Top Ten Watercolor Techniques

This post may contain affiliate links. I may make a commission if you purchase through them. :)

Many techniques can be added to an artist’s repertoire. The key is choosing one and devoting the time necessary to be able to execute it effortlessly.

Saving The White

A watercolor artist must save the white of his paper, as no amount of scrubbing or sponging can remove all vestiges of color once applied. This requires planning and forethought for a successful painting. The artist may paint around areas to remain white, or he can use frisket, which is a liquid masking fluid. This technique is very important to the beginning art student, as traditional watercolor does not use white as a paint color. This sort of thinking is a basic tenet for a watercolorist.

Painting The Negative Space Around An Object

An interesting exercise is to paint a subject by painting the area around it. This allows a beginner to develop observation skills and can actually help in creating a more realistic subject. This is a good way to develop a better composition. As this technique takes you away from reality a bit, it is a good basis for developing compositionally pleasing abstracts.

Mixing Paint Directly On The Paper

A good way to keep loose is to mix your colors on your paper. Define the area you wish to paint. Liberally paint the area with clean water. Then drip concentrated color from your brush onto the surface. Quickly drip another color near it. They will blend and flow with the water, but will stop with the edge of the clean water. The unpredictable way the paint spreads or mixes with other colors can be a happy accident that can add liveliness to what may be an otherwise bland area of color.

Dry Brush

Dry brush requires a light hand. Once a color wash is laid down and dried, the artist can go back over it to add texture or detail. The brush should be dry enough that it does not drip color. It is gently drawn across the paper to leave suggestions of the paint. This can be done once, or can be repeated to build up layers of colors and textures.

Graded Wash

The artist simply chooses a color and takes it from a deep, intense hue to a faintly tinted shadow of color over an area. The word simple is a misnomer. This seemingly simplistic exercise takes some practice to have consistent drying with no streaking, runoff or bloom. It is a very useful skill to master in watercolor.


This technique is one that requires patience. Each layer of paint must dry thoroughly before gently applying the following layer. Care must be taken not to lift paint from the preceding layer, as it will muddy the new paint. Some artists utilize as many as fifty layers in the completion of their painting.

Salt For Texture

A cook adds salt to a recipe to punch up the flavor, but uses it sparingly. This same rule applies to using salt to add texture to a painting. Using it too much or too often can be considered “gimmicky” and not quite professional. Nevertheless, a little contrived texture occasionally is fun, and who knows when you may want to make holiday cards with snowflakes falling on a Christmas eve winter landscape?

After painting an area with rich color, wait until it is the right wetness and scatter salt over the area. Let it dry thoroughly before brushing off the salt. Using different coarsenesses of salt will give varying results, but table salt is too refined for this. The “right wetness” is trial and error. The artist can use this for many types of texture, limited only by his imagination.

Plastic Wrap Watercolor Texture

This is another technique to be used in moderation, but the effects are spontaneous and unexpected. Create a juicy, colorful wash of rich colors in an area of your paper that needs some random texture. Take a clean piece of plastic wrap larger than the area and gently prod, push, bunch and stretch it onto the wet paint. Stand back and let it dry thoroughly. When you remove the plastic, you will be surprised with interesting abstract shapes that may stand on their own or can be used as a basis for further brushwork.

Limited Palette

A beginning painter has so much to learn and color theory is a whole course in itself. By choosing a limited palette, the art student can focus on painting technique and not need to devote so much time with color mixing. The artist should select three primary colors: red, blue and yellow. Using only these three colors, execute a completed painting. The student can learn much from this exercise.

Lifting Color

Removing color from a painting can be as important as adding it. Lifting an edge to soften it makes that edge recede, whereas a sharp edge brings it into clearer focus. This is very effective for creating the illusion of three dimensions or drawing the eye to, or away from, a particular section of a composition. Knowing when to use it is a skill built on observation that the beginning student will develop with practice.

Trying a technique a time or two is just not enough. It took a long time to learn to drive a car effortlessly. It is the same for painting. Do it and then do it some more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *