Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques

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Once you’ve mastered the basic skills of paint application, you’ll want to expand your repertoire with some advanced techniques.

This will include paint flinging, abusing your paper and exposing your paint to the effects of alcohol.

Watercolor is one of the few mediums you can add ingredients to achieve unique textures and patterns.

These are basic household materials and are not formulations made specifically as watercolor additives.

Splattering And Spraying Technique

Splattering is a fun technique that produces random patterns to perk up a lifeless background or add texture to shapes and forms. This technique can be used willy-nilly over a wide area of a painting, or you can control the spray by using scrap paper to protect areas you wish to remain un-speckled. You can use these techniques on dry or wet paper. The amount of moisture in the paper will affect the final appearance of the paint.

Watercolor Spattering

To splatter, load a wide flat brush with color. The brush should be fully loaded, but it should not drip. Tap it against your finger while aiming at the paper. You don’t have much control, so it’s a good idea to lay newspaper around the area to protect your studio from paint shrapnel.

Spraying gives a more delicate look and can be more confined. Load a toothbrush with paint. You can dip it directly into your palette, or use a paint-filled brush to load the toothbrush. Use your finger, the handle of a brush or a palette knife to scrape across the tips of the bristles and aim your spray at the support. You’ll find the spray more condensed and of finer particles than splattering.

Sgraffito Textures

Sgraffito is Italian for scratching. In Watercolor, the paper is scratched or scored while the paint is wet, allowing the paint to soak into the bruised paper. The accumulated paint dries darker than the surrounding area to create texture. The technique is good for bark texture on trees and gives the appearance of grasses in the foreground of landscapes. This method is also used for leafless tree shapes on the horizon. Some brushes have scrapers formed on the end of the handle, or you can use the edge of a palette knife or a dull penknife. A wide surface such as a credit card is sometimes used to move away larger bits of paint.

This technique requires timing. If the paint is too dry, it can’t seep properly into the grooves you created. If the surface is too wet, the paint won’t stay in place. Practice and observing the drying rate of your paper is important to learn this skill.

Stamping Textures

You can use pre-made stamps or create custom stamps. This technique is particularly useful when you wish to replicate a design a number of times. Use your imagination. You can use organic items such as ferns, leaves and other detritus Mother Nature so thoughtfully provides. Other man-made items, bits of lace, a metal washer or an oddly shaped piece of plastic languishing in your junk drawer are useful stamping tools. Wadded up paper towels and sponges are great for adding texture. Natural sea sponges work well, as they have various sized holes and random shapes and edges.

Backwash Technique

This technique is good for creating interesting texture on background areas. Using backwash is a very random process, fraught with pitfalls and serendipitous success. You can wind up with a lovely pattern that flows and charms the viewer, or an ugly, muddy mess that even a toddler wouldn’t claim as his own. If you’re planning on using backwash for a background, lay it in before spending much time on your subject. If it goes badly, you won’t have wasted a lot of painting time.

Watercolor Back Wash

Use a juicy, paint-laden brush and quickly paint a loose, random wash in one area. Change or clean your brush, and use another color to work the same type of wash into an adjacent area. Where the two colors flow together, you should see some interesting mixing. Dip a clean brush in water and fling some drops across the area. You can also strategically place water drops in a more controlled manner.

As the water mixes with the wet paint, it disperses the concentration and spreads out in random shapes. The angle of your paper will affect the outcome. Tilting your board will allow the paint and water to flow downward, or you may wish to tilt the paper to direct the flow upward or to the side. You can also position the paper flat to give a different appearance.

The degree of dryness will affect how much the water impacts the underlying paint, and this changes as the paint continues to dry. You can repeat this throughout the duration of the drying period, or use it on completely dry paint with some success.

Alcohol Texture

Alcohol texture employs many of the same techniques used for backwashing. In this case, you will use Q-tips and Isopropyl alcohol as your texturing agent.

Prepare an area with washes of paint as described in the backwashing section. Now, instead of using water to create texture, use alcohol dripped from a Q-tip. Water and alcohol don’t mix, so the paint shrinks back from the alcohol as best it can. You will notice the appearance of fish eyes in the center of some drops, which is a telling feature of alcohol texturing.

The effects of the alcohol will change as it is applied to the gradually drying paper. Alcohol texture requires a certain level of water to be most effective, and practice increases your chances of success with this technique.

Salt Technique

Kosher salt is the most commonly used salt product for this technique, but sea salt, table salt and rock salt are all contenders. Table salt is very finely ground, and the results are sort of wimpy. Rock salt can be composed of large pellets and may be too coarse to work well. Sea salt varies in composition, so experiment to find one that works suitably for you. Kosher salt has been used for decades, and just like Goldilocks and her porridge, you’ll find that it’s just right.

Watercolor Salt Technique

Once again, we start with a juicy and vibrant wash of paints. Judiciously sprinkle salt over the area. A small amount of salt makes a big impact, so don’t go hog wild with your application. Now, sit quietly with your hands folded in your lap and wait for it to dry completely. Do not attempt to remove the salt crystals until it is bone dry. Shake off the loose particles and wipe away the clinging bits with a paper towel.

