Welcome to The Helpful Art Teacher, an interdisciplinary website linking visual arts to math, social studies, science and language arts.

Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

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Friday, August 2, 2013

An inventory of watercolor painting techniques

Graded wash: Paint an area with water. Paint across the top with a color. It will flow down when your paper is lifted, getting gradually lighter towards the bottom. Add more color to the top and more water to the bottom. Gradually paint upwards with the water until it just touches the edge of the color. 

Color on color: After creating a solid wash, dab a different color on top of the,  still wet, paint. Do not mix these colors, just let the existing water on the paper blur the edges. 

Dry brush: Take a couple of practice swipes with your brush on scrap paper. Your brush and paper both need to be dry. You should see a scratchy texture on the paper.  Lift the brush slightly at the end to enhance this effect. 

Solid wash: Mix your color ahead of time, add water to the paint, wet your brush and then paint the solid color of wet paint on an area of dry paper. 

Lifting: Wrap a dry paper towel around your finger and tap the wet areas of your painting to lift up the color. Great for clouds. 

Wet on wet: paint water on your paper with a square shader brush. Take another brush and paint on top of the wet area with color. The color will spread to form interesting patterns


Layering: Come back to a painting after it is dry and use a different technique on top of an area you have already painted. For example, use a dry brush over an already dry area where you used the wet on wet technique earlier.

Glazing: Use thin transparent washes repeatedly to build up depth in your painting. Allow the painting to dry in between each layer of glaze. Create a glaze by mixing a color with water and painting it on a scrap paper over a pencil scribble. If you can still see the entire scribble the glaze is transparent. If the scribble is hard to see, add more water to your paint. 

The last two techniques are time consuming but can be very beautiful. Some artists are able to make their watercolors look almost like oil paintings by building up coats of clear glaze and layering a dry bush over a wash.

Young Hare, Watercolor, 
by Albrecht Dürer, 1505

Paul Cézanne 
French, 1839-1906
Trees (Arbres)
c.1900, Watercolor on paper, 
The Barnes Foundation 
Cézanne never used white paint in his watercolors. Instead he skillfully incorporated the luminous white of the paper itself into his compositions.

Paul Cezanne frequently used layers of color, allowing each coat to dry in between washes, to add depth to his watercolor paintings. To learn more about his process, click on the links below:


Still Life with Blue Pot
French, about 1900 
Watercolor over graphite (pencil)

Note from The Helpful Art Teacher: The table cloth, pitcher and small teapot all incorporate the luminous white of the paper itself. 

The highlights on the fruit are also actually  the color of the paper. 

Cézanne never used white paint when creating a watercolor. 

He drew a picture with graphite pencil on the paper before begining a painting. 

He would also draw with pencil over the dry paint when he returned to his work the next day. 

The graphite helped to act as a barrier, enabling him to better control where the paint went.

Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard, Paul Cézanne,
 1900–1906, Dallas Museum of Art

Notice how skillfully Cézanne incorporates the white of the paper into his picture.
White paint is an opaque color. Watercolor is a transparent medium. Cézanne believed t
hat using multiple layers of thin washes and only transparent colors gave his work luminously a
nd depth.

To learn more about Cézanne's watercolor technique, click on this lin

Below is a short video produced by the J Paul Getty Museum that discusses Cézanne's painting process. The information in the video is accurate and it is beautifully filmed but I cringed while I was watching it because the narrators kept inaccurately referring to Cézanne's painting process as 'difficult' and talking about how easy it is to ruin a watercolor painting. I have been playing with watercolor paints since I was a little kid and so have my students. We love to paint and want others to discover the joys of watercolor too!

It is unfortunately common for art historians to put famous artists, like Cézanne, on a pedestal when discussing their techniques. The process Cézanne used is not difficult. Many artists have successfully emulated it and there is no reason why you cannot easily use it yourself

Art historians, art critics and museum curators are, sadly, often people who study and admire artists while never learning how to create the art themselves. Keep this in mind while watching the video.

 Interspersed with valuable information, this film uses some very discouraging language. How would you re-create this film if you wanted to encourage an art student to try a new technique?

Take the Cézanne challenge! Create your own watercolor painting of these roses without using any white paint. First, draw the roses in pencil on your watercolor paper. Then paint in only the darkest shadows. Allow your painting to dry before painting in the mid-tones. Mix each color with plenty of water before applying it to the paper. Use the 'lifting' technique while the paint is still wet to create highlights. Leave some areas completely unpainted to show the whitest whites, where light is hitting the petals directly. Use graded washes to show the gradual, subtle transitions from deepest shadow to shimmering highlight. 

