Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes

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There are some basic skills that are helpful to master if you want to paint watercolors. I plan to do a series of blogs where you can explore one by one the skills needed to improve your painting. If you were to walk into one of my watercolor classes and tell me you that are a beginner and you’ve never painted before, this is where I’d have you start.

Watercolor Washes

One of the most basic skills to acquire in watercolor paintng is the ability to properly create a wash and apply the wash to your paper.

The word wash used in this article is both a noun and a verb. There is the actual watercolor pigment and water mixture and the act of apply that mixture to your paper.

A wash is watercolor pigment diluted with water. The ratio of pigment to water determines how saturated the wash is. The more pigment the deeper the color. If you want a very light wash you add more water to your mixture.

Washes are ideal for creating a background, painting a sky, and making an undertone.

Typically, washes are used in large areas of a painting, but with a little skill a wash can be used anywhere in the painting usually as a first layer. For example, when I paint leaves the first thing I do is paint a wash that becomes an underlying color. Then I paint using negative space everything about the leaf except the major veins. The light wash is left in those areas creating the detail of the leaf. The darker color on top is an undertone.


Wash – watercolor pigment diluted with water.

Saturation – refers to the intensity of a color, the strength of a surface color, its degree of visual difference from neutral grey.

Undertone – a subdued color; a color modified by an underlying color.

Color Value – the degree of lightness and darkness of a color.

Color Tone – refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color.

Hue – the name of the color.

How I paint a basic leaf.

Something I repeat over and over again in my class is, watercolors are painted from light to dark, large shapes to detail. Thus, the first few sessions of a painting is usually accomplish by using various types of washes.

Four Types of Watercolor Washes

There are four basic types of washes; wet in wet, a flat wash, a gradient wash, and a variegated wash. Understanding what those washes are, how to create them, and where to use them gives you a solid foundation in watercolors.

If you want to experiment with the four different types of washes, I suggest using 6 x 6-inch pieces of watercolor paper to practice the exercises. Then at the end of the article there is a simple lesson you can do.

Washes Defined*

Wet in wet wash – painting on a wet surface and letting colors blend as they may.

Drop in Color – is like wet in wet except the tip of the loaded brush touches the paper at one point instead of being dragged across the paper.

Flat Wash – any area of a painting where a wash of a single color and value is painted in a series of multiple, overlapping stokes following the flow of the paint.

Gradient Wash – a wash that changes in tone or color

Variegated Wash – a wash of two or more colors that merge when applied to wet paper while still maintaining some of their discrete colors

A Wet in Wet Wash

A wet in wet wash is a technique in watercolor painting where at first a large brush is used to cover the paper with water. Then a watercolor wash is added to the wet paper. Successful watercolor painting comes with mastering how much water to have on your paper and your brush.

In wet in wet getting the paper covered but not supersaturated allows for the color you add on to the paper to blend without puddles or blotches. Paint is added with a loaded brush into the areas you want to add color. The amount of color you want to apply into an area is regulated by the saturation of the color on the brush. Remember as you touch the wet paper with the tip of the brush the paint will bleed into the paper and when it dries it will be lighter in color. As the colors bleed into the paper, they also bleed into each other to create new colors as the colors mix.

Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
Wet In Wet Overlapping Bleed
Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
Wet in Wet Dropping in Color

A Flat Wash

A flat wash is executed by loading a large brush with the concentration of pigment and water to create the intensity of color you want. It is helpful to have enough of the mixture ready to apply to the area of your painting that you want covered. If you run out you will have to create another mixture. The paint may dry or the color might not match giving you less than ideal results.

Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
Flat Wash
Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
Flat Color Shapes

A Gradient Wash

Gradient washes are created from one color that fades dark to light. This is a technique that is often used when painting skies. A sky will appear lighter near the horizon and become darker the higher it goes. It may be helpful to use a wet in wet technique for this, but you don’t have to wet the paper first. I like to start the gradient wash with the deeper shade of color and add water to my brush as I brush horizontally across my page going from top to bottom, adding more water with my color on the brush as I descend the paper.

Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
One Color Gradient Wash

A Variegated Wash

A variegated wash is very similar to the other washes except varying colors are used like in the wet in wet wash except in a variegated wash the paper should be damp not too wet. Let the colors touch closely so they blend but, they blend minimally with little overlap or a gentle overlap.

Basic Watercolor Skills One: Watercolor Washes
Variegated Wash
Variegated Texture


This is a simple exercise using gradient and flat washes. I used a 9 x 6 inch sheet of student grade watercolor paper. I have students start with this type of paper because it eliminated fear of failure. You can throw it away if you feel like you messed up! Note however, water tends to stand on top of this type of paper, so use less water if you get puddles.

Simple line drawing
Gradient sky and distant mountain in place

I have provided a simplified outline from a photo of the Smokey Mountains from the National Park Service. Allows check for copyright info. Government owned picture can be used because “we the people” own them. You may use my line drawing for a reference or you may download and trace it here. See the how-to explanation for that here.

The top wash is a gradient wash. I used Cobalt Blue for the color. You may use any color of blue you have. You might want to test out your saturation level on a scrap of paper before you start. Paint from the top of the sky down using more water to pigment as you go.

Allow your sky to dry and then fill in the rolling hill shapes one by one allowing them to dry in-between. If you touch a wet area with a loaded brush the paint will bleed into the wet area.

Keep adding gradually darker foothills
Smokey Finished
Smokey Mountains finished

Add more pigment to your wash to make it darker. As I worked towards the bottoms of the hills I switched to Ultramarine Blue because it is a darker color that works well with Cobalt Blue. Also, the very dark hill in the front right has three layers of Ultramarine Blue. The foothill to the front right has two layers of wash. Each layer darkens the color.

I hope you find this helpful. If you don’t think you want to learn how to paint in watercolors, but know someone who does, feel free to share this article with them. Also, below are links to other similar articles I have written for the blog.

Related Article

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Biz News

This week The Valentine’s Day Gift Shop went live. There are 10 different small creative businesses collaborating together. The Valentine’s Day Gift Shop is like a virtual marketplace or gift show. Instead of setting up booths and displaying our creations for a weekend, we have gathered online. And because we are online we are able to come together from all over the United States. The event runs for a month, Monday, January 18, 2021 through Saturday, February 20, 2021.
What you will find in the Valentine’s Day Gift Shop are samples of our art and gifts with links that lead to our individual shops. Some of us are on Etsy and some of us have our own websites. Then, some like myself, have both. Each shop is individually owned and operated. Visit our shops to purchase items and see the full array of the gifts we offer. That is where you can find our shop policies, along with shipping and contact information.

* Definitions were obtained by a Google Search. Google looks for dictionary definitions for your search terms. If it finds any definitions, it shows those words as underlined links or includes a definition link in the statistics bar section of the results page (located below the search box showing your query).

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