Beginner’s Guide to Basic Watercolour Techniques
Most people I’ve talked to feel that they can’t manipulate watercolour like they want to. They get discouraged because they aren’t sure what techniques to use to get the effects they want, and so they just stop painting altogether.
It’s quite normal to feel hesitant to try watercolours. It’s a completely different medium to acrylic or oil. It can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort if you keep at it.
By the end of this blog post, my aim is to have you ready to pull out the old watercolour set and just paint!
Is painting with watercolour difficult?
Well... yes and no. While I appreciate that it can seem unpredictable or unforgiving (I used to think that too!) watercolour is also a very flexible and dynamic medium for creating artwork once you understand and continue to practice some basic techniques.
Remember, learning any skill requires practice and perseverance. Making mistakes is part of the process. Confidence with watercolour comes with practice, so don’t let what you’ve heard discourage you, and especially don’t judge yourself for trying!
Trust me - once you try out these techniques and get a good feel for them, watercolour will become an exciting and beautiful medium through which to create artwork.
What materials do I need for watercolour?
Compared to some creative outlets, painting with watercolour requires relatively few materials. While you do NOT need to spend hundreds of dollars on top of the line watercolours and brushes to create paintings with watercolour, most artists will agree that medium to higher quality materials are best, particularly if you plan to sell your paintings.
Student grade or professional grade watercolours will mean more vibrant colours, the paint won’t ‘crack’ when drying, and there will be easier manipulation (ie blending) of the paint. Cheap watercolours will be harder to use and you won’t get the effects that you are looking for as easily. This will make it harder to learn the following techniques properly.
That said, if you already have a watercolour set, use it! Unless it’s so old the paint is mouldy or it’s a set you'd find in a kindergarten classroom, you can still apply the same techniques below.
If you don’t have paint yet and aren’t sure what to get, I really like this blog post for deciding on watercolour paint that will work for you.
Paper is also very important - most papers are not suitable as watercolour paper, including, in my opinion, most multi-media paper. You want to use watercolour paper. Printer paper, sketching paper, acrylic paper, etc are not designed to hold water and will warp terribly. It’s better to use the right tool for the job and get better results.
You may be thinking that this just makes painting with watercolour even more daunting. Susan Chiang has a really solid article for choosing watercolour paper for beginners, and if you’re still at a loss, your local art store will absolutely have someone that can help you out!
- Watercolour paint (in a pan, tubes, or sticks)
- Watercolour paper
- Brushes of varying size or shape
- Painter’s tape
- Paint palette, or something to mix your paints on
- Paper towel or cloth
- Clean water
- Masking fluid/drawing gum, for whiting out areas
- Pencil, for sketching beforehand
- Spray bottle, to keep your paper moist while working
These painting materials can be found at any art/craft store, or online.
Setting up your painting space
Regardless of what you’re painting with, it’s always a good idea to set up your painting space and materials before you start.
When everything is set up before you start, you can efficiently go between different stages of the painting. Or, if you end up making a mistake, having what I lovingly call my "Oh Shit" materials (paper towel, clean water, a white gel pen, etc) right at your disposal can oftentimes help to reverse a mistake before the paint dries and it becomes permanent.
Watercolour dries quickly compared to acrylic or oil so it never hurts to be prepared!
Here are a few of the set-up steps that I do before I start a painting, in no particular order:
Taping the Paper
Once I’ve found the size of paper that I want to paint on, I will go ahead and tape the edges of the paper. I tend to keep a 1/4 inch or 1/2 border.
When I was starting out, I used to tape my paper to something flat and sturdy, such as a piece of cardboard, or just directly to the table. Now that I've been using this medium for a while, I do things differently. I work from home and in a studio office, so to keep things portable-friendly I now just tape the edges of the paper, and iron the painting to flatten it after I’m done.
If you want to put your paper at an angle while you paint, taping the paper to cardboard is a great option. It’ll keep the paper relatively flat, and you can adjust the angle of the painting throughout the process.
Grabbing Clean Water
This one is pretty straightforward. I will usually have two bowls of water handy - one for cleaning my brushes, and the other for when I need to have clean water, such as for washes or other effects.
When I make a mistake and need to lift paint off of the area, having clean water instantly available to use is immensely helpful and saves me the stress of frantically scrambling to get some while the mistake dries.
Organizing Brushes, Pens, and Other Materials
If you’re working on a painting that requires a lot of detail - or maybe you need to sketch and outline your painting in ink before you paint - having the materials you need at arm’s length saves time and makes for a more enjoyable creative process.
