11 Watercolor Techniques and Tricks You Should Try Today

Watercolor is a beautiful medium where the pigment is bound by a substance that dissolves in water, creating beautiful transparent effects and different tonal values with one single brushstroke. The term watercolors refers to both the medium, the paint, and the paintings made with them, and It is very popular among artists of all ages and levels.

The main characteristics of this medium are transparency, opacity, liftability, and granulation, which are key to learning about when learning and trying new techniques. For example, a flat wash consists of uniformly applying paint to get a flat, even result, and you won’t get a uniform flat wash with a highly granulating pigment. In the same way, the blotting technique is used to lift watercolors, creating highlights or adding texture and you won’t be able to lift if you don’t know which pigments make heavily staining colors.

Still, there are a lot of watercolor techniques you can learn and use, and in this guide, we’ll teach you how to step-by-step 11 of them, so grab your paints, paper, and tape and get ready to paint! 

1. Flat Wash

The flat wash technique consists of creating a smooth, flat, consistent layer of color on the paper, and it is one of the first techniques that watercolor artists need to learn. This technique is great for making skies, filling large areas, and making backgrounds and base layers. 

While the concept of filling an area with a layer of color sounds quite simple, the paper, the brushes, and the nature of watercolor paint’s fluidity make it an actual challenge to paint a layer that is uniform and consistent.

Creating a proper flat wash can’t be achieved with any brush, flat brushes or mop brushes are recommended for this technique, but enough about concepts, let’s learn how to do it:

For this technique, you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • A large, flat brush or a mop brush
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  •  Paper towels or a cloth

Lay your paper on a flat surface, and have your paints, water, and brushes within easy reach. Also, make sure to keep some paper towels or a sponge near you to control the amount of water.

Flat Wash Technique Step-by-Step

  • Prepare enough paint in your palette. The mix should be even and fluid enough to spread easily but not so watery that it lacks color strength.
  • For a smoother wash, you can lightly wet the paper first. This step is optional and depends on the desired effect.
  • Load your brush with paint and apply a horizontal stroke across the top of the paper. The brush should be fully loaded but not dripping.
  • Reload your brush and apply the next stroke just below the first, slightly overlapping it.
  • Continue this process, moving down the paper, and maintaining a bead (a small pool of paint) at the edge of each stroke. Tilt the paper if necessary to allow the bead to move down evenly.
  • Work quickly to prevent the edges from drying, which can create unwanted lines or streaks. Once you reach the bottom of the paper, let the wash dry completely without tilting or disturbing the paper.

2. Graded Wash

A graded wash is very similar to a flat wash, but with the difference that instead of evenly filling an area, the paint should make a smooth gradient, going from light to dark or from one color to another. The graded wash is another fundamental technique in watercolors, and while it might not seem that crucial, it is the foundation for many other techniques, plus ist is widely used for depicting skies, landscapes, and backgrounds where a gradual change in tone or color is needed.

Achieving a smooth graded wash requires control over the dilution of the paint and the angle of the paper, so consider slightly tilting the paper because it can help the paint flow smoothly. Remember that graded washes can be challenging; so practice on scrap paper to perfect your technique. Let’s put this technique to the test!

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • A large, flat brush or a mop brush
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Graded Wash Step-by-Step

  • Prepare your paint in the palette. Start with a more concentrated mix for the beginning of the wash.
  • Load your brush with the mixed paint and apply a horizontal stroke across the top of the paper.
  • After each stroke, slightly dilute your paint with water. This gradual dilution will create the graded effect.
  • Apply the next stroke just below the first, slightly overlapping it.
  • Continue this process, moving down the paper and diluting the paint a bit more with each stroke.
  • Keep a bead (a small pool of paint) at the edge of each stroke to ensure a smooth transition between each layer.
  • As you reach the bottom of the paper, your paint should be very diluted, ending in a very light tone or clear water.
  • Let the wash dry completely without tilting or disturbing the paper.

