Watercolor Glossary & Terminology

Watercolor Glossary

Below you will find several lists of glossary terms. Each list is dedicated to certain aspects of watercolor painting and includes other skills you need such as drawing, composition, color and more.

This is your go-to resource should you ever have any questions about what certain words, techniques and/or terms mean.

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    Watercolor Supplies

    Acid Free: Acid free refers to papers without acid (pH) in the pulp when manufactured. High acidity papers degrade quickly.

    Archival Paper: Archival watercolor paper is any pure 100% rag , cotton, or linen watercolor paper of neutral or slightly low ph, alkaline (base) vs. acidic, and pure ingredients. Some synthetic papers are archival in nature but have unique working properties.

    Binder: That which holds the paint together, such as linseed oil for oil painting, polymers for acrylics, gum arabic for watercolors and gouache.

    Cold Pressed: Watercolor paper that is Cold Pressed (CP) or ‘Not’ Pressed (NP) has mildly rough texture. It takes color smoothly but the tooth allows for slight irregularities and graining in washes.

    Deckle: The tapered rough edges of watercolor and drawing papers, also referred to as “barbs”.

    Ferrule: The metal cylinder that surrounds and encloses the hairs on a brush. Customarily made of nickel or nickel-plated base metal.

    Filler: these are additives to pigments that typically decrease the hue intensity. Professional grade paint has less filler than student grades which is why it’s more expensive.

    Fixative: A resinous or plastic spray used to affix charcoal, pencil, or pastel images to the paper. Used lightly it protects finished art (or underdrawing) against smearing, smudging, or flaking.

    Gum Arabic: Gum arabic is produced from the sap of the African acacia tree and is available in crystalline form or an already prepared solution. It binds watercolor pigments when used with water and glycerine or honey.

    Hot Pressed: Hot pressed (HP) watercolor paper is pressed for an extremely smooth work surface. Excellent for mixed ink and watercolor techniques.

    Masking fluid: A latex gum product that is used to cover a surface you wish to protect from receiving paint. Miskit by Grumbacher and Art masking fluid by Winsor & Newton are two such products. Also referred to as liquid frisket.

    Ox Gall: Derived from the bile of domestic cows or other bovines, ox gall is added to paint as a surfactant or wetting agent to allow paint to flow more freely.

    Palette: 1) The paint mixing and storing surface of various shapes and being made of plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, or enameled trays for watercolor. Glass, palette paper, formica, and oiled wood are used for oil painting; and glass, metal, styrofoam, and palette paper are used for acrylic painting palettes. or, 2) The selection of colors an artist chooses to work with.

    Reservoir: Refers to water reservoir which you will need for cleaning brushes and mixing paint. Examples of a good watercolor reservoir could large Mason jars, plastic containers and so on.

    Rice Paper: A generic term for Japanese and other asian forms of paper made for artist’s use. Used for sumi-e, brush calligraphy, and watercolor. Fibers from the inner bark of woody plants such as kozo (mulberry), mitsumata, and gampi, and the outer layer of herbaceous plants such as flax, hemp, and jute, are used in manufacturing wide varieties of rice paper.

    Rough: Rough watercolor paper has a coarse rough texture. This surface allows for maximum graining of washes and accidental highlights and texture.

    Texture: The actual or virtual representation of different surfaces, paint applied in a manner that breaks up the continuous color or tone.

    Watercolor: Painting in pigments suspended in water and a binder such as gum arabic. Traditionally used in a light to dark manner, using the white of the paper to determine values.

    Watercolor Techniques

    Alla Prima: Italian phrase meaning “first time”. Painting directly in one session with no under-drawing or painting. Usually refers to oil or acrylic painting.

    Back runs: When a fresh brush stroke hits a still damp wash it will force the original wash out in a irregular, often fractal manner. This can totally screw up what you are intending to do, unless you do it intentionally. Practice playing with paint and coping with “happy accidents.” (also known as back wash)

    Blending: Fusing two color planes together so no discernible sharp divisions are apparent.

    Blocking in: The simplifying and arranging of compositional elements using rough shapes, forms, or geometric equivalents when starting a painting.

    Blotting: using an absorbent material such as tissues or paper towels, or a squeezed out brush, to pick up and lighten a wet or damp wash. Can be used to lighten large areas or pick out fine details.

