Watercolor Techniques Wet on Wet – How to get started

If you’re new to watercolors then wet on wet is one of the first watercolor techniques you’ll need to master.

This is because you’ll likely be using it for almost all your paintings.

The wet on wet technique can be used to create beautiful paintings that have a unique spontaneous look.

In this post, I’m going to dive in and explain this technique in depth!

Let’s get started…

Wet on wet technique watercolor

Related: Wet on dry watercolor technique

What is the wet on wet watercolor technique?

What is the watercolor wet on wet technique? The wet on wet technique is a simple watercolor technique that involves dropping wet paint on a wet background. This pigment bleeds creating soft edges, blooms and blends that are essential when painting all sorts of subjects.

As you paint wet into wet the pigment bleeds and becomes diluted, causing the wash to dry lighter.

Bleeding is the term used to describe when watercolor pigment spreads out and disperses through water.

There are so many different ways to work with the wet on wet technique.

You can wet the paper first, paint wet paint into wet paint, create unique textures, and combine it with all sorts of other techniques.

When to use the wet on wet technique

Let me start by saying there is no rule that limits you from using the wet on wet technique to any particular subject.

There are, however, times when the wet in wet technique is mostly used.

The first is to paint large backgrounds when you’re trying to establish an underpainting before adding the important details.

An example of this is painting the background of foliage, you might start with a light green background and then drop in some darker values here and there.

Another time to use the wet in wet technique is when you’re trying to paint soft edges.

An example of this could be painting the soft fur of an animal. Or perhaps you’re trying to paint something in the far distance of a landscape.

The wet on wet technique is very efficient when you’re trying to cover large areas of space and you’re establishing the larger shapes of your subject.

Materials required

You won’t need any fancy materials for this! You’re normal watercolor materials should be enough:

  • Paint: Any watercolor paint should do for this technique, you can also choose whatever color you like. I’m using colors from the Daniel Smith essential set.
  • Brushes: The size of the brush of the shape doesn’t matter when it comes to the wet on wet technique. As long as you’ve got a soft brush made specifically for watercolor painting you’re good to go!
  • Paper: Cold-pressed 300gsm paper should do for this! Don’t worry about getting 100% cotton paper as you’re starting out.

Here are some additional supplies to have with you in your workspace:

  • 2 jars of water– One jar to rinse your brush and one to load your brush with clear water
  • Paper towel: To remove excess moisture and to clean off leftover pigment
  • Masking tape– To secure your paper so that it doesn’t buckle
  • Board– Any flat surface to tape your paper to. This will allow you to lift your painting and guide the pigment in any direction. You can also tape it to your desk as well.

Regular paper won’t work for this technique. You’ll need to purchase paper made specifically for watercolor painting.

This is because watercolor paper is thicker and can handle water much better than other types of paper.

I won’t go into too much detail about watercolor paper but you can learn more in my article on how to buy watercolor paper.

How to work with the wet-on-wet technique?

There are several different ways you can use this technique! I’ll describe each of them in detail below:

Wetting the paper first

The most common way of using the wet on wet technique is by first wetting the paper with clean water.

You can use your brush, a sponge, or a spray bottle to do this.

You’ll have to make sure your paper is secured with tape so that it doesn’t buckle and warp as you add more moisture.

Once you wet the paper you can start adding in paint with your brush.

You’ll notice the paint starting to move and spread throughout the wet paper creating a soft fuzzy effect.

You can create all sorts of patterns with your brush!

When painting a simple sky I like to add soft blue streaks with my brush. If I’m painting heavy clouds I’ll paint them in a circular motion.

When painting foliage I add dabs and dots instead.

It all depends on what you’re painting and what effect you want to create.

One thing to keep in mind is that as the paint spreads, the pigment will become diluted and dry lighter in value. So it’s always best to adjust the ratio of paint to water accordingly.

Wet on wet dropping technique

Another way to use the wet on wet technique is by dropping one color into another and allowing them to mix on the paper.

This is great if you want to add darker values to your painting.

Just remember, if you have more paint and less water in your brush the paint will spread less.

You can use this to your advantage.

For example, if you want to add darker values to your wash but you don’t want it to cover the entire area, you can use more paint and less water.

The colors will still mix without compromising the soft edges. The image below shows an example where I used this method.

Sometimes when I’m painting the foliage in the background of a landscape painting, I will start with a wash of light green then drop some blue, or burnt sienna and let the colors mix.

Hard and soft edges wet on wet

Soft edges are super easy to achieve with the wet on wet technique.

The water does most of the work for you.

However, hard edges can be a little tricky.

You can leave some areas dry in between your wash where you want to create the hard edge.

