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How To Use Watercolor On Wood? | A Brief Guide

While painting on paper is fairly common, using watercolor on wood can create interesting effects and a distinct style, making it a great medium. Wood also allows the watercolor to stick better to the surface, and the colors appear brighter, especially when you prepare it well using proper primer and varnish.

watercolor horse race on pallet wood by abstractmusiq dbkqnmy fullview

Since watercolor paint is a diverse medium that is robust and easy to apply, it can be used on various flat surfaces, such as watercolor paper, wood, glass, and fabrics. Most artists prefer wood panels since they’re compatible with most paints, and their natural wood grains can add elegance and texture to the work of art.

However, working with wooden surfaces can also be quite tricky since they are porous in nature. So, you must create a suitable and well-prepared flat surface before you paint watercolor on wood, and this can be done by choosing the right natural grain and applying primer.

Besides these techniques, you must know other important steps to create a watercolor painting on a wood panel. We will discuss those steps in this guide, so keep reading!

How To Use Watercolor On Wood: A Step-by-Step Guide


Materials You Need

As with any other art medium, achieving the best results to create watercolor paintings on wood highly depends on the materials used. Good quality materials - from wood and varnish to art supplies like brush and paint - all of them play an important role in the process of creating long-lasting art.

Many artists who work with watercolor paints have started utilizing various eco-friendly surfaces, such as a thick canvas and synthetic, recyclable materials like Yupo papers. However, watercolors on wood remain the most preferable for their unique pattern and smooth surface.

Here are the materials you will need to get started:

  • High-quality watercolor paint
  • Sandpaper
  • Dust removal kit
  • Primer for prep work
  • Varnish for sealing
  • Paper towel or damp cloth
  • Mask, eye goggles, and gloves for safety
  • Water and paintbrush

These materials are easily available at craft stores, so you need not worry about their availability.

Step 1: Know Your Watercolor Paint

We are all aware of how watercolors work, but we’d like to reiterate a few key points for better understanding. Firstly, different watercolors have different compositions. However, most of them are made using gum arabic, a binding agent that combines with water to activate different colors. Some other brands also use linseed oil as a binding agent for their watercolor paint. 

So, it’s important to look into the binding agents used and other chemicals included in the paint when you purchase it from the local craft store. You can also avoid the hassle of checking every watercolor product by using trusted brands, such as Daniel Smith or Winsor & Newton. 

After purchasing the watercolor paints, activate the pigments in a palette to understand how they might appear on different materials. 

Step 2: Preparing the Wood Surface by Sanding

Most often, you find a wood panel or piece that has a nice natural grain or texture - that’s why you must sand the wood to prepare it for watercolor. Use fine-grit sandpaper to sand the areas where you will add paint. This will create a smoother finish that will help the pigment pop when activated.

If you have a large piece of wood or a wide wood panel, you can try sanding a smaller area in the middle. This will alleviate the surface surrounding the middle, giving a framed look. Many artists use this method since it’s quite difficult to frame wood. Attach the sandpaper to a drill for better grip and control, and ensure you sand the wood in a well-ventilated room.

Step 3: Remove Dust And Wood Shavings

After the sanding process is over, you’ll find several wood shavings and a significant amount of dust on the wood and the workstation. You must remove this unless you want a different kind of texture that utilizes wood shavings - but be warned, they’re quite tricky to incorporate.

The best way to remove the fine particles from the surface is by simply blowing the loose debris off. We recommend using a vacuum cleaner with the blower settings and adding a thin nozzle to the opening. Blow the air both with and against the wood grain. This will create a striated intersection on the wood, which will give you a canvas-like appearance.

Alternatively, you can use a bottle of compressed air, which is often used to remove dust from computer keyboards.

Step 4: Apply Primer

When the wood is properly sanded, wipe down the surface with a damp cloth and paper towel to prepare it for primer application. Since watercolor paints contain gum arabic, they may be tacky while applied on a surface with no primer. Moreover, a primer helps the watercolors move fluidly on the surface, making it easier for you to blend and layer them. 

The best primer for watercoloring on wood is watercolor ground, preferably in an iridescent gold color that compliments the natural finish of the wood. You can use this primer directly from the container and apply them on wood, metal, canvas, etc. At first, apply a light coat with a synthetic flat brush to get a smooth texture, but if you want a rough texture, use a brush with natural bristles instead.

Moreover, you must remember that the watercolor ground makes the surface more absorbable, so ensure you use little water. When applied in thin layers, the iridescent gold primer will create the perfect canvas for your art.

Another primer you can use instead of watercolor ground is Gesso, which is affordable and easy to use. Mostly used for acrylic and oil paints, an even layer of super heavy or light Gesso that resolves absorption issues and allows the watercolor to move more freely. The most prominent benefit of Gesso is that it doesn’t yellow over time, but it requires thorough sanding if you decide to use more than one layer.

