Washes have always been an integral part of watercolour painting, but the technique is most certainly applicable to other media.  It's easy to do and costs you very little in paint because you are diluting at least 2:1 (water:paint).  In this article, we're going to explore a bunch of low-tech ways of creating vastly different effects using diluted acrylics, gouache or tempera, and of course, watercolours.  We'll cover how to best utilize acrylic media, cover some traditional watercolour techniques, plus we'll explore using some interesting alternate materials!  Aside from being just plain fun, these simple techniques will add texture and visual interest to any watermedia painting.

Colour washes are ridiculously easy to mix:

  • In a palette, cup, or bowl, portion out some waterbased paint of your choice
  • Liberally add either water, water & gum arabic, or a flow release medium to any water-based paint (minimum 2:1 - water:paint).
  • Apply the diluted paint mix with your softest, most absorbent brush.


A resist constitutes any nonabsorbent media that will repel water.  Commonly used resists are colourless wax crayons, or an acrylic gloss medium or gel. 

Wax Resist: 

Wax crayons are easy to control and best suited for creating fine line details.  Colourless wax crayons create a very thin, nearly invisible wax film on your painting surface.  The film of wax prevents the pigment loaded water from settling in, it just beads-up and rolls away creating negative spaces in your wash.  Colourless wax has the potential to be frustrating because you can’t easily see what you've drawn until you lay colour over it.

 Acrylic Resist:

Acrylic gloss gels & mediums can be applied with a brush, palette knife, or dripped from a squeeze bottle and are suitable for creating both fine details or filling in large spaces.  Acrylic mediums start out milky-white and dry clear so it’s less challenging than wax in terms of seeing where you’ve added detail.  Do keep in mind that acrylic medium creates a thick film on the painting surface, it will add a dimension of relief to your painting (which will be a departure from the traditional look of watercolour painting).  When using acrylic mediums, you generally have the choice of glossy or matte;  all matte mediums are absorbent by nature so they should be avoided for this application.

Drizzled acrylic resist - Clear Tar Gel by Golden (below)

An acrylic medium resist applied by brush (below)


Masking is the act of protecting areas of your painting from accepting further layers of paint.  This can be done with good old-fashioned masking tape, however cutting and arranging pieces of masking tape is tedious at best.  So why not try masking fluid (also known as liquid frisket)?  As a liquid, masking fluid can cover any shape and size of area on the painting, and is especially useful for protecting really tiny areas or to create neat and clean highlights.

Frisket is made of a suspension of latex in water (with ammonia as a preservative).  It dries very fast and will ruin paintbrushes instantly, so it’s recommended to apply it using something like a bobby pin, the butt-end of your paintbrush, a cotton swab, metal stylus, or the purpose-built Grafix Incredible Nib frisket applicator.  Once the frisket is completely dry you are free to apply light washes as needed.  Afterwards, to remove the masking, simply rub an eraser over your dry painting and the frisket will begin to crumble and peel away from the friction. (The white Staedtler drafting erasers work the best)

White areas were protected with liquid frisket and pink details were added after the frisket was removed - High Flow acrylics by Golden (below)

Nonabsorbent Grounds:

The idea behind this technique is to create a rough, nonabsorbent base that forces diluted paint to collect unevenly on the surface.  When diluted paint is applied over glossy or nonabsorbent surfaces the pigment settles wherever it can in crevices and features, giving a very rustic and natural texture (like tree bark). 

To get started, apply Hard Molding Paste to your painting surface with a painting knife as though you were icing a cake.  (Hard molding paste is preferred because regular molding paste is more absorbent and won't yield the same results.)  Also be aware that molding paste dries to an opaque white so it will brighten the intensity of any wash of colour laid over it.

Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold washed over Hard Molding Paste (below)

If the stark white opacity of molding paste is a problem, you can tint the paste with an acrylic colour of your choice, or the same technique can be done using a Heavy Gloss Gel or High Solid Gloss Gel.  These dense, nonabsorbent gels go on milky white but dry crystal clear.  This allows you to see any underpainting you may have already done, but also creates a rough surface on which you can apply transparent washes of diluted paint creating a sense of depth.

Salt and Alcohol:

No, we are not talking about tequila shots, sorry folks…. Iodized table salt and/or rubbing alcohol; these two household products create some very fun paint effects!  Its an easy two-step process;  first lay down a wash of colour, then sprinkle either salt or rubbing alcohol onto the wet paint, and Voila!  The hardest part is resisting touching it as it dries.


The salt crystals draw the coloured pigment in which results in an array of tiny colour-saturated speckles.  When the paint has dried completely, just brush off any remaining salt granules.


Rubbing alcohol dripped onto a fresh wash of colour will do the exact opposite as salt – it repels the pigment, creating comparatively large doughnut shapes.  The effect here is more pronounced and harder to control relative to the salt application.

Plastic Wrap:

Just like the salt/alcohol application, this is the most insanely easy technique, suitable for all ages and skill levels!

  • Lay down diluted colour(s) on your painting surface
  • Take a length of kitchen plastic wrap and lay it loosely on your area of wet paint
  • Begin to crinkle up the plastic wrap in whatever fashion you like - the more crinkled, the more detailed texture you will have
  • Set it aside to dry with the plastic still on... try not to mess with it until it's completely dry
How it looks with the plastic still on...


...and a finished example, sans plastic


Thanks for joining us!  We hope these playful exercises will inspire and rejuvenate you and your artwork!


January 30, 2016 — Karen Bullaro