Whenever I need to leave my desk to get materials for my artwork, it's just another opportunity for me to visit my fridge or cuddle with my dog. Although I love both, any choice I can make to delay or forgo procrastination is a win!
Have Reference Photos Ready
My paintings are usually of landscapes or architecture and I still need reference photos to make sure I’ve got proportions, colours, and shapes right. I have a lot of “To-Draw” paintings on my phone, so when I sit down to paint I’ll make sure that my phone or laptop is charged and the photo is open.
I wrote another blog post about how I break down buildings into shapes for drawing for some inspiration!
Before You Start Painting
It's worth noting that I've seen people struggle with these techniques because they either under or overuse water when they mix it with the paint. Keep a mental note or check back if you're facing these problems:
You need more water if you have:
- Very dark colours
- Colours drying very quickly and you're having a hard time blending/working with them
- A paste instead of a puddle (If using watercolour from the tube)
- You can 'hear' the paintbrush on the paper when you paint (this is basically dry brushing, which is explained later in this article)
You may be using too much water if:
- The colours aren't very bright, or they look very faded
- You have puddles of water on the paper and it's taking a long time to dry
- Your paintbrush is literally dripping with water or paint
With that said, let's finally get down to business!
Basic Watercolour Techniques
While there are actually many techniques, three are considered the building blocks and are what most watercolour artists use consistently and frequently. These include 'wet on dry', 'wet on wet', and watercolour washes.
Wet on Dry
Wet on dry is easy to remember because the name implies what you need to do - a wet paintbrush on dry paper. This is actually a very common way of painting and is the traditional method of painting when you see artists painting with acrylic or oil on canvas.
This technique is great for adding details and is good for giving your painting sharp, clean edges. It can be used just by itself to create a painting but is usually used along with wet on wet and washes.
This technique is pretty straightforward - dip your brush into water, add it to your paint, mix it until you get your desired colour and consistency, and apply it to dry watercolour paper.
This technique is great for fine lines and detail, or if you want sharp and clean edges. I use 'wet on dry' for my brickwork and when I need small but precise details.
Wet on Wet
The ‘wet on wet’ technique is very similar to the ‘wet on dry’ technique, except that it’s when you paint on wet paper instead of dry paper. This technique gives way to many unique looks and is used often for softer options in paintings. You can also use this technique to seamlessly blend colours together.
To start, you’ll need to wet your watercolour paper evenly so that it’s damp, but not soaking wet. If you see puddles forming in your paper, there’s too much water! You can tell if the paper is wet by holding it to a light and checking for shiny spots.
After you've wet the paper, mix your paint on your palette and load your brush with paint. Touch the wet paper - notice how the pigment from the paint spreads and 'blooms'.
I love this technique. It is extremely useful for clouds and water!
If you want your painting to have a consistent, even colour, have a colour that fades, or have seamlessly blended colours, this is the technique you’ll want to learn. These techniques take practice so if the first ones don’t turn out, try try again!
There are three kinds of washes:
1. Flat Wash
A flat wash is achieved when you have one single colour that is evenly pigmented across the page. To get this effect, you will want to prep your colour on the palette beforehand. Depending on the size of the area you want to apply the paint to, you’ll need to prepare a good size puddle of paint.
For this type of wash, I tend to not wet the paper beforehand. Instead, with my paintbrush loaded up with paint, I use the 'wet on dry' technique and start at the top of the area I want to paint, going from left to right:
I’ll load up my paintbrush again; no need to dip it into water or dab it on the paper towel - we want to keep a consistent colour. Repeat as above, keeping the paintbrush just below the first stroke of paint. Repeat until the area has been painted.
If you have puddles forming in your wash, you will want to get rid of them so the area dries at the same time. You can do this by dabbing your paintbrush on paper towel and lightly touching the puddle - your brush will soak it up.
My Island Views painting is a good example of how to use a flat wash for sky and water!
2. Gradient (Graded) Wash
This technique uses a single colour to create a gradient, or a graded wash. You can use a ‘wet on wet’ technique or the ‘wet on dry’ technique. I find I have much more control when I use the ‘wet on dry’ technique (what you can see in the photos), but you can still achieve a graded wash using the 'wet on wet' technique. Try out both and see what you prefer!
First, start by mixing your paint so that it is heavily pigmented (ie. a high paint to water ratio). Load your brush up and paint in one single stroke, like you would do for a flat wash.
