Fundamental watercolor techniques

  1. Flat wash

Whether it is for the background or any large area painting, flat wash is the fundamental technique of watercolor as normally it is the first step of the painting. Once we master the technique to paint a smooth, nice and neat flat wash, we can change this technique a little bit for gradient wash.

Tilt the painting board slightly and with a large flat brush or round brush, pick up plenty of well mixed pigment, paint horizontally (normally from left to right if you are right hander). While it is still wet, paint the second stroke below and overlap slightly with the first stroke. Continue the next stroke and repeat the process until the end. Use tissue or dry brush to absorb excessive water at the bottom. Because each stroke is wet and overlap with previous stroke, the paint will mix together naturally and form a nice and even wash.

  1. Graded wash

Now that you’ve learned how to do a simple flat wash, the next step is to add a gradient wash. It can be a graduation of tone or of different colors blending into one another

Tilt the painting board about 10 degree. Wet the whole paper, pick up the well mixed pigment and paint from the top horizontally. Add more water to dilute the paint and same as flat wash, continue with second stroke below and overlap slightly with first stroke. Continue the process and gradually mix more water with each stroke.

With this technique, you can also paint from bottom to top, left to right or right to left to create the desired gradient.

  1. Overlay washes (Glazing)

This technique utilises the transparent characteristic of watercolor to create different tones by overlapping washes.

In this technique you let the paint to dry completely before adding successive layers of the same color. Each additional layer darkens the color and can be used to create shape and shadow. The effect of this technique is hard edge between layers.


Glazing is basically overlaying washes of different colors. With glazing, you can create different tone and color with each overlaying layer. It is important to let the paint completely dry before applying the next layer to avoid the colors to blend and running together. If you are overlaying different color, it is important to know how these colors will interact with each other.

  1. Wet-in-wet

Pre-wet the paper with water or some light & watery paint, mixed the pigment and apply it on the wet paper. The pigment will blend with the water and your stroke will diffuse and spread and the edge will become softer and softer. With wet-in-wet, you will never 100% sure what is going to happen as the result depends on the wetness of the paper, the thickness of the paint, etc. but this is actually the fun and attractiveness of watercolor.

We can use thick paint as well as thin in to create different effects.

It is also possible to rewet certain area and use the wet-in-wet technique to create defused object against the sharp edged base.

  1. Splatter

This is a fun technique to explore and when use correctly it will create naturally looking painting for area require random shape & color. Load your brush with adequate amount of paint and tap or knock the brush against your finger or another brush handle, let the paint splat onto the wet or dry paper to create different look. Do this for light color first and using larger brush first before moving to darker color and smaller brushes. This technique requires some experiments to see the effect and to see how the paint will splat.

Watercolor brushes

Watercolor brushes come in different shapes, sizes and built with different materials. Which brushes meet your needs and budget? Let’s go through this in this article.

Brush material

The hair used to build the brush is the most important. There are many types as listed below:

Natural animal hair

Many watercolor brushes are made from animal hairs including sable, squirrel, pony and ox hairs.

Sable and squirrel brushes are most commonly used among professional artists for their ability to absorb a lot of water, hold and maintain very fine point at the tip and the spring of the hairs. Among these, the kolinsky sable is the finest and most expensive. Kolinsky sable got its name because the hair is obtained from the tail of the kolinsky, a species of weasel (not really sable). The finest is made from male’s hair only but most on the market are mixed of male and female hairs. Squirrel brushes are slightly lower in price but are still quite expensive. Most of the modern high quality large mop type brushes are made from squirrel hairs. Famous watercolor artists like Joseph Zbukvic and Alvaro Castagnet like to use these types of brushes for both large wash and detail work. Brands like Da Vinci, Escoda, Rosemary all make very good watercolor brushes.

Synthetic hair

If you would like to avoid animal hairs, there are also many brushes made with synthetic hairs and which very good quality nowadays. They have different characteristic then the natural hairs but are also widely used. Some synthetic hairs have been made to mimic the characteristic of sable hairs; they do hold a lot of water as well. Da Vinci Cosmostop Spin series, Rosemary, Escoda Synthetic, Loew Cornell synthetic are some good synthetic brushes to be considered.

