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Glazing (Layering Color) with Watercolors

Author: Ellen Fountain, Fountain Studio/Graphics

What does it mean to glaze in watercolor? How does the watercolor glazing process differ from oil painting or from other opaque mediums? If you've asked yourself this question, then maybe these tips will help.

First, remember that even the most opaque watercolor pigments are not as opaque as gouache, nor as opaque as any pigment mixed with white. So, if you are painting in the traditional watercolor manner (i.e. not using Chinese white, titanium white or any white pigment), then you must always work from your lightest value to your darkest. The nature of watercolor is that it is transparent, so even the pigments that are "opaque" don't ever completely cover up previously painted layers.

Second, since watercolor pigments are resoluble, even when dry, care must be taken when glazing not to use a "heavy" hand...in other words, the paint should just flow off the brush, and you should use very little pressure, so as not to disturb the underlying layers of paint. A very soft brush is also a requirement.

Third, use the most transparent pigments for glazing. Opaque pigments do not glaze well, and may look chalky when dry. Also, I try to use staining pigments for the first layer or two, and non-staining ones for the final layers, because (1) the staining pigments tend to stay in place better, and (2) staining pigments will stain all the underlying layers of paint, which may or may not be what you want to have happen. If you don't know which of your tube colors are transparent and/or staining, refer to Michael Wilcox's book, The Wilcox Guide to the Best Watercolor Paints. You can also conduct your own transparency, staining and sediment tests (see my tips page on this topic).

Finally, each layer of color should dry thoroughly before glazing the next layer over it. This gives you the best chance of not lifting the underlying color.


This sample painting above began wet-into-wet. Onto wet paper, I dropped aureolin and lemon yellow, and in places, charged in a little quinacridone red. I tipped the paper a little and blotted some areas to get all soft edges. When this dried, I began to pull out the shapes of the branch and birds by glazing more yellow and red over the first wash. I also began to introduce a little ultramarine blue just under the smaller bird and to pull out the shape of the small branch at the lower center. I also mixed a little blue with the yellow to glaze the area in the lower left corner. I let this dry completely.


Now I added more blue, fairly pure in the sky area, where I added clean water to soften it's edge, and grayed a bit with the yellow and red, to give the branch a little more definition, as well as to define the smaller bird a bit more. The blue was also glazed thinly in the lower right corner (foliage) and in a more saturated mix with yellow for the leaves in the lower left. I used more red to punch up the color around the birds heads, and to add a few more suggestions of foliage.


To finish up, I mixed a green using the ultramarine and aureolin, and glazed it on more or less horizontally in the center of the painting to add more foliage and pop out the birds a little more. I also rewet with clean water and lifted out some color from the smaller bird's chest and tail and down into the lower right corner to lighten it, then glazed a little more pure blue in these areas to help pull the purer blue of the sky into the painting. Since this piece began wet-in-wet, with soft amorphous edges, I want to keep that soft quality, and just "suggest" rather than painting in every little detail. Knowing when to quit is important. Take the time to step back from your work often, and ask yourself if adding more will contribute anything necessary to the painting. If the answer is no, quit!

Ellen Fountain Factoid: "I feel blessed to have had the experience of growing up where I did, and in the times that I did. It was a very rural life, and my inspiration for play and learning came from the natural world that was all around us–the creek next to our house, the animals we saw (and some we tamed to eat from our hands), from my parent's music collection, and from books. I "lived" in my imagination, stimulated by the things I saw around me every day. We had no television and no telephone until I was fourteen years old, when we moved to the Seattle area. After graduating second in my class four years later from Bainbridge Island High, another move took me to northern California, where I attended Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, and took my first formal art classes."

Ellen Fountain has been working primarily in watercolors since the early 1970s. She has exhibited in over 100 invitational, solo and juried shows, and has won over 4 dozen awards since 1982, one third of which are national awards outside of her home state of Arizona. She teaches workshops and classes in many locations, and loves sharing her knowledge with others.

Ellen is a contributing editor to Wetcanvas, and be reached via email at efountain@access1.net. For more information on Ellen and her wondrous watercolor works, visit her online studio at www.fountainstudio.com.