Watercolor Layering For Beginners; Four Ways To Improve Your Art

Watercolor layering for beginners

Watercolor layering can be a great way to improve the look of your paintings. It can also be a bit tricky to learn at first. In this tutorial, we will discuss some tips and techniques that will help you understand how to layer watercolors effectively. With a little practice, you’ll be able to create beautiful watercolor paintings that look like they were created by a professional!

Watercolor layering

So, what is watercolor layering?

Watercolor layering is the technique of adding one, or more, layers of watercolor paint on top of another color. This can be done either by painting on top of wet paint, or by adding new colors over dried paint.

When done correctly, watercolor layering can add beautiful and interesting effects to your paintings. Let’s explore several ways you can layer to achieve a variety of results.

Watercolor layering wet-in-dry

#1; Layering wet-on-dry technique

Watercolor is a transparent medium which means you can always see through it. When layered over another hue, the paper absorbs more light so your colors will become darker because there’s no layer between them blocking some of that UV rays! Many refer to this technique as glazing.

But you apply the same color, or wash, over one another and still get darker hues each time while maintaining transparency. See the image above for this effect.

watercolor layering using three primary hues

#2; Layering wet-on-dry with multiple hues

Because watercolor is a transparent medium you can layer hues to create a blending effects which result in other colors. In the example above you see how primary hues are used to create secondary colors.

The circles are painted and allowed to dry. Study the image and notice how the greens, violets and orange hues are a result of the overlapping of hues.

Create a chart like this and see for yourself how this works.

Wet-in-dry to desaturate hues

#3; Desaturating hues technique

Layering watercolors can also decrease the intensity of a color. In the image above, we have three layers of color. The first layer is a very bright yellow which was applied to the entire cube and ground plane.

The second layer is a mix of the same yellow with a touch of ultramarine blue. When added over the first yellow wash this decreased color intensity. Note the top of the cube and ground plane were excluded in this layer. And their hues are still the saturated layer used on the first wash.

An even darker hue is added the the right-hand side of the cube using the same mixture but this time a little more blue. As you can see, the colors have layered over one-another to create a less saturated hues.

Watercolor layering using wet-in-wet techniques

#4; Wet-in-wet watercolor layering technique

This method is used to create a blended look as opposed to previous techniques which are more rigid. This is also known as bleeding, or charging. Obviously, when adding a wash into a wet surface it will bleed. But this effect may be desirable depending on what your intent.

The illustration shows how watercolor layering into a wet color works in three conditions. There are three rows which represent very wet, semi-wet and almost dry conditions.

The left row is very wet which is why the blue bleeds quite a bit when layered into the red.

The middle row is semi-wet and the same blue mixtures are added. As you can see the blue layer help it’s shape a little better but still bleeds.

The third row on the right is 90% dry. As blue is added note how the stroke holds it shape much better. The top swatch is very thick paint, the middle swatch has more water and the bottom swatch is really watery.

5 Exercises to master layering with watercolors

Most experienced watercolor artists use multiple layers. And often times they are preplanned. But for beginners it’s recommended to start by doing some simple shapes and exercises so you understand how to execute it well. Then take on more complex ideas later on.

The best way to learn watercolor layering is to dive in and try it out. So, grab your paint supplies and let’s go!

Watercolor layering using simple subject

Exercise one

Scroll back to the top of this article and recreate the kidney shape using the same wet-on-dry technique. This is the perfect way to start. If you remember this study will teach you how stacking the same wash over one-another will create a darker hue each time. Make it as big as you can so there’s room for five more layers.

Exercise two

Now we will level up watercolor layering by using three hues. Scroll back the the three circles where three primaries are used to create secondary hues. This is a great ice-breaker for learning how colors will shift when stacking different hues over one-another.

Remember that each circle is painted one at a time and allowed to dry 100%. The second circle is painted overlapping the first one. And as you may have guessed the third circle is done the exact same way.

One the first three larger circles are painted and dry, repeat the process with smaller circles.

Watercolor layering exercise

Exercise three

Experiment with cubes. Add the first layer, let it dry, then layer over it with a mixture of the original color plus it’s complimentary hue. If you aren’t sure what complimentary hues are then check out this amazing beginner tutorial.

Exercise four

Experiment with wet-in-wet conditions. Choose two contrasting hues so you can get a good visual how this works. Remember that hues will bleed less depending on two factors; how wet the surface is and how much water is in the paint.

Exercise five

For the final exercise, try using multiple techniques creating colorful eggs. Start by painting any color you desire. And random colored thin and thick paint to the eggs. Allow some to dry so you can experiment layering intended to achieve a more complex hue.


Watercolor layering is a great way to improve your watercolor skills. With a little practice, you’ll be able to create beautiful watercolor paintings that look like they were created by a professional!