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Watercolor Kairouan (III) by August Macke ; the light-colored paper and the pencil sketch shimmer through

A watercolor (from the Latin aqua 'water') is a picture made with non-opaque watercolors . The watercolors consist of very fine pigments , water-soluble binders such as gum arabic , tragacanth or dextrins , as well as wetting agents and humectants. These translucent colors are only diluted with water and applied to paper , parchment or other materials with a brush . In contrast to gouache and tempera, the white painting ground shimmers through the watercolors and gives them depth and luminosity. The color effect is usually created by laying thin layers of paint on top of each other in a translucent manner or working “wet on wet” and using particularly finely rubbed pigments. One speaks of finely dispersed pigments with a grain size of around 1/10 000 mm. These pigments are so fine that they are absorbed by the paper fibers. The paper fiber is colored and the result is the "fragrant" look of a good watercolor. In contrast to oil or tempera painting , where the paint or binding agent binds the pigments to one another and to the primer , the binders already mentioned above only have a protective function to prevent the pigments from coagulating or flaking. If you want to achieve white areas or lights, you leave the paper tone untouched.


Albrecht Dürer, Head of a Roebuck, watercolor 1514

The watercolor is one of the oldest painting techniques. As early as the second millennium BC, Egyptian artists used this method to illustrate books of the dead. Painted papyrus has survived from Egypt , and pictures and calligraphy with water-soluble inks from Asia . As a rule, these water colors were "opaque" or were thickened with opaque, white paint, for example in medieval wall painting and miniature painting .

Watercolor painting in the narrower sense (as a painting technique using translucent colors) has developed continuously since around the 9th century AD. In the late Middle Ages, this technique was first used to color outline drawings and graphic works. It was not until the young Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) recognized the unique possibilities of watercolor painting. In his early landscape studies, such as in the " Tal bei Kalchreuth " from 1494/95 , he shows a level of watercolor technique that was only achieved centuries later in England, for example by William Turner (1775-1851). Turner, who is considered to be one of the most important watercolorists, led watercolor painting to technical mastery. When open-air painting gained in importance in the course of the 19th century, a broad rediscovery of painting with water-soluble colors began. In England, Water Color Societies promoted the use of this painting technique. Numerous painters such as Eugène Delacroix , Paul Cézanne , Emil Nolde and Christian Modersohn created watercolors as independent works of art. The watercolors by August Macke (1887–1914) , which he painted on his 1914 trip to Tunis , are among the most interesting works, which reflect the breadth of the technical possibilities of watercolor painting and "represent a pinnacle of European painting" ( Günter Busch ) .

Maria Sibylla Merian , who also used the water color technique for her work, was once dedicated to the 500 DM note .


Typically, the watercolor paints are made with a round brush on watercolor paper coated

Numerous techniques are used in watercolor painting, but their names are inconsistent. As a rule, there are variations of two basic techniques: glazing and washing. In turn, they are based on a certain approach to painting ground, brush and color. With all the differences in detail, they create the characteristic of a watercolor.

Painting ground

The most commonly used painting surface is paper . With the rapid development of paper manufacture in the 15th century, one of the decisive prerequisites was created for watercolor painting to develop as an independent art form. Watercolor papers common today go back to English papers of the 18th century. The paper suitable for watercolor painting must be absorbent, have a rough texture and yet be smooth enough that the color pigments dissolved in the water can be evenly distributed and adhere. The usual paper weight is between 180 and 400 grams. In addition to industrially manufactured paper, hand-made paper, handmade paper and Japanese paper can also be considered. Textile painting grounds such as silk or canvas are less common . Watercolor-like pictures on a non-absorbent surface require the use of alternative colors (e.g. acrylic) or special adhesives and binders. A variant of the usual painting grounds are relief-like substrates, which are produced with the help of structure pastes.


The glazed brushstrokes are clearly visible in the watercolor White Ships by John Singer Sargent , 1908

Painting is usually done with a brush , which is drawn across the paper in different ways (variable line widths, dabs, rotations). Brushes made of red sable hair have proven to be a natural material because they stay in shape despite their high elasticity (thin tip), absorb a lot of paint and can easily give it off again. Recently, special watercolor brushes made from thin synthetic fibers have been added. In addition to these fine-tipped hair brushes, fanned hair brushes for large-area work and bristle brushes are also used. A natural sponge - usually used to moisten the paper - can also be used for two-dimensional painting and for washing out.

The most important brush movement is the brushstroke , i.e. painting with the brush. Even if flat painting is typical for watercolor painting, watercolors can only consist of brushstrokes. In this case one speaks of a brush drawing . The brush drawing itself is a forerunner of modern watercolor painting, namely as a monochrome drawing with diluted ink. Drawn with watercolors, the picture demands quick, improvising work.

