Unlock the Three Watercolor Rules for Artists

  • By: Michael Smith
  • Time to read: 15 min.
Michael Smith
I'm Michael Smith, the founder and creative director of Art and Drawing. With over a decade of experience in the art and design industry, my keen eye for detail and passion for creating inspiring artwork drive my work. I'm dedicated to capturing the world's beauty through vibrant, expressive pieces that spark imagination and emotion.

Are you an artist looking to elevate your watercolor skills and create vibrant and impactful artworks?

Then, it’s time to unlock the three essential watercolor rules that will take your artistry to the next level. These rules, interrelated and foundational to watercolor painting, will guide you in understanding the techniques and principles behind this captivating medium.

By mastering these watercolor rules, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how to work light to dark, recognize the drying shift of watercolors, and utilize the white of the paper. These principles, among others, contribute to the transparency and depth that watercolor paintings are renowned for.

Key Takeaways:

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  • Working light to dark creates depth and dimension in watercolor artworks.
  • Watercolor paints lighten when they dry, requiring adjustments in pigment concentration.
  • The white of the paper serves as the highlight in watercolor paintings.
  • Transparency is a defining characteristic of watercolor paints, enabling layering techniques for vibrant effects.
  • Mastering wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques allows for controlled precision and free-flowing expression.

Rule Number 1: Work Light To Dark

When it comes to watercolor painting, working from light to dark is an essential rule to follow. This unique approach requires careful planning and a deep understanding of the painting process. Unlike other mediums, watercolor paints are transparent, allowing the layers underneath to show through. By starting with lighter colors and gradually building up tonal values and shades, artists can create depth and dimension in their artwork.

By working light to dark, artists can achieve stunning and realistic effects in their watercolor paintings. This technique allows them to establish the overall composition and capture the play of light and shadows in their artwork.

“Working light to dark is like adding layers of magic to your watercolor paintings. Each layer adds depth and richness, creating a truly mesmerizing piece of art.”

By first laying down light washes of color and gradually adding darker tones, artists can build up the complexity of their paintings. This approach not only enhances the visual impact of the artwork but also allows for more control and precision in achieving the desired effects.

The process of working light to dark requires patience and practice. Artists must carefully observe the drying time of each layer to ensure proper color blending and avoid muddiness. Through experimentation and exploration, artists can discover the endless possibilities and creative potential of working light to dark in watercolor painting.

Rule Number 2: Watercolor Lightens When it Dries

In the art of watercolor painting, understanding the behavior of watercolors as they dry is crucial for achieving the desired results. One important rule to keep in mind is that watercolor paint tends to lighten and lose some of its color saturation as it dries.

This lightening effect occurs due to a change in the concentration of pigments on the surface of the paper as the water evaporates. The water in the paint carries the pigments, and as it evaporates, the pigments become more concentrated, resulting in a more intense color when wet. However, as the paint dries, the water evaporates completely, leaving behind a lighter concentration of pigments.

To compensate for this lightening effect, artists can mix their colors with a slightly stronger pigment concentration than desired. This ensures that when the paint dries, the color intensity remains close to the intended shade. It’s important to consider the drying shift when mixing colors and adjusting the pigment concentration accordingly.

The image above visually represents the drying shift of watercolor paint. Notice how the colors appear more vibrant and intense when wet, but lighten as they dry.

Effect of Drying on Watercolor Paint Properties
Lightening of Colors As water evaporates, pigments become more concentrated, resulting in a lighter and less saturated color.
Change in Color Intensity Understanding the drying shift allows artists to compensate by using a slightly stronger pigment concentration when mixing colors.
Planning for the Final Result Considering the drying shift is essential for achieving the desired color intensity and overall effect in the finished artwork.

By being aware of the drying shift of watercolors and taking it into account during the painting process, artists can maintain control over the color saturation and produce artworks with the desired visual impact.