3. Wet-on-Wet Technique

The wet-on-wet technique is essential in watercolor painting and involves laying down paint on a wet surface so the colors flow and bleed into each other, forming smooth edges and soft layers.

This kind of technique works great for backgrounds, skies, water, and other elements where you want a soft blurry look. When used properly, this technique creates very natural gradients and organic shapes as well as diffused and blurred edges that give the illusion of distance and depth. At the same time, it also serves the function of creating abstract effects and textures which is possible due to the paint’s nature and the pigment’s granulation.

The results you get depend a lot on the paper’s degree of dampness, as well as the amount of water in your brush. While there is a small window to use the wet-on-wet technique, it still allows  for quite a range of applications depending on the paper and brush’s wetness. More water means less control and can be quite difficult to master, but it creates the most beautiful results once done properly. On the other hand, less water means more control, but learning how to make the surface wet enough or when is the right time to apply the paint can take some practice.

Many people will wonder how to do the wet-on-wet technique, and here at Artchive we understand simply reading about it is not enough, so let’s put this technique to the test.

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (a variety of sizes)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a sponge
  • A spray bottle (optional)

Wet-on-Wet Technique Step-by-Step

  • Prepare your watercolor paint on the palette. The paint should be more fluid than for dry paper techniques.
  • Use a large brush or a spray bottle to wet the surface of the paper as evenly as possible. The paper should be uniformly damp but not overly saturated.
  • Apply a wash of color to the wet paper. Observe how the paint spreads and diffuses.
  • While the first wash is still wet, add another color. Watch how the colors blend together on the paper.
  • Experiment with dropping in color, tilting the paper to let the paint run or using a sponge to lift off some paint.
  • Play with the amount of water on your brush and paper to see different effects.
  • Use less water for more control and more water for more blending and bleeding.
  • Allow the painting to dry naturally. Using a hairdryer can sometimes create unwanted textures.
  • Once the first layer is dry, you can add more layers using the same wet-on-wet technique for deeper colors and complexity.

4. Dry on Dry Technique (Dry Brushing)

The dry brush technique is another popular painting technique that involves using a subtly loaded brush on top of dry paper to get crisp, textured lines. While the term dry-brush can’t be interpreted literally in watercolors since water is needed to dilute the paint, hence wetting the brush, what does need to be for this technique to work is the paper. Wet or even slightly damp paper will take away the sharpness and expression of the traces made with a “dry brush”, blurring the edges and softening your traces.

This technique is great for painting things like snow, adding texture to mountains, painting vegetation, adding texture to the ground, drawing dry tree branches, or even adding glistening effects to water.

Using the dry brush technique is quite easy, however, beginners might struggle with getting the right consistency and intensity on the color hence the importance of preparing the colors properly beforehand and testing the darkness or lightness of the paint on a sheet of paper beforehand.

Since we know reading about it is not enough, let’s put this technique to the test. 

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (Round, Flat,f and Fan)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towel or a cloth
  • Spare piece of paper for testing

Lay your paper on a flat surface, and have your paints, water, and brushes near you. Also, make sure to keep some paper towels or a sponge near you to control the amount of water.

Dry Brush Technique Step-by-Step

  • Dip your brush in water and then into the paint.
  • Wipe the brush on a paper towel or cloth to remove excess moisture. The brush should be damp but not wet.

  • Gently drag the brush across the surface of the paper. The brush should skip across the paper’s texture, leaving a broken line of paint.
  • Try different levels of dryness in your brush to see the various textures you can create.

  • Use different pressures and speeds in your brush strokes to vary the effect.

Use the dry brush technique to add fine details or highlights to your painting with gouache paint. This technique is great for final touches where precision and texture are needed, plus you can layer dry brush strokes over wet or dry washes for different effects.

5. Layering Watercolors

The layering technique, also known as glazing, is one of the most important techniques in watercolor painting. It involves applying several thin, transparent layers one on top of the other to change the appearance of the layers underneath, achieve complex color mixing (optical mixing), add depth to the painting, and increase the intensity of the colors.

