Wet on Dry Watercolor Technique (Ultimate Guide)

The wet on dry watercolor technique is one of the first techniques you’ll learn in watercolor painting.

But there’s so much more to it than just painting on dry paper.

You’ll probably be using the wet on dry technique throughout your watercolor journey… so it’s important you have all the information.

In this post, I’m going to dive in and explore this technique.

Let’s get into it…

Wet on dry watercolor technique

Related article: Wet on wet watercolor technique

What is wet on dry technique?

What is the wet on dry watercolor technique? Simply put, the wet on dry technique is when you add wet paint onto dry paper. This technique is used to paint sharper edges, finer details, and textures and to add layers to your painting.

When working with the wet on dry technique, you’ll have more control because the paint doesn’t bleed and spread around.

Instead, the pigment will only flow where you add moisture from your brush.

When the paint dries up you’ll notice that hard edges have formed. This is what makes the wet on dry technique perfect for painting fine details.

The paint won’t become diluted like it does with the wet on wet technique.

Although the paint will still dry lighter, it’ll have more intensity than if you use the wet on wet technique.

What is the wet on dry technique used for?

In watercolor, the wet on dry technique is generally used to build layers and create definition by adding hard edges and finer details.

One of the characteristics of watercolors is that they are transparent.

This means if you paint a color with a dark value, a lighter value on top won’t be seen.

So naturally you have to start with the lighter values and then add the darker values in layers.

You’ll want to use the wet on dry technique when you want to add details on top of your subject, or if you want to add texture and build some layers on top.

Materials you’ll need

Your regular watercolor supplies should do for this technique, including:

  • Watercolor paint
  • Paper- Cold pressed 300gsm/140lb paper should do
  • Brush- Round brush made specially for watercolor painting
  • Paper towel
  • 2 jars of water
  • Masking tape to secure your paper
  • Board or something similar with a flat surface to tape your paper onto

How to work the wet on dry technique in watercolor

Adding darker values

Value refers to how light or dark something is. You see, one of the most important parts of creating a painting is getting the values right.

Adding values to your painting can allow you to create depth, and contrast and pull the viewer’s attention toward a focal point.

This is where the wet on dry technique comes in.

To increase the intensity and value of the color, you can use more paint and less water. To reduce the intensity and value of the color you can use more water and less paint.

Start by drawing 3 to 6 squares on your paper. Next, choose any color and on your palette create a mixture with very little water and more paint.

Fill in the first square to the left.

Next, add a little more water and fill in the second box. Keep doing this until you reach the last square.

The result should be a diagram of different values like the one below:

Water to ratio value exercise

Layering/Glazing Wet on dry

You can use the wet on dry layering technique to add depth and contrast to your paintings.

Layering the same colors on top of each other will deepen the value and intensity of the color. You can do this when you’re painting a shape that is the same color but has lighter and darker areas.

For example, when you’re painting a group of trees that start out in the distance and come forward in the foreground.

If you glaze a new color on top of another color, you’ll create a new color on your painting.

For example, glazing blue on top of yellow will make green on your paper.

Always make sure the previous layer is completely dried before you add a new layer.

If you look at the diagram below you’ll see how glazing the same color over and over again increases the value.

Layering landscape using the wet on dry watercolor technique

Related: How to layer watercolors (Everything to know)

Adding sharper details

The great thing about the wet on dry technique is that you can add finer details to create more definition in your painting.

When adding the final details, you’ll want to make sure the colors are a darker value than the previous layers so that they can be seen.

If you want to add highlights, you’ll need to find a way to preserve white spaces in your painting. You can use masking fluid or alternatives to masking fluid to do this.

Using the wet on dry technique to add details and definition

Related: Everything you need to know about how to use masking fluid

Charging and Lifting paint

Although wet on dry techniques create hard edges, this doesn’t mean you can’t have soft edges. It just takes a little more effort using the charging and lifting technique.