Rule Number 3: White Comes From the Paper

In watercolor painting, the beauty of white comes from the paper itself. Unlike other mediums, watercolors do not rely on white paint to create highlights or lighter tones. Instead, artists preserve the natural whiteness of the paper by strategically planning and leaving areas untouched. The transparent nature of watercolors allows the white of the paper to shine through, imparting a luminous effect to the artwork.

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Planning Whites

To make the white areas stand out in a watercolor painting, planning is key. Before starting the artwork, artists visualize the areas that will remain white. These areas are carefully protected throughout the painting process, ensuring that the brilliance of the paper remains untouched and vibrant.

“Preserving the white areas in watercolor paintings is like harnessing the light within the artwork. It adds a sense of depth and luminosity, enhancing the overall impact.”

By planning and carefully considering the location of whites, artists create a dynamic contrast against the colors and create focal points that draw the viewer’s attention.

The Transparent Nature of Watercolors

The transparent quality of watercolors plays a significant role in showcasing the natural whiteness of the paper. Unlike opaque mediums, watercolors allow light to penetrate the layers of paint, revealing the luminous white beneath. This transparency creates a sense of depth and adds richness to the overall composition.

Watercolor artists embrace and celebrate the transparency of the medium, understanding that it is this quality that makes watercolors truly unique and captivating. By skillfully utilizing the transparency, artists can create ethereal and enchanting artworks that capture the essence of the subject and evoke emotions in the viewer.

Rule Number 4: Watercolors are Transparent

Transparency is a defining characteristic of watercolor paints. It is this transparency that enables artists to create truly captivating effects by layering colors and utilizing the glazing technique. Each layer of color adds depth and complexity to the artwork, resulting in stunning visual compositions.

Watercolor paints allow light to pass through them, allowing the layers underneath to shine through. This unique quality of transparency gives watercolor paintings their luminosity and ethereal quality. When combined with the glazing technique, where multiple thin layers of color are applied one on top of another, artists can achieve a wide range of subtle hues and intricate textures.

“Transparency is the key to unlocking the full potential of watercolor painting. It allows us to create beautiful effects and achieve a sense of depth and dimension in our artwork.”

– Anna Williams, Watercolor Artist

Layering colors in watercolor is a delicate process that requires careful planning and execution. Each layer interacts with the layer beneath it, influencing the final appearance of the painting. Artists have the freedom to experiment with different color combinations, creating harmonious and dynamic compositions.

Wet-on-Wet and Wet-on-Dry Techniques

The transparency of watercolors also enables two fundamental painting techniques: wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry. These techniques offer a broad range of possibilities for artists to explore.

  • The wet-on-wet technique involves applying paint to a wet surface. This allows the colors to blend and flow freely, creating soft transitions and beautiful gradients.
  • The wet-on-dry technique, on the other hand, involves applying paint to a dry surface. This technique provides more control over brush strokes and allows for precise details and crisp edges.

By mastering these techniques and understanding the transparency of watercolors, artists can unlock the true potential of this medium and create stunning works of art that captivate the viewer.

How Transparency Enhances Watercolor Painting

The transparency of watercolors adds a unique visual quality to paintings, allowing light to interact with the layers of color. This creates a sense of depth and luminosity that cannot be achieved with other mediums.

The layering of colors in watercolor paintings allows for subtle variations in hues and values. By building up layers of transparent color, artists can create rich and vibrant compositions. The transparency also allows for softer edges and a more natural blending of colors, adding a sense of realism to the artwork.

Transparency also plays a crucial role in portraying the delicate play of light and shadow. By carefully layering transparent colors, artists can create the illusion of light filtering through the painting, bringing it to life and evoking a sense of atmosphere and mood.

Rule Number 5: Wet-on-wet and Wet-on-dry

In the world of watercolor painting, two fundamental techniques hold great significance—wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry. These techniques offer artists unique ways to express their creativity and achieve breathtaking results. Let’s explore these techniques and discover how they contribute to controlled precision and free-flowing expression.

The wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques allow artists to create beautiful watercolor effects.

