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Watercolor Exercises to Help Build Your Skills

Watercolor Exercises to Help Build Your Skills main article image
Posted on August 16, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby
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Whether you are new to watercolor and want to pick up some basic skills or if you’re looking to hone in and refocus on some techniques, it doesn’t hurt to work on improving your existing skill set. Below are some exercises to try out that will help you control watercolor and discover why things can go wrong and how to fix them. The exercises cover creating smooth swatches of consistent color to mastering gradients. Let’s get to it!

Setting Up

To start out, take a sheet of watercolor paper for practice. Since you are creating practice swatches, you can fold the paper so you have workable squares or cut the paper into swatch cards. If you are keeping the entire sheet and folding it, when you work with the paint, keep some white around the edges so your paint doesn’t bleed into the next square.

The methods below showcase wet and dry versions of each exercise that suit their own purpose in creating the best watercolor painting you can paint. 

Flat Wash

When making a flat wash, you are creating a swatch of continuous solid color on paper. If you’ve noticed in the past that working on filling in a space with solid color ends up looking like you have splotches or watermarks, this usually happens because the color started to dry before you finished working on the entire area. The pigment and water dry and leave a hardened edge that is hard to smooth out again with water. Another reason could be the difference between the paint and water ratio, hence any lightened watermarks that appear on the paper. To solve this, keep the ratio of water to paint even and work swiftly enough that the paint doesn’t dry while you are working. There are two methods to work this out, wet flat wash and dry flat wash.

Wet Flat Wash

A wet flat wash is a great technique for a large area of solid color. This is a process of wetting the area of paper first before paint touches it. Make sure the wetness is even on the paper, no puddles! The paper should look shiny. Take your color and mix it with water – about 80% color to 20% water. Apply the paint at the top of the paper and work your way down with strokes running in the same direction.

Dry Flat Wash

The dry technique involves putting the color straight onto dry paper. This works for smaller areas of the painting as you would start out by wetting the brush and mixing it with paint, then making a colored puddle on a pallet that will be enough to paint the area. Strive for a 75% paint to 25% water ratio. When painting, apply even pressure and paint strokes in the same direction. 

Wet on Wet

This technique consists of applying watercolor over a watercolored area that is still wet. Wet on wet watercolor painting is used to create a blurry field of flowers, or clouds in the sky, or to capture all the bright spectrum of colors during a sunset. 

Start out with wet paper and apply the first color. As soon as you finish, apply another color on top of that. The second color will bleed into the first color. 

You can do a dry version of this by not wetting the paper first and when you add the second color, it is to be applied near the first color. The colors will touch and bleed into each other. 

Gradient

To make a gradient, water is used to dilute the color. As you continuously paint your way down a wet surface, the color will weaken. Work with an 80% paint, and 20% water ratio. For a dry version, this is again for a smaller workable area in the painting. Begin to paint with the same 80/20 ratio and, as you continue to work down the paper, dip the brush into water to dilute the color. 

Two Colors

Similar to a wet-on-wet technique, you will be painting with two colors by creating gradients and blending them together. Wet the entire paper and start with one color, painting with the same strokes and adding water to create a gradient. After you finish the first gradient, choose a second color and repeat the same steps, except start from the bottom of the paper and work your way to the middle. 

The dry version involves the same steps as the gradient version. Work one color down the page from the top and the second color from the bottom. 

Try this technique when you have a large area of two colors blending together.

White Gradient

This is the same technique as using the dry version of working with two colors. This time, you’re working with one color and white. The white will make a pastel version of the main color.

Glazing

Glazing involves layering colors on top of each other after they have dried. Watercolors are naturally transparent paint for this will result in a glass-like look.

Mix the 80/20 ratio of your chosen watercolor paint. Apply the paint in an abstract manner—paint stripes, squiggles, or random shapes. Wait for the paint to dry. Mix up a second color and create more abstract shapes and lines in the opposite direction so you can see the differences between the colors. 

If the first color doesn’t fully dry, you’ll notice the colors start to bleed and blend into each other. So if want to continue, make sure each color fully dries and you can go a couple more rounds in different colors to see the entire effect at work. 

You can also make a gradient look with the glazing technique, and use the same color or a similar shade to darken areas on a painting. With glazing, if you want to achieve a darker color, keep the paint-and-dry process going until you’re happy with the final result. 

Give these a try and work them into your own paintings to see how your work compares now to before!


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