Introduction to Watercolor MethodsWatercolor can be one of the most beautiful painting mediums, allowing you to achievea multitude of effects. It is also one of the most challenging. You will need patienceand practice to master the techniques. Don’t expect your first painting to be amasterpiece. You will be introduced to all of the basic techniques and will be allowed todo some practice of each technique before beginning your final project. You will beexpected to use some of these techniques in your final painting. As the most commontechnique is the watercolor wash and variations thereof, it will be the primary focus ofthe following text.The Flat WashPigment CharacteristicsThe type of pigment you use has a major effect on the quality of the wash results, yetthis topic is rarely mentioned in art handbooks. Painters are usually left with theimpression that all paints are the same and should be handled the same. Quite theopposite is true.Although pigments differ on many physical attributes, the paint behavior in a washdepends primarily on three things: (1) the weight of the pigment particles in water, ortheir specific gravity; (2) the distribution of the pigment particle sizes; and (3) thedifference in hue between the small and large pigment particles.Unfortunately, an important complication is lurking in the background: there is more inthe paint than pigment. If pure powdered pigment were completely mixed with water,then those three pigment attributes (and the tendency of the pigment particles to clumptogether) would determine most of the paint behavior as it dried. But the paint alsocontains many other paint ingredients, including gum arabic, glycerin, corn syrup orhoney, dextrin, fillers, brighteners and dispersants. These invisible ingredients are alsodissolved or suspended in the paint solution, and they affect how the visible pigmentdisperses, flows, settles and backruns when diluted with water and applied to paper.However, the more water there is in the solution, the less effect vehicle ingredients(gum, glycerin, dextrin, humectants) have on pigment behavior. So all paints tend tobecome more similar, and all pigments tend to show their true granulating or flocculatingcharacter — though in more delicate colors — when they are highly diluted.The Importance of TiltThe Tilted Wash is the commonly recommended approach. You begin the wash with thepaper tilted to a small angle, and apply the paint to dry paper from top to bottom of thewash area. You can adjust the force of gravity on the water by changing the tilt of theboard: below a 10% slope there is very little pull, and above 25% the pull is very strong.
You normally use a straight or scalloped stroke (to be explained shortly), and pull thewash bead downwards as you go. Finish off with strokes that do not add more paint, sothat you use up what remains of the wash bead in the bottom of the wash area. Use aslightly damp brush to soak up the extra paint that may have beaded at the bottomedge. Then do not apply any paint to this area or any areas that border the wash areaedge until the next class period. settling of pigment particles in a wash stroke brushstroke is viewed from the side, on a tilted surfaceAt the moment the paint is applied to the paper, the mixture is equally thick across thewidth of the stroke, and the paint is evenly mixed (left). Immediately, however, the washsolution flows down the slope of the paper toward the bottom of the stroke; as it doesso, the current carries many of the largest particles with it (middle). By the time youhave filled your brush to make the next pass, the water has come to rest in a wash beadat the bottom of the stroke (right). This contains the largest and heaviest particles thatwere applied to the paper. Because the bead is no longer flowing downwards, theparticles settle in place onto the paper.With some paints, this does not create much of a problem, but with others, stripes canappear in your wash from leaving the bead in the same place for too long. You can alsolessen the striping effect by using scalloped brush strokes, to be discussed next.Watercolor Wash Brush Stroke TypesNow, what pattern of brushstrokes should you use? The diagram below shows the threebasic types of wash stroke patterns.Straight Scalloped Crossed
The straight brushstroke (left) is the commonly recommended approach. The strokesare made to overlap just enough to break the wash bead at the bottom of the previousstroke. The top edge of the brush passes through the bead in the stroke above,breaking the tension along the bottom edge and allowing the excess paint and water toflow across the width of the new brushstroke and form a new wash bead along itsbottom edge.You must alternate the direction of the brushstroke to keep the pigment coverageeven: either by brushing in the opposite direction over the stroke you have just made, orby switching direction from one brushstroke to the next. If you always start at the left (orright) edge of the wash area, the bead is large on that side and small on the oppositeside, where the brush has little liquid left. This can cause irregularities in the wash color,or blossoms.The straight stroke is fine for average pigment washes, but with active or heavypigments it causes three annoying problems. You are locked into a fairly mechanical rhythm, completing one horizontal stroke all the way across the page before starting the next, which limits your ability to handle complex edges or cutout shapes, such as clouds, in the middle of the wash. You must work as quickly as you safely can, because the longer the time between strokes, the more visible imperfections will result. If youre using heavy pigments, the bead quickly collects the largest and darkest pigment particles. These stripes will show up very clearly when the wash has dried — even though they may not be apparent while the wash is still wet. Finally, the action of brushing in alternating directions can be awkward to manage with one hand.The scalloped brushstroke (center) solves these problems by creating an irregular,broken pattern to the wash strokes, freeing the artist to add new paint randomly over theentire surface of the wash. Each scallop creates its own small bead, which is picked upby the new stroke coming underneath it, so the timing and flow of paint can bemanipulated with great accuracy. The scalloped strokes can be placed at any pointalong the bottom edge of the wash, to add paint or move a bead that has been restingfor too long.Lay this stroke down in a graceful, light, movement — dont daub or dither with it. Theshape of the stroke should not be mechanical, but varied to fit the location and shape ofthe specific wash area you paint with each stroke.If banding occurs in the scalloped wash beads across the wash area, the irregularshape and placement of these bands will make them much less noticeable and create asubtle textural variation that blends well into the overall watercolor effect.
