Watercolor techniques – the basic washes


                  When you look at an oil painting, the words that you would use to describe it would be solid, dense, dark … for watercolors you would use fresh, luminous, bright, clear, ethereal. The transparency of the paints is what gives the unique beauty to a watercolor painting. I know this now, but not when I started to paint. I had seen this lovely book in the library – ”The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden which was written almost a century ago. I was hooked onto it from the first moment. More than the technique (which is quite beautiful) , I loved the spirit in which it was done. She starts every month with some history of how the names of the months originated; well known poetry is interpersed with her simple but captivating paintings of birds, flowers, plants, toadstools, animals, anything that she found interesting on her daily walks in the woods around her home and during journeys. She started her career as an art teacher in a girl’s school and she made these diaries as a model for her students. There was also a video available in the library which I had seen over and over again. Ah!! daily walks in the woods! This was my first inspiration to put me on the path of my watercolor journey. Though enjoying wild nature at its best and purest through daily walks in the woods can only be a dream for most of us, we do have photographs and our own modest flower pots and local parks to rely on for inspiration.      

         Watercolor is a difficult medium to master, it has its own techniques distinct from those of other media. You have to learn to control the amount of water to be used both on the brush and on the paper to get the exact effect that you want. Once painted, it is very difficult to change it. Also, there is no white watercolor paint, the white of the paper is the white paint. (there is white gouche which you can use but it is opaque and it takes away the sparkle of the white paper) That means you have to think beforehand, about where the whites and low values are to be in your painting and take care to conserve them otherwise it will be difficult to get them back later. But with a little practice, these things can be learnt and you will love it that you have persisted and you will love the beautiful unexpected things that water and paint can do on the paper.

     To understand how watercolor works, think of the nature of a sponge. A damp sponge absorbs water much better than a dry sponge or a wet sponge. Thats exactly how a brush or a paper behaves. When an area that has been painted is just starting to dry, meaning it is damp, it starts absorbing water thirstily from the wet stroke of paint that is applied next to it making an unsightly mark that is called a backrun (because the paint is pulled backwards) or a cauliflower. Thats why a damp painted area is a no touch zone, if u want to correct it, let it dry completely and paint over it. These unsightly marks can also happen with a damp brush. When the painted area on the paper is wetter than the brush (that is, the brush has a thicker consistency of paint), the brush absorbs water from the paper instead of paint flowing from the brush to the paper! Watch out for these things while you are practicing.

       There are three ways you can paint on watercolor paper:

                    1. wet on dry          (wet brush on dry paper)

                    2. wet in wet           (wet brush on wet paper)

                    3. dry brush            (dry brush on dry paper)

      Lets start with the basic wash. Fill two containers with clean water. Rinse the brushes in one container and use the clean water in the other for mixing colors. Press out a small amount of any watercolor paint onto your palette. Take a small amount of this color in a well on the palette and mix with a little amount of water to make a medium to runny consistency. Tilt the board on which your watercolor paper is fixed, a little by resting the top side of the board on a book or something appropriate. (an angle of 30 degrees would be ok) This is so that the paper is not completely flat and the color travels downward as you paint. FIll a medium sized round brush with this color and paint a strip from left to right on the watercolor paper (if you are right handed). You will see a bead of colour forming at the bottom of the strip. Place the tip of your brush on this bead of paint and make another strip from left to right. FIll your brush with color if you run out. Do this quickly. Donot go back to what you have painted and fiddle as it might cause an uneven wash. Continue till you have a nice square wash. This is called wet on dry because you have painted with a wet brush on dry paper. You have a nice control with this method. Uneven streaks and backruns can form in the wash if the wash is beginning to dry and you are still adding color. Thats the reason you should do it quickly.  Here is how it should look like:   

Here’s an example of a back run: The magenta flared uncontrollably as soon as I put a spot in the centre. I had put a lot of water in a circle and the backrun started to form along the edge as the flower dried quicker than the wet area around it.


Graded wash: If you have gotten control on the basic wash, then this should be easy. Start painting the same way as in the basic wash, but half way through, rinse the brush in water (blot the brush a little on a tissue if necessary), and immediately paint over the last bead of paint on the paper. If the last bead of paint was damp, that is, it has started to lose its shine (bend your head and look from the side of the paper to judge this), you will have a back run. If it had already dried, you will get a hard edge. If you have done it quickly enough, the edge will be nicely blended showing a soft edge. Here is how it should look like:


 Look at the top edge of the pink color (clearer in the bottom two photos). That’s a hard edge.  The line  where the pink fades to a lighter tone is called a soft edge or a lost edge.  

You can vary this by keeping the board on which your paper is taped to, flat on the table. Now take a brush load of paint with a large brush and start painting from left to right, continue this as you get to the bottom. Donot rinse the brush. As you keep painting the, brush loses more and more of its paint and the area that you have painted starts to get lighter and lighter as you go down. You should see a soft gradation of tones from the brightest to the lightest from top to bottom. This is fun, isn’t it?

Graded wash with two colors: Have two puddles of paint ready this time. They should be of the same consistency, that is, one should not contain more water than the other, this will lead to one area sucking moisture from the other area , leading to …….u know what. Start painting with the first color and half way through rinse the brush in water, blot well on a tissue (you don’t want extra water mixing in the second color), and fill the brush with the second color. Do this quickly. Start painting over the bead of the first color. The two colors should blend nicely forming a soft edge. You can try another variation in which you overlap the second color a little onto the first color. Try using an yellow and a blue and see if you get a green. (note that blue easily overpowers yellow, so take that into consideration). This type of mixing colors is called mixing on the paper which looks far more interesting, than mixing on the palette.   


For the left side sample, I dipped the brush directly into the second color without rinsing. The two colors have blended forming a beautiful violet. Now that you are a master of the washes, I will take you to the wet in wet techniques……..in my next post.

Hope you had fun.


  1. Pingback: Lee Bowerman Art
  2. I would just like to notify how handy, well put and informative this article is. You are absolutely on the point regarding ever minor most detail, such as how you suggest tilting down to judge the dampness and so forth.

    Keep up the good work, God bless you!


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