This really takes some practice to determine just how wet the paper should be. If the paper is too soggy, the salt can’t absorb enough water to create the patterns. If the paint has become too dry, the salt has nothing to absorb to create the texture. The paper should have a nice, wet sheen, but it should not look like the Dismal Swamp. Practice on scrap paper until you learn what the paper should look like.

Tissue Paper And Plastic Wrap Techniques

These two products are applied in a similar fashion and give wonderful textural effects. They can be used over a large area and useful to lay in preliminary abstract passages that can be expanded upon or left unaltered.

Tissue Paper

Again, we start with that wet and wild random area of colors. While the paint is still juicy, crumple up a sheet of tissue paper. Press it into the paint, spreading it and allowing the crumples to maintain a random pattern. Leave some ridges above the support while other areas are pressed more firmly to the paper. Allow the paint to dry somewhat. When an edge of the tissue is lifted away from the support and the texture remains in place, it’s time to remove the tissue paper entirely.

Plastic Wrap

When dealing with plastic wrap, you must allow the paint to dry completely. Using plastic wrap is more time consuming, although it gives you a longer window during which you can mess about with the plastic.

Make that lovely random area of wet colors, and tear off a goodly section of plastic wrap. Crumple it and spread it over the paint. You don’t want it to lie flat. Squish and manipulate it so there are lots of crinkles. Allow the paint to dry completely before removing the plastic. Since the wrap is airtight, this will take some time. A situation like this is a good reason to have multiple paintings going at the same time. You can always work on another one while waiting for a procedure to be completed.

Now that the paint is dry, pull off the plastic wrap. You’ll have a marvelous, abstract panoply of paint. The random shapes and colors may stand alone as a background, or you may want to continue to contour the area and use it as a basis for other paint application. This technique is good for forming a rock cliff or other hard-edged shapes such as a wall.

Wax Resist Technique

Wax resist is a fun way to add texture to your painting. White candles will leave clear wax and leave the white of the paper showing through your paint. Color crayons can be used to create underlying texture. You can also use crayons to color some of your composition.

Lay in areas of color to create grasses or foliage, or add some textural strokes to tree bark. Increase the depth of color in a shadow area or perhaps the deepest red near the edge of an apple. When you apply paint, the water based medium will flow around the wax, so plan the colors you use and the area in which you will use it.

Liquid Masking Technique

Liquid masking is a wonderful way to save the white of your paper. However, this is a planned procedure and not a technique that is used in a random sort of way like the other techniques we have described here.

Watercolor Liquid Mask

This product is available under several manufacturers’ names and is commonly called frisket. Frisket is the bane of any self-respecting brush, so use one that is old and unsuitable for painting. Reserve that brush solely for frisket application. Frisket that has dried on the bristles of a brush can never be fully removed, so it must be instantly wiped from the bristles to keep it as clean as possible.

Prepare your composition, and decide which areas are to remain white after the main body of paint has been applied. Use your frisket brush and carefully apply the liquid. Make sure to cover thoroughly all areas with a thin layer. Allow the liquid to dry completely before painting. Knowing that the intended white areas are safe from the pigment, you now can paint without concern.

Once you have completed the background work, and the paint is completely dry, you are ready to work on your white areas. To remove the frisket, use an artist’s crepe rubber cement pickup. Now, you finally know the use of that little white square you saw in the art supply store.

With all the Watercolor techniques described here, there will be both subtle and obvious variations in the results you achieve. Different brands of paint and even different colors have a particular set of characteristics. The weight and tooth of paper you choose make a tremendous difference in how the paint looks on the support.
Inexpensive, student grade paper does not hold up well to rigorous manipulation, so choose a professional quality paper for sgraffito and other techniques that can erode or damage the surface.

However, have plenty of inexpensive paper for testing out new techniques until you feel comfortable and pleased with your results. Save all your reject paintings, and use the backs for experimenting and testing. If one area of an experiment is successful while the remainder of the sheet is a mess, cut out the good portion and use it for a smaller painting. It might make a nice completed painting or perhaps the front of a handmade greeting card.

Use these techniques to enhance your artwork, but don’t let the technique become the focal point of the painting. An artist can’t hide a lack of knowledge or skill behind a façade of attention-grabbing tricks for long. Use these techniques as a chef uses spices and herbs. A little flavoring adds a piquant vibrancy to a dish, but adding too much makes the meal inedible. Add a bit of spice to your next visual feast.

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Let Us Begin…

The Beginners Guide to Painting

Watercolor Paints

Watercolor – Where to Start
Watercolor Paints
Watercolor Paint Brands
Watercolor Supports
Watercolor Paint Brushes
Watercolor Basic Painting Techniques
Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques (This Article)
Watercolor Painting Accessories
Watercolor Painting Tips and Tricks

Oil Paints

Oils – Where to Start
Oil Paints
Oil Paint Brands
Oil Paint Supports
Oil Paint Brushes
Oil Painting Techniques
Oil Painting Accessories
Oil Painting Tips and Tricks

Acrylic Paints

Acrylics – Where to Start
Acrylic Paints
Acrylic Paint Brands
Acrylic Painting Support
Acrylic Paint Brushes
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Acrylic Painting Accessories
Acrylic Painting Tips and Tricks

In Closing…

Getting Creative!

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