Another method is by using the lifting technique, you’ll need to dampen your brush and remove the extra moisture. I do this by dabbing it on a paper towel.

Now that your brush is damp, it will absorb the water from your painting and lift the pigment leaving you with a hard or semi-hard edge.

You can also use a paper towel to lift the paint for more texture.

Another method to create soft and hard edges is by allowing water to touch a part of the outline of your subject.

For this method, you don’t paint on wet paper.

Instead, you lay your first wash then add a second wet area and allow the edges to touch.

Wet in wet watercolor runs

When painting wet on wet, you can change the direction that the pigment flows creating an interesting pattern.

This is known as creating a watercolor run, not to be confused with backrun (more on this later).

To achieve this technique you will need to tape your paper to a board or something similar with a flat surface. This way you can lift the painting while it is wet and direct the pigment.

I love using this technique when painting rain in the distance because it creates a long, subtle, and soft pattern that is difficult to replicate with a brush.

To work with this technique, wet the paper with clean water then drop in any color at the top. Lift the board and hold it at an angle where the pigment will move downwards.

Remember, the areas with more pigment will move in the direction towards areas with more moisture. However, once the paper dampens, the pigment particles begin to settle, and when you add water the

Backruns

What is a watercolor backrun? Backruns, also known as cauliflowers or blooms, are these textured effects created when you add water to a damp wash that’s close to drying. What happens is the pigment particles have settled and the sudden addition of water pushes the particles along the edge creating a bloom.

You can use intentional backruns when painting wet on wet to create beautiful textured paintings.

Start by painting a flat wash using any color of your choice. Allow the paint to dampen then add a few drops of water.

You’ll see an immediate reaction of the pigment moving to the edge of the water drop almost like a cauliflower.

Try experimenting with this technique by adding water using different patterns.

Accidental backruns can also happen if you’re a beginner, now that you know how they work you can use them to your advantage!

Watercolor washes using wet on wet technique

What is a watercolor wash? A watercolor wash is when you create a layer of paint over a large surface area, usually the background of your painting. There are three main types of watercolor washes: Flat wash, Graded Wash, and Variegated wash.

A flat wash is created when you paint a wash with an even layer of paint covering the area.

To paint a flat wash, wet the paper with clean water.

Try looking at the paper from the side, there should be a nice wet sheen (not too much or too little water), then with your brush add a color and spread it evenly.

A graded wash refers to when you paint a wash with a gradient from dark to light or vice versa.

When painting a graded wash, wet the paper with clean water.

Then, with your brush add any color to the top of the paper. Start painting from left to right and continue moving down the paper slowly.

As you keep painting the amount of pigment will naturally reduce. However, you can adjust the amount by rinsing and reloading the brush.

Varigated washes involve painting a layer with a soft transition between two or more colors.

To paint a variegated wash wet the paper with clean water and paint the first color on the top of the paper.

Rinse your brush then add the second color on the bottom of the paper.

You can lighten it towards the middle like a graded wash or paint it like a flat wash then blend the second color towards the middle.

The image below shows examples of each:

Watercolor Washes for watercolor practice exercises

I do teach more about painting watercolor washes in my free 3-day watercolor exercises for beginners.

You can sign up using the form at the end of the article.

How to blend with wet on-wet technique

Blending wet on wet is fairly simple.

The key is to use the right amount of moisture in your brush and on your paper.

To blend wet on set, start by wetting the paper with clean water.

Make sure there are no puddles, it should have a nice reflective sheen. If there are puddles, use a paper towel to lift them out.

You’ll then need to load your brush and start painting the area. To create a smooth blend, rinse your brush then remove the excess water and drag the pigment back and forth.

This will create a soft edge.

If you want to blend two colors, begin by wetting the paper and then adding the first color.

Next, you can do one of two things.

You can create a gradient by painting the first color dark to light then introducing the second color with a diluted mix.

Or you can paint the colors right next to each other by rinsing the brush then loading it with the second color and adding it next to the first.

The diagram below shows the process step by step so you can see what I mean:

Blending soft edges with wet on wet technique

Here you can see one more example of blending wet on wet:

Blending two colors with wet on wet watercolor technique

Watercolor blending technique

Different techniques using wet on wet

There are so many different effects you can create using the wet on wet technique! Especially when you combine it with other watercolor techniques…

Below are some examples of this:

Splattering wet into wet

Splattering is exactly how it sounds, you splatter wet paint into wet paper.

There are two ways to splatter wet on wet.

The first is by splattering a specific color into your wash and the second is by splattering clean water creating tiny blooms.

To splatter with color, start by mixing the color on your palette then load your brush with it. Then hold your brush a couple of inches above the area you want to splatter and tap on the handle.