Brush Shapes

Round brush

Round brushes are the most widely used among watercolor artists for its versatility. They have a round body that holds adequate paint for painting large areas and have a rounded point (especially good quality round brushes) for painting fine lines for detailed work.

For beginners who will be working on medium size painting, round brush size 8 for large stroke and size 4 for more detailed stroke is sufficient.


Mop is mainly for painting large areas like wetting paper or painting skies. They contain large quantity of soft hairs (usually squirrel or goat hairs) to absorb a lot of water and pigments.

Flat brush

Flat brushes have flat shape and straight edge and is usually rectangular in shape. They are mainly used for painting rectangular objects like walls, bricks, etc but it is also possible to use the edge of the flat brushes to paint small details. Besides, large flat brushes can also be used for large area washes as they hold a lot of water and pigments.

Use 1 inch or larger flat brush for large area wash, 1/2 inch for painting.


Riggers have long and pointed hairs that can hold a lot of pigments. They were originally designed to paint the rigging on boats and that is where the name came from. Nowadays, many artists like to use it for fine details and expressive line work including tree branches, leaves, reflection on the water, etc.

Basic supplies to get started with watercolor

To get started with watercolor, you will need some basic supplies. I recommend buying professional grade supplies than the entry level student grade supplies because the quality of your material will significantly influence your results and confidence.



There are many types of watercolor paper and it comes in different sizes, weights and different surface textures.

The weight is directly reflecting the thickness of the paper. It is measured in grams per square metre (gsm) or pound per ream (lb). The higher the number, the thicker the paper. Common weight are 190gsm (90lb), 300gsm (140lb), and 638gsm (300lb).

190 gsm paper is thin and it is more for students or beginners.

300 gsm paper is most commonly used among serious painter including professional artists.

636 gsm paper is much thicker like cardboard.

The surface of the watercolor paper has different textures including rough, medium rough (also known as cold press) and smooth (hot press). Different surface texture will give you very different result so you should try them out and determine which give you the desired effect. Rough watercolor paper will add texture to your washes. When you apply a lot of paint, the paint will settle in the little wells of the paper and if you apply dry brushes, it will give you the roughness of the surface which is very nice for rough wall. The hot press paper with its very smooth surface, tends to give you brighter, more vivid color.

Rough          Cold press     Hot press


You can also use the back side of your paper if the different surface is what you like.


Normally watercolor pigment comes in two forms: pan or tube. Pans are more convenient but it is more difficult to use for large wash as it is more difficult to gather enough paint. With tubes you can squeeze as much as little pigment as you like.

Pigment is one of the important factor that affecting your final painting. There are some student grade pigments which are much cheaper. However, the color of these watercolor pigment usually are less saturated you will need to apply a lot of pigment to achieve the result. Student grade watercolor paint also usually will fade over time. It is recommended to go for professional grade watercolor paint if you are serious about watercolor painting.


Watercolor brushes come in different shapes and sizes. They are made by different materials. Some use natural hair like sable and squirrel, some use synthetic. The best and most expensive ones are the sable brushes which have good spring and can absorb a lot of water.

You only need a few brushes to get started. A small round brush either number 4, 5 or 6 for general use, a medium fat brush (1/2 inch) for square shape, a large big fat (1-2 inch) or round brush (#8 or 10) for washes will be sufficient. If you like paint detailed work, a smaller round brush will be useful.

Sable or squirrel brushes are good and expensive. They hold a lot of water and give a very good sharp point. However, synthetic brushes are getting better nowadays and are much more affordable.


They come in many different sizes and shapes. To get started, you can buy some inexpensive 12 or more welled plastic palettes with a few large mixing areas like the one below.



Find anything from a glass, or jar, or small bucket to hold clean water (tap water is fine). You could also buy container designed specifically for watercolor that has more than one compartments and has holes to hold your brushes.