Wet-on-Wet Technique: Fluid Blending and Seamless Transitions

The wet-on-wet technique involves applying watercolor paint to a wet surface. This allows the colors to meld and blend seamlessly, creating fluid, soft edges and fascinating transitions. By keeping the surface consistently wet, artists can manipulate the paints and explore the world of possibilities that emerge through this technique.

“The wet-on-wet technique offers a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability, allowing the colors to freely interact and create stunning effects.” – Watercolor Artist

Wet-on-Dry Technique: Precision and Finer Details

In contrast to the wet-on-wet technique, wet-on-dry involves applying paint to a dry surface. This technique provides artists with precise control over brush marks and allows for the intricate rendering of details.

With the wet-on-dry technique, artists can achieve controlled precision by layering colors and creating defined shapes. This approach is ideal for capturing intricate elements, intricate textures, and fine lines in a watercolor painting.

“The wet-on-dry technique empowers artists to exercise meticulous control over their brushstrokes, resulting in stunning details and intricate designs.” – Watercolor Enthusiast

Mastering both wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques opens up a world of possibilities for artists. By knowing when to employ each technique, artists can seamlessly switch between controlled precision and free-flowing expression, adapting to the specific needs of their artistic vision.

Rule Number 6: Respect the Water Cycle

The water cycle is an integral part of watercolor painting, impacting the wetness of the paper and the brush. Understanding the different drying phases that wet washes on watercolor paper go through can greatly enhance an artist’s control over the medium.

As the wet washes dry, they progress through various states, including dry, damp, moist, and wet. Each stage presents unique opportunities and challenges for artists to achieve their desired effects.

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Observing the behavior of watercolors at each stage of the water cycle is crucial. When the paper is dry, it absorbs less water, making it ideal for detailed brushwork and precise strokes. Conversely, when the paper is wet, colors spread more easily, allowing for smooth gradients and soft transitions.

The wetness of the brush also affects the water cycle. A wet brush holds more water and dilutes the paint, creating lighter washes. On the other hand, a drier brush yields more intense colors and stronger pigmentation.

By respecting the water cycle, artists can harness its dynamics to achieve their desired effects, whether it’s creating luminous glazes or capturing the delicate interplay of light and shadow.

Working in harmony with the water cycle allows artists to maintain control and precision while embracing the spontaneity and fluidity inherent in watercolor painting.

Understanding the Water Cycle

Stage Description
Dry The paper is completely dry, ideal for detailed brushwork and precise strokes.
Damp The paper is slightly damp, allowing colors to spread more easily for smooth gradients and transitions.
Moist The paper is moderately moist, providing a balance between control and fluidity.
Wet The paper is fully wet, allowing colors to flow and blend together freely.

Rule Number 7: Timing is Everything!

When it comes to watercolor painting, timing plays a crucial role. The drying process of watercolors is relatively fast compared to other mediums. Artists must work quickly and capitalize on the moist stage of the drying process to achieve their desired brush marks and effects.

The challenge arises when attempting to make corrections after the paint has dried. It can be challenging to blend or alter areas that have already dried, often resulting in streaky brush marks and unintended outcomes. That’s why understanding and respecting the timing of watercolors is essential for maintaining control over the medium.

By mastering the art of working swiftly and strategically, artists can ensure that their brushwork remains vivid and cohesive. The ability to seize the ideal moments during the painting process empowers artists to manipulate the paint precisely as they envision. This level of control enables them to bring their artistic vision to life effectively.

Embracing Fluidity with Moist Paint

“Timing, they say, is everything. And it’s true. In watercolor painting, the timing of brushstrokes can make or break the final outcome. Working with moist paint allows for greater fluidity. It gives me the flexibility to merge colors seamlessly and create stunning, harmonious transitions.” – Sarah Adams, Watercolor Artist

The moisture in watercolor paint grants artists the opportunity to blend and manipulate the colors more freely. This freedom allows for smooth transitions between hues, contributing to the overall vibrancy and visual appeal of the artwork.

