Watercolor Techniques: Two-color Washes and Variegated Washes

Variegated wash in watercolor, with red, blue, and yellow
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A wash is an application of watercolor paint thinned with water, laid smoothly and evenly across the surface. It is the foundation of watercolor painting. A wash can be flat, graded, or variegated. A flat wash is an even wash of one consistent value. A graded wash is a wash that gradually changes from dark to light value. 

Two-Color Washes

A two-color wash is actually two graded washes that meet each other in the middle of the painting surface. This creates the illusion of atmospheric perspective, in which more distant objects become lighter and less distinct and is therefore useful in depicting a horizon line off in the distance where the sky meets land.

In two-color washes, it is helpful to wet the paper before applying the paint. This will enable the two colors to merge more gently, giving a softer edge. Do this by taping the paper down with artist tape or gummed tape completely along all four edges. Then with a large brush or sponge, dampen the paper with clean water. If you want to totally eliminate any buckling of the paper you should stretch it first.

Starting at the top with one of your colors, load your brush, adding more water as necessary to lighten the value as you make your way down the page, stroking evenly back and forth along the surface until you reach the middle.

Then turn the surface upside down and do the same thing with the second color.  

The two colors, both a light value when they meet in the middle of the painting surface, should subtly merge. If you determine that you want a more distinct line where the two colors meet, you can do the washes on a dry surface. As always, it is helpful to tilt the surface a little bit (about 30 degrees) to achieve the graded wash, being careful that the color doesn't drip down where you don't want it.

Variegated Washes

A variegated wash is a wash of two or more colors that merge when applied to wet paper while still maintaining some of their discrete colors. For this, you again want to wet your paper with a sponge or large brush. One technique is to apply one color by touching your brush to the paper. This will create a bloom of color. Then load your brush with another color and touch the wet surface with the tip of the brush. This will create another bloom of color which will bleed into the first color in some places to create a third color. Another technique is to paint the first color onto wet paper and then, while still wet, apply strokes of another color on top of the first. The top color will bleed out into the first color creating soft edges and a third color in places. For more control over what happens you may want to tilt your paper.  

These techniques take some practices but are useful for backgrounds, textures, and other special effects.