Sometimes the world of watercolor is paved with jargon. For beginners tuning into a watercolor tutorial or review, some new watercolor terms may sound confusing. But it needn’t be too complicated.
Whether you’re a newbie or a pro watercolor painter, brush up on your watercolor lingo with this A to Z list!
Often used to describe watercolor paints, papers, and brushes. When something is artist-grade, that means it’s the best quality you can find. Artist-grade paints are more expensive, as they contain fine pigments and are more permanent.
For beginners, you can still find high-quality student-grade paints. These are recommended for you to get to know the medium first.
Also known as “backruns,” blooms are irregular shapes or forms that occur when one color of paint flows into another color that hasn’t fully dried. Though unintentional, they’re not necessarily unwanted. It’s an interesting technique that can also be used to create different effects.
As in “blotting a brush.” You do this to remove excess water or paint from your brush—usually by dabbing your brush on a sponge or paper towel.
Also known as “cockling.” Paper buckling is when your watercolor paper wrinkles or deforms. This happens because watercolor papers expand when wet. You can prevent this by stretching paper before painting or by using a watercolor block.
Read More: Watercolor Brushes for Beginners
Also known as an oval wash brush. This paintbrush is similar to a Filbert brush but it has a pointed tip. It’s a highly recommended brush for painting organic shapes like petals.
A watercolor technique where you mix colors directly on the paper instead of mixing them in a palette.
A visual representation of the relationship between colors and an essential tool in understanding color theory.
You have your primary colors (red, yellow, and blue). When you mix two primary colors together, you get the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet). Finally, mixing primary and secondary colors gives you tertiary colors.
The color wheel helps you make color combinations to form a color palette for your painting:
- Complementary colors: Two or more colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Using this color combination in a painting creates a nice contrast. Mixing complementary colors together creates neutral colors.
- Analogous colors: Colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel.
- Monochromatic colors: Only one color, but with variations on tints, tones, and shades.
The dry brush technique involves using a mostly dry paintbrush with little paint and painting directly on dry paper. This is a watercolor painting technique that helps create interesting textures.
Most easels are used in oil painting, but there are easels that are designed for watercolor artists. An easel is good for working outdoors or en plein air. Usually, you have a wooden stand and a board to tape or mount your paper upon. It’s up to you what angle you want but many watercolor artists recommend 45°.
A flat brush with bristles that fan outward, hence its name. It’s a good shape for blending edges. You can also develop textures like fur, foliage, feathers, and ripples.
You’ll come across this term a lot in our brush guides. It’s the metal part of a brush that keeps the brush hairs attached to the handle.
Glaze or Layer
Read More: Watercolor Painting Techniques
A glaze or layering wash is a sheer, transparent, or translucent coat of watercolor paint. Creating a glaze means painting a transparent color over another color that has dried completely. This effect makes the bottom layer show through, often creating the effect of a new color altogether.
Layering is often interchanged with glazing. The difference between the two is that the colors used in layering can be dark or opaque so the bottom layer doesn’t necessarily show through.
Also known as “tooth,” this term is used to talk about watercolor paper. Grain refers to the direction of the fibers in your paper or how rough the paper is. There are several levels: fine, medium, and rough grain.
This is the speckled effect you get when a paint’s coarse pigment settles into the paper indentations. Often, it has nothing to do with paint quality. This occurs when you have pigments of different weights.
This refers to a color’s saturation at its strongest or most vivid. You see this when your pigment is undiluted by water.
Sometimes used interchangeably with “strength” or “saturation.” A color is strongest when undiluted and therefore has weaker intensity when washed out with more water.
Watercolor brushes with hairs taken from a species of weasels native to Siberia or China. These are the highest quality and most expensive watercolor brushes because they are strong, absorbent, and hold a fine point very well.
Lifting your watercolors can produce interesting effects. For example, I used tissue paper to lighten parts of this wash to look like clouds.
Quite literally, you lift paint or remove the color from an area that’s still wet. This is done with a squeezed-out brush, a paper towel, tissue, or a cotton swab. Removing paint this way helps to lighten the area, fix mistakes, or create highlights.
A rating is given to watercolor pigments based on how permanent and fade-resistant they are—particularly after exposure to sunlight. Artist-grade paints typically come with a lightfast rating on a scale of I to IV, with I being the most permanent.
Filling or loading your paintbrush with watercolor. A loaded paintbrush becomes plumper in the belly since it contains a lot of watercolor paint for you to cover large surfaces with color.
Sometimes using white paint or watering down your paint to its lightest tone isn’t enough to preserve the whiteness of your watercolor paper. That’s when you need masking fluid—a liquid latex substance that you apply to protect parts of your painting. Once your painting is finished and fully dry, you can easily peel it off.
A large, round brush that can easily absorb paint and cover large areas with color.
A swatch card of our Art Nomad palette. Swatching your watercolors is a great way to test out their hue and opacity.
The opposite of transparent or translucent. A pigment or color has opacity or is opaque if it completely covers the layer/s of color or paper beneath.
