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Toolkit Watercolor Painting Techniques – The Essential Guide

Kathleen

Materials and Tools | Basic Watercolor Techniques | Textural Techniques Beyond Brushes

Before trying your hand out at the different watercolor techniques, drop by and find out How To Clean Your Acrylic Paint Brushes.

Watercolor is a very popular medium for beginners and professional artists alike. It’s the gateway medium to the wonderful world of painting. One main reason is probably because you don’t need to buy a lot of materials to try it out. Essentially you just need your watercolor pigments, a brush or two, and good paper to start with. But that doesn’t mean that the watercolor techniques you can use have to remain basic. There’s a whole new experimental side to it that you can explore by just using items you’ll find at home. And they’re pretty simple and easy to do, so don’t worry about that. Learn how to create beautiful textures and effects to bring your watercolor paintings to a whole new level!


TABLE OF CONTENTS: Looking for something in particular? Jump ahead using the links below:

Materials and Tools Needed
Wet-on-wet & Wet-on-dry
Washes
Dry Brush, Layering & Scumbling
Color Lifting Watercolor Effects
Salt & Alcohol
Sgraffito & Watercolor Resist
Sponge & Spattering

Watercolor Effects – Creating Texture With Plastic, Foil, and Bubble Wrap


Let’s prepare the different materials and tools we need to go from the traditional techniques (some I find spell it this way – water color techniques) to the experimental. It’s always good to have them all ready so you won’t have to keep stopping and going back and forth. We don’t want your creative flow to be constantly interrupted.

Materials and Tools Needed:

  • Watercolor paints (pans or tubes) – I’ll be using the Allegro watercolor palette from ZenART’s Aspiring Artists Series
  • Watercolor brushes – I’ll be using brushes from ZenART’s Turner Collection.
  • Watercolor paper (the thicker the paper, the more water it can take without buckling) – If your paper isn’t too thick, stretch it beforehand to stop it from buckling when painting very wet washes.
  • Mixing plate
  • Paper towels
  • Salt – coarse sea salt and regular table salt
  • Rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle
  • Clean toothbrush (optional)
  • Needle (or any other pointy and sharp implement of your preference) – I also use my box cutter or a sharpened pencil for this.
  • Plastic and/or plastic wrap, foil, and bubble wrap
  • Clean sponge
  • Some cotton buds
  • And of course a jar of clean water (having two would be even better so you don’t have to keep replacing often)
The Allegro watercolor palette shown above is perfect for those who love to paint florals and other subjects with warm and vibrant colors. The three brushes (#8 flat brush, #10 and #5 round brushes) are all from the Turner Collection, a set with 13 different brushes and 1 palette knife that’s carefully selected with great care. The only complete set of professional watercolor brushes you’ll ever need!

Watercolor Painting Techniques

Some of the materials listed above might seem weird, but I promise you’ll love the effects they’ll give you. Even if you don’t end up using them often, it’s always useful to learn how to do them. There will be times when they’re just what you absolutely need to complete the look and feel of your watercolor painting. I’ll go through the basics with just a quick rundown as some are covered in more detail in another article we have – How To Watercolor For Beginners TutorialThere you’ll find useful tips about the materials you need and how to start your watercolor painting journey.

Wet-on-wet

You can already hazard a guess from the term, yes it’s applying your wet color mixture on a wet surface area. This is a popular watercolor technique as you can create absolutely unpredictable yet beautiful textures and effects. It can be wet from another color or just wet using clear water. Try them both out to see how the added color blooms and spreads on the wet surface.

Wet-on-dry

It’s basically applying wet paint onto your dry paper. Edges remain crisp and this is a good watercolor technique to use for creating flat washes. You have more control over evening out your wash than using the wet-on-wet.

Washes

You can do this with both a wet surface and a dry one, it depends on what effect you want to achieve.

Flat Wash

A wash generally doesn’t have to be in one even tone. But there are times when you need them to be and this is where flat washes come in. You have to make sure to mix enough to cover the whole area that you plan to cover. If you run out mid-way and mix again, the chances of getting the exact water to pigment ratio is very difficult. And you’re most likely going to end up with a mix that’s a bit lighter or darker than before. Adding that to your unfinished flat wash will affect it and create an uneven section.

Graded Wash

Graded washes are essentially gradients you create using watercolor. You can create gradients with one color going from very pigmented with less water to hardly pigmented that’s very much watered down (nearly white). Or one color smoothly shifting into another – a color gradient. These color gradient watercolor effects work best with analogous colors.

Dry Brush

It’s exactly as it’s called, using a slightly damp and almost dry brush – not dry – dip it into a thicker paint mixture and use the brush to create texture over the desired surface area. Experiment using the sides of the brush.

I’ve used this technique many times to paint trees. It’s great for painting the impression of a great amount of leaves, see how it looks here.

Layering

This is when you add layers on top of each other to create texture, give variation, and add depth to your painting. Each layer has to be completely dry before adding the next, otherwise the colors will bleed with each other. And you might end up with a muddy pile of colors instead of a beautiful layering effect. This watercolor technique is akin to glazing in oil and acrylic painting.