    Blow Dryer: For rapid painting production, these electronic hair drying devices are a necessity at times. Overheating liquid frisket areas can “set” the frisket into the top layer of paper fibers. Which can make removal of the frisket interesting in the least.

    Body Color: The mixing of opaque white gouache with transparent watercolor; or gouache colors in general.

    Cauliflower – This is when too much water is added into semi-dry paint. The results of this will cause the wash to dry with a ‘cauliflower’ type look.

    Dry Brush: Any textured application of paint where your brush is fairly dry (thin or thick paint) and you rely the hairs of your brush, the angle of attack of your stroke, and the paper’s surface texture to create broken areas of paint. Study the range of technique in Andrew Wyeth’s dry-brush watercolors. Used for rendering a variety of textured surfaces: stone, weathered wood, foliage, lakes and rivers, bark, clouds.

    Frottis: Thin transparent or semi-transparent glazes rubbed into the ground in the initial phases of an oil painting. From the French term “frotter”, meaning “to rub”.

    Glazed Wash: Any transparent wash of color laid over a dry, previously painted area. Used to adjust color, value, or intensity of underlying painting. (Glaze)

    Graded Wash: A wash that smoothly changes in value from dark to light. Most noted in landscape painting for open sky work, but an essential skill for watercolor painting in general.

    Grain: The basic structure of the surface of paper, as in fine, medium and rough grain.

    Loaded Brush: Refers to the amount of water and pigment a brush has. A fully loaded brush is maxed out with water/pigment, while a semi-loaded brush is only about 50% loaded.

    Resist: Any material, usually wax or grease crayons, that repel paint or dyes. Lithography is a grease (ink)and water (wet stone or plate) resist printing technique. Batik is a wax resist fabric art form.

    Scumble, or Scumbling: Dragging a dense or opaque color across another color creating a rough texture.

    Underpainting: The first, thin transparent laying in of color in a painting.

    Variegated Wash: A wet wash created by blending a variety of discrete colors so that each color retains its character while also blending uniquely with the other colors in the wash.

    Wash: A transparent layer of diluted color that is brushed on.

    Wet-on-wet: The technique of painting wet color into a wet surface .(paper saturated)


    Accent: A detail, brushstroke, or area of color placed in a painting for emphasis.

    Analogous colors: A grouping of related colors next to each other on the color wheel. Example: Yellow, Yellow Green, and Green.

    Broken colors: The unequal mixing of two complementary colors.

    Chroma: The purity or degree of saturation of a color; relative absence of white or gray in a color.

    Complementary colors: Colors at opposite points on the color wheel, for example, red and green, yellow and purple. (See Primary and Secondary Colors)

    Flat Color: Any area of a painting that has an unbroken single hue and value.

    Flat Wash: any area of a painting where a wash of single color and value is painted in a series of multiple, overlapping stokes following the flow of the paint. A slightly tilted surface aids the flow of your washes. Paper can be dry or damp.

    Fugitive Colors: The pigments in the “fugitive” class of paints have the unfortunate characteristic of looking beautiful and unique when first painted but show bad side-effects over time. Side effects include fading to non-existence, changing color, darkening to black, and other fun stuff. Unless you’re planning on hermetically sealing your paintings and viewing them in a low-UV climate controlled room, skip them. Use lightfast ratings I & II when possible.

    Hue: The color of a pigment or object. Not relating to tone or value.

    Inert Pigment: A powdered paint additive that does not change the shade or hue, but extends or otherwise imparts a special working quality to the paint. Fillers are used in lower and student grade paints as extenders, making the paint cheaper to produce, but of lower quality.

    Key: The lightness (high key) or darkness (low key) of a painting.

    Lightfast: A pigments resistance to fading on long exposure to sunlight. Watercolors are rated lightfast on a scale of I-IV. I and II ratings are the most permanent.

    Local Color: The actual color of an object being painted, unmodified by light or shadow. (An orange is orange).

    Monochromatic: A single color in all its values.

    Muted: Suppressing the full color value of a particular color.

    Non-staining colors: Pigments that can be lifted cleanly (wet or re-wet) with little or no discoloration of the underlying paper fibers.

    Opaque: A paint that is not transparent by nature or intentionally. A dense paint that obscures or totally hides the underpainting in any given artwork.

