Mixed-media artists are quickly discovering the creative rewards of adding watercolor to their art journal pages, collages, monoprints, and more. Watercolor’s versatility allows it to shine on a variety of surfaces, and it can be combined with other mediums and materials. Best of all, watercolor isn’t limited to pans or tubes—you can get stunning watercolor effects from pencils, crayons, sticks, and powders.
If you’re new to watercolor for mixed media or have been including it in your artwork for years, these tips and techniques are sure to add some fun, fresh ideas to your art practice.
1. Make a watercolor stash: Danielle Donaldson is an advocate of building up a stash of watercolor backgrounds for future use in mixed-media art, and in her book Creative Girl: Mixed Media Techniques for an Artful Life, she explains why: “There are times when I feel less than creative,” she says. “Creating simple but beautiful colors and patterns on paper is a therapeutic way to get out of a slump with the added bonus of a multitude of starting points for future work.” To create these backgrounds, she starts with a loose wash of color on paper, then adds and blends more colors, covering the paper. As the wash dries, she flicks clear and colored water over the paper, then sprinkles salt, which pulls the color, creating a mottled effect. Use as is, or cut the background up and use in collage, art journal pages, or on canvases.
2. Powder power: Powdered pigments are hot items among artists working with watercolor for mixed media. They’re discovering the fantastic watercolor effects achieved by mixing the pigments with water; the rich, saturated colors; and the fact that a little goes a long way. Jane Davenport road tested Color Bursts from Ken Oliver Crafts in the September/October 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, creating a watercolor palette by mixing a little bit of pigment with water in a palette and painting a portrait with it. She also used the pigment/water mixture as a spray, and in daubers to create a random, bright background.
3. All the colors: We know it’s difficult to resist new color mediums, but Cathy Johnson says that when it comes to watercolor, it’s okay to scale back. “Don’t worry about having every color in the rainbow and more,” she says in her book, Artist’s Sketchbook: Exercises and Techniques for Sketching on the Spot. “Learning to mix the colors you want is part of the fun, and a huge part of learning, period. You can get by with a warm and a cool of each primary color, or just one of each if you choose well.” She has one more great tip: Go for the best quality paints you can; if you’re on a budget, go for primaries and a few other key colors. She adds burnt sienna and Payne’s Grey to her basic palette, then mixes away.
4. Join the resistance: Resist mediums and watercolor were meant for each other. Leave it to Joanne Sharpe to add lettering into the mix. In the September/October 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine Joanne shows a number of ways to create bold, unique letters using resist mediums such as rubber cement, frisket, washi tape, and wax crayons. After writing the words, lightly paint over the mask with a watercolor wash, mixing analogous colors if you wish. When dry, use a gum eraser or a clean, dry cloth to rub off the frisket or rubber cement, or gently peel off the tape. Don’t stop there—add more text, doodles, or color for an even bolder piece.
5. Mix it up: Another way to create a resist with watercolor is by using matte or semigloss acrylic medium. Melanie Testa recommends brushing either medium onto watercolor paper and allowing it to dry. Because it forms an impenetrable area on the paper, when painted over with watercolor it creates a resist. In her book Dreaming from the Journal Page: Transforming the Sketchbook to Art she offers even more tips: “Matte medium,” she says, “is a bit more subdued than semigloss and leaves behind a tone-on-tone quality, whereas semigloss medium creates more of a window into the previous layers of paint.”
6. Kitchen aid: Danielle Donaldson’s use of watercolor for mixed media starts with a substrate you’ve probably never considered: paper towels. To make a romantic, colorful garland, she begins by pooling watercolor on a white board, then mops it up with a scrunched paper towel, repeating the process until she has enough towels. After the towels dry she peels the plys apart, cuts them into strips, and sews them together with a sewing machine. To do this, simply layer two strips on top of each other and stitch down the center, randomly crinkling and folding the top layer for a gathered and messy look. In her article “Tumbled Blossom Garland” in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Danielle also shows how to use watercolor to color ribbon roses and watercolor paper leaves.
7. Get blown away: Gina Rossi Armfield has taken one of watercolor’s greatest assets and turned it into a signature technique. In her book No Excuses Watercolor: Painting Techniques for Sketching and Journaling she shows how she blows on very wet paint to create random rivulets that suggest movement. To do this, paint a simple shape, like a heart, using a light color. While the first layer is still damp, drop in a medium color. Taking advantage of the still-damp colors, edge the shape with a darker color; this will cause a blooming effect. Then, lift the paper and blow air in quick, strong bursts in the direction you want the drips to go. When the paper is completely dry, use the drips to add writing with a waterproof pen.
8. Look to the skies: Painting a seascape with watercolor is easy when you follow Gina Lee Kim’s techniques for creating water and sky. In Art Lesson Volume 2: The Versatility of Blue, she focuses on the movement of the brushstrokes as she paints each one. For the sky, she paints in a diagonal direction to suggest a windswept look. “Using a big wash brush or a large round brush is tremendously helpful for achieving this effect,” she says. “Use light brushstrokes and try not to overwork the paint.” To that she adds, “Take your largest round brush and apply a variegated wash for the sky in an upward, sweeping motion. Make short, linear strokes below the horizon line for the ocean. This first wash creates a foundation of color.”
9. Words matter: Water-soluble pencil and crayon are great for writing words on a page, which can add meaning to a work of art. In her book No Excuses Watercolor Animals: A Field Guide to Painting, Gina Rossi Armfield uses this technique for adding a key word or phrase to a piece: Loosely write the word or words with a water-soluble crayon or pencil. Then, gently mist the words with a spray bottle filled with water until you get the desired bleed; the color should begin to dissolve and take on a softer look.
10. Crinkle, crinkle: Instead of using watercolor paper as a substrate, take a tip from Helen Shafer Garcia’s article “Masa Paper Crinkle” in the March/April 2013 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. By crumpling thin, pre-sized machine-made Masa paper, the fibers are broken down, creating a series of broken lines that offer a unique painting surface. Using a wet-on-wet technique, Helen pre-wets the crumpled paper, then drops in color with a paintbrush or spray bottle filled with paint. “You want the watercolor pigments to move through the crinkled fibers,” she says. Multiple glazes can add rich color to the surface of the paper.
Ready to add watercolor to your mixed-media arsenal? Take a look at these terrific resources below from the North Light Shop that are packed with great information, tips, and techniques: