3 BASIC Watercolor Washes for Beginners – How to Do a Smooth Wash Every Time

student watercolor painting with graded wash
Student card with sky wash

A smooth wash of beautiful color is watercolor at its best – and easy, once you learn how! Deb Watson shares the secrets to getting a smooth wash every time that have helped hundreds of artists improve their watercolors with Flat Washes, Grade Washes and Variegated Watercolor Washes.

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Test your paper with an easy flat wash. If you’re following the steps and your paint doesn’t lay smoothly on your paper – it’s the paper. (Arches watercolor paper is great, but there are lots of less expensive brands that will work.)


Stiff brushes push the paint down into the paper and leave brushstrokes. A soft wash or watercolor brush will gently lay the color on top of the paper. Wash brushes come in flat, round and oval. (Hake brushes aren’t expensive and the oval wash brush Silver Black Velvet is worth the money.)

How To Paint A Perfect Flat Watercolor Wash on Dry Paper

Should I Tape Down My Watercolor Paper?

Probably not. Watercolor paper expands when it gets wet, so it will buckle if you tape the sides.

Alternatives to taping – If you wet the back of your paper, it will stick to your backboard without tape, while it is wet. Or, use a circle on tape on the back of your paper to hold it to your backboard.

How to Keep Your Watercolor Paper From Buckling

Watercolor painting lemon

Wet Paint on Dry Paper – Work quickly! Only go over the paper one time. Get in, get out, don’t play with it. If you work quickly on dry paper, your paper should not buckle.

Wet Paint on Wet Paper – wet both sides of your paper. (Wet as many times as you need or soak the paper in a tub of water for 5 or more minutes.) When the paper is evenly wet, it will lay flat and stick to your backboard. NO TAPE!

If your wet paper still bubbles up, that means the back is not wet enough. Lift the paper and rewet the back. (You’ll usually see the dry spot.)

Wet your paper well, then hold your paper/backboard up vertically until it quits dripping. That should be the perfect wetness to paint on. Use a misting bottle to add tiny amounts of water if it starts to dry unevenly before you’re finished.

3 Steps for a Perfect Flat Watercolor Wash on Dry Paper

Get Ready – Mix more paint than you think you’re going to need.

Smooth flat watercolor washes must be done quickly, so there is no time to stop and try to mix more color – stopping in the middle is a recipe for disaster!)

Mix a big puddle of color, and test the color on scrap paper.

Add water to lighten or more paint to darken. Remember – most paints dry lighter than they look wet. (Qor brand watercolor paint by Golden Company doesn’t fade as it dries.)

Last, be sure there no lumps or chunks of color in your mix.

Get Set – Tilt Your paper/backboard with the top up about 30 degrees.

Paper tilted

Put a roll of paper towels or other handy object under the top of your backboard so your paper is tilted about 30 degrees.

Go – Apply the paint top to bottom, wet enough that a BEAD OF LIQUID forms at the bottom of your wash.

Big brush – Use as big a brush as your can for the area you’re working on.

Gently lay the paint on the surface in one stroke per area, or mop it on, but do not keep going over the same area. (The more brushstrokes you do, the more likely you are to have brushstrokes showing.)

Deb Watson laying down a Bead of liquid for a good watercolor wash

Reload your brush and apply the next brushstroke underneath, just touching the bottom of the previous brushstroke.

Repeat to the bottom of the area.

Important – Do not go back in to an already painted area with your brush. Work from the top down and quit!

Don’t Leave Standing Water on Your Paper

When you reach the bottom, wick up the bead of water with a paper towel or thirsty brush. If there is standing water around the edges, wipe it up with a paper towel. Otherwise, the standing water will be drawn back into your wash as the paper dries, creating a bloom.

What to Do With a Hair in Your Watercolor Wash

If you notice a loose hair in your wet watercolor wash – LEAVE IT ALONE! Do not try to remove it or you’ll mess up your wash.

After the wash dries, you can brush the hair off. If it left a line, retouch just the dark line with the very tip of damp watercolor brush and dab with a paper towel. Be patient and work carefully. You can lift up the line if you’re very careful.

How to Fix a Watercolor Brush That is Losing Hairs

Run a bead of hot glue along the brush ferrule. As soon as the glue is cool enough to touch, mash the glue into the bristles. This is a permanent fix to stop a brush from loosing hairs.

How To Paint A Graded Watercolor Wash

Original watercolor painting by Deb Watson with washes in sky
This took MANY washes of color!

A graded or graduated wash is when color changes from dark to light (or from one color to another) smoothly or in a gradual way.

This is not easy! It takes a good bit of practice, but it’s well worth the effort.

Mix your puddle of color and tilt your watercolor paper.

Apply your color across the top for a stroke or two.

Then add more water to your paint. You can add more water to the puddle or dip your brush in the water to add more water.

Each next brushstroke should have less paint and more water.


How to Fix a Graded Wash That is Too Light or Not Evenly Graded

Too light – If your wash is still we, you can go back over your wash. If your wash is beginning to dry, dry it completely and do another coat of paint.

Uneven washes – if still wet, use a damp watercolor fan brush to move the paint around without brushstrokes. If your wash is dry, repeat the wash, brushing gently to smooth out paint.

Don’t Leave Standing Water on Your Paper

When you reach the bottom, you can wick up the bead of water with a paper towel or thirsty brush. If there is standing water around the edges, be sure to wipe it up with a paper towel. Otherwise, the standing water will be drawn back into your wash as the paper dries, creating a bloom.

How To Paint a Variegated or Multi-Color Watercolor Wash for Beginners

student watercolor painting with variegated wash in background

A variegated watercolor wash is when different colors are applied that overlap, letting the paint blend between the colors without sharp edges. Learning how to paint a variegated wash should be fun – you get to play with the colors as much as you like.

Vital keys to a successful variegated wash:

  • Getting the perfect amount of paint and water to let the colors blend the way you want. (Just jump in and practice!) Start with enough paint in your mix and add tiny amounts of water with a misting bottle until the paint moves and blends the way you want.
  • Using gravity to mix and blend the colors and not your brush
  • Keeping the paper evenly wet – use a misting bottle if it begins to dry unevenly.

Get ready – Mix puddles of color and test until they are as dark as you want.

Get set – Wet your paper evenly, without tape so it lays flat.

Paint on or drop on your colors (I squeeze a brush filled with paint over my paper and the paint drops onto the wet surface).

Tilt your paper/backboard to mix or blend the colors, adding more paint and water as needed.

Variegated Wash Video (Including Optional Saran Wrap Technique)


Solutions to Common Problems with Variegated Watercolor Washes

Paint runs off – mix much more concentrated puddles of color and drop that in.

Paints overmixed? If you hate it, run your paper under the sink to wash off the paint you’ve applied using a soft sponge or Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser as needed.

Brush strokes showing – either your paper isn’t wet enough or you are doing your brushstrokes too hard (pushing the paint into the paper.) You want to just lay your color on top of the wet surface gently.

Paint not moving – add a spritz or two with a misting bottle and keep turning until you get some blending happening.

Summary for Watercolor Washes

With guided practice, doing things correctly and using the right materials, you’ll begin to master watercolor washes. Washes done well are quick, easy and amazing in their unique beauty. Learning how to apply the perfect watercolor wash every time is well worth a few messes or pieces of watercolor paper, so jump in and have fun.

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” - Cezanne