If the color is applied to the paper with a lot of liquid, the color is evenly distributed on the paper, whereby more color can collect in the small depressions than on the elevations of the fine paper texture. This creates the typical watercolor impression. If, on the other hand, the brush is quickly moved over the paper with a little water, the color will only remain on the raised areas. In this case one speaks of granulation . If the color is dabbed onto the paper with a fine brush, one speaks of dotting , a technique that gave pointillism its name.

Use of color

Watercolor paint box

Working with primary colors is of great importance for watercolor painting . Although all colors are available ready-mixed in bowls and tubes , purists in watercolor painting mix each required color according to the rules of color theory . The preferred method is to mix the colors by glazing, i.e. painting over them in layers. Although the colors can also be mixed in water, this method takes away the typical, radiant shine of the watercolors.

When designing images , one generally starts with soft and light tones and works towards darker colors. This results quite simply from the fact that, unlike with other painting techniques, the possibility of subsequent lightening of the colors is only limited. Unclean shades of color can occur when washing out the color that has turned out too dark and harmful roughening of the surface can occur when trying to correct it. The painting surface is included in the composition , partly translucent, partly remaining unchanged. Leaving the background free is typical of watercolor painting and, in conjunction with adjacent dark surfaces, leads to impressive light effects. The paint can be applied very thinly with a lot of water or, conversely, applied with little water ( granulation technique ). Often paint is placed in the previously moistened surface or in the still wet colored parts of the picture, so that the colors run into one another and the structures characteristic of this painting style are created. This achieves different effects with different image effects.

Basic techniques


The most important basic technique in watercolor painting is glaze; their application is suggested by the use of the special, "translucent" colors. When glazing , the paint, which has been heavily diluted with water, is applied to the dry painting surface. The paint dries very quickly due to the thin application and can be painted over with further layers of paint after drying. If the same color tone is always used, darker and lighter areas are created. The glaze can have both a color-increasing and a color-dampening effect. With different colors, the different glazes result in new shades. The layers of paint can be laid on top of and next to each other. The glaze technique is characterized by sharp edges and requires high precision and precise knowledge of the effect of different color techniques.


Wash techniques in a watercolor (detail)

The second basic technique is washing. This includes the flow technique first , followed by the wet-on-wet technique . It is controversial whether these techniques are variations of the wash or two separate techniques. It depends on the answer to this question whether you are talking about two or three basic techniques when painting. Both techniques are understood here as variants of the wash.

Course technique

It is undisputed that the flow technique is a wash (from Latin lavare "[ver] washing") in the narrower sense. With the gradient technique , a color is applied to the painting surface in such a way that it becomes evenly paler or gradually changes into a different shade. To do this, paint is first applied to the painting surface and then spread evenly on the painting surface with a washed-out brush that is moistened with clear water. As a rule, the painting surface will be dry, but a stronger - albeit uncontrollable - effect can be achieved on a moistened painting surface. Here the transition to the wet-on-wet technique is reached.

Wet-on-wet technique

The gates of August Macke is largely carried out in wet-on -Liquid technology

The wet-on-wet technique involves painting on the damp painting surface or in a paint that is still damp, causing the colors to merge or merge. This technique is not only used with watercolor, but also with other painting techniques. Some watercolorists reject the use of the wet-on-wet technique because it is difficult to control . Others see this technique as a masterful mastery of the use of the painting ground, color and brush. It is precisely by loosening control over the color gradient and playing with the flow of colors that there are effects that are characteristic of the wet-on-wet technique.

More techniques

In the garden of death , watercolor and gouache, Hugo Simberg , 1896

Further techniques are either variants of the basic techniques or combining techniques. Modern watercolor painting combines different techniques. In addition to pure watercolor methods, there are also principles of drawing , calligraphy and the use of opaque colors, especially gouache , but also acrylic .

