Tate sets watercolour hero image
Tate sets watercolour hero image

A Guide to Watercolour Techniques

Explore some of the techniques used by Joseph Mallard William Turner, inspired by his work The Scarlet Sunset (1840).

J. M. W. Turner

Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775 – 1851) was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools at the age of just 14. A forerunner of Impressionism, Turner experimented with materials and colour, using the latest brilliant and transparent colours to create landscapes and seascapes.

Stage 1

Try the colours on watercolour paper. Begin with the primaries; red, yellow and blue. Notice how different it is working with a brush loaded with water and paint on a dry paper surface compared to when you wet the paper first, the latter is called the wet in wet technique. See how the colour moves around more on a wetted surface.

Stage 2

Practice laying washes on wet and dry surfaces and combining more than one colour. Try graduating some of the washes by adding more water and diluting parts of the wash. See how the wet in wet technique gives your wash a softer, more muted finish, whereas laying a wash onto dry paper results in a more intense colour.

Stage 3

Now using Turner as your inspiration and working wet in wet, select a yellow and a red, allowing the colour to spread and move around to create other colours and tones. Then try applying dry colour as an overlay on top of the wet in wet washes, once the first layer has had a little time to dry.

Stage 4

Turner was known for being very experimental with colour, so practice using different combinations for your washes. Using his work as inspiration, add blues and reds onto your wet wash and experiment with overlaying dry colour on top of wet washes.

Stage 5

You can lift off colour and remove parts you do not want by blotting with a tissue. Then you can use this space to add in a new colour that you do not want mixed with anything that is already on the surface. This technique can also be used to create texture.

Stage 6

Use the tissue to blot areas and lift colour out, to create shapes without colour, for example you can try this with an area such as the sun. You also do not have to entirely fill your sheet of watercolour paper with colour, it can be interesting to leave some white or negative space.

Stage 7

Keep layering colour wet onto dry, blotting and then layering more colour on top, allowing the colours to bleed into one another. You can also try adding colour into the white areas and observe how this impacts on the other colours already on paper.

Stage 8

Build more layers of dry and wet colour, lifting out areas if they become too muddy. Now try applying colour with less water to create a coarser, more dispersed texture, this is known as the dry brush technique. Practice working with your own observations from photographs or outdoors en plein air. Download the guide here.

Materials used

J.M.W. Turner watercolour set

Turner was innovative in his use of colour and expressive response to nature. Try this set carefully curated with 24 highly pigmented colours in a lightweight travel tin.

Watercolour paper with exceptional quality and value

Natural white paper with a fine cold-pressed tooth for optimal paint vibrancy and absorbency. Acid-free, archival and non-yellowing to preserve your work. A perfect introduction to watercolour,

High quality synthetic watercolour brush

Mixed fibre widths give excellent spring and superior paint loading In a wide range of shapes and sizes. Perfect with Cotman watercolours.