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 Watercolor Techniques


Once you have mastered the basic skills of color mixing, applying washes, softening edges, dropping in color etc. there are a number of more advanced watercolor techniques you can incorporate into your work.

These advanced techniques are not going to suit every painting, but when the subject calls for different shapes, textures or details, these watercolor techniques can add variation and interest to your paintings.

Washed Ink

Waterproof ink is applied, allowed to almost dry, then scrubbed off. This will produce interesting textures and shapes. The results are unpredictable and permanent, so this technique is best used before watercolor washes are added. Best results are obtained using a spray bottle of water and rough bristle brush to scrub the ink back.

Advanced Watercolor Techniques - Washed Ink
Washed Ink with Gouache Mask​

For this technique, thick white gouache is painted on to preserve any areas of white paper. The gouache is allowed to thoroughly dry before being completely covered with pigment ink. When the ink is dry the surface is washed back with a water spray and bristle brush, dissolving the gouache and revealing the white paper underneath.

Painting Techniques - washed ink with gouache mask

The sooner the ink is washed off, the less distinct the details. In this example the ink was just dry - some detail is lost but the resulting marks are subtle and interesting. To finish the painting washes and details are built up over the ink marks to create an unusual, etching like ​area that blends with the watercolor.

Painting Techniques - washed ink with gouache mask finished watercolor
Sprayed Ink

The rich colors and linear quality of permanent artists ink can be used to unify a painting. Experiment using a fine water spray just after the ink is applied. The soft spidery textures add an ancient weathered patina to your painting.

Simple Watercolor Techniques - Sprayed Ink
Candle Wax Resist

Wherever candle wax is applied to the painting surface, no paint will adhere. White areas can be preserved in this way before the painting is started. Unlike white preserved with masking fluid, the area can never be painted over. Washes of underlying color can be preserved in this way too. The various colored marks in the example below were preserved by drawing wax onto a dry wash then applying another wash, waiting until it drys then drawing on more wax marks.

Advanced Watercolor Techniques - Wax Resist
Scraping Dry Paint​

For this painting technique, a razor blade or sharp knife is used to scratch fine marks into dark areas of dry paint.​ Make sure the paint is thoroughly dry before attempting this. Similar marks can be made with white gouache, but the slight difference in quality adds variety and interest to your painting.

Painting Techniques - scraping watercolor
Watercolor Techniques - Scraping
Sanding Dry Paper

Unusual textures can be made by lightly sanding the surface of a very dry painting with fine sandpaper. The surface takes on a slightly weathered appearance. The sanded area can be adjusted by the application of further washes.

Painting Techniques - sand papering watercolor
Paper Masking

Cartridge paper can be torn to a suitable shape, placed on the painting then the area left exposed can be wiped over with a damp brush or sponge to remove pigment. This process works best with sedimentary and non staining colors. The technique can also be used with straight edged paper to change the tone in a formal, geometric manner.

Watercolor Techniques - Paper Masking
Pressing into wet paper

This is a simple watercolor technique where a variety of objects (brush handles, empty ball point pens, blunt knives) can be used to compress the paper while a wash is still wet. The compressed paper will absorb more pigment than the surrounding paper leaving interesting dark marks in your painting.​

Watercolor Techniques - Pressing into wet paper
Japanese Rice Paper​​

Torn Japanese Rice Paper is glued to the surface with dilute PVA glue, Matt acrylic varnish  or a similar neutral pH glue.​ The results are interesting and unpredictable, depending on the type of rice paper.

Watercoor Techniques - Japanese Rice Paper
Paper Blotting​

Crumpled paper towel will lift pigment from a wet was in a soft, predictable way. Keep rotating and re crumpling the paper so you dont get a repeating pattern in the blot marks. This is a good watercolor technique for lifting clouds out of a wet sky.

Watercolor Techniques - Paper Blotting
Masking Fluid​

As well as protecting white areas, masking fluid can be used to create interesting effects in layered washes. Try painting lattice with a light, mid and dark toned wash layered between strips of masking fluid.

Watercolor Techniques - Masking Fluid
Opaque Gouache​ Contrast

The contrast between transparent watercolor and flat, opaque gouache can add interest and vibrancy to a painting. Be sure to keep distinct areas of watercolor and gouache or the opaque/transparent contrast will be lost. See the article on Gouache for more information.

Watercolor Techniques - Opaque Gouache Contrast
Gesso Underpainting​

With this watercolor technique, rough gesso brushstrokes add interest to the predictable texture of watercolor paper. Watercolor gesso or absorbent ground works best. The important thing to remember is to allow the gesso to dry thoroughly before painting on it. Watercolor, particularly sedimentary colors will settle into the fine crevasses in the gesso brush strokes making an interesting texture. 

Watercolor Techniques - Gesso Underpainting
Cling Wrap Wash​

A simple technique where cling wrap is arranged over a wet wash and left until the wash is thoroughly dry. The results are fairly predictable, but this technique makes interesting rock like textures

Watercolor Techniques - Cling Wrap Wash
Pastel Scrape

Into a wet wash scrape the dust off a suitably colored pastel with a sharp blade. Test the pastel color against a patch of the dry wash first. This technique works well with sedimentary pigments using a similar colored pastel.

Painting Techniques - pastel dust and watercolor
Dragging Paint

Dipping a paint brush handle into fresh paint and dragging it through a wet wash makes an interesting, unpredictable line ranging from soft feathered edges to solid dabs of paint.

Painting Techniques - dragging fresh watercolor



These advanced watercolor techniques are a lot of fun and can really add some excitement to your painting. It is a good idea to try out the techniques on some old watercolor paper to become familiar with the way different processes behave. A scrap book of the various techniques and notes on how you achieved what you did is a handy tool when you decide a painting needs one of these techniques.

See Also:

Watercolor Tips for Beginners

Author: John Lovett

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