It is used to achieve smooth tonal transitions, beautiful transparency effects and to work on details. This technique is also especially good for adding shadows, defining highlights, and adjusting the composition values.

Although layering is a beginner-friendly technique, the main rule of successful layering is patience. This technique works better when the artist has control over the paint’s transparency and the paper’s dryness, which can only be achieved with practice.

Layering has several different uses, but is especially useful when learning color mixing and how pigments interact with each other. It’s great for those transparency effects on flowers, it’s used to paint difficult subjects like water and to play with light effects. It’s also used in botanical and even anatomical painting, but enough about concepts. Let’s put this technique to the test:

For this technique, you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (a variety of sizes)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Layering Technique Step-by-Step

  • Let’s make a blueberry. Start with a light wash of color. This layer sets the foundation for subsequent layers.
  • Allow this layer to dry completely before adding another.
  • Once the first layer is dry, apply a second layer. This can be the same color to deepen the tone or a different color to create a new hue.
  • Continue adding layers, allowing each to dry fully before applying the next, building the color of the blueberry.
  • Use more water for lighter, more transparent layers on the top, and less water for more opaque effects.
  • Use finer brushes and less water to add details in the lower layers.
  • These details can include textures, sharp edges, or small elements like stains and leaves.

6. Wet-on-Dry Watercolor Technique

The Wet-on-Dry technique is one of the most versatile techniques in watercolors, as its name indicates, it involves applying wet paint onto a dry paper surface, this allows for more control over the paint, as it doesn’t spread beyond where the brush applies it.

 It’s ideal for creating shapes that are well-defined, crisp lines, and detailed textures, this technique is often used for subjects that require precision and clarity, such as buildings, flora, and fauna.

This is the technique that is most used by beginners since it follows the same pattern as different mediums, however thanks to the fluid nature of watercolors this technique might become challenging to master since colors might bleed into each other creating a muddy appearance. To master this technique, controlling the amount of water and paint on the brush 

and having the patience to let the paper dry properly between layers is a must. Now let’s put this technique to the test.

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • A pencil
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (various sizes, depending on the detail required)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Wet on Dry Technique Step-by-Step

  • Lightly sketch the outline of a flower with a pencil on your watercolor paper. Include the stem, pistil, and basic shapes for the petals.
  • Prepare your green and purple paints in the palette. The green will be for the leaves and the purple and pink for the petals and pistils.
  • Using a small-sized brush, apply green paint to the stem and leaves. Since the paper is dry, the paint will stay within the lines you paint, allowing for a defined stem and leaves.
  • Switch to a larger brush and use the purple paint to add the petals. You can use small, dabbing strokes to create a nice effect but leave the middle dry. 
  • With a fine brush, add small dbas of paint in the middle with pink for the pistil. Use a darker pink and purple to define the middle section, creating the effect of light and shadow.
  • Add any final details or adjustments needed. Allow the painting to dry completely.

7. Blotting Watercolor

Blotting is a fun and easy watercolor technique that consists of lifting color from the wet surface of the painting with a napkin or paper towel to create fun and interesting textures, correct mistakes, add light effects, etc.

Depending on how it’s used, blotting can add texture to a painting or be used to add highlights since the amount of paint lifted depends on the wetness of the paint, the paper type, and the absorbency of the material used for blotting.

One of the key factors for the success of this technique is experimentation. Different materials offer different results, as well as the amount of pressure you apply, so make sure to experiment before trying this new technique on a painting.

Let’s see how it’s done. For this technique you’re going to need:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes
  • Absorbent materials like paper towels, tissues, or a clean, dry brush

Blotting Technique Step-by-Step

  • Begin by applying paint to your paper as you normally would. For a full demonstration of the technique, create a wash of multiple colors.
  • Decide when to blot, if the paint is too wet, you might lift too much; if it’s too dry, it might not lift enough. A damp or semi-wet state is often ideal.
  • Press a paper towel, tissue, or dry brush gently onto the area you wish to lighten or correct. Make several swatches and try different materials to see which one you like the best and which effects they create.
  • Repeat as necessary using a clean section of the blotting material each time.
  • For textures, press the material into the paint with a bit more force or twist it slightly, to create highlights, and blot the areas where the light would naturally hit the subject.

