Words to Know

Watercolor Painting: Materials and Tools, and Techniques

Materials and Tools

  • Brushes:
    • Flat: Bristles are cut straight across, and can be used for washes (see Techniques) or for angular lines.
    • Round: Bristles can be filled with water or pigment for washes, or, using less water, can be formed into a point for detail painting.
    • Mop: A very full, rounded bristle head that holds a lot of water or pigment can be used for large, uninterrupted washes.
    • Brushes are numbered from low to high, indicating the width of its head (00 would be a very small, fine brush and 12 would be a very large brush).
  • Paints:
    • Tube: Today paints are regularly sold in tubes. Tubes help artists preserve and easily travel with their paints. Paint tubes were invented in 1841.
    • Pan: Watercolors are commonly sold in pans. Pans help organize colors and provide a set palette.
  • Sponges:
    • Natural sponges: These sponges are made from natural materials and are often in irregular shapes. They are ideal for making organic shapes such as clouds or bushes.
    • Elephant ear sponges; These are a form of natural sponge that are flat and covered with a fine texture. They are ideal for tighter lines and feathering.
    • Synthetic kitchen sponges: These household sponges are very absorbent and provide very little texture effect.
  • Toweling:
    • Paper or rags: artists use paper or rags to soak up excess water or paint. Toweling can allow for quicker application of pigment.
  • Palette:
    • Palettes hold the paints and may include dividers for mixing colors.
    • They may be made from plastic or china plate.
  • Sgraffito (see below) tools:
    • Pin, needle, knife, fingernail, sandpaper
  • Paper:
    • Texture: the bumpiness of the paper surface, called “tooth”
      • Rough: a texture that is very bumpy, with a high degree of tooth
      • Cold Press: the texture is smoother, with a medium degree of tooth.
      • Hot Press: a texture that is almost smooth, with very little tooth
    • Weight: the thickness of the paper, which is described by “pound”
      • 90-pound paper: This quite thin student-grade paper buckles when wet and can't endure much scrubbing for changes.
      • 140-pound paper: This is the most commonly used and can be stretched (see below).
      • 300-pound paper: This thick, board-like paper does not require stretching.
    • Formats:
      • Sheets are sold individually. Most need to be stretched.
      • Pads contain sheets bound by one adhesive side or a spiral wire. Most need to be stretched.
      • Blocks contain multiple sheets bound by adhesive along all the edges. Painting is done on the top sheet, allowed to dry, and then cut off of the block using a palette knife through a space in the adhesive. Paper does not need to be stretched.


  • Loading, or to load: To fully saturate a brush with pigment.
  • Wet-on-wet: Wetting the area with clean water, and adding pigment with a wet brush on top. The paint will bleed and seep across the wet area in an organic way.
  • Charging: Introducing a strong second color into or adjacent to a still wet wash area, allowing the colors to bleed into one another. • Wash: Loading brush with paint and creating a solid area of even color.
  • Glazing, or layering: Painting with another color on top of an already painted area that has dried.
  • Sgraffito, or scrubbing: Breaking or abrading the surface of the paper, either before putting a wash on top (to allow more pigment to absorb into the scratched areas and become darker) or after the wash is dry (to expose the white of the paper).
  • Dry brush: Blotting a paint brush of excess water and paint and lightly dragging the pigment across the tooth of the paper to create a feathery or textured effect.
  • Graded wash: Creating a graduated field by loading a brush with paint and painting across; then dipping brush in water and painting with a slight overlap so that the new area is lighter in color; and repeating so that the last brushstroke is done with very little pigment (mostly water).
  • Lifting, or pulling: Removing color from the surface while an area is damp or dry by using a sponge or towel to blot, or by using a paintbrush with clean water to re-wet the area and pull up the pigment from the paper.
  • Stretching: Creating a surface that will not buckle while painting by first soaking it in water, then placing it on a board, with its edges taped by brown paper packing tape. As the paper dries, it pulls taut against the board to create a smooth surface.


Image credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, from Fire at the Tower of London Sketchbook [Finberg CCLXXXIII], 1841. Watercolor on paper. Tate, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856, D32164. Image © Tate, London 2015