This can refer to either a) the selection of colors an artist chooses to work with, or b) the surface on which a watercolor artist mixes their paints.
Typically used with thicker media like acrylics, oils, or impasto. A palette knife still comes in handy for mixing liquid watercolor paints or creating expressive effects by applying paint directly from tube to paper.
Not all papers and sketchbooks can handle wet media, so it’s important to use high-quality watercolor paper. You can buy watercolor paper in loose sheets, pads (glued or bound on one side), or blocks (glued on all sides).
Watercolor paper is typically made with natural fibers like wood pulp or cotton. But just as you can get synthetic brushes, you can also find synthetic papers on the market.
Watercolor paper comes in different kinds, orientations, and sizes. What you use depends on your preference.
For reference, the watercolor paper we have here on ZenART is cold-pressed, acid-free, and of archival quality.
This mildly textured paper is most suitable for watercolor painting. Cold-pressed paper has some tooth or grain and is more absorbent than hot-pressed paper. It’s sometimes called NOT paper because it’s not pressed by hot rollers.
Best for painting fine details, hot-pressed paper has a smooth surface texture because it was pressed between hot rollers during manufacturing.
You’ll know it by its highly textured surface. It’s the roughest of these three kinds of watercolor paper because it was left to dry naturally without being pressed by rollers. This type is great for creating granulating effects with your watercolor paint.
A pigment is usually an insoluble powder that gives paint its color. Paint pigment can be derived from natural or synthetic substances. In watercolor, a pigment is suspended in a vehicle or binder such as gum arabic and is then activated with water to release the color onto the paper.
Read More: Watercolor Brush Sizes
A type of watercolor brush with long bristles and a fine point. Originally, the rigger brush was used to paint long rigging lines on boats, hence its name. Though thin, these brushes hold a lot of water and are useful for painting long, thin lines.
A color made darker by adding black. Some artists also mix their own black paints to adjust their shades. You can create black by combining all primary colors.
Snap & Spring
This refers to the behavior of a watercolour brush. A good brush can “snap” back into shape after being bent at an angle. A brush with spring can hold its shape while pressed on the surface of the paper.
An effect that creates paint splatters or blobs. To do this, load your paint brush or use an old toothbrush and start flicking paint onto the paper. It’s harder to control but adds a nice effect to your painting.
Some watercolor paints have a tendency to sink in and absorb into the very fibers of your paper even before the water fully dries. Staining colors will leave a permanent mark on the paper and are harder to lift or remove.
This refers to paints or colors that allow light to pass through. It’s easy to confuse it with translucency.
A color is transparent if it can totally be seen through and light can fully penetrate through the pigment. A color is translucent if the light still passes through but not enough to show all layers, forms, or colors beneath.
A color made lighter by mixing it with white or by adding more water.
You create a tone of a color by adding gray. By doing this, you can desaturate and make a color more neutral, pastel, lighter, or darker.
This refers to the lightness or darkness of a color or the relationship between different tones on one image. It’s often shown in a tonal value scale. White is the lightest value. Black is the darkest value. The halfway or in-between is gray.
A basic watercolor technique used to cover large areas with a transparent wash of color. It’s often the first step or layer of a watercolor painting. To create a wash of watercolor, load your brush with very wet watercolor paint and drag it across the paper moving downwards to spread more color.
There are many kinds of watercolor washes. Watercolor washes don’t necessarily need only one color; they can transition from light to dark, or from one color to another.
Literally a flat area of just one color. Ideally, the color shouldn’t vary in intensity or tint but be consistent throughout the area of the wash.
Also known as a gradient or graded wash, here the color gradually lightens as the wash takes form. To create that gradient effect, just keep adding water little by little until you get the lightest value you want in the wash. This technique comes in handy in landscape painting.
A type of wet-into-wet wash where you paint with two or more different colors. The aim of a variegated wash is to allow colors to smoothly blend together and form soft edges once dry. You can create an ombre effect by transitioning from one color to another. You can also use the charging technique and let the colors mix together on wet or damp paper.
Wet on Dry
(See above: Glazing or Layering) Another basic watercolor technique that involves applying watery or wet paint directly on top of dry paper.
Wet on Wet
The wet on wet or wet into wet technique involves painting with wet paint on wet paper. To do this, pre-wet your paper and then start adding colors into that area. This style of painting lets colors blend seamlessly together, creating soft edges while the paint dries.
For beginners, the wet-on-wet technique may create unpredictable color combinations—worse, colors that mix badly and become muddy.
As a rule of thumb, remember that watercolor will flow from the wettest area to a less wet or damp area of the paper. You can vary the degree of wetness on your paper depending on the effects you’d like to create with this technique.
The great watercolor painter, JMW Turner, often used this technique for his landscapes.
How many of these watercolor terms do you know?
Are you a watercolor beginner or a watercolor pro? If so, how many watercolor terms were you already familiar with? And which of these terms did you only find out about now?
Level up your watercolor knowledge! Check out our Toolkit section on the ZenART blog for more guides, tips, and how-tos!
- MEET THE AUTHOR-
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.