Advanced Watercolor Techniques (Part 2): In-Studio Techniques

  • by Ania Marcos

“With watercolor you can break it down in two scenarios: painting in-studio or plein air. If you’re working in-studio you can choose to use any technique you want, since you don’t have time constraints.”

- Erwin Lian

Watercolor is a world in itself. There are a lot of specific terms, techniques, and opinions on what you can and can’t do. Just getting started feels overwhelming sometimes.

In our latest blog post, Erwin and I discussed the difference between student and artist grade materials, the anatomy of good watercolor paper, and when (and why) skills aren’t everything.

Today we’re focusing on terms, tips and techniques best suited for in-studio painting.

… but if your thing is plein-air, then keep reading because we want to address your questions on the next and final part of this blog series!

Join us today as we discuss:

  • Watercolor technique terminology,
  • Techniques that rely heavily on quality materials,
  • Erwin’s secrets for smooth washes, pigment lifting and more!

Ready to dive in?

- Ânia Marcos, artist and Branding & Marketing Manager for Etchr Lab

[Below: art by Erwin Lian.]

What’s the secret to a smooth, flat wash?

A flat wash is when you have no gradation (gradation is making a gradient from light to dark).

To have a smooth flat wash, you need to ensure that there's an even distribution of your pigment across the wet surface. For large surfaces, use a bigger brush prolong the moisture on a surface, you can mist the paper with a spray.

...on the other hand, if you keep adding water and pigment as you go, the result will be uneven paint and wash.

Most people don’t trust watercolor enough to let the pigment settle on its own, and then blame the materials. Instead of overworking an applied surface, they should leave it alone and let good materials do the rest of the work.

[Below: a flat wash.]

[Below: a graded wash.]

What are the best ways to add gradation to a wash?

You can do it using two different techniques that wield different results: wet on wet and wet on dry.

[Below: wet on wet.]

[Below: wet on dry: soft and hard edges.]


Wet on wet refers to applying a colour or more within the same wet wash (wet surface on the paper). Wet on dry is the opposite: applying a wet stroke on dry paper (or on pigment that has already dried on the paper).

You can easily achieve gradation by using wet on dry and slowly building it up. Wet on dry is easier because you can still control soft vs hard edges with precision.

With wet on wet you don’t have a lot of control. The water is not really controllable and you lose precision. However, it allows you to create really nice soft edges, since the colours blend in together smoothly.

[Below: Erwin's painting.]

In short, both techniques provide different effects, and it’s up to you to choose which result you’re aiming for.

You don’t really have to do a lot of work if you have good materials. But if you have bad materials, you’ll be fighting your way into the painting...

The best washes are done when you don’t paint too much. This is when good paper can really help.

[Below: Community member Kaitlin McCloud doing a colourful wet on wet gradation on our paper swatches.]

How do you lift the pigment from paper?

Lifting pigment is simply removing watercolour from the paper surface. I usually do this by applying some water to the area I want to lift, and then gently scrubbing it with a brush. You can use a lot of different materials to achieve this, but it’s usually done with cheaper brushes (just so you don’t ruin your expensive ones).

More important than the exact technique you choose to lift the pigment, there are three things to keep in mind before attempting to lift the pigment off the paper: the kind of pigment, paper, and brush you have.

The most important of all is the pigment.

First, you need to figure out if the pigment is staining, and if so, how staining is it? Some pigments are extremely staining, so no matter what you do, you simply can’t lift them. To explain, each manufacturer should give a staining rating about the pigments they produce (if it’s an artist grade pigment, of course). Within the same range of colours in the same brand, some pigments are very staining while others… not so much.

When choosing your brush, you need to make sure it’s not too soft, nor too hard. A super soft brush won’t lift a thing, and a very hard bristle brush will just damage the paper. You need something in between.

If you understand how water works, you also get how much a brush absorbs it. Water will always travel from wet to moist, but it will never travel from wet to dry. This means the brush needs to be slightly moist, but it can’t be wetter than the paper.

Then, you have the paper. Different paper requires different needs. We covered this a bit on our previous blog post, but I recommend 100% cotton, thick paper like our Sketchbooks.

Of course, even 100% cotton paper can disintegrate if you push it very far, but it’s definitely the most resistant paper you can get.

[Below: Pigment lifting. In order to lift the pigment from our 100% cotton Perfect Sketchbook, I applied water over the dried area I wanted to lift, and gently scrubbed the pigment off.]

How do you build up layers and keep them clean and nice?

When building up layers in watercolour, you always go from light to dark. It’s just a matter if you’re confident enough to do gradation within one layer (one wash). If you are, you’ll be able to move faster, since you can achieve much more with just one layer.

...if not, you can just slowly build it up with darker layers.

At the risk of repeating myself, when working in watercolor you have to trust in the money you spent on quality paper and pigment. They will do the work for you, for the most part. The best watercolour should be very effortless.

If the colours aren’t building up as they should, then maybe you didn’t use good quality pigments.

The effort should be on the designing the light/dark structure or establishing the vision for your painting, instead of fighting your supplies.

[Below: Erwin's painting is filled with beautiful layered washes. I circled one out but take a moment to see how many he made. Were they wet on wet, or wet on dry?]

Community Questions:

Lutra: How do you keep watercolours vibrant and airy when having to do dark colours? Perhaps over multiple layers? I find mine look quite flat even if the colour is right?

[Below: Lutra's painting and reference:]

I don’t think the issue with this painting is in the darker colours… It looks like an issue with contrast. The reference itself doesn’t have a lot of contrast either, so it’s a tough piece to do!

You picked the colors well for the most part, but the red seems not as brilliant. That’s happening because it’s mixed with another color. Try laying with the warm color first before introducing any cooler colors in later washes.

Looking forward to seeing how a new painting turns out if you make these tweaks!

Cindy: Sometimes my paintings feel more 'layered' rather than natural. I would like to learn how to make the contrasts more subtle.

[Below: Cindy's painting:]

This is a tough one… hard to answer with words alone. It seems to me the question is more of a stylisation issue than anything else. The paintings are gorgeous!

I do understand the question about when to charge the pigment in the painting. You’re trying to do a wet on wet. You want the shadow shapes to settle softly instead of hard. But when you do that, it seems to me that you’re not fully confident on when to drop in the pigment.

It’s a tough balance: if you do it when the paint is very wet, the pigment goes crazy. If it’s too dry, it gets the overlay effect you don’t want.

...but if it’s semi-wet, it’s easier to control.

[Below: a simple test where the blue pigment was added to a wet orange wash at different times, as indicated on the image:]

There’s no definite answer, but the key is to try multiple times with different levels of moisture on the paper until you understand the response of pigment at various moisture levels. It’s not just about adding the pigment. It’s also about anticipating how much the pigment will spread and the kind of edges it will form with various levels of moisture on the paper.

It just takes a lot of experimentation (unless we were doing an in person workshop, where I could show you how to work the pigment on the paper).

I hope this helps a bit!

[Below: Erwin's painting. Notice how the spots on the feline's fur blend differently, depending on how moist the paper was when adding the pigment.]

What are your plein air questions?

As you can see, there are a multitude of things to keep in mind when doing watercolor techniques, and it’s not a binary approach.

What do you think?

...and if you’re more of a plein air painter, is there anything you’d like Erwin to address in the next blog post?

Please join the conversation in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!


PS: Would you like to try our paper before committing to a sketchbook bundle? Check our paper swatches out, like Kaitlin did! :)


Tagged with: Art Tips Watercolour

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