Five Great Watercolor Painting Techniques

Benna Crawford
watercolor tablets

What do Paul Klee, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Whistler, and Georgia O'Keeffe have in common? They all painted in watercolor. Watercolor is a pigment-suspended, transparent or opaque, water-soluble medium used to paint art: sometimes exquisite fine art and sometimes exuberant amateur art. Watercolor creates a "softer" effect than acrylics and oils but in the hands of a master, the paintings are as eloquent and powerful as in any other medium.

The Art of Illusion

Try different techniques to create illusions and special effects in your artwork. Play around with various experiments on scrap paper before applying your imagination to a work-in-progress. Or be brave and see what happens when you add or subtract a little something.

Lifting Clouds

Develop your own signature clouds with the perfection of a simple lifting technique. (Skill level varies from Beginner to Advanced watercolorist.)

  1. Wash your paper with a blue sky -- keep the color wet so you can "remove" the clouds. Using a clean, wadded tissue, lightly dab at the space where you want a cloud to appear. Turn the tissue to a clean side between dabs for whiter clouds. Use a very light touch at the edges of the clouds to leave some blue paint that will soften the edges.
  2. Dab, or paint on, areas of sienna or soft pink near the top of the clouds, and brush on some wet charcoal or medium gray in the middle or near the bottom. Smudge those with clean tissue as well.
  3. Define the clouds more sharply by scribbling-in cloud edges in a great cumulus, leaving some areas stark white. This looks as if the clouds are overlapping and clustered. Let those scribbled lines dry. Then, soften the edges realistically by wetting a synthetic brush and delicately scrubbing the hard scribbled edges of gray to blur and lift off some color.
  4. For distant rain over a landscape or sea, lightly draw down some of the gray near the bottom of the clouds with a very wet brush. Keep the pulled-down lines straight and make some areas heavier and darker than others to mimic a real cloudburst.
    Watercolor illustration of cloud

Sgraffito - Italian for Scratching

Tear into your painting with abandon to produce a gorgeous Italian finish that relies on wreckage for effect. (This takes some courage and Intermediate to Advanced level skill to damage your work deliberately and boost it from fine to fabulous!)

  • Try the wrong end of a paintbrush, the edge of a credit card, a fingernail, the tines of a fork, a toothpick, or the point of a knife (careful!) to scrape away some paint for a darker or lighter embellishment to your work.
  • For darker, while the paint is still wet, scratch a scribbled pattern, or a deliberate "forest" of straight vertical lines, into the color. The paint will pool in the indentations, giving you tree trunks or an interesting design.
  • For lighter or color free, when the paint is still shiny-damp, do your scratching to outline a particular shape for emphasis, add a scribbled pattern, or "distress" an area of the image or the entire painting. You can also use a flat edge of card stock or a credit card to scrape away a larger area of paint.
  • For multi-colors, layer the sgraffito by allowing an etched, scratched section to dry, applying a fresh layer of paint in a new color, scratching it when the paint is damp, and repeating as often as you like. This gives you a denser painting but will turn to mud if you overdo it.
    lilac forest painted in watercolor

Fish-Eye Alcohol Resist

Under the sea, a world of wonders awaits the intrepid. Get your mermaid on with a chemical reaction that creates pale "bubbles" with darker centers that resemble fish eyes. (Anyone can do this, but it's best for an Intermediate level painter--and at least a middle school-aged child--to ensure good control.)

  1. Grab a clean cotton swab and some rubbing alcohol; the alcohol repels the water so you'll be working with fairly wet paint.
  2. Dip the swab in the alcohol and flick or drip drops of alcohol on the areas of the still-wet painting you want to alter. (Experiment on a scrap of watercolor-painted paper to see how far away from the surface you should hold the cotton swab to achieve your desired coverage.)
  3. The watercolor will move away from the alcohol, leaving a pale residue of color behind. If the paint is very wet, it may pool back into the lightened area. Just drip more alcohol on that section to repel the paint.
  4. A drop of color, or "eye" remains in the center of each alcohol splatter. This is pooled watercolor and it will mimic the outline of the bleached area. For a true "eye" effect, keep your alcohol drips as circular and separate as possible.

