When it comes to painting, watercolor is my first love. As a consequence, I have developed many watercolor painting techniques over the years, some traditional and others new. I learned the hard way, through trial and error -here is my ultimate guide to 20 watercolor painting techniques so that you can experiment on your own faster than I did. As you read the article, note that you can click on most of the images for more detail.  


The 20 watercolor painting techniques


Traditional watercolor techniques


Watercolor technique 1: The wash

This is the most used technique, and the one that defines watercolor for many artists. You create a wash by first abundantly wetting the paper with your mop, and then applying the watercolor pigment with either your mop or your point. You typically use a wash for your backgrounds, and you use it to create large colored areas. Gradients can be achieved by layering the pigment through several parallel brush strokes with increasingly diluted color, and by slopping the paper to control the flow of water. To do a good wash, you must 1) use a lot of water 2) paint quickly and 3) avoid going back to it or otherwise interfere with the drying process except for the wet on wet techniques described below. You can achieve amazing effect with a wash. In Portrait with winter fur, I used a wash to create the fur hood surrounding the model’s face. Two or three brush strokes create the illusion and a receding background to the face.

Portrait with winter fur - watercolor

You can also control the spread of your wash to create textures and shape them into forms. How can you control the spread of your wash to achieve the effect shown above? Using a hair dryer after applying the wash, you can dry areas of the wash so that the additional layer will not spread onto them. You can also use masking tape in addition to the hair dryer for more precisely masking parts of the painting. See how in Portrait of Lea as a Wolf woman the model’s hair and the wolf’s neck shape are all created from a wash with my mop brush and it bleeds into Lea’s face.  

Portrait of Lea as a Wolf woman - watercolor


2. Other wet on wet techniques

There is an endless list of additional wet on wet techniques. In Girl, slanted, I used my point brush to drop ink onto a watercolor wash, creating a more complex pattern of dark to light variations in the background and the model’s hair.  

Girl, slanted - watercolor

  You can control the strength and spread of your pigment add-ons by letting the background wash dry a bit (while remaining wet) before working on it. India inks work particularly well for wet on wet techniques, especially to add spot color and boost the contrast of a piece. I use inks in drop bottles, which allows me to drop a highly concentrated dose of pigment onto the wet area. By adding ink at different time intervals, you allow the background layer to get dryer and can achieve different dispersion ratios. You can also experiment with the following:

  • Splatter ink or watercolor with a toothbrush directly onto a wet wash
  • Water drops onto a wet wash
  • Dropping wet pigments directly onto a wash
  • Complementary color pigment dropped onto a wash (red over green, etc.)

See how many different wet on wet techniques you can find in this detail from Michele.




Watercolor technique 3: Wet on dry

The wet on dry technique is rarely used except for lift offs (see technique 6 below) yet it is extremely useful to bring life into “flat”areas of your painting or for several special effects. Wet on dry is achieved by applying water or water+pigment to a dry watercolor layer. You can then let the water sit or direct it by slopping the paper. Letting the water sit will create concentric circles of pigments over your dry layer. Directing the water can wash off specific areas of the painting. How does it work in practice? Here are three views of Tel Aviv that use the wet on dry watercolor technique:

  • In the first view (Hilton Beach), the sand texture is created with a wet on dry layer
  • In the second view (Tel Aviv beach), a wet on dry technique is used to bring more life into the sea
  • In the last view, Tel Aviv under the rain, the drops of rain are created by dropping water onto a dry background, letting it sit to dissolve the pigments in the background layer and then slopping the paper to create the droplet effect.

Tel Aviv - Three views


Watercolor technique 4: Dry brush

Using a dry brush to apply pigment on dry paper allows you to create textures and tone graduations. You will want to use an old brush for this technique, as it will damage the brush.

St Jean de luz - Watercolor

Apply “dry” pigment onto your old brush (meaning pigment whose consistency is closer to a paste than to a liquid) and apply strokes onto dry paper, keeping your brush as horizontal and parallel to the paper as possible. Create variations and therefore changes in tonal values through different degrees of pressure and by modifying the angle of the strokes. You can see several dry brush strokes in Saint Jean de Luz. They are used to create the texture of the rocks and to link the darkest areas of the painting.