The trick with splattering is to mix the color with the right consistency. To splatter tiny dots you’ll need to mix a thicker consistency of paint (more pigment and less water).

If you wish to splatter large dots, you’ll need to use a mixture with more moisture.

Just be careful with this, you don’t want to splatter into damp paper with a wet brush and cause accidental backruns.

I like to do a test by splattering on scrap paper first and then adjusting the mixture.

The second way to splatter is by using clean water. You can use your brush, a spray bottle, or even your hands to do this.

This time you’ll want to splatter when the paint is damp so it’ll create intentional backruns.

Splattering wet on wet with watercolor

Adding salt

Adding salt to wet paint is yet another wet on wet technique you can use to create texture!

When you add salt, it absorbs the moisture causing the pigment to shift.

As a result, you’ll see beautiful fuzzy textures.

Depending on how much moisture the paper has, the salt technique can yield different results.

In the image below you can what I mean by this. I did an experiment by adding salt where there was different amounts of moisture on the paper.

The first box shows the results when there was too much water (fully wet). The second when there was a nice even sheen and the third when the paper had very little water.

salt technique with different amounts of moisture

If you want to learn how much more you can do with salt then check out my article on the watercolor salt technique.

Scraping wet on wet

This wet on wet watercolor technique is excellent for creating interesting patterns that could be difficult to replicate with a brush.

You’ll need a tool such as a card with an edge (not too sharp), that will be used to scrape off wet paint.

To work this technique, paint a wet flat wash with any color of your choice.

While the paint is still wet, use the card to scrape sections of the paint off the paper.

I absolutely love using this technique to add texture when painting rocks. However, it does take some practice and works better on 100% cotton paper.

It can be very easy to damage the paper so keep that in mind.

Watercolor technique wet on wet dragging

Using different amounts of moisture

When painting wet on wet, you’ll notice different effects depending on how much moisture is on the paper vs. the amount of moisture in your brush.

For example, adding paint with a fully wet brush while the paint is damp will produce a backrun.

The general rule is that pigment will flow with the water.

The more moisture your paper has the more bleeding will occur. This means the pigment will spread further and dilute the paint mixture.

I always make sure to adjust the amount of pigment loaded in my brush according to this.

Only because the paint will dry lighter.

If the paper is damp and you add wet paint, this will cause a backrun. Unless you load your brush with less moisture and more pigment.

You’ll still get soft edges but there won’t be as much bleeding because of the lack of wetness.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of this, remember that it’s perfectly normal when you’re new.

It will take time to master knowing how much moisture to add to your paper and brush to achieve the desired effect.

This simple watercolor practice exercise will help you get the hang of it.

Tips for painting wet on wet

Here are a few more tips that will help you master the watercolor technique wet on wet:

  • Be mindful of how much moisture is on your paper. Knowing how much wetness there is in your brush and paper will give you insight into the correct timing
  • Let the paint do its thing: Don’t try too hard to control where and how the paint moves, there are times when you’ll have to step back from your painting and let the paint flow.
  • Practice. This is key if you want to improve. Remember to be patient with yourself and take your time to practice even if it’s for a few minutes at a time.
  • Mix your colors beforehand

FAQ

What is the difference between the wet on wet and wet-on-dry techniques?

When painting wet on wet, the paper has to be pre-wet with clean water or a wet wash. When you’re painting wet on dry, you’re always painting on dry paper.

Another difference is that the wet on dry technique can be used to paint in layers. You can’t do this wet on wet because the layers have to dry in between.

The wet on dry technique gives you more control than the wet on wet technique.

Finally the wet on wet technique is used to paint soft edges while the wet on dry technique is used to paint sharp edges.

To learn more, read my in-depth article on the wet on dry technique.

Is wet on dry better than wet on wet?

If you want to paint details or paint in layers then the wet on dry technique is better suited.

However, if you want to paint a background with soft edges and textures then the wet on wet technique is better suited.

It all depends on the effect you wish to create. I personally love using both techniques and usually use a combination of wet on wet and wet on dry in my painting.

Can you make a watercolor painting without the wet on wet technique?

Yes, you can! The great thing about watercolor painting is that you aren’t limited to using only one technique for everything.

Once again it all depends on what effect you’re trying to make in your painting.

Is wet on wet easier than wet on dry?

Most would say wet on dry is easier because you have more control over where the paint goes.

However, I’d say both come with their unique challenges. More control doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier.

The more experience you gain the more intuitive the painting process will become.

Final thoughts

The wet on wet technique will take time to master if you’re completely new to watercolors. However, with practice, you’ll become more used to it and the painting process will be instinctual!

It is an excellent watercolor technique for creating all sorts of effects and textures.

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