There are an abundance of watercolour techniques you need to master to become proficient at the art form. Watercolour is a tricky medium, but when handled right it can be a versatile and flexible painting technique that is certainly worth pursuing. Also known as aquarelle, it dates back thousands of years.
The paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-soluble vehicle. When you create a painting in watercolours, light reflects off the white of the paper and bounces up through the colours, giving it a luminosity that can be truly magical.
Get to grips with the medium with these must-know watercolour techniques.
01. Buy a range of brushes
It's important to have different brush options
It's important to have a range of brushes. Your choices will depend on how large or small you work. I tend to work on the smaller side so my brushes range from 000 to 6. Experiment with different sizes to work out what your favourites are, but I'd also recommend getting hold of brushes that are smaller than you think you'll use. These will come in handy for those little details you don't anticipate.
02. Get some good quality paints
Good quality watercolour is an investment
It's important to invest in good quality watercolour. It will last longer and won't yellow or degrade as much over time. There are lots of different brands and levels available in stores and online. I use a variety from Holbien and Winsor & Newton. Buy a few colours from different brands and find out which you prefer. Start small: you can mix a variety of colours using a limited palette.
03. Explore dry versus wet
Manipulate the paint's pigment by adding different amounts of water
There are two major factors to consider when painting with watercolours: wet and dry. As the name suggests, watercolour is a water-based medium. You can manipulate the darkness and saturation of the pigment depending on how much water you add.
There are many ways to paint in watercolour and as you try them, you'll find the ones that work best for you. I've found working dry to wet helps me achieve more control.
04. Work from light to dark
Working from light to dark takes a lot of planning but the results are worth it
Another important watercolour technique to remember is that you're working from light to dark. This means that anything you're keeping white or light in your painting needs to stay that way for the whole duration of the work. Build your values up layer by layer to arrive at the effect you want. This does take a lot of planning but the results will be worth it.
05. Stock up on paper towels
The paper towel almost acts as a kneaded eraser for watercolour
One very important tool to have in your kit when working with watercolours is a paper towel. This almost acts as a kneaded eraser for your watercolours. Laying down a wash of colour and then lifting parts of it up is a great way to add layers of detail gradually. Paper towels are also very useful for correcting mistakes or redirecting the paint.
06. Splatter your watercolours
Using your index finger, pull back on the bristles and let them snap forward
One handy trick to add some energy to your watercolour painting is to use a splatter watercolour technique. This can help suggest water spray or floating dust.
Hold your paintbrush between your thumb and middle fingers. Using your index finger, pull back on the bristles and let them snap forward. This method is a bit unpredictable, but can yield some very fun results, so I’d urge you to give it a try.
07. Bleed colours into one another
A good way to bleed colours into one another is through 'blooming'
A good way to bleed colours into one another is through the 'blooming' watercolour technique. Add a good amount of water to the pigment in your brush and apply it to the paper. When the stroke is still wet, add in another colour with the same amount of water. You can manipulate the colours to where they need to be at this point. Allow this to dry and you'll notice that there are subtle gradients throughout the stroke.
Take a look at our guide to the wet-in-wet watercolour technique, too.
08. Get the textures right
It's important to try to depict objects and materials with their textures included
You'll notice that working in watercolours on a rougher paper does have its advantages. One of the obvious ones is that you don't have to work to hard to achieve a nice texture. That said, it's important to try to depict objects and materials with their textures included. This means using lights and darks as well as wets and drys.
09. Pull in colour
Pulling in colour is a great way to show form and indicate a light source or edge
When you apply a dry, more saturated stroke, you can pull from that stroke with just water. This watercolour technique is a great way to show form and indicate a light source or edge. Apply a stroke using very little water and more pigment. Before the stroke is dry, take a moderately wet brush and pull the colour out from the darker stroke. You can pull the colour quite far depending on how dry that initial stroke is.
10. Layer your colours
Watercolour is a thin medium so you'll need to build up colour gradually
Because watercolour is a thin medium, you'll need to build up colour gradually. This is another advantage to the medium as you can do some colour mixing right on the paper.
Take one colour and lay it down. Allow it to dry and then revisit with another shade. You'll notice where they overlap, the pigment mixes and you're left with a different colour. This is great for building up flesh tones.
11. Try scumbling
Scumbling is a watercolour technique used to create soft hues of layered pigment
Scumbling is a watercolour technique also used by many oil painters to create soft hues of layered pigment and light. You're essentially layering the colour in soft, indirect layers to create the hue and look you want. Simply lay in semi-wet strokes of paint in watercolour. As you apply more colour, be careful to keep adding water so the colours blend and stay soft. It can be easy to overwork and produce a muddy look, so less is more.
12. Lift the colour
You can lift away colour to correct a mistake or adjust the lighting in a piece
Sometimes you'll need to 'erase' your watercolour. While you can't return the paper to 100 per cent white, you can lift away colour to correct a mistake or adjust the lighting in a piece. Work with an already dry swatch of watercolour and using clear water, paint in the shape you'd like to lift out. Let it set for a just a minute then dab away the water with a paper towel. You'll see the colour lift out in the shape you painted in.
13. Use salt to create texture
Salt can provide an interesting texture
Watercolour is all about layering and texture. Salt can provide an interesting texture with little effort as the salt crystals absorb the water, leaving a unique pattern in the pigment. Lay down a swatch of watercolour and while the paint is still wet, sprinkle over salt. Let this sit until mostly dry and simply wipe or blow away the salt. This technique is useful for adding texture to natural surfaces like rocks or tree bark.
14. Apply paint using a sponge
You can use a sponge to apply watercolours
Another household item you can use to apply watercolours is a sponge. Simply mix your pigment in a small dish or tray, dip the sponge into the paint and blot onto your paper. You can alter the wetness of your paint and achieve different effects – a drier look would be suited for plant life or scaly skin, while a wet application might be more suited for waterscapes or clouds.
15. Explore negative painting
Think about where you'd like your whites and lights before you apply paint
Watercolour is about planning. Think about where you'd like your whites and lights before you apply paint. It's vital to keep control of your brush as you paint in the edge of where you'd like your negative space to begin. Load it with semi-wet pigment and paint along the edge of where you'd like your negative space to begin. Then pull the colour away from the edge of the stroke to fill in where you'd like pigment.
Use tape to mask off areas you'd like to keep clean and white
You can use tape to mask off areas you'd like to keep clean and white. This watercolour technique is useful for hard edges involving machinery or architecture. Just lay down the tape where you'd like the paper to stay white.
Use a tape that won't rip your paper, such as drafting tape or painters' tape. Paint over and around the tape. Once your paint is dry, remove the tape slowly and you should have a straight, clean line.
17. Use a 2H pencil for your underdrawings
A hard pencil will withstand the addition of water
Here I've used a pencil with 2H lead to ensure my guide drawing will withstand the water from painting. Then I can go in and lay in some light paint strokes with a medium sized brush. My paint is very watery so won't stain the paper right away.
18. Save your darkest darks for fine detail
Save your darkest darks until the end
Resist the temptation to use your darkest darks until you reach the end of your painting. Because watercolour painting is a transparent medium, you'll need to make sure you keep your lights light, and save the darks and details until the end.
This article originally appeared in ImagineFX bookazine