Open any watercolor instruction book and you will find a section or even a whole chapter devoted to how to paint a watercolor wash. It is an essential technique of watercolor and can be utilized in so many ways. From a seamless background of color to the horizon line in a landscape — use a watercolor wash!
Artist and instructor Michael Reardon — his Watercolor Color & Light Digital Collection available now! — shares how to paint two watercolor washes: a flat wash and a gradated wash. Plus, learn how to secure your paper and angle it so you get a perfect wash every time!
Prepping Your Paper
Before you can create all those exciting and useful watercolor washes, you will want to make sure that your paper is prepped and secure.
Place your paper on a piece of wood or foam core. Tape down all four corners of your paper so it doesn’t shift or slide as you paint. Use tape that isn’t too adhesive. Michael Reardon recommends Duck brand tape. If you are using a full sheet of paper, you may need to add staples along the edges of your paper as well for further reinforcement.
If you want a clean, crisp edge around the painted area of your paper, tape down all four sides of your surface. Use a burnishing tool to rub in the tape so it doesn’t have any bubbles in it and paint won’t leak underneath.
When it comes time to remove the tape, first make sure your surface is completely dry! Then carefully remove the tape. Pull it low and parallel to the surface, not up and away as that is likely to tear your paper.
Painting a Flat Wash
Now that your paper is prepped and in place, you are ready to create a flat wash. A flat wash is an area of a painting made of a single color and value. It is created with a series of overlapping brushstrokes.
Step 1. Tilt your surface toward you. In the video below, Michael leans his surface against a book that allows the paper to sit at a slight angle.
Step 2. On your palette, create a large mixture of the pigment you want to use.
Step 3. Load your brush. Starting at the top of your paper, put down a stroke. You create a bead of pigment and water. Work across the paper and drag the stroke down and toward you.
Step 4. Keep your brush loaded with pigment, you keep going back in, overlapping the strokes.
Watch Michael as he creates a perfect flat wash with cobalt blue!
Painting a Gradated Watercolor Wash
A gradated wash allows you to transition seamlessly from light to dark. The same kind of transition, but from one color to another, is called a variegated wash. This is a great type of stroke to master if you are interested in painting landscapes with dramatic sunsets with lots of color in the sky blending together.
Michael shows how to transition from cobalt blue to permanent orange, which is a perfect example to illustrate how to use a gradated wash for a skyline.
Remember, the key to a gradated wash is the bead, where the water collects at the bottom of your stroke. Keep the bead going down the page and you’ll have a perfect watercolor wash every time!
More Watercolor Techniques — Washes and Beyond
In Michael Reardon’s Watercolor Color & Light Digital Collection you’ll learn how to gradate watercolor from warm to cool, dark to light, and pigment to pigment! Plus lessons on how to portray the shimmer of light on water, and the lights and darks of ripples and reflections. Get the collection now!