Painting with Watercolors

Painting with Watercolors

Now that you have everything you need to get into watercolor painting, where do you start? Let’s talk about what watercolor is made of, how to use them properly, and how to do some cool watercolor techniques.

What are Watercolors?

Watercolor paints are pigments, suspended in a water-soluble binder, like gum arabic. In most cases, there are additives in the paint that can change the solubility and plasticity of the binder, or even increase the shelf life of the paint. 

The plasticizer, or glycerin, is usually added as an additive, because it is well known to help with the reactivation of the paint after it has dried.

Another element, the humectant, usually honey or corn syrup, is used in paints to help them retain their moisture.

Lastly, along with water, there are a few additives that prevent the molding of the paint, that keep the pigment from clumping, and a bit of filler to thicken the paint, without affecting color.

How to Use Watercolor Paints

Aside from the paint itself, you don’t need too many items to jump into watercolors. You may have these items lying around!

You’ll need some water, a paper towel or rag, paintbrushes, and a surface to paint on, such as watercolor paper. With these items, let’s now talk about how to use the watercolors.

First, you’re going to want to prepare your watercolors. To prepare your pan watercolors, you’ll want to get them wet with some water. You can do this by either wetting them with water from a paintbrush, or a spray bottle. Since tube watercolors are pre-wet, all you have to do is choose your colors, and squeeze a bit out.



After your paints are prepped, you can now start painting! Since watercolor is a transparent medium, you will want to start with very light layers and build up to your darker tones.

In order to lighten up a paint, from it’s normal, vibrant color, all you have to do is add water. Therefore, the more water you add to a paint, the lighter it will be. Always make sure to have a scrap of paper nearby to test your colors, before putting them onto your final piece.

When you are satisfied with your base color, paint it onto your drawing. You’ll want to keep laying down base colors, until the whole painting has a base layer. Now that you have the base layers down, and it has had time to dry, you can start building up your colors. Because of the transparent nature of watercolors, building up colors is easy.

You can either use the same base tones you applied earlier to add shading, or you can darken the color by adding more paint to your base mixture. You’ll then want to apply the paint mix to areas you want to shade or darken.

To get a smooth transition between base layer and shading before the darker tone dries, clean your paintbrush and “mop up” the edge that you want to blend out. You may have to do this a few times, but you should come out with a nice transition. Then you’ll just keep repeating this until you are happy with the painting.


You’ll want to make sure you let the paint dry completely, before you paint next to a different color. If you do not, the paints will bleed together. This can result in dark colors bleeding into a light skin tone, or leafy greens mixing with your lovely flower colors.

To prevent this, you can “skip around” the painting by only painting in the areas where there is no wet paint next to the area you are about to paint, or next to where a paint color has fully dried.




Different Watercolor Techniques

Of course, the previous technique is one of the many watercolor techniques. There are so many more, from adding salt for texture, to the “wet into wet” technique.

First off, there is the technique we just spoke about, and that is the “wet on dry” technique. This is where you apply wet paint, onto dry paper. The result is a nice crisp edge, and you have a lot of control.


Next, there’s the “wet on wet” technique. For this one, you apply wet paint onto paper that has been pre-wet with clear (or tinted) water. You have a lot less control over where the paint goes, but the result is a nice blurred effect. Perfect for skin shading, or blurry backgrounds.


To help create the texture of grass or fur, you can use the “dry brushing” technique. You’ll want to make sure you are using a dry paintbrush, and not too much water in your paint. The result is nice scratchy lines, great for adding texture.


Then there is the “flat wash” technique. This one is great for practice. With this, you’re going to want to apply wet paint onto dry paper, while tilting your paper. As the paint pools down, you’ll keep adding more paint, until you have a nice uniform layer of paint.

Another version of the wash, is the “graded wash” technique. Similar to the “flat wash”, this is a wash that can either transition into another color, or you can fade it out completely. Just like with the last wash technique, you’ll want to paint “wet on dry” and tilt your paper.

If you’re going to fade it out completely, you will want to add your darkest color, and continue to rinse your brush after every brush
swipe. If you want to transition to another color, you’ll want to start with your first color, and as you paint, you’ll want to dip you brush in the color you want to transition into, until you’re satisfied.

Next, you can add texture to your painting, by adding salt. The grain size of the salt will determine the effect. While you paint is still wet, add the salt. As it dries, the salt will sort of soak up the paint, and create cool crystal textures.

Using a paper towel to lift up the paint is a great way to add texture as well. This is great for making clouds, or for lifting up mistakes. You will want to make sure you paint is wet, or else it won’t work.


Using masking fluid is a great way for protecting certain parts of your painting. Any part of your picture that you want to keep bright white, or protect while you paint a background, you’ll want to mask off. Make sure you let the masking fluid dry before you paint. After you finish painting, let it dry. You can then peel up the
masking fluid, and continue painting, or leave as is.


Lastly, there’s lifting. After your paint has dried, you can get it wet again and lift the paint back up. This is great for when you need to add lighter spots or to fix mistakes. This does not work if the color is staining, however.


Now that you’ve learned the basics of watercoloring and a few techniques, you’re ready to start painting with your watercolors. Make sure you keep practicing these techniques, and experiment too!




Article by McCaela Gates

Made especially for MyArtscape

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