Fine Art Painting Techniques

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Painting Technique: Pen and Watercolor

Pen and watercolor painting of feathers
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques Pen and watercolor paint on sketchbook paper. Size approx. A5. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

A Visual Index of Painting Techniques

If you've ever wondered "how did the artist do that?" and are looking for answers, then you're in the right place. These photos of various painting techniques will help you find out what was used to create various effects and styles of painting, and how to learn to do it yourself.

These feathers were painted using watercolor over waterproof or permanent black ink.

The most important thing to remember when working with pen and watercolor is that the ink in the pen must be waterproof or it'll smudge when you brush on the watercolor. Seems obvious, I know, but if you've various pens lying around it's all too easy to pick up one that's not waterproof or permanent. The label on the pen will tell you, sometimes with a little symbol rather than a word.

Depending on the pen and the paper, you may have to wait a minute or two for the ink to dry completely before adding the watercolor. You'll soon learn because the ink will spread immediately if it's not completely dry (or waterproof). Unfortunately, once it's happened you can't undo it so you'll either have to start again, hide it underneath some opaque paint, or make it a pen-and-water painting. Gouache mixes with watercolor or, if you've got a tube of 'white watercolor', that'll be opaque too.

Can you paint the watercolor first and then the pen on top? Most definitely, though wait for the paint to dry so the ink doesn't bleed (spread out in the damp fibers of the paper). Personally, I find it easier to work with the pen first as it's easier to keep track of where I am in the image.

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Painting Technique: Water-Soluble Pen with a Wet Brush

Art Technique Watersoluble Pen and Wash
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques Running a wet brush along water-soluble pen "dissolves" the pen and creates tone. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

This figure was painted using a water-soluble black pen, plus a brush with clean water.

If you're using pen and watercolor, you want to be sure you're using a pen with waterproof ink as you don't want the ink to smudge and spread. But for a monochrome painting, using a water-soluble pen and then turning it into fluid ink by going over it with a wet brush, can create a lovely effect.

The result is a mixture of line and tone (two of the elements of art). The extent to which the line dissolves depends on how much water you apply (how wet the brush is), how aggressively you brush over a line, and how absorbent the paper is. The tone produced can vary from very light to quite dark. You can lose a line completely, or wash a little tone from it without changing the character of the line.

A little practice, and you'll soon get a feel for it. Black is, of course, not your only option. Water-soluble pens come in all sorts of colors.

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Painting Technique: Water-Soluble Ink Pen (Color Variations)

Water-based ink portrait
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques.

The color variation in this artwork were created from one supposedly "black" pen!

Working with a wet brush onto a drawing done with a pen containing water-soluble ink turns the line into a wash of ink. Depending on how much water you use, more or less of the line dissolves.

Quite what color wash you get depends on is in the ink; it's not always what you might expect, especially with cheaper pens. (The potential problem with using a cheap pen is how lightfast the ink might be, but they're great for experimenting, just keep the results out of direct sunlight.) In the example in the photo I was using a black marker pen I bought at a supermarket on a whim, a black Berol handwriting pen. As you can see, it's "dissolved" into two colors, a result that I think is appealingly effective and expressive.

Quite how water-soluble a pen might be, depends on the brand, but the starting point is to look for one that doesn't say "waterproof", "water-resistant", "water-resistant when dry", or "permanent". How long the ink has dried on the paper can also be a factor; some waterproof pens will smudge a bit if you apply water immediately.

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Painting Technique: Over-Drawing a Watercolor

Overdrawing a watercolor painting
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques Above: The watercolor layer waiting to dry. Below: Overdrawn with a blue Derwent Graphitint pencil. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Working with colored pencil over a watercolor painting is a useful technique for adding detail.

The concept of doing a pencil drawing to which you then add watercolor paint is a familiar one, yet somehow the thought of working with a "drawing medium" over the top of dried watercolor is regarded by some as "cheating". As if once you've started working with paint you can't go back. It's so not true! The division between drawing and painting is an artificial one; it's the artwork you create that matters.

A sharp pencil is the ideal tool for adding fine detail, for creating a crisp edge. Many people find it easier to control the direction and width of line with a pencil than a brush. Steadying your hand on a mahl stick increases the control further.