Scumbling

Scumbling is a technique that’s also popularly used in oil painting. Apply the paint in a haphazard and less-controlled manner, the goal is not to create a uniformed look but a more textural effect. You can use circular motions, short swishing motions, or a mix of both. The pigment and brush load can also vary depending on your preference. You can also choose to apply it on either a wet or dry surface. Experiment with the different kinds of brushes and brush sizes to see what kind of effect each one gives you.

Color Lifting Watercolor Effects

There are times where you need to lift off some paint from your work. Maybe there’s too much of it, or you want to create a certain effect that you can achieve by lifting off paint. You can do this while the paint is still wet or even when it’s dry, it’s just much harder when dry. But that also creates a different effect which you might like as well.

Wet Color Lifting

This is often used for making corrections. Besides that, I myself usually use this to create soft dappled effects that’s great for clouds and other soft textures. Blot out as much water as you can from your brush so it can absorb more, and gently touch it to the area where you want to lift off the paint. Blot it out again to absorb more if needed.

Dry Color Lifting

Once the paint has dried, it’s much harder but still possible. Re-wet the area where you want to lift off some paint, and then use your nearly dry brush to remove what you can. You can also use a paper towel or in my case sometimes cotton buds for tiny areas.

Textural Watercolor Techniques Beyond Brushes

The following techniques are great for watercolor painting for kids. Whenever I get to this part with my students, they just love it! And I believe we are all kids at heart, so I hope you’ll have fun with them, too. 

Salt

Using salt is not so uncommon, it’s used by many professional artists to create really interesting textures in their paintings. Coarse sea salt and regular table salt will give you different textures, so experiment with both to see how each one looks and in what way you’d possibly like to use them. Sprinkling on very wet paper and a slightly drier one will also create different effects. Wait for the paint to completely dry before brushing off the salt.

Rubbing Alcohol

When you dab, drop, or spray rubbing alcohol on a newly applied wet color, the alcohol will push away the color around it. So you can use it to create interesting circular textures in varying sizes. 

Sgraffito or Scratching-off

This watercolor technique requires you to make scratches with a sharp tool like a needle, leaving tiny grooves on your paper. While the paint is still wet, make those scratches, some of the wet paint will flow into the grooves. This makes the paint appear darker and will make them look like drawn out lines. 

Watercolor Resist

You can use tape, masking fluid, crayons, or candle wax to act as the resisting barrier. The areas where you applied any of those will resist the water and pigment, and will remain white. Tape is especially useful when you want to keep an edge sharp and clean. 

Sponge

Use a clean sponge for this, you don’t want random dirt or color to stain your color. Dip your sponge in the mixture and dab or press it onto your paper. The textural effects you can create will vary depending on how dry or wet your mixture is. And also how much pressure you apply to the sponge when blotting it on your paper.

Spattering

Technically, you can definitely do this watercolor painting technique with brushes. So let’s start with that and get ready to get more paint than usual on your hands and fingers. Load your brush with paint and flick the brush hair using your fingers over the part that you want some splatter on. I find that stiffer brushes give off better splatters, so try using those as well. Or if you want to opt for a cleaner way, use another brush to tap your loaded brush on to release the paint. You can use a toothbrush for the extra fine splatters, the small and stiff bristles give a nice misty splattering effect. Use your fingertip to flick through the brush or a stiff flat utensil like a popsicle stick or a palette knife.

Tip: Splatters are hard to control, so if you want to keep some parts clear off them – use a stencil. Cut out the part where you want the splatters, and flick over that. The parts covered by the stencil will be kept safe from them.

Watercolor Effects – Creating Texture With Plastic, Foil, and Bubble Wrap

Start by painting the color that you want on your paper. Then while the paint is still wet, crumple your plastic and press it down on the wet surface. Do the same for the foil – crumple and press on the wet paint. Don’t lift them just yet, wait for the paint to dry. Try to play around with your crumpling to see the various textures you can create. With the bubble wrap, just cut out and use the size you need and press it down over the wet paint. Remove only when the paint has dried.

See and compare what type of texture each one leaves. They all create their own interesting markings that you can play around with. Find out what other watercolor techniques (or as some say water color techniques) and textures you can create using things you can find at home.

Try out and fully explore each technique shown above in your sketchbook. 

Looking for a handy and high-quality sketchbook you can bring everywhere with you? Check out ZenART’s Artist’s Sketchbooks here.

And that’s the end of the line for this guide. But there’s still more ways out there for you to explore and discover for yourself. Have fun exploring and trying out new ways to use your watercolors. You might just stumble on one that you’ll love and make your own. The important thing is to keep creating, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t always like what you end up with. Just try to enjoy the process. We all go through that, I promise!

We’d love to hear back from you!

Which watercolor techniques do you often find yourself using? Have you tried some of the more experimental techniques? Which one do you find most interesting? Leave a comment or any questions you have below and we’ll happily get back to you! Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint! 

On our next Toolkit, The Basic Oil Paint Colors You Need – Working With A Limited Palette, find out which colors to get to start your oil painting adventures. Until then, have a wonderful time exploring all the watercolor painting techniques!


— MEET THE AUTHOR—

Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She’s a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewelry designs.

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