How to boost your watercolors using the simple 3-step wash technique

SUMMARY: The thought of painting in layers, in a series of "watercolor washes" can feel overwhelming, but there's a simple way to approach it.

Sometimes the thought of painting in layers or "watercolor washes," can feel overwhelming... 

Or even obnoxious! 

I often wish I could just pick up my brush and have fun painting without having to think about it like a puzzle. 

But while beautiful paintings can happen in myriad ways, planning your watercolor washes will increase your chances of success.

3 reasons why you should use watercolor washes

  1. It ensures that you leave some of the white of the paper to shine through
  2. It allows you to make the best use of the beautiful transparent qualities of your paint
  3. It helps create a painting that has a full value range - from whites to darks. 

In the video below, Arts of Course Instructor Jess Rice shows how simple the 3-wash technique is:

Rough Video Transcript

Today. I will show you how to plan your washes. I'm Jess Rice. I'm an art teacher, and beginners are my specialty.

One of the ways that I paint watercolors is using a three-wash process. I use the first wash to occupy all the space on my paper, create lots of light. I use brilliant colors. I usually work wet onto wet. I like to see all those colors bleeding together, mixing together, doing all sorts of fun things on the paper.

It's one of the fun things about watercolor is watching the watercolor mix with each other because it all reacts differently to each other depending on the colors use, the brand you use. But it's always interesting to watch. So, first wash I'm just floating nice color out there. I usually let that dry and then I'll come back in and put an image on it. 

I also like to leave lots of whites showing through. I can use those to my advantage as I paint along. They let lots of light show through. I can also put true color on to there. I can put blues and reds right onto there. That'll be much brighter in on my second wash. 

Second wash is where I start defining shapes a little bit more. I started finding the pears, cutting them apart. Doing a second wash on some areas just a defined areas in the leaf. Adding shadows, so, light direction. Just a little bit more detail so the viewer has a little bit more idea of what's going on. So first, wash very loose. Lots of light in it. Second wash, I start defining a little bit more and adding shapes to it.

So in this one, if I break it down, this is probably my first wash back here. And then I added some of the slight yellow in here. This is probably my first wash in some of these areas, the lightest color in here. Second wash is these purples and the drop shadow and the line down here. I've gone back over that original wash and done a second wash over the top of it. But you can still see some of my first wash showing through the real light areas on my pear here.

Out on this edge where the light's hitting out here is usually my first wash. Second wash is usually creating shadows and things and defining shapes a little bit more. 

Third wash is usually where I add the punch and it's where I really want to add a lot of my darks. On the sheep, the nose and the eyebrows in this area are my initial wash, so I floated a nice wash in there, a little bit of blue, some of this nice brownish color in here.

Floated my first wash on that. Kept it all nice and light and then I came in with this darker brown color as my second wash starting to cut out things define the ears above and below. Start defining the eyes a little bit more so a little bit more definition in my second wash. 

And then the third wash I come in with the real darks and come up against things defining things even more. Just making colors punch a little bit more, bringing things out, especially in animals eyes. Things like that. All along down here, cutting things out just a little bit more punch all around my painting. 

So, that's the 3-wash process: 

  • First wash getting everything occupied, getting lots of color on there. 
  • Second wash defining areas, and 
  • Third wash just adding a little bit of punch to your paintings.

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Categories: : Watercolor Techniques, Watercolor tips