The objects in Cézanne's pictures seem to hold light, not because of what is painted but because of what is left out. The white of his paper is as important as the color, just as a rest in music is as important as the sound. 
How would you capture the luminous translucency of these leaves, using watercolors? Cézanne would have created transparent glazes of color to allow the white of the paper to shine through illuminating each leaf. He would have put a thin wash of yellow over a thin wash of transparent diluted green after allowing each coat to dry. 

Some of my own watercolor paintings

Gouache(opaque watercolor) vs. transparent watercolor

Different media call for different techniques.

Here are two paintings that I am currently working on. In the first picture, of wisteria, I used both transparent and opaque painting methods. In the second painting I used only traditional transparent methods. Can you find the places in both pictures where I used graded washes? The graded washes in the rose and wisteria petals in the top painting were created using white. The graded washes on the petals in the hummingbird painting were created using only water.

I created the flower painting of wisteria using both traditional transparent watercolor and gouache, which is an opaque form of watercolor paint. In some parts of the painting I created graded washes by blending white paint with the color of the flower petal. 

The hummingbird painting on the other hand is made only of transparent watercolor paint. I chose a more traditional watercolor painting method for this piece by not using any white or black paint. When I need a deep shadow color, I blend a color with it's opposite (or compliment). When I need a highlight, I am careful to leave that part of the paper unpainted. 

To learn how to create shadows by mixing complimentary colors (and to learn what complimentary colors are and how to use them) 
click on the link below:

Wisteria, gouache (opaque watercolor)on illustration board, unfinished

Aliciasmom's Flower painting in Gouache Rachel Wintemberg album on Photobucket

The finished painting, completed September 14, 2013
I used a combination of traditional transparent watercolor and
Gouache (opaque watercolor) on illustration board. 

The next painting, of a hummingbird and flowers, was painted WITHOUT white or black, using only traditional watercolor methods. Below are three 'in progress' pictures showing the development of the unfinished painting. 

hummingbird, transparent watercolor on illustration board, unfinished

Aliciasmom's Hummingbird Watercolor album on Photobucket
Below is the completed watercolor 

The Completed Painting
Hummingbird With Flowers, By Rachel Wintemberg, 2013
Transparent Watercolor on Ilustration Board, 10"x36"

Below is a 'cheat sheet' that shows how I created the shadows in the hummingbird painting, without using black:

For a more detailed explanation of how to create shadows by mixing complimentary colors (and to learn what complimentary colors are and how to use them), click on the link below:

I painted the next two paintings below, without white paint, using only traditional watercolor methods.

Aliciasmom's watercolor landscape chiaroscuro album on Photobucket

Do you see the graded washes that I used to create the sky? Can you see where I used dry brushing to add texture to the foreground? Do you see where I built up layers of transparent glazes to give the painting depth?

Here I used graded washes to indicate the shadows and dry brushing to show the texture of the grass and ferns. I also used the wet on wet technique and the color on color technique to paint some of the leaves. Can you find the part of the painting where I used dry brush techniques on the wet paper to allow the texture to spread and soften?
Above is the finished painting. Compare it to the earlier version. What have I added? How has the picture changed? What techniques did I use to complete the picture?

Aliciasmom's watercolor process emerging from the woods album on Photobucket

The painting below is mixed media. I combined pen and ink and opaque watercolor (gouache) with traditional watercolor to create a surreal landscape. Can you pick out the transparent washes? Can you find the areas where I blended color with white to create a gradient?

Look carefully at the background. Do you see where I turned the paper upside down to allow the paint to run on purpose? Part of the joy of watercolor painting is allowing the combination of water and paint to create unexpected shapes and then figuring out how to use them.

The time lapse video above chronicles the painting process I used to create the cloud watercolor. Sometimes it is fun to allow your painting to dry and then to add controlled, delicate lines over a wash that you have completed earlier. This technique allows you to redefine shapes that may have gotten lost while you were painting. 

See if you can pick out the various techniques I used to complete this painting.

Please visit my earlier posts in this blog on watercolor painting to see more detailed instructions, tips, techniques, videos, worksheets and demonstrations:


  1. Wow ... Your posts are so intensey filled with much information.... I am so happy to have found it. I have already learned I have much to learn about Art. Thank You

  2. Your art work is amazing! you are really talented!

  3. Beautifully imagined and executed worlds of flowers, woods, et al! And such a helpful water colour blog site, so full of terrific resources.

  4. LOVE this activity. My little one would love this. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Looking forward to seeing more of your posts.