Keep the pencil tip very sharp and don't be lazy about stopping to sharpen it. Rotating it in your fingers as you use it helps maintain the point. If you truly hate sharpening, start with half-a-dozen identical pencils and swap them.

In the example here, I've worked on top of a watercolor painting (once it had dried thoroughly!) using a dark-blue graphite pencil. Specifically, indigo from Derwent's Graphitint range (Buy Direct), which has an underlying dark earthiness to it, different to a normal colored pencil. It's also water-soluble, so it was crucial to ensure the watercolor was utterly dry! As you can see, it's enabled me to crisp up the edges and introduce shadow. Notice, for instance, how it's altered the mouth, created a shadow on the earlobe and bottom of the collar, and defined the edge of the shirt.

Obviously you don't have to use a water-soluble pencil with this technique. It was what I had to hand, but also chosen with the thought that I could turn it into paint if I wanted.

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Painting Technique: Salt and Watercolor

Salt-and-watercolor painting
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques Salt and watercolour painting; clematis done with watercolor pencils. Photo © 2010 Julz

This painting was created using salt on wet watercolor paint.

When you scatter salt onto wet watercolor paint, the salt absorbs the water in the paint, pulling the paint across the paper into abstract patterns. Use coarse salt, not fine salt, as the bigger the piece of salt the more it will absorb. When the paint is dry, gently rub off the salt.

Experiment with varying degrees of wetness of your watercolor paint and how much salt you use until you get a feel for it. Too dry and the salt can't soak up much paint. Too wet or too much salt and all your paint will get absorbed.

• How to Use Salt to Create Snowflakes in Watercolor

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Painting Technique: Glazing Colors

Glazing colors
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

These "complicated colors" were built up using multiple glazes.

If you're looking at a painting which has "complicated colors", where the colors have a depth and inner-glow to them, rather than appearing solid and flat, then they're almost certainly created by glazing. This is when multiple layers of color are painted on top of one another rather than being only a single layer of paint.

The key to successful glazing is to not paint a new layer of glaze until the current layer is totally dry. With acrylic paints or watercolor, you don't have to wait very long for this to happen, but with oil paints you'll need to be patient. If you glaze onto still-wet paint, the paint will mix and you'll have what's called a physical mix rather than an optical mix.

• How to Paint Glazes

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Painting Technique: Drips

Fine Art Painting Techniques Drips and Glazing
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

This effect was created by allowing fluid paint to drip down and, when dried, covered with a transparent glaze.

Incorporating drips into a painting, whether they happen deliberately or accidentally, can give a result that's intriguing and pulls in a viewer. If you paint with fluid paint (thin, runny) paint on a canvas that is vertical, for example when working at an easel rather than flat on a table, then you can use gravity to add a "happy accident" or random element to the painting. By loading lots of fluid paint on a brush and then letting lots of it come off the brush in one spot (by pushing the brush against the canvas and not moving it along), you'll get a little puddle of paint on the canvas. With enough paint, gravity will pull it down in a dribble or drip.

You can help the process along by squeezing the paint out with your fingers, and by blowing on the puddle of paint to start the dribble. (Blow in the direction you want the drip.) With strong drips (ones with lots of paint running) you can rotate the canvas to manipulate where it flows.

The photo shows a detail from a painting of mine called Rain/Fire, created with acrylics. When the initial layer of red was not quite dry, I put on fluid orange paint and allowed it to drip. If you look at the top, you can see where I placed my brush, reloaded with paint each time, in a row across. As the paint dripped down, it mixed in with the still-wet red paint. This, and the layer of dark red glaze added once everything was dry, is why the drips are more orange at the top than bottom.

If you're working with oil paint, dilute your paint with oil or spirits depending on where you are in the fat over lean of your painting. If you're using acrylics, think about using some glazing medium as you don't want to thin the paint too much. Alternatively, use fluid acrylics.

With watercolor, it doesn't matter how much water you add to paint. You can help guide the direction of the paint drip by running the tip of a damp, clean brush on the painting first.

