Watercolour is perhaps some of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding art mediums to work with. With practice one can achieve smooth flat washes or beautiful smooth gradients, but there are fun ways to spice up your work even without lots of hours put in practice!
The effects shown here can be used in a myriad of ways: whether it’s to spice up a background or to create some fun structures in a piece–the sky's the limit.
Grab your sketchbook and let’s get started with a material most of us have in the kitchen: salt! The effect salt gives can look like how frost forms on glass, or certain cloud formations. You can use this for many effects!
To get this effect, you need to lay down a wash of colour first, and then add your salt over in the areas you want the effect to take place. When the piece is dryer than damp but not completely dry, gently brush the salt off.
Small grains of salt
There are some important things to note: firstly, different sizes of salt crystals give differently sized effects, so keep that in mind when you’re trying to determine what salt to use.
Secondly, do not use a hairdryer to hasten the drying process. You can risk melting the salt into your paper, and thus making it impossible to remove.
Lastly, if you wait until the piece is fully dry before brushing the salt, there is a chance that the salt will also have fused into the paper. Smaller salt crystals are more likely to fuse to paper, so make sure to be careful!
Large salt crystals
Another way to use salt with watercolours is to make brine or saltwater! There are two ways to get some fun effects with this. The first is by dropping saltwater onto a wet wash, and the second is laying down a wash of saltwater and dropping paint onto it.
Salt water onto paint
Dropping saltwater on a wet wash will cause some clear cauliflowering to happen consistently, while dropping paint onto a saltwater wash will let the paint spread more. The latter of the two makes for a nice way to give water that “watery” effect.
Paint on salt water
Important note: use a cheap brush for laying down the saltwater, don’t leave your brush in the saltwater and please don’t forget to wash your brushes well after! You don’t want the salt water to ruin a good brush.
The next one up is alcohol. Now, alcohol definitely has a more defined shape compared to salt when used, but it’s great for some underwater or biological-type effects.
Starting this off is the same as with the salt preparation, and simply lay a wash of colour. After that, simply apply alcohol in drops onto the wet paint and let it dry. You can also use a spray bottle to spritz some alcohol with a finer mist.
Alcohol drops onto paint
Alcohol spritz and drops
There are no special notes to mention with alcohol, simply have fun and experiment with different ways to put it on paper (like with a toothbrush, the way one would use when putting stars on galaxy images).
In the images here I used a spritzer bottle to have a spray of alcohol on the wash, and you can see it’s a lot more “messy” than the other image where I simply used drops.
Keeping with the wet mediums, the next one is interesting: soapy water! Note: when making your soapy water, I recommend using dishwashing liquid and gently mixing the two so that you’re making soapy water without the foam and the suds (although that in itself will also add bubble-like patterns on a wet wash, if that’s your jam).
Just like with the saltwater you can drop the soapy water in a wash of paint or vice versa! Soapy water on a wash will push pigments away from itself -- and it’s even possible to completely push the paint to leave a clean spot in the wash.
Placing paint in a soapy water wash will keep pigments from flowing too much, keeping the paint drops smaller than then normally would with just water.
Be careful not to lay your soap water wash too vigorously on the paper or you’ll cause suds to happen. On the plus side, your piece will smell nice while the piece is wet.
Soap water on paint
Paint on soap water
Now we move on to the “dry” instruments we can use for effect. With these materials we will always start with a wet wash of colour. The first one up is a material already commonly used with watercolours: tissues!
Most of us use tissues for wiping brushes and mistakes, but they’re also perfect for making nice, fluffy clouds! Just start with a wash of colour on your paper of choice, then, after deciding where your fluffy shapes will go, dab gently with the tissue until you’re satisfied. (Check this article out if you want to learn more about painting clouds!)
Make sure to be careful and dab with clean areas of your tissue so as to not transfer any colour where you don’t want them to go.
I highly recommend layering a different colour over the first and repeating the tissue treatment. I think that this gives a wonderful fantastical feel to any piece. A fun idea to do is repeating the process with a different colour layered over the first wash.
You can really create a lot of depth with careful dabbing of that tissue. Just be careful of possible bits of tissue that might get torn and stuck to your piece, and remember to dab and not wipe.
Dabbed with tissue
The next material might seem a little strange, but it creates fun results. Plastic wrap is a fun way to add fun textures onto your piece. After making your wash, slightly crinkle your plastic wrap and place it atop the wash.
The more crinkled the wrap, the smaller the shapes and lines will be. If you leave the wrap on the piece for a little bit of time before taking it off, you’ll create some geometric shapes, some with speckles inside that remind me of natural crystals.
Now, if you simply dab the plastic wrap onto the wash, you’ll make some linear marks which resemble lightning! If you really crumple your plastic wrap you’ll make more clustered lines. Play with how you manoeuvre your plastic wrap to see what effects you’ll get.
Plastic wrap pressed down hard
Plastic wrap pressed down softly
And there you have it: some fun ways to add fun effects to your piece! Mix and match the effects to see what you get! The most important thing to remember is to have fun with it! Enjoy!