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18 essential watercolour techniques for every artist

watercolour techniques
(Image credit: Kelly McKernan)

Getting your head around the wealth of watercolour techniques out there is a crucial part of mastering the art form. Watercolour may be a tricky medium, but if you know how to approach it, it can be versatile and flexible. The art of watercolour is also known as aquarelle and dates thousands back of years – it is certainly worth pursuing.

Watercolour paints are comprised of pigments suspended in a water-soluble vehicle. Because of the light reflecting off the white of the paper and bouncing up through the colours, a luminosity is created that is truly magical. Get to grips with the medium with these must-know watercolour techniques.

Or, to learn something different, see our guide to a range of painting techniques. Need to up your kit? Try this list of essential art supplies.

01. Buy a range of brushes

Watercolour techniques: 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 six. 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

Watercolour techniques: get some good 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

Watercolour techniques: dry vs 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

Watercolour techniques: 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

Watercolour technique: 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

Watercolour technique: splatter

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

Watercolour technique: Blooming

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

Watercolour techniques: textures

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

Watercolour technique: Pulling 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 technique: Layering colour

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.

Next page: 8 more watercolour techniques to try out

Brynn Metheney specializes in creature design, fantasy illustration and visual development for film, games and publishing. She lives and works in Oakland, California.