4 Ways to Improve Your Watercolor Brushwork

Nov 02, 2022

If you are a watercolor artist who is looking to move beyond the basics and develop your own painting style, a good place to set your attention is on your brushwork. 

Every little mark that you make is a reflection of the energy that you have when you're painting. It's what sets your paintings apart – what makes them yours. It’s your signature. 

Keep reading to learn how you can become more expressive, more dynamic, and more confident in your brushwork. 

Watercolor Brushwork in Each Wash

First, let's think about our watercolor painting process.

In my typical three wash approach, the first wash has the lighter values of the scene. Often this is the sky or the ground – big areas of your painting. In turn, we use bigger brushes in this part of the painting. From one artist to another, these areas can look very similar. Skies can be similar and so can large swaths of land.

Your chance to really shine and set yourself apart is when you get into more of the finer details of the scene. When we move into the middle values and are painting trees, buildings, and whatever else is within your large, connected area of your painting, this is when we start to see your handwriting as an artist.

The individual marks that you make and the way that you lay down paint on the paper during the second and third wash are more noticeable than in the first. So how can you make this part more expressive, loose, interesting, and dynamic? 

Here are answers to four questions about brushwork that will set you on this path.

Where should I hold my watercolor brush?

It's very common for watercolor students, especially early on, to grasp their brush near the front. But what we want to do is hold it more towards the back. This will allow our brushwork to become more expressive. If we can hold our brush a little further back, marks will not look so labored over. 

There are exceptions to this, of course. If you're painting something that requires a lot of attention or detail, if you're painting around a small highlight, or you really need to be accurate in a mark, it's perfectly fine to hold your brush closer up. But if you're painting something like a tree or an area where you can be more energetic in the way you apply the paint, that's when you want to move your hand further back on your brush.

Just this one small watercolor painting technique will allow you to be more loose, and more expressive in the way that you paint. 

How should I apply watercolor paint onto my paper?

The answer to this is to apply paint with variation, depending on what kind of effect you are trying to achieve. This means we need to practice applying the paint in different ways. If you make the same mark with every brushstroke – say a downward stroke – over and over and over again, your painting will look repetitive. 

Our goal is to introduce more energy into how we paint. Some of this comes with experience because the more comfortable you get with the medium and your paper and your supplies, the more comfortable you're going to be applying a quick brushstroke that injects feeling into the scene that you're painting.

So take the time to practice pushing and pulling your brush, making different types of marks on the page. Use the side of your brush, push your brush around instead of pulling it. The more comfortable you get with your brush and different motions and techniques, the more expressive you can be when you paint.

Which watercolor brush should I use?

It’s crucial to know your brushes and to understand what brush is needed during what part of the painting. If you need a little bit of help with this, I made a video about the different brushes and when to use them during each part of your painting process.

In short, you want a large mop brush for the beginning stages, a medium round brush for the middle wash, and a small synthetic brush for the final details of your watercolor painting. The more familiar you are with your brushes, you'll know better when to use them in different scenarios. 

How do I ensure I make my intended brush mark?

This comes with practice and consistency. But a strategy I use while I am painting is to keep a scrap piece of paper next to your painting for practice marks. This allows you to get comfortable with the strokes you're going to make before you make them. Even though I've been painting for a number of years, I still find this useful because I want to know how much paint and water is in my brush, what the consistency is, what the mark is going to make.

Oftentimes in watercolor, we get one chance to make the right mark. So we want to make sure that we know what it's going to do and we're confident when we use it. 

Final Thoughts

With these brushwork tips, you can become more confident and expressive in your brushwork. The more you paint, the more you can develop your own signature type of brushwork. So keep painting, keep practicing, and reach out if you have any suggestions or questions!

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