By embracing the moist stage of the drying process, artists can create beautiful washes, soft edges, and captivating textures. It’s during this stage that the paint is most receptive to blending with other colors, enabling artists to achieve unique effects and amplify the desired mood of their artwork.

Seizing the Window of Opportunity

Timing in watercolor painting is about recognizing and seizing the window of opportunity. It’s about understanding when to make bold brushstrokes, when to softly feather the colors, and when to allow the paint to blend naturally.

Each artist defines their own timing, exploring and experimenting to find the rhythm that best suits their style and vision. The more artists practice and observe the behavior of watercolors, the more they will grasp the fleeting moments where magic can happen on the paper.

Timing is not only about speed but also about patience. It’s about giving the paint the necessary time to dry in between layers or specific techniques, ensuring that each brushstroke retains its integrity and the desired effect is achieved.

In summary, timing is everything in watercolor painting. By working swiftly and purposefully, artists can unleash the full potential of their brushwork and achieve the desired results. Understanding the precise moments when the paint is receptive to blending, layering, and corrections allows for greater control over the medium and enhances artistic expression.

Advantages and Challenges of Timing in Watercolor Painting

Advantages Challenges
Opportunity for seamless color blending Difficulty making corrections after paint has dried
Enhanced control over brushwork and effects Potential for streaky brush marks if timing is not achieved
Freedom to create captivating textures and soft edges Need for patience and observation to identify optimal timing
Greater flexibility in achieving vibrant brushstrokes Risk of unintentional paint blending if timing is not precise

Rule Number 8: Don’t Use Black!

When it comes to watercolor painting, many artists opt to avoid using black paint. Instead, they choose to mix their own dark tones, which not only adds vibrancy to their artwork but also allows for the creation of nuanced neutral shades. By mixing complementary colors, artists can achieve a wider spectrum of colors that harmonize with the overall painting.

Using black paint can sometimes result in flat and lifeless dark tones. However, by mixing complementary colors such as ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, or sap green and alizarin crimson, artists can create dark hues that have more depth and dimension. These mixed dark tones bring a vibrant energy to the painting and add visual interest.

By avoiding black paint and embracing the process of mixing dark tones, artists can explore the vast range of colors available in watercolor painting. This approach encourages experimentation and allows artists to unleash their creativity, resulting in artwork that is rich in color and full of life.

Pros of Avoiding Black Paint Cons of Using Black Paint
Allows for more vibrant and nuanced neutral shades Can result in flat and lifeless dark tones
Adds depth and dimension to the artwork Limits the range of colors available
Harmonizes with the overall painting May appear stark and unnatural

Rule Number 9: Break the Rules!

While understanding and applying the watercolor rules is important, artists should also explore new possibilities by breaking the rules. Experimentation and thinking outside the box can unlock new levels of creativity in watercolor painting. Artists are encouraged to challenge themselves, try different approaches, and learn from the results, ultimately developing their unique style and artistic voice.

“Creativity takes courage.” – Henri Matisse

By breaking the traditional watercolor rules, artists have the opportunity to push boundaries and discover innovative techniques. Embracing the unexpected can lead to transformative artistic experiences. Let your imagination guide your brush and unleash your creativity onto the canvas.

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Exploring Unconventional Materials

One way to break the rules in watercolor painting is by using unconventional materials. Expand your palette by incorporating items like salt, alcohol, or even coffee grounds to create unique textures and effects. Explore the world around you and see how ordinary objects can transform your watercolor artwork into something extraordinary.

Intuitive Brushstrokes

Instead of meticulously planning every brushstroke, try embracing spontaneity and letting your intuition guide your hand. Allow yourself to paint with broad, expressive strokes and see where they take you. This intuitive approach can result in dynamic and emotionally charged artworks that captivate the viewer.

