Tips for Watercolor Washes

Ask the Experts: Tips for Watercolor Washes

by James Toogood

Q. How do I get enough pigment into a wet watercolor wash and still keep the wash transparent? My washes always look too pale when they’re dry.

A. This is a persistent issue watercolorists face. All watercolors shift to a lighter value when they dry—some more than others. Thus the old saying “If it’s right when it’s wet, it’s wrong!” Testing color on a scrap of watercolor paper before applying the paint is often helpful, especially for beginners. With practice you’ll become sensitive to how the paint looks and feels on your palette, so that you’ll be able to predict the intensity of the color as well as maintain the transparency of the wash.

A more pigmented mixture not only appears more saturated on the palette but also feels slightly thicker and more viscous. A more pigmented mixture will still be transparent when dry. Watercolorists generally work from light, wet washes to ever more heavily pigmented glazes. Typically, this is for two reasons. The first has to do with optics as your painting develops. A light wash, say 10 percent paint to 90 percent water, on white paper will be noticeable even when dry, as may the next few washes. But the more you work, the paler those light washes will appear in comparison to the deeper values that develop as the painting progresses. Eventually, light washes may appear to merge into one variation of a light value or may seem to disappear altogether. To avoid this, as you progress, gradually increase the ratio of pigment to water. This method reduces the number of applications needed to get the desired effect, saving you time.

The second reason watercolorists increase the percentage of pigment in their washes is that water is actually a watercolor solvent. Increasing the ratio of pigment to water as you progress helps you avoid unintentionally picking up the washes that are already down. Continuing to apply washes with a high proportion of water would be like periodically wiping mineral spirits over an oil painting.

Making value scales of each of your paint colors is extremely helpful. For each color you typically use, paint 10 incremental changes in value from white paper to the mass tone of the color. This exercise is a great way to become more familiar with the qualities of your paints and to learn what it takes to mix them. And when you finish making your value scales, you’ll have a means of evaluating the color values in your work.

James Toogood, a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, teaches at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, in New York City; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; and Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Visit his website at

Watercolor Tips: Ask the Experts author James Toogood gives advice on lifting watercolor as he paints clouds.


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