8. Underpainting

Underpainting is a watercolor technique that involves applying preliminary layers of certain colors as a base for the full painting. These layers usually set the tone, value, and composition of the painting, but can also be used to cover the white color of the paper and to set the temperature of the painting.

The underpainting technique requires a certain level of understanding of color theory, but that’s not all. Comprehending how pigments work and interact with each other is also very important. Choosing the wrong pigment might result in a dull, grayish painting, or even result in a completely unexpected color if we’re talking about certain organic and chemical pigments.

Learning the “bias” of the pigments you’re going to use can be very useful, for example, a blue paint might have a “greenish bias” if it leans towards green, or a “reddish bias” if it leans towards red. This concept is particularly important in mixing colors, as the bias of each color can significantly affect the outcome of the mix. 

Also, when choosing the color to apply first always make sure to check beforehand which should go first as it can make or break your painting despite being the same two colors.

But surely, reading about it is not nearly enough, so let’s put this technique to the test.

For this technique you’re going to need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints (choose a limited palette)
  • Brushes (various sizes)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Underpainting Technique Step-by-Step

  • Start with a light sketch of the tree on your watercolor paper.
  • Mix a diluted Lemon Yellow with Sap Green and apply a first of paint for the tree shape, try to mimic the shape of leaves with your brush by making loose traces.
  • Allow your first layer to dry and then use a diluted Burnt Sienna for the tree’s trunk and branches. Create a basic shape without too much detail.
  • For the foliage, apply a very diluted mix of Sap Green or Hooker’s Green, keeping it light and uneven to suggest the volume of leaves, and take into consideration the direction of the light as well.
  • For deeper shadows, especially in the foliage, use a very diluted Payne’s Grey or a mix of Ultramarine Blue and Sap Green.

9. Scumbling

Scumbling is a brushwork technique that applies to every medium but has a unique effect in watercolors. Scumbling consists of loosely moving your brush loaded with paint onto the paper, almost like scribbling to create light and shadow effects, add textures, and create layered effects. It’s especially useful when painting foliage, trees, vegetation in general, landscapes, clouds, and waves.

Scumbling is a wet-on-dry technique, that’s why you should give it a few tests first to learn the right water-paint ratio you need for the technique, and always use a piece of scrap paper to test your stroke. Let’s put their technique to the test by making a stone wall. 

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (a stiffer brush can be particularly effective)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Scumbling Technique Step-by-Step

  • Start by painting a light wash of a neutral color like raw umber or a mix of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue to establish the base of the wall. Let it dry completely.
  • Prepare a few different earthy tones for the stones. You can use colors like burnt sienna, raw umber, and Payne’s gray. The paint should be mixed with less water than a typical wash, but not so dry as to be thick.
  • Dip your stiff brush into one of the mixed colors, then wipe off most of the paint on a paper towel. The brush should be almost dry.
  • Gently drag the brush across the dry base layer to create a textured effect. The brush should skip over the texture of the paper, leaving a broken, uneven application of paint.
  • Continue to apply scumbling in layers, using different colors to build up the texture of the stone. Allow each layer to dry before applying the next.
  • Focus on creating variation in the stones, with some areas darker and others lighter, to mimic natural stone.
  • Use darker tones like Payne’s gray in the crevices or lower parts of the stones to create depth. You can also use lighter tones on the upper surfaces to suggest sunlight.
  • If needed, use a smaller brush to add finer details or to intensify the shadows and highlights.

10. Feathering

Feathering is a watercolor technique that is used to soften the edges of paint strokes, gently blend two colors, or make “fading effects” in your washes. It’s a more advanced technique as it requires color theory knowledge and experience with the point where the paper is wet enough to create feathering effects. This technique is harder to control and requires a bit more patience than the others, however, it’s still relatively easy to learn and execute. Let’s put it to the test.