Finally, the crossed brushstroke (right) is the most aggressive. The paint is laid downwith short, overlapping strokes. Except for the strokes at the top of the page, the startof each stroke crosses over the end of a previous stroke. The brush is used almost witha scrubbing emphasis, so that any collection of heavy pigment particles that may haveformed is dispersed by the new stroke.Other Watercolor TechniquesLaying Multiple WashesAn interesting variation of the traditional wash is to lay multiple wash solutions over thesame area. This is unavoidable if you are painting multicolor gradients: a blue skyshading down to a yellow haze along the horizon (which fades gradually back up intothe blue sky). Each wash is painted separately, with whatever technique seemsappropriate.This approach produces especially luminous clear skies, and also luminous dark areassuch as hills and shaded undergrowth. Many artists use multiple washes to great effect,laying down successively darker layers of the same color to get luminous, rich darks.The main caution is to let the previous wash dry completely before starting the nextwash. Especially bad things happen when you lay a wash over a previous wash that isstill at a moist or damp wetness. The paper will look dry, but the moisture under thesurface can erupt in blossoming, uneven diffusion, broken wash beads, muddy pigmentmixtures, and other ghastly surprises.Graded WashThis technique is used to make a color fade from dark to light. It is done just like atraditional wash except one must dilute the paint with more water with each verticalpass, creating a uniform fade.Another variation on this technique is to fade from one color to another, such as asunset with red near the bottom and blue sky on top. It works best to have all of theintermediate colors pre-mixed in separate wells of the palette. Another way to do a fadeis to do one color faded from dark to light and let it dry completely. Then turn the paperupside down and do the other color on top of the first wash, fading from dark to light.Thin-Line Graded WashA thin-line graded wash is created by starting with one thin line of highly concentratedpaint. The line can be straight or curvy. Next, a flat brush is dipped in clean water andis dragged just underneath the thin line. The brush can be rinsed and run over oncemore to make a wider line if desired. The key to creating a good thin-line graded washis to work quickly. Do not leave the thin line setting for too long before brushing over itwith clean water.
Wet On WetWet on wet is probably the most dramatic of water color techniques, but also one of themost difficult to control. To produce wet on wet apply each new color without allowingthe previous one to dry. Because the paper is wet, any colors applied will bleed intoeach other, producing very soft, moody effects. When painting wet on wet one shouldtake care to ensure that colors following the initial wash contain less water, in somecases use pure color. If the water content of successive colors is to great they will eitherdiffuse into nothing, or worse still cause unsightly ‘run backs’, a condition where thewater flows back into areas you didn’t mean to apply paint. Although ‘run backs’ aregenerally frowned upon, they can be employed to produce interesting results withpractice. The importance of the water content when painting wet on wet cannot bestressed enough. In fact, a more suitable name for this technique would be dry on wet.Another variation of this technique is to wet an area with clean water and then applyhighly saturated paints (don’t add much water to them). The more water you have inthe area, the more the colors will swirl. Less water will create more smooth blends asthe color disperses across the paper. You can also tilt your board different directions tohelp control the flow of the paint.Dry BrushBy this time you have successfully created an overall wash, and then worked darkerwashes into the picture, thus defining the basic shapes. Your painting is mostly laid out,but is now lacking in fine detail.Dry brush is the almost the opposite watercolor technique to wet on wet. Here a brushloaded with pigment (and not too much water) is dragged over completely dry paper.The marks produced by this technique are very crisp and hard edged. They will tend tocome forward in your painting and so are best applied around the center of interest.These processes require that the paper be dry or you will lose the fine edges. Dry yourpaper. The biggest mistake in dry brushing is not having the paper dry!!For grass or similar textures, you can use an old stiff bristle brush, tooth brush, oranything with a little arthritis in the bristles. Simply scrub it into the paint on your paletteand dry brush it where the grass should be. Dont press too hard - the idea is a lightdusting so that the individual bristles make individual lines. The dry brush is excellent forall textures, weeds, rocks, old wooden barns etc.Take advantage of the spring of the bristles to create fine stems, weeds, branches, etc.It works well to hold it by the very tip of the handle. Aim it straight down and flick itacross the paper in a somewhat jerky motion, letting the natural spring of the bristlesguide it. Thus you create natural looking stems or branches.Summary
In summary, most watercolorists use a combination of these techniques in theirpaintings, usually in a specific order. The groundwork is usually laid down with a seriesof washes (flat, graded, or thin-line graded), on top of which the other techniques areapplied (such as dry brush and wet on wet). Practice and patience are the keyingredients to the production of a nice watercolor piece.