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Gravity Painting

Gravity Painting
A Visual Index of Art Techniques. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

You can take painting with drips even further by using mediums that encourage the paint to spread and flow. You then use gravity to pull the paint, tilting and turning your canvas to change direction.

The photo shows two seascapes I was painting, where I turned the large canvas 90 degrees to let the paint be pulled by gravity. The mark making that results is different to that created by a brush: looser, more random, more organic. The wet paint that's dribbling is intended to become the edge of the sea, ripples in the shallower water near the shore. Once it's dry, I may repeat the process with a different tone. After that I'll spatter some white for foam on the shoreline.

For acrylic paint, various manufacturers produce flow improver, which all lower the viscosity of the paint so it spreads very easily. It's not a scientific description, but I think of flow medium as making the paint more slippery, as the way it slips and slides down a canvas is quite different to paint thinned with water alone. For oil paint, adding solvent or alkyd flow medium will encourage the paint to spread run.

I either mix the flow medium and paint on my palette, then apply it with a brush to my painting. Or I drop a little flow medium directly onto the canvas into still-wet fluid paint. Each produces a different type of mark; experimentation will teach you what you might get. Remember, if you don't like the result, you can either wipe it off or overpaint it. It's not a disaster, merely a step in the creation process.

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Painting Technique: Layers of Paint, Not Blended

Photo of various blues used in painting the sea
Visual Index of Painting Techniques Four different blues were used for the sea in this painting. "Camus Mor 5" by Marion Boddy-Evans. Size 30x40cm. Acrylic on canvas. ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans

The sea in this painting was created by layering different blues on top of one another, with minimal blending.

The sea often has a shimmer to it, shifting colors and tones as we look at it. To try to capture this, I've used various blues and white, in broken layers so bits of each show through, rather than painting the sea being a consistent, well-blended color.

The darkest blue is Prussian blue, some of which was buttery acrylic paint and some acrylic ink. The lighter blue is cerulean blue (paint), and the lightest cobalt turquoise (paint). There's also some marine blue acrylic ink. Plus titanium white and, in the sky and forground, a little raw umber paint.

I used some of the paint straight the tube, thinned some with water, glazing and flow improver acrylic mediums. Adding white to make a transparent blue more opaque, adds to the variations in color.

The blues are painted over one another, sometimes in long brush strokes, sometimes short. The direction of mark-making is important, and should echo the subject. Here I've worked horizontally, following the horizon, and shifting a little closer to the coastline as waves would curve naturally.

I've avoided blending the colors completely (a temptation when painting wet-on-wet). Let each color show itself and allow bits to peek through the layers. Rather blend too little than too much. If you end up with a hard edge somewhere that is intrusive, you can soften it by placing a little bit of another blue on top of it, then blending the edges of this.

Paint layer on layer, add and hide. Don't expect it to be right first time, don't delete what's "wrong" but work over it. It all adds depth to the final painting. I tend to work on a painting like this over several days, which gives time for paint to dry completely and to contemplate what I've done. Remember to step back regularly as the painting looks quite different from a distance and close up.

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Painting Technique: Blending Colors

Fine Art Painting Techniques Blending Colors
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques Fine Art Painting Techniques Blending Colors. Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The soft transition of colors in this painting was done by blending the paint when still wet.

If you compare the deep orange in the sun to that on the top of the hill in this painting, you'll see that the hill has a very definite, hard edge to it, whereas the sun has a soft edge that fades into the orange and yellow. This is done by blending the colors when they're still wet.

If you're painting with oils or pastels, you've lots of time for blending. If you're working with acrylics or watercolor, you need to be quick. To blend, you put down the colors adjacent to one another, then take a clean brush and gently go over where two colors meet. You don't want to add extra paint, nor have any color stop abruptly.

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Painting Technique: Iridescent Oil Pastels as a Painting Background

Photo of gold background for painting or printmaking using iridescent oil pastels
A Visual Index of Painting Techniques The gold background for this linoprint was created using an iridescent oil pastel, blended smooth. Photo © 2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The background for this linoprint was created with a gold, iridescent oil pastel.