Mixing Unexpected Colors

Break free from traditional color palettes and experiment with unexpected combinations. Mix vibrant hues with earth tones or complementaries to create striking contrasts. Don’t be afraid to incorporate unconventional shades and explore the full spectrum of colors available to you. Let your artistic instincts guide your choices and see where it leads.

Embracing Imperfection

Watercolor is a medium known for its spontaneity and unpredictability. Instead of striving for perfection, embrace the organic nature of watercolor painting. Allow drips, splatters, and happy accidents to become part of your artwork. These imperfections can add charm, character, and a sense of authenticity to your watercolor pieces.

Pushing Boundaries

Breaking the rules in watercolor painting means pushing beyond your comfort zone and exploring new horizons. Challenge yourself to try different techniques, experiment with unconventional subject matters, and embrace unconventional compositions. Give yourself the freedom to explore uncharted territories and see where your artistic journey takes you.

Unleash Your Creativity

By breaking the watercolor rules, you open the doors to endless possibilities and unlock your true creative potential. Embrace the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and learn along the way. Remember that creativity knows no boundaries, and by breaking the rules, you can create watercolor artworks that are truly unique, expressive, and filled with your personal artistic voice.


Mastering the three watercolor rules, combined with other essential techniques, is key to unlocking the full potential for artists to create vibrant and impactful watercolor artworks. By working light to dark, understanding the drying shift of watercolors, and utilizing the white of the paper, artists can achieve transparency and depth in their paintings.

These foundational principles lay the groundwork for artists to express their creativity and develop their own unique styles. By respecting these rules and experimenting with different approaches, artists can elevate their watercolor skills and create stunning artworks that capture the essence of their subjects.

Remember, mastering watercolor techniques takes time and practice. Embrace the journey of learning and be open to exploring new possibilities. By honing your skills and refining your understanding of the watercolor rules, you can create vibrant and dynamic watercolor art that leaves a lasting impression. So grab your brushes, embrace the beauty of watercolor, and let your creativity flow!


What are the three watercolor rules for artists?

The three watercolor rules for artists are working light to dark, recognizing the drying shift of watercolors, and utilizing the white of the paper.

Why is it important to work from light to dark in watercolor painting?

Working light to dark in watercolor painting creates depth and dimension in the artwork by gradually building up tonal values and shades.

What is the drying shift of watercolors?

The drying shift of watercolors refers to the lightening and loss of color saturation that occurs as the water evaporates and the concentration of pigments on the surface of the paper changes.

How can artists compensate for the drying shift of watercolors?

Artists can compensate for the drying shift of watercolors by using a slightly stronger pigment concentration when mixing colors, ensuring the desired color intensity when the paint dries.

How can artists utilize the white of the paper in watercolor painting?

In watercolor painting, artists can utilize the white of the paper by planning and leaving areas untouched, allowing the transparency of watercolors to create a luminous effect in the artwork.

What is the transparency of watercolors?

Transparency is a defining characteristic of watercolor paints, allowing artists to create remarkable effects by applying multiple layers of color, known as glazing.

What are wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques in watercolor painting?

Wet-on-wet involves applying paint to a wet surface, creating fluid effects by allowing colors to blend seamlessly. Wet-on-dry, on the other hand, involves applying paint to a dry surface, providing precise control over brush marks and enabling fine details.

What is the water cycle in watercolor painting?

The water cycle in watercolor painting refers to the different drying phases that wet washes on watercolor paper go through, including dry, damp, moist, and wet stages.

Why is timing important in watercolor painting?

Timing is important in watercolor painting as the paint dries relatively fast. By working quickly and taking advantage of the moist stage of the drying process, artists can achieve desired brush marks and effects.

Why do many watercolor artists avoid using black paint?

Many watercolor artists avoid using black paint and instead mix their own dark tones to produce more vibrant and nuanced neutral shades that harmonize with the overall painting.

Should artists always follow the watercolor rules?

While it is important to understand and apply the watercolor rules, artists are encouraged to occasionally break the rules to explore new possibilities and unlock new levels of creativity in watercolor painting.