    Polychrome: Poly=many, chrome or chroma=colors. Can refer to artwork made with bright, multi-colored paint.

    Primary colors: Red, yellow, and blue, the mixture of which will yield all other colors in the spectrum but which themselves cannot be produced through a mixture of other colors.

    Secondary colors: Colors obtained by mixing two primary colors: green, violet, and orange.

    Staining Colors: Colors that cannot be fully removed from your paper. Staining colors permeate the fiber of the paper and leave a permanent tint. Check your hands after painting, the hardest colors to wash off are usually the staining colors.

    Tone: The light and dark values of a color.

    Values: The relative lightness or darkness of colors or of grays.

    Other Related Watercolor Terms

    A.W.S.: Abbreviation of the American Watercolor Society, established in 1866.

    Acrylic: Paint made from pigments and a synthetic plastic binder, water-soluble when wet, insoluble when dry. Developed commercially in the 30s and 40s and perfected in the 50s through 70s, this popular alternative to oil paint can also duplicate many of watercolor’s unique characteristics when used in a fluid manner.

    Aquarelle: The French term for the process and product of painting in transparent watercolor.

    Casein: A water-soluble protein found in milk that is used as a binder for creating casein paints. Casein is sometimes used as an underpainting for oil or acrylic painting.

    Easel: A stand or resting place for working on or displaying a painting. A simple easel can be a tripod with a cross bar for the painting to sit on.

    Fresco: Meaning “fresh” in Italian, fresco is the art of painting with pure pigments ground in water on uncured (wet) lime plaster. An ancient technique used world wide by artists of many ages and cultures. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a famous example fresco painting. Durability is achieved as the pigments chemically bind with the plaster over time as it hardens to its natural limestone state.

    Gesso: Ground plaster, chalk or marble mixed with glue or acrylic medium, generally white. It provides an absorbent ground for oil, acrylic, and tempera painting.

    Giclees: Edition prints made with high resolution ink jet printers using pigmented inks and archival, artist-grade papers. Lightfast ratings close to original paintings.

    Gouache: 1) Watercolor painting technique using white and opaque colors. 2) A water-based paint, much like transparent watercolor but made in opaque form. Traditionally used in illustration.

    Grisaille: The technique of painting a highly-modeled, black and white monochromatic base painting and then glazing it with transparent colors.

    Impasto: Thickly applied oil or acrylic paint that leaves dimensional texture through brushstrokes or palette knife marks.

    India Ink: 1. A black pigment made of lampblack and glue or size and shaped into cakes or sticks. 2. an ink made from this pigment.

    Medium: 1) The type of art material used: pencil, ink, watercolor, oil, acrylic, egg tempera, etc. 2) The liquid mixed with paint to thin, aid or slow drying, or alter the working qualities of the paint.

    Modeling: Representing color and lighting effects to make an image appear three-dimensional.

    N.W.S.: Abbreviation of the National Watercolor Society, established in 1920.

    Pastels: 1) Ground pigments, chalk, and binder formed into sticks for colored drawing. Also, 2) Any subdued, high key color (tint).

    Vehicle: The liquid used as a binder in the manufacture of paint.

    General Art & Drawing

    Atmospheric perspective: Suggesting perspective in a painting with changes in tone and color between foreground and background. The background is usually blurred and hues are less intense.

    Background: The area of a painting farthest from the viewer. In a landscape this would include the sky and horizon. In a still life or portrait it could be a wall or room interior.

    Caricature: Art that exaggerates the qualities, defects, or peculiarities of a person or idea, usually in a humorous manner. Traditionally used in editorial cartooning. • Example: Honoré Daumier.

    Carpenter’s Pencil: A graphite pencil that features a flat ovoid wooden grip surrounding a wide graphite core capable of creating chiseled thick and thin pencil lines. Used for sketching and drawing. Must be hand sharpened and shaped.

    Cartoon: A preparatory sketch or design that is then transferred to the final work surface.

    Cast Shadow: The dark area that results when the source of light has been intercepted by an object.

    Charcoal: Used for drawing and for preliminary sketching on primed canvas for oil painting. Natural vine charcoal is very soft and can be easily rubbed off with a soft rag. Natural willow charcoal is harder than vine charcoal and gives a darker line. Compressed charcoal is available in several forms. You can choose from stick form, wood-encased pencils, and peel-as-you-go paper wrapped pencils. These charcoal formulations range from extra soft to hard. Powdered charcoal is used to transfer drawings to surfaces by dusting through “pounced” lines on the drawing.

