layer.

Once the layer is dry you can paint on top of the previous layer, if you use a light touch, you won't disturb the layer underneath. Because of the transparent nature of the watercolor you can also notice the colors and details of the previous layer poking through. Notice how the sunset behind my my mountains adds a bit of glow to the tops of the mountains. I didn't add that in, that just happened because you can see the other colors from behind!

You can add more and more layers on top of each other so long as the previous layer has completely dried. One thing to be mindful of is that as you add more layers and build up more and more saturation of color, it does become easier to inadvertently lift the color and pigment from previous layers.

Layering can be used in large areas or even to add small details like you can see below on these leaf shapes. I painted the general leaf shape first and then let them dry before adding a different color on top to add details.

#5 Avoiding Backruns

Backruns are the bane and the beauty of watercolor. In some instances they bring the magical qualities of watercolor and in others they can ruin a wash or solid color that you didn't want texture on. Getting to know backruns a little will help you harness or avoid them at will. Below you can see a backrun. Notice how most of the shape is a solid color and then about 2/3 of the way down there is dark border and some finger like textures starting to show, with a lightening of color below it and then finally a darker area of color.

Backruns occur when the paper starts to dry at different intervals. The pigment become attracted to the border between wet and dry.

The good news is avoiding them or limiting them, is pretty simple. In order to avoid backruns, you don't want to let standing water sit on your page or puddle in an area. To stop them from occurring once you've painted and a puddle has formed simply tap your brush off on a rag or paper towel to dry it.

Then use your dry brush to suck up the extra water and let it dry!

In the next two image you can see a comparison between the two blue blobs one where I left the puddle of water and the other where I removed it.

#6 Gradients

Gradients are another fun watercolor technique to master and they can be surprisingly easy to master. If you've ever struggled making a nice smooth gradient with acrylic or oil paint it will be surprising to see how much more simple it is with watercolor. For this technique to work having a grasp on the dripline technique mentioned a few techniques ago will be helpful. That's because you start this the same way. The main difference is rather than pre-mixing and preparing one color, you need to mix two colors. In my example below I am making a light blue to light pink gradient. There are a few ways to make a gradient with watercolor and in this article I am going to demonstrate 2.

To begin a gradient you will need to start just like you did with the drip line technique dip your brush in to the color and make a horizontal stripe across the page. Make sure you're holding your page at an angle so that dripline forms. Do this a few times until you are ready for the gradient to start.

Once you're ready to start the gradient, rather than dipping your brush into the same color, just dip it into the new color. You want to start this slowly. The goal is to slowly interchange the color held within the bristles of the brush at first, so only dip the tip the first few times.

As you add more more and more of the new color the gradient will start to form.

By the end of the page you'll have transitioned over to the new color forming a beautiful gradient!

The second technique I want to show is basically the same. However, if you wanted more definition between the two colors and less mixing you need to add a third color....well not color, a lack of color. Fill a third well with fresh clean water before you start. The you will begin this again the same way, starting with a drip line technique and your first color.

When you're read to start the transition instead of dipping into the second color dip into some clear water and make a few rows with the lightening first color.

By first transitioning to a lighter color by adding water you will build a little buffer room between the two pigments allowing you to have more separation.

After a few rows of the lightened color you can start the transition by lightly dipping your brush into your second color and really getting the gradient started.

As you can see below the change is subtle, but there is a slight lessening of mixing between the two colors before the gradient starts to change to the second color.

#7 Varying Brush Pressure

Not only are there many techniques for painting colors on the page and mixing them, there are also brush focused techniques. Yes you can paint with just the tip of the brush and fill in an area or shape, but there might be an easier way. One really good thing to practice is varying the pressure you put on the brush to make different shapes.

To make something like a leaf or petal start with just the tip of your brush touching the paper and then as you move it down press harder on the bristles to spread them apart.

Continue moving the brush to make the shape but lift the brush to put less pressure on it and drag so that you can form the rest of the leaf or petal shape smoothly.

Practicing this technique with your brush will help you get to know it and master this technique!

#8 Leave White Space

When you look at watercolor part of the charm is the imperfections. Look closely at a piece you love and you might start to notice that the artist has not covered every single inch of the paper with color and instead has relied on white space to serve as highlights that also make up some of the details.

This technique is less of of a technical technique and more an exercise in letting go and resisting the urge to cover every single inch with beautiful colors. Notice in the example below the main difference between the two leaf paintings. Each looks OK, but the one with the white space saved adds a little dimension and detailing or even texture.

Let's dive into this a little further by exploring three grapefruits. In the first shown below I will cover the entire thing with colors.

This second one I am going to intentionally leave a white space as a highlight directly opposing the shadowed part of the fruit.

In the third example I am going cover the whole thing with watercolor and then drop in some clean water to force a backrun and serve as the highlighted area.

There's nothing inherently wrong with covering the whole thing with color if this is the look that you prefer, but if you are craving a little more movement and dimension I recommend playing with leaving white space.

#9 Mixing Color in Wells

Let's take it back a few steps and talk about mixing colors. Yes, you can absolutely dip straight into your colors with a wet brush and paint it right on to the page. But...sometimes you either don't have the specific color you want in your palette or you need to mix up a large quantity of color to cover large areas or do several of the techniques we previously explored. You can mix up watercolor if you have dried pans or tube paints! You will need something to mix them up in. Some palettes come with pre-built wells and others don't, so if you don't have something like that you'll want to consider getting a mixing palette. One that I love and that is featured here is a deep well "muffin tin" style mixing well. You can get this from a few different places, but you can get it for around $2 from Michaels.

In order to mix up a color you need to start with water. I like to spray some water into a well and then also when I am using dried pans prewet my colors so that they can soak up the water a bit and the colors will be more accessible when I go to use them.

For tube paints I like to put a few dots of the color on the top of my palette next to the well so that I can add small amounts at a time and adjust the color easily.

To mix up the color I simply take a clean damp brush and grab some of the pigment and then mix it into the water.

One thing to keep in mind when mixing up a color is that you want to mix it well. The pigment can get trapped within the middle of the bristles if you don't mix it well enough.

I like to sneak up on colors adding small amounts of various pigments a little at a time.

Mixing them together really well.

One invaluable tool for color mixing is to have some little scraps of watercolor paper to use as tester strips since the color in the well will look very different once applied to the paper.

You can do the same thing using dried pans, it will just take a little extra time to get the same amount of pigment mixed into your color as it's not quite as available as tube paints.

Also, when mixing colors with pan paints it's a good idea to clean your brush between colors so you're not transferring color right on to the pans.

With a clean damp brush dip into the different colors in your palette and swirl them arond to coat the bristles.

Then simply mix it into the mixture.

#10 Mixing Color on the Page

Yes, you can mix up your colors in wells, but you can also mix up your colors right on the page! In the image below on the left blob I mixed up a yellow orange color. In the right I start by just placing or orange on the page.

Then while the orange on the page is still wet I dip my brush into the yellow color and start painting with that!

Even without mixing them together if they are both wet they will bleed together to mix. You can also lightly mix them together while they are both wet on the page!

I hope you have so much fun with these techniques!

If you'd prefer you can watch the full length video exploring each of these techniques here!

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