A color wash is as important to painters as a paintbrush. A blank white canvas can be unnerving for artists. Any mark can feel indelible—what if you get it wrong? What’s more, an unprepped canvas can affect your work by allowing the glaring white below come through in your final painting.
Fortunately for artists, there is an answer: preparing your surface with watered-down pigment.
What is a color wash?
A color wash is a layer of translucent pigment, usually created from watered-down acrylic paint. The amount of watering down will be controlled by how translucent (faint) you want the color to be. Paints need to be water-based rather than oil-based. Because of the water content, they will dry slower than the usual acrylics and it is more likely to drip and run.
For painters, creating a ground—as it is sometimes called—means there is no risk of white canvas poking through the paint, breaking the illusion.
The wash should be applied on top of a sized canvas (one that is already prepared for painting).
Color washes have been used for hundreds of years. X-rays of famous paintings by artists show grounds in a variety of colors. For example, Rembrandt used red.
What’s the difference between a color wash and watercolors?
A color wash is usually a watered-down acrylic painted across the whole surface of a canvas to create a block of faint color that is then left to dry. It is not designed to be the final surface—think of it as the foundation.
A watercolor painting is the final product and will use a full palette of colors in different depths of tone. Its creation can begin with a color wash.
How to create a color wash
To create a successful color wash, make sure to fully mix any pigment and water or you will find the surface marked by small raised undiluted pigments that can be visible over flat paint.
How strong should your mix be?
This is a personal choice depending on your painting style and medium. Are you likely to see any of the color wash in your final painting? The answer to this question will influence all of your choices.
What color paint should you use?
Artists can choose to use a color that complements the colors in their work (for example a seascape painter might choose a watered-down blue). Other artists will go for something contrasting, something to work against. A higher contrast can help define the painting. Oil painters might go for a stronger colored ground.
For acrylic painters who plan to cover up the surface, you might simply use the water left over from washing your brush or use up any leftover unwanted paint.
The color doesn’t have to be uniform and the subtle color shifts can help inform the final painting.
Creating your wash
Chose your color and start mixing. Start with a one-part paint to three-part water mix. Use a large dry brush (or you can use a sponge if you prefer) and start applying the paint from the top of the canvas to the bottom. Start at the top to pick up all those inevitable drips as you work your way down the surface. Use large sweeping motions going back and forth.
To entirely cover the fine weave of the canvas go back and forth and up and down with your brush or sponge. You can keep working on the surface until the wash starts to dry if you want to create something completely flat. This will also help remove any brush marks, especially if you are working in flat acrylic paints which show brush marks easily. The aim of a color wash is to cover the white canvas with a wash of color that is perfectly blended. If your canvas looks streaky or too wet, use a rag or sponge to blend the colors. Of course, having streaked or unmixed colors can be part of the fabric of the painting.
Can you leave the color wash visible?
For some artists, the process of color washing is the start of the artwork, rather than simply part of the preparation. You might end up leaving some of the wash visible. This might be a landscape sky or the background of a figure or portrait to create a huge depth of field between the foreground and the background.
Find out more about the benefits of using acrylic paint.
Why can’t I use oiled-down oil paint?
Oil painters may choose to create an oil paint ground before beginning the final layer of the painting, especially if working wet on wet (painting on top of wet paint). You can dilute oil paint using oil (usually linseed oil) to create a shiny translucent layer—but beware! The added oil itself can dull down the color of your paint.
Oiling down oil paint also changes the viscosity (thickness) of the paint making it more liable to drips which can dry unnoticed.
Oil paint also tends to be a really expensive medium.
What else can you use a color wash on?
Paper has to be stretched before it can be painted on so it can hold paint without wrinkling. The paper needs to have absorbed water and dried. This is a good time to add pigment to your water and create a color wash to paint on.
How to stretch paper
- Tape your paper tightly to a drawing board using low-tack decorator’s tape or masking tape.
- Use a big brush to apply the color wash generously and leave to completely dry.
- Once the paper is completely dry, you can begin painting.
- Once that layer is dry you can carefully peel off the masking tape.
- This will create a frame of unpainted paper. DO NOT paint over this as it has not undergone the stretching process. Instead, cut away the unpainted paper—or simply leave it as a mount.
Learn more about the best surfaces for oil painting.