Allow the painting to dry flat before moving it so you don't disturb the shape of the fish eyes.

Watercolor background

Faking a Flower

Fake some flowers into existence by leaving something out. This trick gives you a flower profile with depth; it looks as if there is a closer edge and a more distant edge to a bloom that is just a flat layer of paint on paper. Teach yourself this trick with a poppy, then expand your repertoire to fake other flowers and different angles. This technique is for intermediate to advanced painters.

  1. Paint a wide half-circle or U shape for the base of the bloom; use a thicker brush.
  2. Move the paint around with the tip of your brush to hint at petals on the top edge of the curve, maintaining the general curved shape.
  3. Leave a thin band of unpainted paper over the flower shape.
  4. Paint a skinnier shape above the main bloom, following the outline of the top edge of the bloom and respecting the blank separator space. Use a light hand or a thinner brush for this shape.
  5. While the paint is still wet, use a clean wet brush to dab some darker watercolor paint along the bottom edge of the main bloom. It will bleed and blend together to create the impression of gradient color in the petals, a natural effect.
  6. Blob a bit of green paint on the very bottom of the poppy - it's okay if it bleeds into the petal color a slight bit - and pull the tip of the brush down to create a stem.
  7. Allow the flower to dry, then touch in some added color for petal details if you want them.
    painting of poppies

Crayon Resist

Pumpkins are so delightfully uncomplicated. Who doesn't love them? Make your own or help a young artist to "pop" that pumpkin right off the page with easy-peasy crayon resist. This is a beginner technique, but crayon resist can be a very advanced technique in the hands of skilled designer.

  1. Draw a vertical ellipse in white crayon in the center of your paper. It should be wider at the top than at the bottom, almost an elongated egg shape.
  2. Add two more crayoned ellipses on either side of the first shape, starting and ending each ellipse on the white-crayon outline of the one next to it. The additional ellipses will be slightly smaller than the first, middle ellipse. Each new shape will be partly hidden by the pumpkin segment "in front" of it.
  3. Draw a stem above the middle ellipse -- like a curvy triangle with the top lopped off, or a tree trunk that's been sawed off at the top.
  4. Crayon-in two thin vertical lines inside the stem. They can follow the curves of the outer edges.
  5. Paint a wash of light orange inside the pumpkin ellipses and halfway up the stem. Don't worry about the lines -- the crayon wax resists the paint and "draws" the pumpkin for you. Even a little sloppy outside-the-lines painting just looks like an intentional color wash.
  6. While the paint is wet, get a good amount of darker orange on your brush and rough in the edges of each ellipse. The dark and light oranges will bleed together to create a rounded dimension to the pumpkin.
  7. Paint the stem a solid strong green, making sure the orange wash on the lower part of the stem is still wet. The green will be darker on the unpainted top of the stem, shading to a muddied green where the colors blend at the pumpkin end of the stem. This gives the stem a more natural appearance.
    Pumpkin Watercolor

More Tricks to Try

There are many other fun and creative watercolor tricks you can add to your toolbox.

Controlled Drips

Make a drippy rainbow, a forest of flower stems, or a dramatic fade-out for your painting with a carefully executed drip technique. (The technique is for intermediate and up. Beginners can learn this technique but it's pretty messy and can be frustrating if the painter hasn't yet developed good fine motor control.)

  1. Support your paper by clipping it to a mounting board or stiff cardboard. You can skip this step but it does make handling the wet paper easier.
  2. Layer a strong amount of the drip color at the place where you want the drip to start. For a flower, this will be a blob of green at the base of the petals. For a rainbow, doing one color segment at a time gives you the best control over unintentional color bleeds.
  3. Dip a clean brush in clear water and paint a very wet vertical line directly down from the color to be dripped.
  4. Get a lot of wet paint on your color brush and add it to the area right above the drip line.
  5. Tilt the paper just slightly to allow gravity to send the pooled color down the track of clear water. Voila! A very cool drip effect.