Next, dip your paint into the water (you don’t need to swirl it around or dry it off on the paper towel, we’re just getting some water into the brush).
On your palette, mix your wet brush into the pigmented paint puddle you made. This will lighten the colour. Take your brush and add it underneath the first line you created. Repeat until you have very light to little pigment.
This one often needs some additional blending afterwards to get that beautiful ombre effect. To do this, after you’re done the lightest stroke, dry off your brush. From light to dark, left to right, take your brush and go back over the paint in straight brush strokes.
3. Variegated Wash
This technique is a wash between two or more colours using the ‘wet on wet’ technique. I use this constantly in my paintings. My Raindrops on the Window Print uses this variegated wash technique to get the background colours to seamlessly blend into one another.
This is essentially the graded wash but the paper is wet beforehand. You’ll need to get two colours mixed on your palette, both fairly pigmented. Before you add your colour to the paper though, wet the entire area first with clean water (ie. 'wet on wet') This will help the colours blend together.
When the paper is wet and your paint has been mixed, apply the first colour to one side in a single stroke.
Add water to the palette to desaturate the paint puddle, and create another line next to the first. Go until you get to about the halfway mark, and clean your brush.
Dip your paint into the next colour, and apply that heavily pigmented colour to the other side in a single stroke. Repeat until the two colours mix.
Again, like the graded wash, you will very likely need to blend the two colours. Start from one end and go to the other until you're happy with the blend.
And those are the three effects! Not so bad, hey?
While those are the most common, there are definitely some other fun things you can do with your paint, which I've outlined below!
Other Watercolour Effects
Dry brush (also known as dry on dry in watercolour) is when a brush with very little paint is lightly and quickly streaked across a dry piece of paper. It’s a great technique for fur, grass, or hair.
Salt can create a beautiful effect when you add it to a wet surface. The crystals soak up the paint, leaving areas without much pigment. This is a fun effect and can add texture to your painting. Different sizes of salt (table vs. flakes) will create different effects too.
You can use 'wet on wet' or 'wet on dry' for this technique. Once your paint has been added to the paper (and is still wet!), sprinkle some salt onto the page. Once dry, you can sweep the salt off of the paper.
You can really use your imagination for this one, but when I do use salt in a painting it's for sand/beaches or snow.
This is a super simple way to get texture in painting. I use this for clouds or when I need to remove some paint to get highlights.
All you need to do is dab paper towel onto the wet paint. The amount of pressure you use and how long you hold the paper towel for will affect how much paint is absorbed and lifted off the paper.
I'm using a brush here, but you can also use a Q-Tip or small pipette to do the same thing. I didn't have any on hand, but isopropyl alcohol gives some really stunning results (and means you don't need to dip into your whiskey stash!).
Rubbing alcohol, vodka, whiskey, or gin can create this effect. The alcohol reacts with the water in the paint and pushes the pigment around.
Most of my paintings involving bricks or sidewalks will have splatters in them. When your first layer is dry, take a loaded brush and flick the paint on to the page. This effect can be very sporadic, so if there are areas you do not want to be splattered, cover them up first with some paper (I learned the hard way on this one!).
This is a fun technique and works great in place of masking fluid. I've seen some beautiful mandala designs with this as well. The wax in the crayon seals the surface of the paper so that it is not soluble to water. This means that when you add the paint to the page, it repels it rather than being absorbed into the paper.
I've found that when I match the colour of the crayon to the paper (eg. white crayon with white paper) I get the best results. It's also a very popular and fun exercise to do with kids!
There are other techniques such as ink, masking fluid and layering that I didn't cover in this blog post but would love to in future articles.
I get it - watercolours can seem daunting to use. Whether you've tried them before or you've heard the discouraging stories others have told you, I want you to throw judgement out the window and try them again!
Even when you're doodling or practicing with it, watercolour is a beautiful medium. There is a lot you can do with it, and with practicing just a few simple techniques, you can feel more confident when picking up the brush.
Instead of feeling apprehensive to use watercolour, I hope that what you've read will encourage you to just play and make art. Try these techniques, learn from them, and realize that you're just going to get better the more you do it.
Let me know in the comments below if you'd like me to go over any other watercolour techniques!
Otherwise.... have fun and GO CREATE!
Andie Lafrentz has been working as an artist full-time since August 2019, after she quit her job at a tech company. Through watercolour and ink, she combines bright, lively colours and her love of travel to create pieces that express the way she sees the world.