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Brushes (a flat brush or a mop brush will do)
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Feathering Technique Step-by-Step

  • Start with a wet wash in the area you want to feather. This could be a color gradient or a simple block of color.
  • While the wash is still damp, clean your brush and remove excess water so it’s just damp.
  • Gently touch the damp brush to the edges of the wet wash. Use a light, sweeping motion to softly pull the color into the dry area, creating a blurred effect.
  • If blending colors, apply the second color near the first while both are still wet. Use the damp brush to softly merge the edges.
  • Continue to adjust until you achieve the desired softness. Add more water to soften further or more paint to define the area.
  • Let the painting dry naturally to preserve the softness of the feathered edges.

11. Sponge Painting

Sponge painting is a versatile watercolor technique that involves using a sponge to directly paint onto the surface, creating interesting textures and patterns. Due to the irregular nature of sponges, different interesting effects can be achieved with this technique, which is amazing for depicting foliage, clouds, or subjects where texture plays a major role. For example, coral textures can be made using sea sponges, while clouds can be made with softer synthetic sponges. The main secret in sponge painting is to explore and experiment with color, saturation, and pressure to obtain the desired result. Let’s put it to the test.

For this technique you’re going to need:

  • Watercolor paper (preferably high-quality, 140lb or heavier)
  • Watercolor paints (greens, yellows, and browns)
  • Natural or synthetic sponges
  • Water and a palette or mixing tray
  • Paper towels or a cloth

Sponge Painting Technique Step-by-Step

  • Begin by painting a simple background. A light wash of blue for the sky and a green base for the ground where the bush will sit. Allow this to dry completely.
  • In your palette, mix various shades of green. Combine greens with a little yellow for lighter areas and with blue or brown for darker shades. Having a range of greens will give the bush a more realistic and vibrant appearance.
  • Dampen your sponge slightly and wring out any excess water. Dip it into the lightest green paint, ensuring it’s not overly saturated.
  • Gently dab the sponge onto the paper to form the basic shape of the bush. Start with lighter colors as the base. The texture of the sponge will naturally create a leafy pattern.
  • Gradually add darker shades by dabbing with the sponge. Focus on the base and inner parts of the bush to create depth.
  • Add highlights by lightly dabbing with yellow or light green, focusing on areas where sunlight might naturally hit the bush.
  • If necessary, use a small brush to refine any areas or add specific details like individual leaves or branches.

Frequently Asked Questions About Watercolor Techniques

What Should I Paint in Watercolors?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions. Honestly, there are a lot of subjects and themes you can use to get inspired, like landscapes, portraits, fruits, animals, etc. It all depends on your taste and mood, however, we know is not that simple, that’s why we’ve come up with a small list including some of the most common ideas for watercolor painting:

Landscapes are a classic choice, with watercolors, you can capture the beauty of a morning sky or the colorfulness of a sunset. Techniques like wet on wet are perfect for creating skies and painting mountains and prairies, while layering can help you add details to the trees, flowers, and buildings.

Still-life paintings are always a safe choice, they don’t only improve your observational skills, but also help with control of the brushstrokes, learning values, and placing lights and shadows with techniques like wet-on-dry and blotting.

Animals and birds are another great idea for experimenting with texture. You can use dry brushing for the fur, feathers, and to add a realistic effect to your paintings. 

What Are Some Experimental Watercolor Techniques?

