How to Do the Wash Painting Technique

Painting washes does more than create a large area of colour in a timely manner. With a few simple techniques, you can use washes to create depth, interest and rich colours in your paintings. Oil paints, acrylics and watercolours create washes when mixed with appropriate thinner, mediums or solvent. Use these techniques to create one-tone background washes, gradient depth-creating washes or one-tone layered washes that create new colours.

Create washes with watercolours, acrylics or oils mixed with thinner, medium or solvent. Watercolour and acrylic paints thin with water or with a medium made to increase transparency. Oils thin with a solvent such as turpentine, if they are oil based, or with an oil paint medium made to increase transparency.

Create a wash by mixing proportionately more solvent or thinner than paint. The ratio of thinner to paint varies according to your needs. Start with mostly thinner and just a small amount of paint on your brush. Add more as needed.

Use a wash in areas such as a background where large areas of very light or transparent colour lay down the groundwork for your painting. Alternatively, layer washes on top of other colours to tint and change the colour effect of an entire painting. Paint a wash in areas where you want little brushstroke or texture detail, as a wash creates a smooth area of pale colour.

Paint a one-toned wash by using thinner or solvent mixed with one colour. This creates an even wash of pale tint. If using acrylics or watercolours, paint quickly or wet the canvas with water first to avoid brushstrokes since watercolours and acrylics dry quickly. If using oil paints, mix the paint with turpentine or oil paint medium. The paint, which dries slowly, stays wet as you apply the wash, creating no brushstrokes.

Use a gradient, a wash that fades from darker, containing more paint, to lighter, containing less paint, to create a wash of one colour that fades from a dark tone to a light tint. Start with the lighter area and less paint to create a lighter wash; then slowly increase the paint added to the thinner to create a darker tone. Use a gradient to create depth, to make areas appear three-dimensional and to create areas of shadow and light.

Paint a mixed colour wash by layering a one-color, very pale wash over another pale wash of a different colour. This creates a third colour. An example of this is a pale yellow wash over a pale blue wash to create an area of green tint. Layering washes to create colours adds more depth and richer colours to your palette than using some premixed pigments.


Some oil paints are now water based and thin with water. Read labels carefully.

Things You'll Need

  • Acrylic, watercolour or oil paint
  • Brushes
  • Water
  • Paint mediums (acrylic, watercolour or oil)
  • Appropriate painting surface
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About the Author

Elizabeth Stover, an 18 year veteran teacher and author, has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Maryland with a minor in sociology/writing. Stover earned a masters degree in education curriculum and instruction from the University of Texas, Arlington and continues to work on a masters in Educational Leadership from University of North Texas. Stover was published by Creative Teaching Press with the books "Science Tub Topics" and "Math Tub Topics."