Watercolor Graded Wash Made Easy

Start small for the easiest way to learn graded washes in watercolor. These three cards or bookmarks will help you master the graded wash in watercolor and make a nice reminder than you can do it! Graded washes take hands on practice, so – start painting today!


Students expected this to be an easy exercise, but it took some messy work to paint graded washes. Not many went smoothly. With some struggle – dabbing up where it was too dark or washing it all off and starting again – they ended with graded watercolor washes.

They looked quite messy on the untrimmed paper, but the little paintings really came to life where we cropped them and turned them into nice bookmarks.

How To Make Bookmarks

We trimmed the bookmarks with a paper cutter for straight edges. Then cut two pieces of clear contact paper larger than each bookmark. The hard part was getting the liner off the contact paper! Place the contact paper on each side and trim those edges.

It’s nice to end up with a product you can sell or give to your friends and family while you get valuable guided practice!

Downloads for Graded Wash Made Easy

Painting Steps for Watercolor Graded Wash Made Easy

Step 1 – Draw or trace your outline onto your watercolor paper.

You can draw these on your paper or use graphite paper to trace whichever sailboat or tree you like onto your watercolor paper. There are card size and bookmark size reference photos included, as well as the original painting from the video.

Masking Tape?

Easy Graded wash outline with masking tape

Optional – put masking tape on the sides, top and bottom of your areas if you’d like to keep white straight lines. For bookmarks, you’ll trim the edges, so this isn’t necessary.

Tree sticking out over line? I like having something extending past the boundaries, so I’ll paint the edges of the tree after I remove the tape.

Step 2 – Painting Graded Watercolor Washes

What watercolor brush is best for painting a graded wash?

You can use a small watercolor brush (round or flat) for these. A watercolor fan brush can be helpful for moving paint, but isn’t necessary.

Dark Starry Sky Wash for Dark Graded Watercolor Wash

Place your watercolor paper on a backboard for easier handling.

Dark to Light Graded Wash watercolor tutorial first wash

Optional – Tilt your paper by placing something under one side. You can tilt your paper with the top up or the bottom up, whichever you feel is more helpful.

Mix a puddle of thick, dark blue. (Ultramarine or your favorite dark blue.)

Start on dry paper at the top with dark blue. Add a little water to thin the paint and keep painting.

You want to work wet enough that you have a small bead of liquid forming at the bottom of the painted area.

Continue down, thinning the color as you go. About halfway down, switch to clean water and keep painting to the bottom.

You can add continue to move or add paint and manipulate the wash, as long as it’s evenly wet. It if begins to dry, stop and dry it completely. Add multiple layers if you need them to get a dark value at the top.

Blue to Orange Graded Wash – Sailboat Silhouette in Watercolor

Blue to orange Graded Wash watercolor tutorial first wash

Blue – Start with blue.

Mix a puddle of medium value blue, (Cobalt is a good choice.)

Start at the top and switch to clear water 1/4 the way down.

Continue painting with water to just below the sailboat.

Switch back to medium blue and paint the bottom 1/4 with blue, lighter near the boat and darker as it goes to the bottom of the paper.

Orange – Add Orange, wet or dry.

Blue to Orange Graded Wash Watercolor tutorial

You can keep working while the blue is wet or dry it completely and rewet with clean water to apply the orange, whichever is easier for you.

Start with watery orange in the middle of the paper and work up near or into the blue. (Blue + Orange will make brown or gray, if they mix.)

Then bring the orange down towards the blue on the bottom.

Light Graded Watercolor Sky Wash

Medium watercolor graded wash made easy

This one is easy!

Start with a medium blue (I used Phthalo blue) at the top and keep adding water all the way to the bottom.

Step 3 – Finishing Details for Graded Watercolor Washes Made Easy

Dark Starry Sky – Add Mountains and Stars

Graded watercolor wash dark to light tutorial bottom land

Mountains – Mix a very dark color with your leftover dark blue + brown. Paint the bottom land. Dry.

Distant mountain – Paint the top line of the distant mountain with the bottom color. Then rinse your brush and paint the bottom of the distant mountain with clean water. Rub gently to mix some of that color in if it doesn’t blend on its own.

Graded watercolor wash dark to light tutorial bottom spattering stars in sky

Opaque White and Spattering Stars in Sky

(Cover any nearby areas with a paper towel or scrap paper to avoid stray spattering.)

Spatter. Dip your brush in opaque white paint. Tap your brush on an outstretched finger to spatter stars into your sky.

Shooting Star? Add a shooting star with white, if you’d like.

Distant lights. Add 3 or 5 dots of white on the top of the dark hill for distant houses. You can smudge them with your finger to soften.

Sailboat Blue to Orange Graded Wash

orange to blue graded watercolor wash finishing details

Use mixes of blue and orange to make the colors for the sailboat and reflection. If you don’t feel it’s dark enough, you can add some of the leftover color from the dark wash.

Paint the sailboat and reflection. Reflections should have jagged edges. Dry.

Horizon line – add a straight line of color above the folded sail rigging. Then rinse your brush and work the color up into tree shapes. Keep it simple and not too dark, as it is far away.

Ripples – add blue ripples at the bottom, getting smaller ripples as they go up towards the boat. You can also add tiny ripples with white.

Watercolor graded wash easy tutorial finished paintings

Snow Covered Pine Trees With Graded Watercolor Wash Sky

Easy Graded Watercolor Wash Pine Tree tutorial trees painted

Paint the main pine tree with dark green (use a tube green or mix your own dark green with dark blue + gold or dark blue + burnt sienna.) Dry.

Your pine tree doesn’t need to look like mine to be successful – pine trees come in many shapes.

Shade the foreground. Paint blue or blue gray at the bottom right corner of the foreground. Rinse your brush and use clean water to blend the color up, in a graded wash. Dry.

Paint a distant tree on the left – a smaller, lighter tree. Dry.

Opaque white – Snow and Stars.

Easy Graded Watercolor Wash Pine Tree tutorial finished painting

Use opaque white to add snow to your pine tree and/or stars in the sky. I like to put a big star in the upper left corner to balance the composition.

You can also use white to touch up your snowy hilltop in the front, or spatter on stars or falling snow to add a sense of movement.

Watercolor Graded Wash Made Easy Summary

Graded washes are not usually easy – it takes practice to build this skill. Working small with fun, quick small studies will give you a good start to learning this essential watercolor skill.

If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery. It wouldn't seem so wonderful at all. ― Michelangelo