Experimenting is everything in art, and watercolor is no exception, that’s why artists are always looking and discovering new ways to add texture or give their art a special effect. Some experimental watercolor techniques include the salt technique, the wax technique, the alcohol technique, etc. Let’s see what they are about:

  • Salt Technique: Sprinkle salt onto your wet watercolor wash, the salt will absorb the paint around it, creating a unique, starburst-like effect and adding a grainy texture to your painting. It’s great for adding texture to natural elements like snow, sand, or creating an abstract background. You can use different types of salt (table salt, sea salt, kosher salt) for different effects, but remember, you have to brush off the salt when the paint dries.
  • Wax technique: Draw on your paper using a white candle or a crayon before applying watercolor, the wax repels the watercolor, leaving the paper beneath it untouched. This is a simple, affordable and easy masking method that works amazingly for creating highlights, textures, or hidden patterns in your painting. It’s great for adding designs to your backgrounds or for preserving white spaces. Experiment with different materials like candles, crayons, or even a wax pencil for varied line thickness and effects.
  • Splattering: Load a brush with watercolor and flick it onto your paper, creating random splatters, this adds a dynamic, energetic feel to your work. It’s perfect for mimicking natural textures like foliage, dirt, or stars in a night sky. In order to control the size and distribution of your splatters you have to adjust the wetness of the brush and the force of your flick, or else you’ll end up with tennis ball sized stars.
  • Plastic Wrap Textures: Lay plastic wrap over a wet wash and gently crinkle it. Once the paint is dry, remove the wrap to reveal a textured pattern. This technique is great for creating organic, abstract textures and it can mimic water, foliage, or make an interesting background.
  • Dropping Alcohol: When you drop rubbing alcohol onto a wet watercolor wash, the alcohol repels the pigment, creating circular, lighter areas. This works great for creating bubble-like effects, textures in abstract paintings, or even raindrops. You can use a dropper or a brush to control the size and placement of the alcohol drops. Different concentrations of alcohol can also affect the result.

What Are Some Beginner Watercolor Techniques?

When learning watercolors beginners tend to skip and focus on a single technique, however there are a few techniques they should master first. Beginner watercolor techniques include wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, flat wash, graded wash, and basic layering. Let’s see how they’ll help in your learning journey:

  • Wet-on-Wet: While mastering this technique will take a while, beginners must try and experiment with it to understand how watercolor works, how each type of paper reacts to the technique, which pigments are good for it, plus it’s a good way to learn the magic of color blending and creating soft backgrounds.
  • Wet-on-Dry: This technique provides control over the paint, making it suitable for beginners to paint basic shapes and forms, beginners should experiment with all the variants of this technique since it is the one they’ll use the most. This technique will help them understand the difference between watercolor brushes, the effects and shapes they can create, how much water they can hold, and how they apply it on the paper.
  • Flat and Graded Wash: This is a fundamental technique for creating even backgrounds, an essential skill for any beginner. Learning how to do a flat wash is a must since it only gets more complex from that. Flat washes are simple enough to master but they require patience, and control, which are essential skills for any beginner.
  • Basic Layering: This technique teaches beginners how to build depth and intensity in their paintings gradually, plus it creates beautiful effects proper to watercolors. Layering helps beginners understand how optical color mixing works, how pigments interact with each other outside traditional mixing, and the different degrees of transparency their paints have.

How to Get Better at Watercolor?

When asking how to get better at watercolor, the only answer you’ll hear is Practice, practice, practice! 

Well, yes, practicing the different techniques and mastering the wet-on-wet is a must for improving on watercolors, but that’s not all right. 

To get better at watercolors, you have to start by being conscious of what you’ll do and what you’ll use. Try prepping your materials beforehand to make painting sessions smoother (trust me you wouldn’t want to get up and grab a brush or a sponge while the wet-on-wet golden hour passes). 

Regular practice is key, so maybe think about setting a schedule. While you’re at it, dive into color theory and color mixing, it’ll add a lot to your work. 

Remember, don’t overdo your paintings, and don’t compare yourself to others because each artist has their unique style, including you! 

You should also consider investing in high-quality supplies like good paper and brushes because while a lot of people will create masterpieces with really cheap supplies (as we see in social media), they probably already mastered the techniques and tried different papers and paints, and what they don’t tell you is that quality supplies really make a difference. 

Keep at it, and you’ll see great progress! 

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