Beginner Art · Painting · Painting Techniques · Watercolours

What are Washes?

Washes are a term that refers to a very watery paint mix used in watercolour painting.  Washes are how watercolours are traditionally used, in a light way with layers of washes used to build up colour.  The white of the paper is often used for highlighted areas.   Not all watercolour painters use the paint in this way but it is what watercolours are best known for.

Paper and Washes 

Washes will vary in how they look depending on the quality of the paper and how they are applied.  You can use the texture of rough paper to influence the look of a wash, using the grain of the paper. Washes contain lots of water so your watercolour paper needs to be absorbent enough to cope.  Watercolor paper is essential if you are using watercolour washes, any other paper will buckle and won’t give you the best results.

Tip:  If you are looking to achieve a flat wash, moisten the paper first before applying the wash and it will spread evenly over the moist paper.

Lets explore a few characteristics of washes in Watercolor:



When you apply wet wash on wet wash (wet on wet) they will blend into one another creating these really nice areas called ‘bleeds’.  Below we can see the two green washes bleeding into one another and creating a interesting result.

Wet washes on rough paper
Wet washes on rough paper

‘Cauliflower’ Effect 

This happens when water (or wetter paint) is added to a semi-dry area of paint. The effect, looks like the head of a cauliflower.  Sometimes this effect is desirable, I think it looks nice and adds interest and texture.  Sometimes it is not what you want, then you can either go in with a wet brush and soften the edges when it is still wet or wait until it dries.  Once dry the ‘cabbaging’ is dry it is harder to remove but it can be softened with a wet brush.

‘Cabbaging’ – wavy lines where wet paint meets another wet area of paint that is semi dry

Hard Edges 

Watercolour washes often dry to a ‘hard edge’.   What this means is a darker line a bit like an outline is created as the pigment pools to the edges due to the water tension.  We can see it in the sample below with the hill/mountain – the area of darker blue.  Most of the time this is desirable but if it isn’t you will need to soften your edges with a wet brush while the paint is still wet.

Hard edges around the hills and 'cabbaging' effect in the sea
Hard edges around the hills and ‘cabbaging’ effect in the sea

Dry Brush

Above we can see washes being used in a much more controlled way, in a small area to create the petals.  The hard edges of the wash create the darker edges of the petals (which was desirable).  The flower has then been worked on in a dry-brush technique for the detail. The paper used is smooth hot-pressed paper which doesn’t have a grain and is ideal for detailed painting.

Watercolour washes on smooth paper
Watercolour washes on smooth paper

Wash Techniques 

Once the wash is applied it can be manipulated while still wet.  The art of washes is a whole area of watercolour painting and it can take lots of skill to use washes in the way you would like.

The nature of the wash is that it is unpredictable, many like this about this way of working and some ‘happy accidents’ can happen with washes.  However with experience you will learn a bit more about manipulating the washes.

There are many techniques you can use with wet washes here are a few to get you started:

Dropping opaque watercolour into a wash
Dropping opaque watercolour into a wet wash

Above we see the result of dropping in watercolour thickly from a loaded brush into a wash.  Here is works well because of the contrasting colours.  See how the yellow paint which started as a dot moves out and creates these interesting bleeds in the blue wash, radiating out.

Sponging off
Lifting off with a sponge

There are may techniques around removing pigment known as ‘lifting off’.  This is one such technique using a sponge.  A soft sponge is used to remove pigment above from a dark grey wash to create the look of clouds.

Washing off 

If a wash is not successful you can wash the whole thing off if your paper is thick enough and is watercolour paper suited to this job.  Sometimes some of the pigments remains in the grooves or ‘tooth’ of grainy  papers.  Some artists like this effect because when you apply a new wash in a different colour or shade bits of the ‘old’ wash show through giving a grainy texture.

You can wash off using cold water under a tap if you are very careful and if you can get to the part of the painting you need.  You have to run the tap very slowly in a careful way.  Alternatively you can use a sponge.  Cold water is best, warm water can remove parts of the surface of the paper.

Washes can be manipulated
Washes can be manipulated

Above we see wet washes in many colours and some areas have been sponged. Another trick is to let wet washes slide down the paper by holding up your drawing board so it runs down.

Washes are really fun and there is so much you can do with them.  It is well worth experimenting and seeing what results you can get!

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