Many artists want to know how to layer in watercolours without creating mud. 

Layering in watercolour is often considered very difficult. The main problem occurs when the initial layers of colour are disturbed and mix with subsequent layers. This can be hugely frustrating. You might be put off the technique if things go wrong when you’ve already spent ages carefully putting layer after layer on your painting.

In the past, I tried using large areas of masking fluid to save parts of the painting while I was layering. This can be a very effective way of painting in layers for people who are comfortable with using big areas of masking fluid. However, it didn’t work for me. Sections of paper tore off when I removed the masking fluid, and, as a result, I felt a huge amount of frustration. I gave up on layering.   What I should have done instead was keep working on layering and use smaller areas of masking fluid. And keep larger areas clear just by being careful where I put my wet brush.

Glazing is the other name for layering. Imagine looking through a single layer of red stained glass. The world you see would have a cheerful, warm glow. Put another layer of blue glass in behind the red glass. Now see what the world looks like. I imagine it would seem somewhat darker, and have a purple tinge. The addition of a layer of blue changes the warm glow completely.  

While on the subject of glaze colours – think carefully before using yellow as a layer in your paintings. Don’t put yellow in an area you may want to be a sky, unless the glaze is very pale or you don’t mind a greenish sky.

Key points on how to layer watercolours

  • Patience is your friend. Layering is a wet on dry technique. Make sure you let the paint dry completely before you apply the next layer. The colours will simply blend if the first layer is even slightly wet.
  • Layering can be used with one or more colours to increase intensity or darken tone. 
  • Using cooler or warmer colours can change the depth perception of a painting. Warmer colours will bring that area of the painting forward. Cooler colours will tend to make them appear more distant.
  • Make sure you are using transparent colours. If you use an opaque colour, the layers below it will not show through sufficiently.
  • It is critical to leave underlying layers undisturbed. Paint with light brushstrokes and try not to go over the area more than once. Definitely – no scrubbing

It takes some practice but it is well worth really understanding how to layer watercolours. 

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