  • Of greater importance are the original correction methods of paint lifting and scraping off . In general, watercolor painting is considered uncorrectable. Due to the translucent colors, corrective interventions such as painting over are not possible without destroying the watercolor character. Color can be achieved to a limited extent either by later moistening and lifting off with a sponge or cloth or by scraping off the dry paint. Both techniques can also be used specifically for creating images.
  • The white background is often left there deliberately. Where this is not possible due to the brushwork, a temporary or permanent covering of the paper with adhesive tape, scratch-off tape or wax can enable free work with the brush.
  • Splashes of color , or the sprinkling of color contribute greatly to a slight, improvised impression. The sprinkling of paint, possibly over partially covered paper, can be used to texture surfaces.
  • Watercolor and drawing are historically closely related. With monochrome brush drawings, numerous watercolor techniques are already used or drawings and watercolor are combined with one another, for example by deliberately shining the pencil or charcoal sketch through the watercolor. After completing the watercolor work, the drawing can be supplemented with Indian ink. A classic form is painting over a monochrome brush sketch with watercolors ( underpainting ).
  • The combination of watercolor with pastel colors has a contrasting effect and allows hatching, applied lightness and accents.
  • For graphic lines and accentuating pixels in the watercolor image can Aquarellstifte be used.
  • The rasping technique , in which, with the help of emery paper, pigment from a watercolor pencil lead is sprinkled onto the still wet watercolor image for background design and color nuance.
  • The technique of watercolor on canvas creates an unusual surface effect . The watercolor paint is applied pastose or glazed onto the canvas treated with Aqua-Grund.
  • Water colors can be mixed with different agents when applying: Gum arabic makes the color more pasty and gives the color a fine sheen; Ox bile and glycerin are used to delay the drying of the paint (glycerin is always contained in watercolors in small quantities); Alcohol accelerates drying and emphasizes the brushstroke.
  • By applying salt to paint that is still wet, interesting effects can be achieved, for example the appearance of snow.
  • The granulation technique is only used very specifically, for example to paint walls or water surfaces. A strongly structured watercolor paper should be used for this. With this technique, the brush is soaked in the appropriate color, then it is pulled flat over the paper with little pressure. This means that the paint is only applied to the raised areas of the paper, the deeper areas remain white.
  • Watercolor paints can also be used together with acrylic paints (so-called mixed media ), which then enable the dried watercolor paints to be covered over.

Watercolor print

Watercolor printing is a printing process used to imitate watercolors.

List of English terms

In German, classic watercolor techniques are often referred to differently. Sometimes the English expressions are written for clear termination. Important expressions are:

  • Watercolor - watercolor ( BE ), watercolor ( AE )
  • Color stand out - lifting off
  • Glazing - glazing
  • Wash - washes
  • Wet-in-wet - wet-in-wet
  • Wet-on-dry - wet-on-dry
  • Dry brush - drybrush


  • Nikolaus von der Assen: When the paint fell into the water. 1st edition. ars momentum-kunstverlag, Witten 2012, ISBN 978-3-938193-72-3 .
  • Brian Bagnall, Astrid Hille: The great book of watercolor painting. 3. Edition. Urania-Verlag, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-332-01379-3 .
  • Simon Fletcher: Fascination with watercolor. Landscapes of light and color. (= The Art Academy ). English, Wiesbaden 2007, ISBN 978-3-8241-1376-7 .
  • Hazel Harrison: Handbook of Watercolor Painting. Creative design with watercolor, gouache and acrylic paints. Taschen-Verlag, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-8228-7617-8 .
  • Ekkehardt Hofmann : Watercolor workshop. Motif and composition. English, Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 3-8241-1318-X .
  • Christina Jehne : watercolor painting. Unconventional techniques. English, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-8241-1335-X .
  • Walter Koschatzky : The art of the watercolor. Technology, history, masterpieces (= dtv 30743). Unabridged edition in the text, 5th edition. Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-423-30743-9 .
  • Martin Lutz: Master School of Watercolor Painting. The way to your own style. Image composition, technique, method. Knaur, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-426-66955-2 .
  • Andreas Mattern: Watercolour fascinating cityscapes. Edition Michael Fischer, Igling 2010, ISBN 978-3-939817-67-3 .
  • Jenny Rodwell: DuMont's Great Handbook of Watercolor Painting. Watercolor, gouache, Indian ink, colored pencils, mixed media, history, materials, techniques, examples. DuMont, Cologne 1990, ISBN 3-7701-2261-5 .
  • Claude Henri Watelet among others: The Isabey for amateurs. Or elementary lessons in watercolor and miniature painting. Gropius, Berlin 1840 ( digitized version ).
  • Kurt Wehlte : Painting with watercolors. A simple beginner's guide to using watercolors and opaque paints. 13th edition. Otto Maier, Ravensburg 1981, ISBN 3-473-48009-6 .
  • Kurt Wehlte: Materials and techniques of painting. Revised edition. Seemann, Leipzig 2001, ISBN 3-363-00769-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Watercolor  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Watercolor paint  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Watercolor  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Watercolor painting In: The Brockhaus in Text and Image , Bibliografisches Institut Mannheim, Mannheim, 2001.
  2. ^ Winfried Nerdinger: Elements of artistic design . Martin Lurz, Munich 1986, ISBN 3-87501-077-9 , p. 195 .
  3. granulating. Retrieved July 28, 2019 .
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on October 20, 2005 .