Art Glossary: Wet-on-Wet

Wheatfields Near Auvers, by Vincent van Gogh
Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images


Wet-on-wet (also referred to as wet-in-wet) is one of those terms that quite literally means what it says. Painting wet-on-wet is applying fresh (wet) paint onto a wet surface or onto paint that is still wet rather than onto paint that has dried. The result is colors that blend into one another and mix in the painting.

Wet-on-wet is a direct painting technique that can be used with all wet paint mediums: watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and oil paints.

Wet-on-Wet: Watercolor

Painting wet-on-wet in watercolor is a spontaneous, somewhat unpredictable, and less controlled way of working but can produce very beautiful effects, giving soft, fuzzy edges to the shapes of colors. It is very useful when painting interesting backgrounds, flowers, trees, and foliage, as well as an ephemeral light quality in skies, clouds, and water.

It is important to have the right paper when painting wet-on-wet in watercolor. You want a thick paper with enough tooth to absorb the water so that the paper does not buckle and shred with the heavy application of water. It is helpful to use a large clean sponge to apply the water to the surface of the paper in order to dampen it. Wait until the sheen is gone before you start painting. Cold pressed paper is more desirable than hot pressed paper when painting wet-on-wet as it is more absorbent.  

It takes practice to learn how to control the paint and the water when painting wet-on-wet with watercolor and to determine what paper works best for you. Once you get a feel for the technique, though, the results can be unique and magical. 

Wet-on-Wet: Oil

Wet-on-wet painting in oil is a technique in which paint is applied on top of another layer of wet paint. It is often used when painting alla prima (all in one sitting). Sometimes the canvas is first treated with a painting medium such as Liquid White or Liquid Clear used by television painter Bob Ross. Other times the paint is applied in layers of opaque or semi-opaque color such that some of the underlying colors show through, adding richness and depth. 

The wet-on-wet technique has been used since oil painting was invented, although it became most popular when paint tubes were invented in the mid-nineteenth century, enabling paint to become portable. The Impressionists took full advantage of this and used the wet-on-wet technique when painting en plein air

The challenge of this technique is that you need to be decisive about the composition, tone, color palette and in your handling of the paint and mark-making before-hand and during the process of painting. You need to be organized and know how to approach your painting before you start. You should do several studies and thumb-nail sketches of value and composition to help you determine your final composition before starting a wet-on-wet oil painting. 

Wet-on-Wet: Acrylics 

Acrylics can be painted wet-on-wet like both watercolors and oils, depending on your preference. You can wet the paper first and use acrylics thinly, painting them onto the wet paper like watercolors and using the same techniques as you would for watercolor, or you can use them thickly as you would oil paint. Remember that acrylics dry more quickly, though, so you may have to add more water or an acrylic retarder to keep them workable.

Acrylics are also generally not quite as opaque as oil paints are—adding a small bit of titanium white will make a color more opaque, as will mixing it with a more opaque hue within that color range—for example, sap green (more translucent) can be made more opaque by mixing it with chromium oxide green (more opaque). 

Once acrylic paint dries it cannot be reactivated unless you are using open acrylics or interactive acrylics, which are perfect for the wet-on-wet technique. 

Wet-on-Wet: Gouache

Gouache, an opaque watercolor, can be used like watercolor, acrylic, or oil. It can be applied to wet paper and used wet-on-wet like watercolor. It can also be painted opaquely onto wet paint and mixed on the painting. It does dry quickly, though, but can be sprayed with a mister to keep it workable. Unlike acrylic paint, gouache is reactivated with water when dry. Remember that, unlike acrylic that dries darker than when wet, gouache tends to dry lighter. 

Also called: wet-in-wet

Updated by Lisa Marder 9/19/16