Watercolor Basic Painting Techniques

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Watercolor painting is easy and difficult at the same time.

It is a pleasure to allow the paint to flow in its own time and rhythm or guide it in painstaking detail to express an object with utmost realism.

A wealth of technical diversity awaits the committed student, and mastering these painting techniques unlocks a means of expression that is almost limitless.

There’s a lot to learn about Watercolor. From how to hold the brush to using additives that make your paint respond in unusual ways, there are dozens of techniques and tricks to painting with watercolor. We are going to touch on the basic techniques every painter should learn. This chapter is by no means a watercolor technique bible. It is a sort of compendium of possibilities and a starting point from which the student can embark on his painting career.

How To Hold A Watercolor Brush

There is no single way to hold a paintbrush. Unlike holding a pencil, an artist holds a brush in various ways. Each grip is used for a particular technique or effect.

How To Hold A Watercolor Brush

The classic fashion is much like holding a pen. Hold the brush at the thickest area of the handle above the ferrule. This grip gives the artist linear control for drawing and creating smooth-flowing lines.

Holding the brush between your thumb and fingertips is a less controlled method of holding the brush. The loose grip allows a more erratic motion of the brush and it works best for downward or lateral motions.

When the brush is held near the ferrule, the wrist controls the artist’s strokes. However, if the artist wants free flowing brush strokes that are propelled by his arm and shoulder, he should shift his grip to the end of the brush. Much as a composer holds his baton, the artist lightly holds his brush and uses his arm and body for the painterly application of paint.

These various grips make a vast difference in the way a painting looks. Some grips give the student the control he needs for highly detailed work. Others grips make the brush an extension of his arm and his entire body directs the brush stroke. A student should become familiar with all the different techniques and be able to adapt his method to match the demands of the painting at hand.

Brush Control Exercises

Once you are comfortable holding the brush, there are several different strokes you should be able to perform with your tool. Different sizes and shapes of brushes are suited to particular tasks, so check the chapter on brush designs for tips on which brush to use for what purpose.

Paint A Controlled Line

Fully charge a brush with color and practice painting bands of color by creating a wavy line. Change color, and paint another band parallel to the first line without touching it. Continue to fill your paper with these uniform ribbons of color. You’re aiming for control in this exercise.

Paint An Undulating Line

Use a round brush for this next exercise. Load a brush with paint and allow only the tip to touch the paper. Paint a fine line and then gently increase the pressure on the brush, allowing more of the bristles to come in contact with the paper. As you pull the brush along, vary the pressure to create a stripe that alternates from wide to narrow and back again.

Paint Grasses

Once again, use a round brush and load with paint. Hold the brush vertically over the paper and use the tip of the brush. Flip the brush away from you using your wrist, rather than your fingers, to complete the motion. The base of the stroke is wide and angles to a fine point. These random wisps of color work well to represent grasses and the technique can be used for branches, animal hair or feathers.

Paint Watercolor Grass

Cut An Edge

Use your brush to create crisp, freehand edges. This is where control of your brush and paint come into play. For example, if you are painting a building or other man-made object that has a definite shape and size, you need the ability to paint the perimeter with a sure, firm stroke. Practice loading a brush with paint and painting simple geometric shapes on your paper. Practice is critical for this skill, as this type of painting requires precision.


This last technique is hard on a brush, so use an old, worn out brush for this exercise. Since you are a new student, you may not even own an old brush. In this case, use the cheapest brush you have, or go to the craft store and buy one.

Load your brush with paint and hold it nearly vertically above your paper. Push the brush onto the paper and move it away from you. Use varying degrees of force, push at different angles and use various stroke lengths. As you can see, this gives a random appearance and is quite deadly to any self-respecting paintbrush.

Becoming familiar with basic brush grips and brush strokes goes a long way to make a new student feel comfortable with his tools. Spend time practicing these various techniques until you feel relaxed when doing them and they become second nature.

Basic Watercolor Painting Skills

Brush grips and paint control aside, the student must now contend with the basic principle of getting the paint onto the paper in an expedient and attractive manner. Paint flinging is an honorable and respected talent in some circles, but every watercolorist must first learn the basic skills of applying paint in a controlled manner that can be replicated at will.

Most artists generally use seven basic Watercolor paint applications. Some of these are general painting techniques, while others are unique to water media painting.

Watercolor Painting Skills

Flat Wash

Use a flat, wide brush and set the paper at a slight incline. If you are right handed, work from left to right. Make a good-sized puddle of strong color on your palette and load your brush. Start at the upper left corner, touch the edge of your brush to your support and draw the brush straight across to the upper right corner.

