Watercolor & Ink Painting Techniques

Watercolors and inks are versatile art mediums. While painting with watercolors or inks, you can achieve textures, shapes, brush strokes, contrast and values similar to any other painting medium, achieving luminosity easier than with using other paints. There is an array of colored inks available on the market. However, black ink, which is the most widely used, will restrict your work to gray scale—or black and white. This can be helpful if you are just starting out or if you desire clarity and a strong composition in your art.


The saying “You get what you pay for" applies to watercolors. The more you pay, the easier and more beautiful they are to work with. Windsor & Newton make a fine line of inks in a variety of colors. The inks may need to be shaken or stirred with a wooden stick prior to using if the sediment of the pigment has settled on the bottom of the jar. Chinese inks and India inks are usually standard and about the same quality when purchased in an art store.

Brushes should be absorbent and soft. For inks, purchase long-haired bristle brushes or fat, round bristle brushes with long hair for sweeping gesture drawings. An array of brushes that allow for fine points and wide washes are best.

Nibs come in a variety of shapes and sizes for dipping in and drawing with ink, creating different types of line qualities. Plastic or wooden handles are usually sold beside the nibs. If they clog, rinse them out with warm water.

A butcher tray or a white tray is desirable for watercolor paints so you can see the pigments easily. A white plastic palette tray is fine for inks, as long as there is a place to water them down.

The best paper to work with is thick paper. Art stores sell watercolor paper, which usually comes in a variety of grains or surfaces.


Watercolor looks best when allowing some of the paper to show through. Treat the paper as if it is your highest highlight and move to darker values from there.

Monochromatic watercolors are powerful. Start your image in a yellow ochre or raw sienna color and paint the entire image using one color on a value scale from the paper white to black. Then add bits of a complementing color into the painting.

Watercolors look beautiful when layered on top of each other, creating more depth and interest. Let the under color completely dry prior to adding the next color. Keep in mind that watercolor, like any other color pigment, works on the rules of the color wheel. If you layer complementary colors—purple/yellow, green/red or orange/blue—then your final color may result in gray.

To create finer detail lines or to have the illusion of a drawing, start with your paper dry and use less water in your paint, making it thicker to paint on with a thin brush.

To achieve billowing abstract colors, which appear like water or clouds, spray the paper down with water from a mister (the kind used to spray plants), or brush on water prior to starting. If you plan on using a lot of water, make sure your paper is thick and absorbent.

Starting your painting with a black ink drawing creates a look similar to architectural renderings or botany drawings.


Inks can be thinned with water to create a wide variety of values. Try wetting down the paper prior to painting with your brush or drawing with a pen nib. This will cause the ink to run and flow creating water, cloud and fractal-like images.

For more control, brush on ink or draw with a nib on dry paper.

If you take a white candle and draw an image with the wax onto your paper then cover it with wide brushstrokes of color, the wax will resist the water, allowing for a ghost image to arise. This allows from either delicate effects for flowers or ghoulish effects for trees, swamps and ghosts.

Leave some of the white of the paper showing through in your final artwork. The paper will work as your highest highlights, this will add a vibrancy and freshness to your final ink drawing.

Colored inks also come in metallic gold, silver, bronze and copper. To recreate the look of an illuminated manuscript, paint dark blues, reds and yellows first in solid colors and, once they are dry, go back over them with a metallic ink to complete the design.

Layered ink washes create a depth to the picture plane. Make sure the ink is completely dry before putting another layer of ink on top.

If you are using black ink, try various brush strokes by changing the pressure of how you press your brush to the paper. Within the same line, try altering between thin, light strokes and thick, wide strokes. Each conveys a different story and emotion.

To paint something specific such as facial features, try drawing out your image in pencil first, creating a guide to follow. Try using less strokes of ink to create your image.

When creating shapes that in reality touch one another, try lifting the brush up where the shapes would normally join and then continuing the next line with a slight bit of white paper showing through between the shapes to add variety in your work. Think of how bamboo grows in sections; it is more interesting to not paint the joints, but let the viewer’s imagination fill them in.