Watercolor technique 5: Glazing

Glazing is a technique I usually avoid as I view it as unnecessary if you can successfully control your washes. There are many instance where it is required however and it can help you correct tonal values or reduce excessive color contrast. To glaze a layer, use transparent or semi-transparent pigments and apply a very thin layer over your dry background. You will then be able to modify the tonal value and/or the color of the background layer. You can see in the watercolor I did for Studio Visit on the right that the model’s hair is done entirely via glazing several layers. How do you know if a pigment is suitable for glazing? Your watercolor tubes should provide you with a refractive index -but it is best to test the paint before using it as there are significant variations in transparency for the same pigment between the different brands.

 Studio Visit 3 cover


Watercolor technique 6: Lifting off

Lifting off paint is achieved by applying a sponge or a paper towel to wet areas of the painting. As you dry the area, you also remove pigments. Alternatively, you can apply water to a dry area and subsequently apply your paper towel to remove some of the dissolved pigments. Mostly, this technique is meant to correct mistakes. If you abuse it or do it poorly, it will show and will destroy the flow and organic quality of the piece. I have made that error many, many times… How do you then lift off paint without damaging your art? There is no simple answer to that question as it depends on the pigment being removed and the paper. One way to avoid mistakes is to have a wet brush at the ready so that you can quickly apply clear water to the area from which you lifted off paint -this will eliminate bad transitions and geometric or unnatural patterns.


Watercolor technique 7: Pigment saturation, pigment desaturation

Pigment saturation works by dropping dry pigment onto a wet layer or wash. You then let the pigment and the background layer dry in place, and brush off the pigment once the paper is completely dry. You will be left with a highly concentrated color dot that radiates a bit into the background layer; other patterns can result. Desaturation can be achieved by spreading coarse salt onto your wet layer. The salt will absorb some of the pigment; once both the salt and the background layer are dry, you can remove the salt and will be left we spots of desaturated color. Different size of grain salt allow you to achieve different results, and you can use other absorbent materials and crystals.


Watercolor technique 8: Gloss

Flower hat - watercolor on paper


Adding a drop or two of Gum Arabic to your watercolor layer will give it a slight sheen and enhance contrast and color intensity. You can exaggerate the effect to establish a transparent, enamel like thin layer when combined with glazing. You can take this technique one step further still as I did with Flower Hat.  Layer your finished watercolor with resin after having mounted the watercolor on a wood panel or other rigid support. I have found that adding a layer of Ultra Glo resin or epoxy resin achieve a number of effects:

  • The brushstrokes disappear, which can be useful for mixed media pieces (watercolor + acrylic for instance) as it unifies the whole composition
  • Colors are intensified
  • A thicker layer adds ambiguity to the painting -you are no longer quite sure what you are looking at
  • Finally, you can use the resin to mold your piece to a support that is not flat -I have used it on surfboard and skate decks.


Watercolor technique 9: Paper handling

You can achieve a number of effect by sloping and angling your paper. Painting a sky for instance is a lot easier if your paper is standing vertically as opposed to lying flat. The best thing to do is to experiment with gravity and to build a repertoire of positions and movements that work for you. You can also use your hair dryer to achieve similar results or “spot dispersions” when applying it to areas you are painting.


Watercolor technique 10: Masking

Masking fluid, masking tape, pieces of paper and of course your hands can be used to mask areas when applying washes or splatters. Use them and experiment.


Not so traditional techniques

Watercolor technique 11: Mixed-media

Acrylic mixes wells with watercolor, and so do India inks. I have used spray paint, oils, turpentine, chalk, pastel and everything else that was laying around in the studio with watercolors. Other combinations I use include:

  • Photo collages
  • Heating the paper in specific areas

Mavericks - watercolor on paper

Mavericks - Watercolor on paper


The spray on that Mavericks wave is done with acrylic paint because watercolor would have dispersed too much and blended in with the background. To achieve greater contrast and avoid dispersion, I had to use acrylic paint. More than half of my watercolors use some other media. Sometimes, part of the painting will be all watercolor while the rest will use acrylic and oil paints. If you look at the top half of that other Mavericks wave, you will see the brushstrokes left by my brush as it layered both acrylic and diluted oil paints on a watercolor layer. Only watercolor allowed me to translate the transparency of the green mountain that is chasing the surfer; but I need the opacity of acrylics and oils to frame the wave. You may have been told not to mix acrylics and oil paint -one more thing to ignore as you explore mixed media.


