How to Use Watercolor Dryglazing

Fluid, intermingling washes of watercolor are a hallmark of the medium. But by setting the water aside in the beginning—working on dry paper, as opposed to a dampened surface—you can capture details, form and vibrant color in an equally wonderful way. The technique of applying very thin layers to dry paper is called dryglazing, and it’s a great tool for watercolor artists.

For one thing, you can use dryglazing to understand how color theory works. Pick your favorite triad of primary transparent colors—a red, yellow and blue. Glaze one color over each of the others and take a look at the secondary colors they create. Then, using the same value (very important) of each of your choices, glaze one over the other to attain a beautiful glowing gray. (Be sure to let each layer dry before applying the next.) The order of your glazed layers will determine the hue of the gray. This is an excellent way to practice with color.

For my paintings, I like to use dryglazing to pull color across an existing shape and change its value. In doing so, I can create a three-dimensional roundness to my subject while still having the control to soften the edge of the glaze and retain the white highlights. This step-by-step demonstration will walk you through this process, which I followed for Spring Fling.

1 Practice Shapes
Before you begin, draw a circle on a piece of watercolor paper. Then, using a transparent color such as quinacridone red, new gamboge or Antwerp blue (I used all these in Spring Fling), mix a puddle of paint and water so you have a thin value.

Apply the glaze with a very thin skim of moisture on the color side of your shape. Then rinse your brush and remove the excess water from it by touching it to tissue. Pull the edge of the painted glaze across the shape with the clean brush to thin the value. Repeat this process until you make the edge of the glaze disappear where you want a white highlight to remain on your shape.

If you’ve done it correctly, the watercolor glaze should stay put without creeping across your shape. If it does, you’ve used too much water in applying your glaze. This is good practice before you do your actual painting.

2 Build Up the Glazes
After my first layers for Spring Fling dried, I applied a second glaze in the same manner. I used a clean, damp brush to pull the second glaze up to lighten the value and soften the edge of the glaze, leaving some of the first glaze showing.

For each successive glaze you paint, try using a different transparent color to show your warm and cool areas (such as new gamboge over quinacridone red). For the cool areas, you could glaze Antwerp blue in the shadows. Keep your second glaze the same value as your first and so on, because each glaze creates another value and you don’t want to go too dark too quickly.

3 Finish With a “Stain”
With this process of transparent glazes, you’ll find that to get your final depth of value, you’ll need to have a staining, transparent hue in your selections of colors. Here, the tulips were finalized with glazes of Hooker’s green and alizarin crimson, which were also used in the background of the piece.

Most paintings will need at least five to 10 glazes before they’re finalized, but don’t let that scare you off. You’ll paint a smaller area on each successive glaze, allowing the previous glaze to show a bit to create a range of values, from highlights to deep shadows.

Painter and workshop instructor Arleta Pech ( is the author of the North Light book Radiant Oils: Glazing Techniques for Paintings that Glow, to be released March 2010.

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