    Collage: A composition made of cut and pasted pieces of different materials, sometimes photographs or drawn images are used.

    Composition: The arrangement of elements of form and color within an artwork.

    Cross-hatching: Using fine overlapping planes of parallel lines of color or pencil to achieve texture or shading. Used in traditional egg tempera technique; drawing in pencil, chalk, pen and ink; and engraving, etching, and other printmaking techniques.

    Drawing: The act of marking lines on a surface, and the product of such action. Includes pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, conte crayon, markers, silverpoint, and other graphic media on paper.

    Ebony Pencil: A drawing pencil that features a thick core of graphite formulated to be very black and smooth. Capable of a wide tonal range with rich darks. For sketching and drawing.

    Figure: A human or animal form.

    Foreground: The area of a painting closest to the viewer. In a landscape this would include the area from the viewer to the middle distance.

    Foreshortening: The technique of representing a three dimensional image in two dimensions using the laws of perspective.

    Genre: A category of artistic work marked by a particular specified form, technique, or content.

    Genre painting: The depiction of common, everyday life in art, as opposed to religious or portrait painting for example.

    Gestalt: Gestalt theory states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Creating effective designs depends on creating and balancing gestalt. Originally a therapeutic psychological theory (ink blots) artist’s have adopted the concept for creating more balanced and dynamic art.

    Graphite: A type of carbon used for pencils, transfer sheets and as a dry lubricant. Synthetic graphite is made from carborundum

    Highlight: A point of intense brightness, such as the reflection in an eye.

    Landscape: A painting in which the subject matter is natural scenery.

    Middle ground: The area of a painting between the foreground and the background. In a landscape this usually where your focal point would be.

    Motif: A term meaning “subject”. Flowers or roses can be a motif.

    Negative Space: The areas of an artwork that are NOT the primary subject or object. Negative Space defines the subject by implication.

    Notan: A Japanese art/compositional term meaning “Dark-Light”. It’s the interplay of dark and light, positive and negative, and the implications of all opposites balancing harmoniously as one, in creating art.

    Perspective: Representing three-dimensional volumes and space in two dimensions in a manner that imitates depth, height and width as seen with stereoscopic eyes.

    Polyptych: A single work comprised of multiple sections, panels, or canvas. Diptych= two, triptych=three.

    Positive Space: The areas of an artwork that IS the primary subject or object. Positive Space defines the subjects outline.

    Pounce bag: Used to dust pounced drawings. To make a pounce bag place a small wad of cotton balls in the middle of a coarsely woven square rag (a pink shop rag works well) and add a couple tablespoons of powdered charcoal before drawing up the edges of the cloth and binding the contents into a ball with tape or string. Lightly tap the ball on a pounced drawing to transfer the design to another surface.

    Pounce wheel: A metal pencil-like tool that has a toothed wheel that freely rotates on the drawing end. The teeth puncture an evenly spaced series of small holes through the paper as you trace a line. Use to transfer drawings, designs and patterns to surfaces with powdered chalk or charcoal.

    Relief: The apparent or actual (impasto, collage) projection of three-dimensional forms.

    Sketch: A rough or loose visualization of a subject or composition.

    Still life: Any work whose subject matter is inanimate objects.

    Study: A comprehensive drawing of a subject or details of a subject that can be used for reference while painting.

    Support: The surface on which a painting is made: canvas, paper, wood, parchment, metal, etc.

    Tempera: Pigments mixed with egg yolk and water. Also, a student-grade liquid gouache.

    Thumbnail Sketch: Small (credit card size or so) tonal and compositional sketches to try out design or subject ideas.

    Trompe l’oeil: A term meaning “Fool the eye” in French. It involves rendering a subject with such detail and attention to lighting and perspective that the finished piece appears real and three-dimensional.

    Vignette: A painting which is shaded off around the edges leaving a pleasing shape within a border of white or color. Oval or broken vignettes are very common.

    Wove paper: A paper showing even texture and thickness when held to light. Created with a very fine netting, a uniform, smooth texture results. Often used in fine writing and calligraphy, archival quality woven paper can used by watercolorists with good results.

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