Thursday, March 24, 2011

Technique: Watercolors

Everyone has used watercolors--it is usually the first paint that parents introduce to their children because it is inexpensive and so easy to clean up. Children are often content to mix and experiment on their own and churn out hundreds of watercolor paintings!

But if your little artist is looking for something new to try, check out the following tutorial for eight different ways to use watercolors. All of them are pretty basic, but can be combined to add textures and interest to a plain old painting!

An example of wax resist

Supplies Needed (for each painter):
  • 1 piece of watercolor paper (I used 9"x12" Strathmore cold press watercolor paper from a pad)
  • 1 piece of heavy cardboard or foamcore board slightly larger than your watercolor paper
  • Masking tape
  • Pencil and eraser
  • 1 tray watercolors (I use Prang brand watercolors with my students--the colors are better quality than the dollar store/kid brands, 2 children can share a tray if necessary)
  • Water cup with water
  • Watercolor brush (The one that comes with the Prang set is fine, but don't use one from a cheap set, they are made of nylon and the results will be poor).
  • Ruler
  • Sharpie or other permanent marker
  • A drinking straw
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic wrap
  • Table salt in a cup or shaker
  • Crayons (I like Crayola brand)
  • Colored Pencils (Crayola brand or other good quality)
 Basic Rules:

Read through the instructions BEFORE you start.
Gather all supplies BEFORE you start.
Be respectful & gentle. Good quality art supplies cost money, but they will last a long time if you treat them well.

I then give a quick talk about using the supplies properly. I show the children how to make paint by gently dipping their brushes and putting a small amount of water into the tray. I say, "we aren't making mashed potatoes or scrubbing a pot!" We have to be gentle with the brushes.

I also remind them what a paint tray looks like after a 2-year-old is done painting: all messy and black.  Between color changes, artists need to gently wash their paintbrushes in water (if it gets really dirty--get some fresh water!) and dab them on a paper towel.

OK, let's go!


1. Begin by taping your watercolor paper onto the stiff cardboard. This will prevent your paper from curling and buckling. Use long strips to tape around all four edges, about 1/4" border.

2. With the ruler and pencil, divide your watercolor paper into eight sections. I like to leave a little space between the eight boxes because if you are working on one square and your wet paintbrush touches another wet square, the paint will bleed together.

DID YOU KNOW? You can lightly sketch on watercolor paper using a pencil and once the watercolor paint is dry you can erase without harming the painting! Just draw lightly and use a good quality eraser to gently remove the pencil lines once the paint is completely dry.

Eight rectangles separated by a little space so they don't bleed into one another while we work (no need to be too precise here, since this is just for practice).

In the first square, we'll be practicing dry brush technique. The paper should be dry. Wet your brush and take a bit of the water and put it in the watercolor tray so that it softens up the dried color and makes some paint for you to use. Rinse your brush and dab it off gently. Now you can dip your cleaned and dried brush in the paint tray and brush it on the dry paper. See how the color is concentrated? Notice how the bristles of the brush can sometimes be seen? If you want to use this brushstroke on top of a base layer of paint, you need to wait until the base layer is completely dry.

In the second square, we're going to have some fun! In this square you can use plain water on your brush and wet the whole square. While the square is wet, add some wet splotches of color. You can use one color if you'd like, but it is fun to add additional colors and watch them blend on their own. This is wonderful for making oceans and sunsets--they almost look like tie-dyed shirts or the fur of an animal! You can try dripping a drop of plain water onto the wet on wet painting you've created-notice how the plain water pushes aside the colors? Try dabbing a bit up with your paper towel--this removes the color. This way of removing some of the paint with a towel is great for making clouds (or if you make a mistake and you paint something too dark!).

Combining techniques: for this cloud-like painting, I painted the background using the wet on wet technique and dabbed the painting with my paper towel to remove some of the color making a cloud-like shape. Once dry, I used the dry brush technique to paint in rain (you could also use colored pencils for the rain lines).

This is my favorite! In the third box, use your pencil to sketch a simple drawing. Then go over your pencil lines with a permanent marker. Now it looks like a cartoon or a coloring book page! Use watercolor to fill in the drawing. But watch out! If you touch an area with your paintbrush that is still wet, your sections could bleed into one another and that might not be what you want. When you are filling in the areas of a piece done this way, you can take breaks to let each section dry before you paint the ones next to it.

OK, also one of my favorites! In this box, you'll want to do a simple shape with watercolor: I chose to make a leaf shape. Once that is dry, add details and texture with colored pencils. I use this technique all the time in my own work. In my example, I painted two leaves and then finished one so that you could see what the colored pencil does. I also added the background in colored pencil. This technique also takes some patience. You must let the paint dry thoroughly before you do the pencil or it will scrape the paint and damage the paper.

The leaf on the right is what I started with. The leaf on the left shows the addition of pencil lines.

In this square, you can make magic! Using crayons, draw some simple shapes in this square. You should use firm pressure, but don't push so hard you break the crayon! Experiment with different colors of crayon: white, blue, red, etc. Once you've finished your shapes, paint a nice wet, watercolor wash in the square-even over the crayon marks! The paint won't stick to the crayon marks! This is wonderful for stars and bubbles and all sorts of great pictures! Experiment with different colors of crayon as well as different colors and values of paint. What happens with a light color of paint? What about a dark color?

Fill the entire square with paint just like you did with the wet on wet square. While it is still wet, sprinkle the paint with table salt. Don't touch! You'll need to leave this overnight until it is completely dry. This makes little sparkles or stars in the paint. It's a great technique to use when painting water or sky. When it's dry, the salt just brushes off.

Fill the entire square with paint just like you did with the wet on wet square. While it is still wet, place a piece of plastic wrap on the square, crumpling it slightly and pressing it gently into the paint. Don't touch! You'll need to leave this overnight until it is completely dry. This makes little sections of color in the paint. The texture of this is interesting and could be used for rocks or in when painting water. Once dry, the plastic wrap peels off and you can throw it away or wash it and reuse it for another painting.

This one is fun! Get your paint brush very wet with paint and touch the tip of the brush very gently to the dry paper. There should be a rounded drop of paint on the paper. If not, use more water. Once you get a rounded drop on the paper, gently blow through a drinking straw to move the drop around. It's fun to try to control where the paint will go! In one book I have, the artists use this technique to make trees. They look like craggly apple trees! When you are blowing through the straw, take your time and don't blow too hard. Take a break so you don't get dizzy!

To illustrate these techniques, I first did this project at home then did the project along with the students. It seemed to help the children to understand what we were doing if I said, "next we'll be doing this square." Then I showed them how to do it.

While they were practicing a technique, we would talk about what we could use that technique for (such as, "this would make a good rock wall" or "that would look really nice if you were making a starry night sky").

I had the following book on hand: "The Usborne Book of Art Skills" is a wonderful resource for older students (maybe middle school age) and showcases a variety of techniques. I was able to point out many of the things we were practicing. It was helpful for the children to actually see these techniques in use.

This lesson took the entire hour with my class, so the children and I have decided to have a second watercolor class where we will use these techniques to create underwater creatures in their habitats (maybe like the Loch Ness Monster?). They are all very excited about it--I think I need to run out and get more watercolor paper!


  1. Thank you for all of your great ideas!

    1. Glad to share! I hope you enjoy! Thank you so much for stopping by!


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