Reload your brush and repeat the same motion beginning at the lower left corner of the first stroke. The top edge of the brush should overlap the bottom edge where a bead of paint has formed. Continue in this fashion until the area is fully painted. It should dry to an even color.

Make sure the angle of the paper is not so great that the paint runs helter-skelter down the page, nor is so shallow that the paint does not pool at the lower edge of the wash. This procedure is done in a steady, fast-paced manner to ensure the paint will dry evenly.

Graded Wash

A graded wash uses the same principle as a flat wash, except the color will lighten as you move down the page. Make two puddles of paint on your palette. One should be a strong concentration of color and the second should be approximately 50 percent concentration of the first.

Using the technique described in Flat Wash, use the strong color to paint the first pass across the paper. Reload your brush with the lighter color and make your second stroke, which overlaps the bottom of the first stroke. Rinse your brush, blot it with a paper towel and reload with the lighter color. Make another pass with the brush, rinse and load again with the light color.

After the next stroke, rinse and load the brush with water and repeat the procedure again. When the color is finally gone, blot your brush and stroke it along the bottom edge to pick up the bead of water.

Watercolor Graded Wash


When glazing, the first layer must be completely dry before applying another color. If you’re in a hurry, you can use a blow dryer to speed things up. When you lay one paint over another, you change the color. Placing red over yellow will create an orange hue. The trick is not to dawdle or scrub the brush back and forth. You do not want the lower layer of paint to re-liquefy and intermix with the new paint. A gentle touch and swift hand is the key to successful glazing.

Wet-In-Wet Technique

Wet-in-wet pretty much says it all. You apply water to the paper and begin painting. Allowing the water and paint to mix gives soft edges to the paint and when you add additional colors, you are mixing hues as they merge.

Use a wide brush and paint the area with water. Much of the liquid will absorb, so you may have to apply a second coat. The paper should be just slightly glossy but not puddled with water.

Prepare your paints first, as the paper dries quickly. If your paper does begin to dry before you are finished, use a mister to spray the area with fresh water.

Dry Brush Technique

Dry brush is a more controlled approach to applying paint. The brush is not so full of paint that it drips. The paint stays in place fairly well, as you are not pooling it in mass quantities. You may be laying in a tree trunk, filling in the colors of a pathway or other areas where a flat wash is not necessary. As the brush runs out of paint, you may reload it or choose to apply rough strokes that do not cover the paper completely.

After that tree trunk has dried, you may go back with a darker paint to add additional texture. Load your brush, but use a paper towel to soak up excess water from the ferrule end of the bristles. The brush is lightly loaded with paint, and you can add random, nubby streaks of texture on top of the trunk’s base paint. This dry application will become progressively lighter and cover less as the paint is used.

Watercolor Dry Brush

Lifting Paint

There are several methods to remove paint from your paper. You can lift paint while it is still wet or removed after it has dried. This is one of the nice things about Watercolor.

If the paint is still wet, simply grab a clean, wet brush and gently stroke the offending area. Wipe the brush with a paper towel before rewetting the bristles with water, and continue lightly scrubbing the area until all the color is removed. Blot the support with a paper towel to speed the drying process.

If you need to remove paint after it has dried, you will need more strenuous rubbing. If an intersection of colors is too crisp, you may want to soften the edge. Wet a soft bristled brush and gently scrub and blot the area until it has the soft edge you want.

If you need to remove the paint from an area entirely, use a firm bristle brush and a little more elbow grease. You will develop a feel for how much scrubbing you can do before you damage the surface of the paper. Continue to wet and rub the area until it is clean.

Use a mister to wet a large area and use paper towels to blot the entire surface. This can lighten an area overall, although it will probably be a minimal effect. Sponges can also be used to remove paint from large areas where great control isn’t required.

One final technique you should practice at every opportunity is to drop your shoulders. As you sit or stand with your brush and palette, relax your shoulder muscles. As you paint, give yourself a mental nudge occasionally and check where your shoulders are in relation to your head. If you experience diminished hearing because your shoulders are jammed up against your ears, your body is tensing up. Drop those shoulders and relax. This can take as much practice as learning a new painting technique, but the result is much more spontaneous brushstrokes.

FREE Online Art Paint Course

Free Online Beginners Guide To Painting!

There are 27 Chapters in this Free Online Painting Course:

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 (This Article)
Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques
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!

Enjoy the Free Art Course!

Paint on! :)

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