It’s a Wash

Washes and watercolors go hand in hand. Simply a thin, liquidy layer of transparent paint applied with a wide brush, a wash becomes a glaze when you apply it over other washes of color that have already dried. Underlying layers peek through later washes for a striking and complex field of color. It takes time to build up glazes one by one to achieve the effects you want, but the results are well worth the effort.


The Colors of the Sky: In God?s Golden Essence (watercolor, 22×30), the sky contains between 10 and 15 washes of various blues, raw sienna and more. All the colors you see in the land are in the sky as well, which ties the painting together quite nicely.

A wash can be either flat or graded. The flat wash is one value that covers the entire page. It?s often used for skies and other simple backgrounds. The graded wash moves from a more intense area of color down (or up) to a much lighter value. This gives a sky more of an atmospheric look, as well as more depth. On a sunny day, walk outside and look way up over your head, then bring your eyes slowly down to the horizon. This is the best example of how a graded wash should look.

Let It Flow
To begin glazing, squeeze out a pea-sized amount of paint and add lots of water to it. I like to use white plastic party plates for this rather than my palette, so I know I?ll have enough. Mix this thoroughly with a separate brush (not your wash brush), because pure paint can get caught in the hairs. Don?t throw the plate away when the leftover mixture dries; just spritz it with water to bring the color back to life.

Keep paper towels, some rags and two buckets of water (for cleaning your brush) at the ready, because if you stop in the middle of a wash you?ll get streaks. It?s worth it to invest in a good wash brush to ensure smooth finishes. I like the Robert Simmons Skyflow 3-inch wash brush.

When you?re ready to go, mask out any areas on your paper that you?ll want to stay white or a light color. Then wet the entire back of the paper with clear water. Flip it over and it will stick to your painting surface, keeping your paper flat while you work. Lay on your first wash, beginning at the top. For a flat wash, quickly work down the paper until the color is even.

For a graded wash, begin at the top with a few strokes of color. Rinse out your brush thoroughly and, with clear water, blend the color down using crisscross strokes. Move quickly, rinsing your brush throughout so the water stays clear. You could also start at the bottom of your paper and work your way up.

Wipe the edges under the paper when finished, as there will be excess water there and you don?t want to see ?blossoms? around these edges. Let the first wash dry completely, then follow the same process to add more layers.

Once you?re satisfied with the effect of your glazes, you can go in and add the details. The masking fluid has protected all your whites and light areas, and any darks can go right over the glazes.

Loraine Crouch is associate editor for Artist?s Sketchbook and The Artist?s Magazine. Mary Todd Beam is a workshop instructor and author of Celebrate Your Creative Self, available from North Light Books. She lives in Ohio and Tennessee.

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