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Mixed Media

Put the fun back into your painting


The liberating experience of Mixed Media Painting can really add vitality to your work. We will examine just what can be incorporated and how best to go about integrating  other materials with watercolor.

Watercolor is a fantastic painting medium. It is immediate and responsive. The fact that it can be worked over and built up or scrubbed back and softened make it extremely versatile. The transparent luminosity of the colors give paintings a wonderful, vibrant impact.


A combination of watercolor, acrylic, ink, pastel and vibrant Ultramarine Gouache demonstrate the rich textures available with mixed media.

The fun with watercolor really starts when we combine it with other painting media. Ink, gouache, gesso, pastel, charcoal and acrylic all combine beautifully with watercolor to produce vibrant interesting paintings.

This combination of materials is generally referred to as mixed media painting – not that labels are important, but any painting with a combination of painting materials falls into this category. The important thing to remember is to use best quality artists materials and make sure the finished product is of archival quality.

Lets look at some examples

Mixed Media Using Gesso

Gesso is an acrylic primer generally used on canvas and boards. Because of it’s toothy surface it can be incorporated into your paintings. Gesso can be applied straight from the tin or diluted with water. I prefer to apply the Gesso undiluted then, with a damp brush, spread and thin it out.

Don’t buy cheap gesso, it will be less porous and toothy than the expensive brands and watercolor will tend to bead up on it. The best gesso for incorporation into your paintings is “watercolor gesso”, manufactured to absorb watercolor.

There are a couple of things you can do to help the adhesion of watercolor to Gesso. A spoon full of calcium carbonate mixed into 1/2 a cup of Gesso will make it more porous.  A drop of ox gall in your watercolor will reduce the surface tension and let it spread better over the Gesso.
Watercolor over Gesso will settle into the brushstrokes of the Gesso and really enhance the texture.

WARNING   Gesso is an acrylic based paint and once dry cannot be removed from your brushes. It is also very abrasive so a few old bristle brushes are best kept for Gesso. Wash them out as soon as you have finished using them.

Mixed Media - watercolor over gesso


Rough brush marks of Gesso are enhanced by washes of watercolor.


Mixed Media Using Collage

Using collage to alter the paper’s surface texture opens up a whole new range of possibilities. There is a neutral pH PVA glue available and an endless variety of Japanese rice papers and tissue paper perfect for collage. Torn pieces of old paintings, cloth, pieces of contrasting textured watercolor paper can all be incorporated into collage based paintings.
Hard, sharp edges can become a problem with collage. A layer of tissue or rice paper glued over the offending edge will usually soften it and make it less visible. This can then be washed over to blend with the painting.

Mixed Media - Watercolor over cheese cloth


A piece of course cheese cloth, overpainted with watercolor, gouache and ink, adds an interesting texture


Don’t loose sight of overall harmony in your paintings when you experiment with these techniques. The changes in surface treatment, texture and technique should be subtle. It also helps to have some unifying element throughout the painting. This might be ink lines, pencil or charcoal lines, or even a repeated texture. These techniques work best when they subtly add interest and variety to your work. They shouldn’t blatantly jump out at the viewer, rather slowly reveal themselves after close inspection.




Mixed Media Using Gouache

Gouache is similar to watercolor in that it is watersoluble, but unlike watercolor,  is completely opaque and flat rather than transparent. Combined with watercolor, the contrast between glowing transparency and the flat, velvety texture of Gouache adds an interesting vibrancy to your Mixed Media painting.
Gouache can be mixed up thick and creamy and painted on as a solid flat layer. This produces that perfectly flat velvety effect. It can also be thinned down and washed on to make interesting translucent glazes.

Indigo reacting with white gouache


Dropping White Gouache into a dark, wet wash of Indigo produces amazing feathery marks. The results are unpredictable and it only seems to occur with this intensity using Indigo.

Mixed Media - white gouache glaze


White Gouache washed on as a thin glaze tends to granulate and form a beautiful translucent haze.


Mixed Media Using Pigment Ink

There are dozens of different colored pigment inks on the market. They are lightfast and permanent and make wonderful unifying marks through your painting. Lightly spraying the ink lines before they dry will make them bleed and feather out into soft, spidery marks. Keep some tissues or paper towel handy. Sometimes the ink will bleed and blot a little unpredictably and has to be mopped up before it dries.
Chinese black ink is particularly good for feathering in this way. It is purchased in a solid block and ground on a stone with a few drops of water to make the ink. The more grinding the darker the ink.

Pen with sprayed pigment ink


Ink and a water spray can produce some fantastic, intricate textures.



Mixed Media Using Acrylic Paint

The heavy brushed on texture of thick acrylic paint can add an interesting contrasting texture to a painting. Acrylic glazes can also be applied over watercolor. Once the acrylic glaze dries the underlying watercolor is sealed and insoluble. More acrylic glazing can be built up over this without fear of disturbing the original watercolor washes.

Mixed Media with acrylic, ink gouache gesso and watercolor  © John Lovett


The magenta roofs in this painting were applied with thick acrylic. The magenta splash tying the foreground to the rest of the painting was made with a dilute version of the same color

This detail shows a combination of ricepaper (washing), cloth (window covering), pastel (pink strokes), Gesso (top left) and gouache (vibrant Ultramarine marks) all worked over underlying watercolor washes then threaded through with ink and pastel pencil lines. I love the effect of transparent watercolor contrasting with all these strong colors and textures. It reinforces the ancient patina of the subject.




This almost monochrome painting of New York employs areas of intricate detail contrasting with rough, simple patches of gesso and gouache overworked with charcoal pencil. Patches of Japanese rice paper and torn cloth add to the chaotic texture of the painting.

Traditional Watercolor

Watercolor was traditionally a painting technique employing thin transparent washes and glazes built up one upon the other. The only textures, apart from the physical nature of the paper, were the visual textures created by brush and pigment.

Watercolor today has much broader boundaries. The incorporation of  ink, acrylic, gesso, collage, pastel etc. opens up all sorts of possibilities. Texture can now be the physical variation of the painting surface as well as the implied visual textures.

At this point definition becomes a problem – when is a painting no longer a watercolor? The American Watercolor Society accept all aqua media (watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache, egg tempera) on paper, but draw the line at collage and pastel. So if you are determined to produce paintings that fall under the definition of watercolor, check with the organisation you will be exhibiting with, as there are as many definitions as there are watercolor societies.

If you are happy just to produce paintings and are not too concerned with definitions, then have some fun, take some risks and try out some of these techniques.

Even if you don’t produce a masterpiece, I’m sure you’ll find it liberating and enjoyable!

If you intend to sell your work, make sure you use archival quality products and, if in doubt, test pigments for lightfastness.


See Also:


Watercolor texture


Author: John Lovett

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