One of the problems with gold paint can be getting an even, smooth finish. So for this linoprint, I used an iridescent oil pastel which I then blended smooth with a finger. Another advantage was that I didn't have to wait for it to dry before printing the linocut over it.

Note: I used oil-based relief-printing ink to print over the oil pastels, not a water-based ink. The pastel will shift and rub off a bit if you touch it, so the artwork would need to be protected under glass. Using this technique for a one-off card, I'd use one of those folded formats where there's effectively a mount on top of the image. Get the lighting right, and the iridescent pastel photographs beautifully, so making prints from an artwork is definitely an option.

Sennelier Oil Pastels

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Art Techniques Spattering

Art Technique Spattering or Flyspecking
Visual Index of Art Techniques Spattering can be done with a single color, or with several to build up layers of color as shown in these examples. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

This photo shows two details from a seascape, where the shoreline was painted using a spattering technique over sgraffito.

Next time you change your toothbrush, don't throw the old one away but put it into your art box. It's the perfect tool for spattering. You dip the brush into runny or fluid paint, point it at your painting, then run a finger (or palette knife, brush handle, or piece of card) along the bristles. Remember to do this towards yourself so the paint sprays away from you.

What this technique produces is a spray of small drops of paint. If you like absolute control, or don't like things to get messy, this is probably not a technique you'll enjoy using. While you can control or guide where the paint will go to some extent with practice, it does like to spray around and get to places you hadn't expected.

The size of the drops depends on how fluid the paint is, how much you've got on the toothbrush, and how you flick it. You don't have to use a toothbrush for spattering, any stiff-haired brush works. Try it first on a page in your painting sketchbook or a scrap bit of paper. Or if you do it onto a painting that's completely dry, you can wipe off the paint and try again. (Though if you're using acrylics, be quick as the paint will dry rapidly.)

To stop paint spraying in a particular area, mask it off. About the easiest method is to hold or tape up a piece of paper or cloth, covering the area you don't want to be spattered.

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Art Techniques Water Soluble Graphite

Art Techniques Water Soluble Pencil or Graphite
Visual Index of Art Techniques Water soluble graphite (pencil) on A2 paper. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

This figure study was created with water-soluble graphite. The lines were drawn first, then a waterbrush used to turn some of the graphite into paint. I also lifted some color directly off the pencil with the waterbrush, and drew with the pencil into still-wet areas on the paper. The technique is the same as using water-color pencils, except you're working in grey tones only.

When you can use water-soluble graphite pencil dry onto dry paper, it will produce the same results as a normal pencil. Go over it with a brush and water, then the graphite turns into grey transparent paint, like a watercolor wash. Working with it onto wet paper produces a soft, broad line, that spreads out at the edges.

Water-soluble graphite pencils come in varying degrees of pencil hardness, and as pencils with wood around them or woodless graphite sticks. A woodless version has the advantage that you never need stop to sharpen it. You simply tear off a piece of the wrapper to expose more of the graphite stick. You can sharpen a graphite stick into a point with a sharpener like with a normal pencil, but even easier is to quickly flatten it into a point by moving it back and forth on some paper.

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Art Techniques: Gouache and Colored Pencil

Mixed media painting technique combining gouache with coloured pencil
Visual Index of Art Techniques This mixed media painting combines gouache and colored pencil. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Being opaque, a layer of gouache paint will hide any pencil marks underneath the paint far more than watercolor. But you can work on top of it with pencil (graphite or colored) as well as draw into the still-wet paint as I've done in this figure painting.

As you can see in the detail from the painting, the marks created by a brown colored pencil in the gouache paint vary. In some places it's moved the paint aside but not left any pencil marks on the paper. In other places it's moved the paint and left a brown line. (Both of these could be called sgraffito technique.) Where the paint was dry, the colored pencil has left a line on top of the paint. Thus a single pencil can produce variety of mark making with the paint.

I do realize purple isn't a color associated with good health and it may seem a strange choice for a figure painting. But I was using up leftover paint towards the end of a life drawing session, and didn't want to take any new paint. The purple is better than the lime green you can see peeping out at the shoulders. That's definitely an unhealthy pallor! I tried to focus on tone rather than hue, then used the pencil to add a bit of definition to the form of the figure.