How to Layer Watercolors (Everything to Know)

how to layer watercolors

Layering is a basic watercolor technique that you’ll use in most of your paintings. However, it can be confusing if you’re just starting out! In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know on how to layer watercolors.

Lets get started…

What is layering?

In watercolor, layering, also referred to as glazing, is a technique where you apply a wet wash on top of a dried wash two or more times to develop your painting. This action creates a build-up of layers that help add depth and value and can alter the intensity of color.

Using the layering technique takes up a lot of time because you have to wait for the previous layers to fully dry. However, it can make a huge difference in creating successful paintings!

What are the effects of layering technique?

Layering allows you to modify colors in your painting. For example, if you add a layer of blue over yellow, it will turn green. Some artists add a final wash over their finished painting to change its overall tone. 

However, layering too many different colors on top of each other, especially complementaries and all three primaries may cause your painting to turn muddy. It’s always a good idea to test your colors out beforehand using a watercolor glazing chart.

The second effect of layering is adding depth to your painting! You can transform flat shapes to have a 3D look by adjusting the value of the shape using layering. For example, if you add a second layer that is the same color as the previous layer, it will become darker in value.

The third effect of layering is reducing the intensity of a color by layering a complementary color on top.

Finally, layering is an excellent technique for adding fine details to your work. 

How to layer watercolors step by step:

To layer your painting, start by adding the first wash which is usually the background or outline of the bigger shapes. Allow the paint to dry completely before adding the next layers. To darken the value of a color through layering, add another layer of the same color to the first. Begin with the lighter values first and add the darker values as you apply more layers. 

Adding darker values through layering

To darken the value of color through glazing, add another layer with a concentrated mix of the same color on top of the previous layer. You can also add a different color with a darker value. How dark the next layer will be, depends on the value of the color you’re adding and how diluted the mixture is.

how to use layers in watercolor to darken the value of a color

How to mute colors with layering

You can always mute (or reduce the intensity) a dried layer by painting its complementary color on top. Complementary colors are positioned on opposite sides of the color wheel and when mixed form neutral colors. Here’s how:

  1.  Paint the first layer and let it dry completely with any color of your choice.
  2. Add a second layer with the complementary color of the first layer.
how to reduce the intensity of a color using the layering technique

How to make new colors with layering

Layering two different colors on top of each other will produce a new color. For example, adding a layer of yellow on top of blue will cause it to turn green. Here’s an example:

  1.  Paint a new layer with any color of your choosing.
  2. Allow it to dry completely
  3. Choose a different color and layer it on top of the first. Don’t cover the entire first layer so that you can see the difference.
  4. Allow it to dry and see the final results!
how to create a new color by layering in watercolor

Adding a new layer and blending it out

You can add a new layer and blend it out to create a dark-to-light gradient. This also helps produce form within your painting. Here’s how:

  1. To do this paint your first layer like normal and let it dry completely.
  2. Choose any color you like and paint your second color on top, Notice how I’m using a mixture with more paint and less water.
  3. Clean your brush and blend out the paint to create a gradient.
  4. Let it dry and there you go!

Be sure to check out my article on how to blend watercolors to learn more.
How to create gradual layers in watercolor

Using transparent paints when layering

Transparent colors work better when it comes to layering. This is because the layers can be seen through clearly and create a luminous effect that watercolors are so famous for.

Glazing charts

Glazing charts are a way to test how your different colors look when glazed on top of each other. I have written an article on how to create a watercolor glazing chart if you are interested in learning more. 


Does layering watercolor make it darker?

Yes, adding multiple layers of paint on top of each other will result in darker values. Adding a color of darker value ontop of a color that has a lighter value also darkens the color. 

How many layers are too many in watercolor?

Roughly between 5 and seven layers maximum should be enough before the painting becomes dull or muddy. However, it also depends on what colors you are using in each layer. For example, layering the same color multiple times will only darken the value but won’t dull or mute the painting. In that case you’ll be able to get away with more layers.

How do you layer watercolors without them bleeding?

When layering in watercolor, always make sure the previous layer has had enough time to completely dry. If you’re adding a wet layer on a dry one, use a large soft brush (mop or flat brush), that way you can cover a larger surface without disturbing the previous layer.

Do you have to layer watercolor?

No, layering is a technique you can use to create depth, alter the values of a painting, and more. However, it is not 100% necessary to use in every painting. It also depends on what the subject of your painting is.

Can you use the layering technique to mute a color?

Adding a new layer that is a complementary color of the previous layer will help reduce the intensity and mute the previous color. 

Is layering the same as glazing?

Yes, glazing is another word for layering and they both involve adding multiple layers of paint to create depth and value and altering color.

Can you layer over a finished watercolor painting?

Yes you can. Some watercolor artists use this as a technique to change the overall tone of the painting. For example, painting a diluted wash of yellow over a finished landcape painting can create a warm tone. The tricky thing with this technique is not creating muddy colors by adding too many complementaries. 

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