Step 5: Painting with Watercolor on Wood

Painting on wood with watercolor is similar to painting on other surfaces - you can follow your favorite painting technique, preferred texture, and artistic goals. However, we recommend applying the paint with thicker layers compared to when you apply watercolor on canvas or paper. A thicker consistency with less water content will stick better onto the wooden surface and prevent dripping.

Alternatively, you can apply a great number of very thin layers of watercolor paint. In this case, you need to be extra careful so that the layers aren’t too thin to avoid dripping and are thick enough to have a visual impact.

Step 6: Finishing and Sealing the Wood

The final step in creating a watercolor painting on wood is sealing it with a varnish. This step ensures your artwork lasts longer - the varnish protects the wooden surface from humidity, preventing it from rotting or yellowing with age. When it comes to watercolor paintings, we recommend sealing the wood with clear-coat spray before applying varnish, like Krylon. 

If you want to protect your watercolor painting further, consider applying an epoxy resin layer (artist-grade) to the already sealed surface of the painting. This will provide extra protection to the gum arabic in watercolors, which are vulnerable to moisture.

You can also protect your painting with glass by making a customized wooden frame, but ensure the glass isn't too thick. Glass can provide robust protection against humidity and prevents warm color from fading due to bright lighting.

Advanced Techniques

Wood serves as an excellent medium to experiment with different painting techniques. We’ve already discussed how artists prefer building the painting layer by layer, especially when it comes to wood. This offers better results than simply daubing it on the surface, but it takes quite a lot of time and patience. So here are some other techniques you can employ to achieve your artistic goals:

1. Blending

Properly using blending techniques in your watercolor painting can give you the advantage of creating certain interesting textures and shadow effects. To get started, choose a particular color and create a dark and light version using white and black, as required. 

Start with either the dark or light shade. Then, while the paint is still wet, add the other shade and blend them gently. Make sure the first layer of color starts to pop through the second layer - the two shades shouldn’t totally mix with each other. 

2. Ombre Effect

Ombre is a very popular technique among artists, who use it to express a single shade through various iterations by reflecting light from different angles. For example, you can start with a very dark shade of color and progressively lighten it until it’s totally white.

The easiest way to create the perfect ombre is by “washing” the wood before applying paint. Simply cover the surface with a thin layer of water, and then add a dark pigment at the bottom of the wooden piece. While moving towards the top, keep adding pigment in small amounts and ensure you wash it down to create lighter shades. And although this method can be a bit messy, it creates a scattered yet romantic effect.   

These two methods aren’t the only ways you can create interesting watercolor paintings on wood. Experiment with different shades, textures, and water content to find a style that suits you best.

How To Use Watercolor On Wood FAQs

  • What kind of wood can I use for watercolor painting?

    Most wood species can be compatible with watercolor paints, but we recommend using soft wood types. Consider pine or even balsa since they absorb the paints better, making them last longer. Hardwood, such as oak, maple, or rosewood, has a tendency to soak too much watercolor, which prevents them from showing up brighter and lasting longer.

  • Do I need to prepare the wood before painting with watercolor?

    Yes, absolutely. Preparing the wood before applying watercolor paint is important since it ensures you have a fresh, smoother surface to work with. Unwanted texture and ridges can ruin your painting by disintegrating the color and not giving you the pigment you wanted. 

  • What types of watercolor paints should I use for painting on wood?

    Most watercolor types are compatible with wood as a medium. If you properly prep the wood, apply high-quality primer and varnish. And just to be on the safe side, consider purchasing brands that are trustworthy and have been on the market for a long time. 

  • Can I mix watercolor paints with other mediums, such as acrylic or oil paint?

    Yes, you can. Combining watercolor paints with acrylic or oil paints can give you a thicker application, which easily sticks on the wood surface and doesn’t drip.

  • How do I protect the watercolor painting on wood?

    The best way to protect a watercolor painting on wood is by applying a nice coat of varnish on the completed piece of art. You can also frame it with glass to protect it from humidity and dust, helping your art last longer.

  • To Sum It Up 

    Wood can be a good medium for watercolor painting, especially if you want unique patterns and textures that cannot be achieved on paper or canvas. The one disadvantage of using watercolor on wood is the amount of time lost in thoroughly preparing the surface, but the awe-inspiring results are more than enough for compensating it.

    And if you’ve never tried watercolor on wood or considered doing it, you may want to try it out - the whole process is fun and worthwhile. You’ll get better color payoffs, better ombre and layering effects, greater durability, and unique textures, which will help you create memorable art. This experience will also help you understand how watercolor paints respond to different mediums.

    Alternatively, if you want to try something less complicated first, consider using textured clay to get the hang of how textured surfaces like wood really work.

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