Charging sometimes referred to as dropping, is a technique used to describe when you add more paint into an area of a wet wash.

How to charge/drop paint in watercolor:

Paint any shape using the wet on dry technique, while the paint is still wet load your brush with more pigment. Next, drop the paint on one part of the shape.

Lifting is when you dampen your brush so that it acts as a sponge and absorbs the wet paint, lifting it. You can also use a paper towel or sponge to do this.

To lift wet on dry, paint any shape as you did with the charging technique. This time rinse your brush and blot the excess water on a paper towel.

With the point of your brush, lift the paint then blot on your paper towel.

These two techniques will help you create gradients and softer edges.

To create a gradient with a soft edge you can lift the paint off one side of the shape and then blend it out as shown below.

Dragging

Another effect you can create using the wet on dry technique is by dragging the wet paint using a second tool.

I prefer to use the end of my brush handle. Mine has an edge that came with it, it’s great for dragging thin sharp lines and scratching.

You can sharpen yours using a sharpener or knife.

If you don’t want to ruin your brush handle then you can also use a wooden stick. Instead of making the tip sharp, you can also create a rounded point that won’t scratch the paper.

Feel free to get creative and try other objects such as an old plastic card.

To use the dragging technique lay down your wet on dry wash.

While the paint is still wet, use any tool with a rounded point to drag out the paint. You can experiment with different motions.

In the image below I used a curved sweeping motion to make it look like grass

I love using this wet-on-dry technique when painting grass, trees, or foliage in general. When painting trees I like to drag the wet paint to add smaller branches.

Blending with the wet on dry technique

Learning how to blend with the wet on dry technique is essential. This way you can have softer edges and gradients when painting.

Remember when I explained how dropping and lifting paint was essential to creating soft edges?

Here’s why… When you’re blending shapes you’ll be doing a combination of lifting and dropping paint.

There are generally three ways to blend wet on dry.

One is by allowing two different colors to touch, and two is by painting a shape and then pulling the paint and softening the edge.

Finally, you can blend by layering and then softening the edge.

For the first method, start by mixing both colors on your palette with roughly the same amount of water-to-paint ratio.

Swatch the first color then swatch the second color from the opposite direction and let them meet in the middle.

Using the lifting technique you can soften the edges so they meet in a gradient. Dampen your brush then move the pigment around to blend it.

If you want to add more paint in one area you can use the dropping technique.

For this method to work you’ll want to use just enough water in the mixture. If one mixture has more water than the other you could cause a backrun.

For the second method, you can start by painting a shape using a creamy consistency.

Next, rinse your brush then use moisture in your brush to pull the edge and soften it.

Dampen your brush and lift to blend the edge further:

Blending wet on dry

To blend using the third method start by painting the first color then let it dry.

Once it has completely dried paint the second color over the first, don’t cover it completely.

Then rinse your brush and dampen it.

Now you can soften the edge by lifting the pigment using the lifting technique. If you want to make an area darker, you can drop in some paint.

How to keep the paint flowing when working wet on dry?

Just because you’re using the wet on dry technique it does not mean you can’t paint large areas of the paper.

There’s no specific term for this technique, however, I’ve heard other artists call it the wet on dry bead technique.

You’ll see why in a few moments…

To do this tape your paper onto a board or piece of glass or something similar with a flat surface.

Lay the board down so that it’s positioned at around a 45-degree angle. You can place an object underneath to help you.

Load your brush with the color that you want to use. If you’re painting a large surface then you’ll need a brush that can hold enough water.

A mop brush will be perfect for this.

Start adding paint across the top of the paper. Because the board is stationed at an angle you’ll notice the paint flowing downwards and forming a puddle at the edge of the brushstroke.

This is what’s referred to as a bead.

Paint over the bead with your brush and this will cause it to flow down the paper.

You can also leave some spaces white by making sure not to wet them. This is because the bead will only flow where the brush takes it.