A line-up of green drips becomes the stems of a field of flowers. A solid wash of strong color with multiple drip lines "drawn" in water below it "melts" the bottom edge of your image. That impressive rainbow will work, painted all-at-once, only if you rigidly control the slant and gravity effect so the color lines don't cross.

female painter

Bamboo

Paint a bamboo thicket like a Chinese brush-and-ink master with pressure and brush placement. Beginner efforts will be crude but recognizable. The best results are for intermediate and up.

  1. Use a wider brush for the stem segments and hold it in one position as you apply the paint. Dip the entire brush in a pale jade or yellow-brown watercolor paint and then dip each "edge" or side in a concentrated darker green or brown.
  2. Holding the brush steady, press down on the paper and move the brush quickly, top-to-bottom, for an inch or two.
  3. Lift the brush, skip a small space, and repeat until you have a segmented stem of bamboo.
  4. Use the tip of a clean brush to "notch" the segments with a thin horizontal line of the darker paint in the blank spaces.
  5. With that same brush, draw slanted lines up and out from those notched segments to create branches.
  6. Wet an entire brush with the leaf color, press it to the paper at or near a "branch," and immediately ease the pressure and lift as you move the brush in a short, straight line down and away from the bamboo stem. This forms a tapered leaf that ends in a pointed tip.
  7. Hint: Don't overdo it on the leaves - a few graceful clumps are all you need.

Spatter

Add texture and interest to a finished painting by dipping a clean brush into very wet watercolor paint, holding it in front of the paper, and then flicking the edge of the brush with the tip of one finger to lightly "spray" the surface with tiny dots of paint. Allow your painting to dry before spattering in order to maintain the best control and minimize color "bleeding." This takes good fine motor skills. Age and development are more important than painting skill.

Summer wildflower Daisys

Finger Fading

Finger painting isn't just for kindergartners -- use your fingers to lighten areas of a watercolor painting by pressing them against the wet paint to lift some of it off. In addition to altering the value and texture of the touched area, you've just forgery-proofed your work with your own fingerprints. A very young or inexperienced painter will probably make a mess of this. That may be okay but, to enjoy a pleasing result, intermediate skill level and up is best.

Salt Flowers

Drop grains of sea salt (larger grains give a better result) on very wet watercolor paint. Salt crystals absorb the liquid in watercolor paint, changing the appearance of the painting's surface. (This is a beginner level technique that can yield beautiful results as skill level increases.

  1. Wait until the paint is shiny and damp, not very wet and definitely not dry.
  2. Take a pinch of salt, hold it about two inches over the area you want to change (to control any rogue "bouncing"), and sprinkle the crystals on the damp paper.
  3. Watch the salt start to soak up the color.
  4. Either let the painting dry or once you've achieved your desired effect, dry the watercolor with a hairdryer set on low.
  5. Then gently rub off the salt residue with a clean tissue.

You can use the drip method to create stems for your flowers, delicately add stems with the tip of a fine brush, or just dot a few flower centers here and there to increase the impression of a flowerbed or field of blooms.

Watercolor painting abstract

Tips for Techniques

Watercolor is a forgiving medium. You can make changes in your work as long as it is still wet, and you can re-wet a dried painting for some limited afterthoughts. However, paper is not so forgiving. Be extremely aware of rubbing the "finish" off the paper, tearing the paper or super-soaking it. Your delicate art will turn into a blob if you exceed the limits of the paper. The saving grace is, as long as you haven't damaged the paper, whatever result your technique produces can be a thing of beauty in itself, even if it isn't what you first intended.

Experimental Nature

Your final, best technique is imagination. Salt flowers gone awry can become frost on a field. Fish-eye bubbles on a too-pale gray background are easy rain spatters on a window pane. Scratched too much color off? Just sponge or dab some paint over that part -- or practice your flick-and-spatter technique on it. Combine techniques or invent some of your own for brag-worthy, one-of-a-kind watercolor art.

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Five Great Watercolor Painting Techniques