Art Blog

18 Mesmerizing Watercolor Techniques You’ve Got to Try

Before you start adding complex details and textures to your work, it’s crucial to learn a few of the most basic watercolor painting techniques. These will get you started, and then you can build your painting upon them.

9 watercolor painting techniques every artist should know

1. Watercolor washes

There’s more than one way to approach a watercolor wash! There are two simple ways to approach it: either on a wet surface or on a dry surface.

Two Types of Watercolor Washes

One tip for any watercolor wash: If you notice a mistake in a previous stroke in the wash, don’t try to fix it. Once the wash has started to dry, a new stroke will almost certainly be more noticeable than any small mistake. It’s best to leave these small accidents as they are.

Dry watercolor washes

Use a large flat or round brush and an angled surface like a drafting table or easel (this way, you don’t have to hold the work at an angle while painting — gravity will do all the work.

On your palette, mix a generous amount of water with your chosen pigment. Remember that watercolors dry lighter than they appear when wet. You might want to practice on a scrap of watercolor paper first.

Painting watercolor for a wash

Load your brush with as much paint as it will hold. Working quickly, make a steady, controlled horizontal stroke along the top of the paper. You’ll notice the water in the first stroke starts to pool along the bottom edge — don’t let this dry!

Painting a watercolor wash with dry paint

Reload your brush with pigment to ensure an even wash. Paint another stroke just below the first one, overlapping with the bottom edge.

When you reach the bottom, blot your brush on a paper towel. Use the dry tip to carefully pull up the excess paint along the bottom of the final stroke to avoid a darker bottom.

Finished dry brush watercolor wash

Allow your paper to dry completely at an angle before setting it down flat again.

Wet surface watercolor wash

A wet surface watercolor wash is nearly the same as a dry wash, with one main difference.

Applying water to watercolor paper on an easel

To create this type of watercolor wash, you’ll first dip your brush in water and brush it over the surface. Be generous with the water — you want the surface glistening with moisture.

painting a wet on wet watercolor wash

Once you’ve wet the area, dip the brush in paint and paint lines of color within the wet area, following the same instructions as above. The paint will blend together into one luminous wash of color.

Wet in wet watercolor wash

2. Wet-in-wet watercolor painting

This is one of the most basic techniques — so basic you might have already done it before without realizing it!

Brushing water on watercolor paper

Start by painting water (and only water) onto your paper.

Turquoise watercolor painted on wet surface

Then, dip your brush in the desired pigment and spread it over the water wash. The paint will feather and diffuse.

3. Gradients and color blending

A simple watercolor wash uses just one color, but you can add depth to your work by using more hues in a gradient. Start by adding fresh watercolor to a wet paint surface, as shown above.

Mixing two wet in wet watercolors

Then, place the second color — either a more intense version of the same hue or a different hue entirely — right beside the first color.

Because the paints are on a wet surface, the paint will blend slightly, creating a natural gradient in the tones. You can control how neat or painterly a gradient comes out by the wetness of the paint.

4. Feathering

If you’re going for a gradient that goes from a saturated color to a more transparent hue, adding more paint won’t do the trick. What you need is water.

Start with a strong area of color and then use a clean, wet brush “diffuse” the color, making a gentle gradient or “feathering” effect.

5. Layering watercolors

Once a color of paint has dried, you can add layers of watercolor to add dimension, texture and color variation. The paper has to be completely dry in between washes so that the colors don’t blend together and become muddy.

Layered watercolors to create a lemon

Wait until your initial color has dried completely (not damp — dry!), then paint the second color on top. Do not add much water to the second color, as this can re-wet the initial color and make the two colors blend.

To make the lines of your second color less severe, you can wet the brush with water and brush gently to feather the line.

6. Underpainting

An underpainting is essentially a monochrome wash used for the first layer of the painting. You’ll add layers of transparent washes over the underpainting, which helps to achieve great realism and luminous effects.

First, mix a light purple shade (a mix of cadmium red and ultramarine blue works very well). Neutral shades of blue or green can also work.

watercolor underpainting of an apple

Lightly paint your subject using the purple, paying careful attention to light and shade. Since you don’t have to think about color, you can really focus on rendering the shape. Use a soft brush and a light hand to keep the purple from overpowering the rest of the painting.

Let the underpainting dry completely before moving on to glazing in color. If it is wet, you risk muddying your colors.

7. Lifting color

In some cases, you can remove pigment from your painting. This comes in handy when you’ve made a mistake and when you want to add white space to your work. Using different techniques, you can lift color from either wet or dry watercolor.

Lifting from wet watercolors

Lifting wet watercolor with a wet paintbrush

If your paint is still wet, it’s easy to remove pigment. Blot your brush thoroughly and touch it to the paint to lift the paint back off the paper. The trick here is that the damp but blotted brush absorbs more water than it releases, so it will quickly pick the wet color up from your painting.

Lifting watercolor with a paper towel

Another option is to use a paper towel or tissue paper to lift the pigment. These tools can be the better choice if you’re going for a more abstract, less controlled white space. But you’ll have more control using a brush.

Lifting dry watercolors

Green watercolor pigment removed with eraser

You can lift pigment off the page even if the paint is dry, though it’s a little more difficult. In fact, this can be done quite effectively with a simple eraser, as you can see above.

Adding water to dried swatch of watercolor paintBlue pigment removed with paper towel

For a little more control, start by wetting the area with water, then use a stiff, nearly dry brush or a paper towel to lift the color.

