Watercolour Techniques: Laying a Wash

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How to Lay an Even Wash in Watercolor

Watercolor Painting Techniques -- Photo of How to Paint an Even Wash in Watercolor
© Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

A wash is useful for providing a background or for covering a large area. It can either be done in one tone, known as an even, smooth, or flat wash; or gradually getting lighter, known as a graded wash.

You'll need the following:

  • A piece of watercolour paper stretched on a drawing board.
  • A large brush (such as a number 10 or 12).
  • A jar of clean water.
  • An easel or something to prop your drawing board up at a 30-degree angle to the horizontal.
  • A cloth for drying your brush.

How to Lay an Even, Flat Wash:
Step 1: Place your board at a 30-degree angle so that the brushstrokes you're going to put down will flow into each other. You're going to work from top to bottom. Load your brush with plenty of paint. Starting at the top edge of the piece of paper, put down a broad horizontal stroke, from one side to the other as if you were drawing a line with a pencil. Don't lift your brush until you're all the way across. Some paint will accumulate at the bottom of this stripe. Don't try to get rid of this, it's an essential part of a wash.

Step 2: Add some more paint to your brush, then make another horizontal stroke making sure that the tip of your brush picks up the "river" of paint at the bottom of the first stripe. Don't paint above this river or you'll ruin the evenness of your wash. Work quickly as you need to lay the next stroke before the river dries up, otherwise you'll end up with lines in your wash, and before it runs down the paper

Step 3: Continue in this way until you get to the bottom of the paper. Squeeze the excess paint from your brush between a fold of cloth, then use the brush tip to lift the excess paint from the last stroke. Don't worry if this makes the last stroke seem a little lighter than the rest, some of the paint will seep down while it dries and sort this out. Leave your board at an angle until the wash is completely dry, otherwise some of the wet paint will flow back up and your wash will dry unevenly.

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How to Lay a Graded Wash in Watercolor

Watercolor Painting Techniques Photo of How to Paint a Graded Wash
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

A graded wash, where the color lightens towards the bottom of the page, is made in the same way as an even wash except that instead of loading your brush with more paint for each subsequent stroke, you load your brush with clean water thereby diluting the wash. Lift the excess water from the last stroke and leave to dry at an angle.


  • Dampen the part of the paper you wish to paint evenly with water using a very large brush or sponge before laying a wash. This makes it easier for the paint to flow.
  • Rather prepare too much paint than run out. If you have to stop to get more paint, your wash may dry, creating a hard edge between where you stopped and restarted. You may also not mix exactly the same color.
  • It's easier to get across the width of a sheet of paper in a single stroke if you use your whole arm rather than just your wrist.
  • Some pigments dilute faster than others, so test graded washes in various colors and keep a record for easy reference.
  • Don't go back an correct any "mistakes" as this will make the "mistake" even worse. Rather start a new wash or accept the imperfection.