The diagram below shows the step-by-step process:

How to keep the paint flowing wet on dry

Once you reach the end of your wash make sure to lift the bead using a paper towel so that it doesn’t cause a backrun.

That’s how to keep the paint flowing using the wet on dry bead technique!

Watercolor washes using wet on dry technique

With wet on dry you can paint shapes that have a flat wash of color, or you can paint shapes that have a gradient from dark to light or light to dark.

Finally, you can paint shapes with two or more colors that have a smooth transition.

These are the three different types of watercolor washes that you can paint using the wet on dry technique:

Wet on dry watercolor washes

To paint a flat wash wet on dry, you’ll need to use the bead technique we discussed earlier.

Start painting at the top of the paper and let the bead form.

Slowly move down the shape and make sure you’re using the same amount of paint so that it stays “flat”.

Always keep in mind how much water and paint you’re using. You don’t want to use too little or too much water.

The mixture should be milky instead of creamy or watery. So roughly equal amounts of paint and water.

Wet on dry flat wash

To paint a graded wash wet on dry, start at the top of the paper, and once again let the bead form. This time as you move down, gradually readjust and reload your brush so that there’s less paint.

Remember to be careful not to load your brush with too much water or it’ll simply run down the page.

The result should be a dark-to-light gradient.

Wet on dry graded wash

To paint a variegated wash wet on dry you can use the bead method then introduce the second color about mid-way.

Another method is by painting the first color like a graded wash, letting it dry then turning the board over and layering the second color on top.

The diagram below shows how I used both methods:

Wet on dry variegated wash

The difference between wet on dry and wet on wet

The main difference is that wet on wet involves adding wet paint to wet paper, while wet on dry involves painting on dry paper.

The wet on wet technique is used for creating soft diffused edges, and spontaneous effects. On the other hand, the wet on dry technique is used to create sharper lines, textures, and distinct effects.

With the wet-on-dry technique, you can lay down the lighter values first and then add the darker values later on through layering.

When painting wet on wet the pigment will bleed and spread through the water causing it to dilute. This will result in the paint drying lighter in value.

With wet on dry you have more control over where the paint goes, whereas wet on wet the paint spreads around and you have less control.

Tips for painting wet on dry

Here are a few additional tips to help you paint wet on dry:

  • Pay attention to the consistency of the paint loaded in your brush.
  • Keep practicing – The best way to master this technique is by practicing and learning how it reacts on paper.
  • Preserve the lighter areas – It helps to think about where the highlights are located before you start painting.
  • Plan your painting – Think about how you want your painting to look and where the soft/hard edges should be. This will let you know when and how to use the wet on dry technique.

FAQ

How much water should I add in wet on dry?

Because the paper is dry, the moisture comes from your brush.

If you’re wondering how much water to use, think about the consistency of your paint mixture. There’s a watery, milky, creamy, or pasty consistency.

You can use a watery consistency for painting lighter values or if you’re building depth through layering.

A milky consistency can be used when painting mid-values or shapes in the middle ground of your landscape.

Creamy and pasty consistencies are ideal for adding final details in the foreground.

Is the wet-on-dry technique specific to watercolor?

No, the wet on dry technique is used in oil painting and acrylic. In oil and acrylic painting it simply refers to adding wet paint on canvas or dried paint.

However, in my personal experience most people who mention the wet on dry technique are referring to watercolor painting.

Can you erase dried watercolor paint?

There are some methods you can use to erase watercolor paint that has dried but it’s not as easy as erasing pencil.

Some of the methods such as using a sanded eraser can damage the paper. Meanwhile, when using the lifting technique it’s more difficult to erase staining pigments.

Related: How to erase watercolor?

Is it possible to make a painting without the wet on dry technique?

Yes! There are so many possible creative pieces you can create with watercolors. The wet on technique is just that… A technique you can use to create specific effects.

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