8. Watercolor blooms

Watercolor blooms

Watercolor blooms or blossoms like these appear when very wet paint spreads on a drier (but not completely dry) area of a painting. In other words, when you apply wet paint on a still damp wash, the liquid will force the original pigment out, creating irregularly shaped splotches.

Well Defined Watercolor Blooms

First, lay down a colorful wet wash and let it dry a little. Then, load your brush with water and touch it lightly to the paper. The drops of water will create sharply defined blooms. The degree of dryness of the underlying wash determines the hardness of edges.

Watercolor bloom with two colors

You can do the same thing with two colors: Apply one color and let it dry a bit. Then apply a wet wash of a different color right next to the first color so that they come in contact. The wetter of two washes will flow into the other.

9. Back runs

Watercolor back run

This technique is similar to watercolor blooms because it requires a certain level of dryness to achieve the look. Apply a wet wash of color and tilt the surface a little. The color should drift to one side of the painting area. Then set the surface down flat. As the water dries, it bleeds upward again, creating a backwash.

startup library watercolor on craftsy

Everything you need to start painting with watercolors

Join instructor Kateri Ewing to learn what you need, methods to try and projects to make as you begin your watercolor painting journey. Watch in Bluprint — it’s FREE with a 7-day trial!Watch Now

How to paint with watercolor: 6 mark-making ideas

So you’ve got the basic watercolor techniques down — way to go! What’s next? Actually painting your painting, of course! There are many ways to apply watercolor to your painting. These mark-making ideas are just a few of the most common. Don’t feel limited by these, though!

1. Lines, hatching & cross-hatching

Let’s not over-complicate things! Like in drawing, watercolor can be used to paint lines of any size, shape and thickness. Plus, you can place lines beside each other or layer them perpendicular to each other for a hatching or cross-hatching effect.

For clean lines, use watercolor mixed with just a bit of water. Load a small brush with a defined tip with pigment from the pan. Then, paint a line on your paper. Depending on how much water you add to the watercolor, you can get dark, clear lines or flowy, freeform lines.

2. Scumbling

Scumbling in watercolor

Scumbling describes irregular motions to make either a line or layer on paint. It’s a little like scribbling with your brush! It’s best to not think too hard about it: simply paint irregularly in an area. To really see the texture, use a relatively dry brush.

3. Stippling

Stippling in watercolor

Instead of applying lines or areas of paint, paint tiny dots in a concentrated area. Once you’ve painted many dots, you’ll have a saturated color and fascinating texture.

Stippling can be neat and tidy, or the marks can overlap in a more freeform way. You can use a fairly dry brush for more defined dots or a wet brush for a looser look. Finally, the size of the brush you choose will determine the size of your dots, so choose carefully.

4. Splattering

Achieving that energetic, unpredictable splatter style of Jackson Pollock is easier said than done — it can easily get messy and uncontrollable. But there are three approaches to making the splattering technique more approachable.

Tapping splattering method for watercolor

First, you can use the “tapping” method. Fill the bristles of your paintbrush with pigment. Then, with your fingers or a second brush, gently tap the pigment-filled paintbrush. That will give the paint enough force travel across your canvas and cover a lot of ground. One drawback, however, is less control of where the splatter goes.

Flicking watercolor paint on a paper

Another option is to get your hands dirty! Load a stiff-bristled brush (or a spare toothbrush, if you have one) with pigment and hold it in one hand at a downward angle so that its bristles are pointed toward the ground. Then, with your opposite hand, slowly run your fingers along the edge of the brush, pulling the bristles back so that they launch paint from the brush onto the canvas.

Splattering watercolor paint with a stencil over paper

Control is a big challenge when splattering paint — unless you create a stencil. Cut a shape from a large sheet of paper or acetate and place it over your canvas before splattering paint. Make sure there’s plenty of positive space around your cut out — that way, the extra paint splatter won’t get on your canvas.

5. Dry brush

Dry lines watercolor mark making

Dry brush painting is the art of using very little paint and water to create a scratchy, “scraped-across” brushstroke in your painting. It can be used for an entire painting, but it’s also perfect for creating texture in small areas of a non-dry brush painting.

Mix your pigment, making sure your paint mixture is not too wet. Dip your dry brush in your chosen pigment and then dab it on a paper towel. Brush lightly across the surface to retain the texture of the paper and to avoid muddying the colors.

6. Sponge painting

Sponge painting with watercolor paints

A textured sponge can be a very handy tool to paint foliage in trees, old walls or sand on a beach. You can use a sea sponge or a regular new household sponge, dipped into your color wash and then pressed on the paper.

4 unexpected ways to add texture to a watercolor painting

1. Salt on a wet wash 

Salt applied over watercolor wet wash

When salt is sprinkled on a wet wash, it starts to gather the watercolor pigments. The wash has to be still wet but not too shiny. The effect will vary depending on the size of the grains of salt and the wetness of the paper. Brush off the salt when everything has dried.

2. Plastic wrap on a wet wash

watercolor paint textured with saran wrap

Crumple wrapping paper or kitchen plastic wrap and lay it on a wet wash. Once it has dried, remove the wrapping paper.

3. Rubbing alcohol on a wet wash

Alcohol applied to watercolor

Alcohol repels water, pushing the paint away. Try dripping it to create interesting white circular shapes, spraying it for a lighter effect, or dipping a cotton swab in alcohol and drawing over the painting.

startup library watercolor on craftsy

Everything you need to start painting with watercolors

Join instructor Kateri Ewing to learn what you need, methods to try and projects to make as you begin your watercolor painting journey. Watch in Bluprint — it’s FREE with a 7-day trial!Watch Now

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