Watercolor technique 12: Monochrome

Sometimes it helps to ignore the word “color” in watercolor. You can use inks and watercolor to build tonal values and ignore color altogether. In this painting below (which mixes watercolor, acrylics and digital techniques you will find described later) I wanted the green of the eyes to emerge from a study in blacks. I built up the face using both black watercolor and black India ink.


Green eyes - watercolor


The strength of the eyes and of the entire portrait comes from being framed in black, all the way to the solid black used for the hair. You can also use spots of flat / no color in your painting to great effect. In Janus 2 shown below I used a monochrome face to contrast with that of the model.


Janus 2 - Watercolor


Watercolor technique 13: Fades

I know of two ways to achieve a fading effect with your watercolors. First, you can dip your painting in water after applying your first layer. This extreme “wash” establishes a base layer that is soft and… washed-out. Second, you can use water based inks that are not steadfast. Fountain pen inks for instance usually age and fade very quickly. You can use a bottle of blue or brown Waterman ink to great effect as I did when painting Absurdia, a series of watercolors and drawings about World War I.


Absurdia - Watercolor on paper


Absolutely not traditional techniques

Watercolor technique 14: Digital post production – background changes

Your finished painting does not have to be a watercolor. A few years ago I started scanning watercolors and manipulating them into Photoshop, and I haven’t looked back since.


Portrait with monkey - watercolor


The most basic treatment is to modify the color of a background to convey a different mood. You can see above two versions of Portrait with monkey, one with its “real” background and the other with a digital one. Digitally modifying a background can help achieve more than a mood change. In this watercolor/digital series of paintings, I used the digitally modified background as a way to unite the different watercolors. This would not have been possible manually.


Watercolor technique 15: Repeat

Watercolor is perfect for repetitive patterns  or painting series. You can simply paint a series that uses the same palette as I did in Three Portraits of Annie shown above. Or you can take it one step further via digital processes.


Three portraits of Annie - watercolor


9 Monks is a series of watercolor portraits done on a single 10″ x 14″ piece of Arches paper. To complete it quickly, I scanned the original painting and created nine vignettes of the basic figure in Photoshop. Having printed the vignette on watercolor paper, I was able to paint nine variants of the same painting to find the best color/texture variations.


Nine monks - Watercolor on paper


Janus uses the same principle to create a symmetrical portrait.


Janus - watercolor on paper


You can repeat the process at infinity to create more complex patterns and foundations for your watercolor experiments. I find that using watercolor on a smaller and printed version of an original frees you to experiment more. Having completed a series of vignette, you can select the best one and using Technique 16 below, one can turn it into a larger watercolor, as I did with one of the final versions of Nine Monks vignettes, entitled “Bhudist”.


Bhudist - Watercolor on paper


Watercolor technique 16: Digital pre-production

In 9 Monks I used my printer to establish both an outline and a color foundation for a watercolor. Painting on a partially printed pattern, outline or color foundation opens up a lot of possibilities. You can now guide your painting by printing several reference points on the paper; you can print a black and white drawing and use watercolor to bring color back to the composition; you can do the reverse and use watercolor for the tonal values; etc.


Watercolor technique 17: Watercolor on c-prints

An important variant of Technique 16 is to print on photographic paper and use watercolor to cover the foundation layer of you photograph and dissolve partially its pigments. Watercolor works great on most photographic papers and the flat, glossy surface allows you to keep your pieces small if you want, which equals more paintings and experiments. In Tsunami, I used this technique to complete a number of panels that tell the story of an upcoming and destructive wave.


Watercolor technique 18: Serial

If you take Technique 15 to its logical extreme, you will find yourself creating series of watercolors that will start building up a narrative. This is something I have experimented with for my graphic novels -you can see here for instance the outline of a page entitled “Dialogue” done in watercolors and ready for lettering in Photoshop.


Dialogue - watercolor  

Watercolor technique 19: Color manipulations

Digital manipulations of your watercolor allow you to easily experiment with different tonal or color values. We are now entering the domain of illustration, where watercolor technique can be applied to a large number of graphic styles.


Watercolor technique 20: Combine

My last technique is simply to combine all or several of them in your work. As you multiply the permutations and combination, you increase your technical and creative repertoire. Having these twenty techniques available to you allows you to create more and better watercolors. Now you can combine them and put them to work as I did in this portrait of Bathylle. You can use the comment section at the bottom of this page to suggest other techniques or to let us know what you think.


Bathylle - Watercolor