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Basic Watercolor Techniques Explained

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Watercolor Made Simple


Start Small

There are as many different ways to paint a single subject as there are artists with brushes. I will try to give you just a few examples and you will have to find the one that best suits you and your style.

Try all of them on a small piece of paper just to get the feel for the paper, the paint, and the brushes. Then you can make a better-informed decision. Many great artists make a small paper "swatch" of each of the colors they are working with just to get the feel for the paint and the colors.

Wet-On-Wet With Salt


Wash or Wet-On-Wet Technique

By wetting a large area and then pouring, streaking, dotting, or painting on large areas, as soft and muted background can be made. You can wet the whole paper by dipping it in a sink or wet a small area at a time by painting on the water with a brush. This allows you to mix colors directly on the paper and achieve graduation and soft edges.

A color wash can be applied on dry paper if only you will work with a large brush and fast strokes taking the paint puddles down the paper. At the bottom of the wash, dip out the excess water with a towel or a thirsty brush.

A variegated wash can be applied by loading the brush with lots of color in the beginning and then only adding water after that. Each stroke makes the color lighter. Again, at the end of the wash dip out the excess water with a thirsty brush or towel.

“Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

— Paul Klee

Great for Details


Wet-On-Dry Technique

Painting wet color directly on dry paper is called wet-on-dry. This is the usual method of painting details. It is more controlled but can be streaky if painting large areas. To do this you must make sure you are painting only in dry areas. If you paint one area next to a wet spot, the two will “bleed” together. You can achieve hard lines and hard edge shapes with this method. You can draw or scrape lines in the dry paper as well. To soften hard lines, you must take a brush loaded with clear water and go over just the edge of a hard shape. This drags some of the paint from the edge and blends it with the clear water of the brush causing a gradation of value.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”

— Wassily Kandinsky


Great For Wallpaper Designs


Dry-On-Dry Or Dry Brush Technique

Naturally, your brush is not really dry for the dry brush effect. But once you have loaded color onto your brush you blot it on a towel or piece of paper so it is almost dry before painting. You will get a streaked, scruffy look. This works well for tree trunks, rocks, grasses, and as in this picture, textured background like a woven fabric.

“Any art communicates what you’re in the mood to receive.”

— Larry Rivers

Tea Roses


Brush Techniques

If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens.

— Grandma Roses


Flowers, bushes, and especially trees can be painted quickly and easily with sea sponges. The wool grade sea sponge is the best for this use.

Scroll to Continue

In “Lakeside” I used the sponge for the flowering trees using pinks and oranges. However I forgot one of the cardinal rules of art, not to divide you paper in half with a hard line. Even thought he colors draw your eye into the picture, the hard shoreline leads the eye out of the picture again. I broke up the hard line with a second bank and a rock but it still has the tendency to lead you away from the focal points. Lesson learned.

Lakeside Painting Mistake


“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”

— Paul Gardner

Brush Techniques: Flick

Hold the brush upright and make flicks with the brush. Only the tip of the brush hair touches the paper. The flick makes the point at the end of the pine needles and grasses. This techniques works for bare branches in winter as well.

A Flick Of The Brush


“How important are the visual arts in our society? I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course, I could be prejudiced. I am a visual art.”

— Kermit the Frog


Grasses should always be in clumps or groupings. They never stand in rows like a line of soldiers. They tend to lean one way or another and they are of different heights. In the painting, “Lakeside” the grasses around the rock do just hat. They look natural because they vary in height and color and they are sporadic, some leaning one way and some another.

Another method of making grasses is to scratch the wet paper. Wet the paper, add colors like green, yellow ochre and even Prussian blue, then using the wooden end of the brush, scratch grasses. Remember to lean them and vary the heights. Always paint grasses from the ground up, the way they grow. This way they will have pointed ends and to rounded ones. This appears more natural. By scratching the paper, you are bruising it and that causes the paint to soak into the bruises giving the grasses depth.

“When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget I have ever seen a picture.”

— John Constable

Final Thoughts

These are only a few of the techniques I use in watercolor. There are so many more but I'm saving them for another time. I hope you got something out of this short sharing time. Let me know any questions you may have in the comments below.

Basic Art Comments here

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 23, 2021:

There is a beauty in the immediacy of water and paint on paper. You don't need special solvents, or special prepared canvas, just a willingness to give it a go. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Peggy Woods,

Well, I've been working at it and practicing for many years. I think that makes a difference. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Devika Primić,

That is what I wanted, to make it simple and understandable. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Sp Greaney,

It just takes practice and a love of what you are doing. Try it. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Anya Ali,

I'm happy you think so. Thanks for commenting.



Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 28, 2021:

I love that wrinkled paper effect. You would make a great teacher for a class learning how to paint watercolors. I took a couple of free classes but never produced anything that I liked.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 28, 2021:

Hi Denise A Simple AND easy to understand hub about the basic watercolors. Your work is informative and tells us what is required in detail.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Umesh Chandra Bhatt,

I wish articles like this had been around when I was first starting out. I had a terrible time with the fear of watercolor years ago. Now I know it was silly to be so afraid of it. Thanks for commenting.



Sp Greaney from Ireland on May 07, 2020:

I wish I had your skill to create these. I never knew there were different techniques one could apply when doing a watercolour painting. Nice to learn something new.

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 03, 2020:

Thank you for a very useful post!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 07, 2020:

Interesting and useful. You explain it so clearly. Thanks.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 07, 2018:


Thanks. I hope you do give it a try. It is a little daunting but so rewarding. Plus it drys so quickly that even if you feel you have messed up, starting over doesn't require a lot of time or materials. Have fun.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 07, 2018:


Thank you. I appreciate the support.



Marilyn from Nevada on November 07, 2018:

I always wanted to do water colors, but could never get them to work for me. Thank you for the information you provided, I do believe it will help me learn. Great content and well written!

Artistrove on November 26, 2017:

A lot of excellent tips

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 10, 2016:


Thank you. I loved doing it and often painted with paper so large I had to wet it in the bathtub. I think it did make an interesting effect. I mostly don't paint that large anymore. I haven't really the space for it but I still love the effect. I did a demonstration of this effect for an artists group I belong to and when I started wadding up the paper to make the wrinkles everyone gasped. Thanks for commenting.



AbsorbArt from United States on October 10, 2016:

Painting watercolor on a wrinkled paper is such a good idea! The way it looks in the pic with the angel holding a rose is amazing!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 12, 2015:


How kind of you. I appreciate the comment.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 10, 2015:

Thanks everyone for commenting.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 12, 2014:

Great tip, WiccanSage. And so true. Some packaging isn't quite clear if you don't know what you are looking for, you can easily fall into that trap. And some paints made in China say watercolor when in truth they are really Tempura colors, which is not the same at all. It is only soluble in water but doesn't act like the flowing soft watercolors do. Thanks for commenting.

Mackenzie Sage Wright on September 11, 2014:

Great tips. One thing that I learned the hard way was to be careful of your paints-- beware of low-cost starter kits. My first 'watercolor' paints came from a kit my hubby got me. It turned to actually be acrylics-- I love painting with acrylics, too, but as you know, don't exactly work the same as watercolors. Frustrated the heck out of me until I read the label. Watercolors have just such a great, soft look though. Great hub, thanks for the instructions. I'm still learning.

Sam from Ireland on September 11, 2014:

What a beautifully presented hub page about watercolour painting.

Written from love and experience of using the medium.

Love your paintings Best wishes Sam

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