Here are some basic watercolor techniques that every painter should strive to master.
*Painting a WASH is an important skill. Try to use a big enough brush to hold a good amount of paint. Mix a larger puddle of paint than you think you need so that you don’t run out and have to mix more in the middle of painting the wash. Start with color at one end of your paper and smoothly stroke across to the opposite edge. Your brush should hold enough paint to sweep from one side to the other without running out of pigment. If not, find a larger brush to use. There should be a damp bead of paint on the lower edge of the color you just put on your paper. Reload your brush fully with paint, and smoothly stroke across the page again, just touching your brush to the damp bead of your last stroke. This bead tells you your paint is still wet and helps prevent streaky washes.
*To paint a GRADED WASH, start with color at one end of the paper. Paint three to four long strokes, as above. Dip the brush in water, and wipe it gently on the side of your water container (so the brush is not too wet), then return to the wash and continue painting three to four strokes. Repeat, dipping the brush in the water and wiping gently before going back to the painting. What are you doing? Every time you dip and wipe your brush, you are reducing the pigment and water on your brush to gradually lighten the color of your wash. You are not trying to wash all the pigment out of your brush all at once, but instead are gradually diluting the pigment on your brush as you continue to paint down the paper.
* Blend two colors together to create GRADATION. Start by laying the first color about 3/4 of the way from one end toward the other in a wash. Right away, load your brush with your second color, and paint toward and over the first color 3/4 of the way. Reverse direction, and work back to where you started your second color WITHOUT lifting your brush. Move back and forth until the colors blend smoothly. The trick here is to not lift the brush from the paper once you begin blending.
*To MIX COLOR on your palette, dip into the lighter color first, then drop the darker color into the light color. Mix. It is not necessary to wash your brush every time you reach to get more color to add to the mixture. Doing so is wasteful and dilutes your mixture. Instead, just go to the color desired, and pick up some color with the dirty brush, then bring it back to the mixture. Any dirty palette wells can be cleaned later with a damp brush! It’s okay, however, to clean your brush when you want to use a single clean color or want to change to a new mixture of color.
*To mix CONCENTRATED DARK COLORS, mix as above, but DON’T keep adding water, because you dilute your mixture and will have difficulty achieving intense or dark combinations.
*Learn how to LIFT COLOR with a brush. Remember that you can lift wet paint from your paper as long as your brush is DRIER than the paint.
*FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. Use a brush that is less wet than the painted area. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! Also, be careful how close you get to the wet paint with your brush. You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your strokes further and further away from the paint. It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, or flower petals.)
*Learn to LET THE PAINT AND WATER DO THE WORK. Don’t fight the paint or try to force it to do what you want it to. Learn the rules of how water behaves -(i.e., when two unequal bodies of moisture meet, the GREATER wetness will ALWAYS flow into the LESSER wetness). Learn to do nothing except watch what the paint and water can do without your help.
* Learn to see and paint NEGATIVE SHAPES. A negative shape is the background or shape AROUND an object, not the object itself. You essentially save the light shape (perhaps of trees in a forest) by painting around the tree trunks with a dark color. For trees, paint vertical strokes that represent the space between tree trunks. Try to vary sizes, angles, and shapes of the dark lines, even making some of the light tree trunk shapes y-shaped to represent branches. When the paint on the paper is dry, use a slightly darker pigment to paint again but only in the dark spaces, and add even darker marks to define the space between more tree trunks deeper in the forest. It might help to lightly sketch these first. In the beginning, allow large spaces around a few shapes. If you leave too little space, it becomes difficult to paint meaningful shapes at deeper layers. Repeat the process for several layers. Slowly and gradually progress to darker layers of color. (There is no need to mix progressively darker puddles of paint here – use the same puddle for successive layers. Two layers will appear twice as dark as one, etc.) Negative shapes in a painting add variety, depth, interest, and a sense of reality to your image.
*Practice control of BRUSH STROKES and techniques. As an artist, you want to paint with as few brush strokes as possible to preserve the freshness and clarity of your painting. Make your shapes with a single stroke as opposed to first outlining and then filling in with color (like a coloring book). Avoid cautious, tiny strokes with a too-small brush. Instead, try to use a larger brush than you think you need!
While many other techniques are useful, learning the ones described above will assure many a good painting. Thank you to artist and author Gordon MacKenzie for recommending many of the above ideas.