Easy watercolor painting using salt

This easy watercolor painting is primarily an exercise I created for my students on how to use salt to create believable textures.

Rather than just experimenting with salt and watercolor I felt it was just as easy to end up with a nice little painting. This painting is part of my series of simple watercolor paintings for relatively new watercolor artists.

The first step was to do a variegated watercolor wash.

Watercolor materials used

  • Winsor and Newton artist’s quality watercolor paints: cobalt blue, cadmium orange, permanent alizarin crimson, French ultramarine, and burnt sienna.
  • Quarter sheet ( approx. 37cm x 27cm or 14.5” x 10.5”)of Arches 300 gsm (140 lb) cold pressed paper.
  • The paper is taped onto a piece of Gator Board or another waterproof board.
  • Common table salt. You can try some rock salt for a different effect.
  • Round watercolor brushes. Sizes 24, 16, and 8.
Finished easy watercolour painting with salt demonstration

Figure 12: Finished simple watercolor painting with salt demonstration.

 

Easy watercolor painting steps

The trick to creating a nice clean watercolor wash is to use a fully loaded brush with lots of water and pigment. A fully loaded brush is one which will drip if head vertically with the point down.

For this painting, because I wanted a noticeable transition between the colors, I only had my board at about a 10° angle. I started at the top with my cobalt blue and a touch of permanent alizarin crimson mixture. Into the bottom of this cobalt blue and alizarin stage I then went in with my cadmium orange mix. This was followed with the alizarin crimson and then burnt sienna.

I cleaned my brush between the cobalt blue and cadmium orange stages, but not between the two other transitions.

You can see the result of this initial under painting in the photograph below. You can see how wet the watercolor wash was from the shine on the surface of the paper and the amount of pigment beading at the bottom.

graded watercolour wash as under painting

Figure 1: Start with a graded watercolor wash.

I find that the best time to sprinkle salt is just as the shine is beginning to leave the surface watercolor paper. It should still be quite wet however. This is something that you learn with a little testing.

If you have not used this technique before I suggest you try it on some scrap watercolor paper first. Try sprinkling salt when the test paper is very wet, then when it is just losing its shine, and finally when it is barely damp.

If you sprinkle the salt when the paper still has a lot of shine on it and you move your painting the moving water and paint on the surface will remove much of the effect of the salt crystals.

However if you wait too long very little salt effect will occur.

Sprinkle salt over wet watercolor painting.

Figure 2: Sprinkle salt over wet watercolor painting.

I sprinkled the salt around the alizarin Crimson and burnt sienna, transition area. Do not sprinkle from too great a height or some of the salt crystals will bounce and end up all over the place. I sprinkled from about 2 inches above the painting surface. You can see from the image below that I varied the amount of salt I sprinkled to create a more interesting patent than just sprinkling a uniform straight line of evenly distributed salt.

Sprinkle salt in an interesting pattern

Figure 3: Sprinkle salt in an interesting pattern.

You can see from the close-up image below how the salt crystals absorbed watercolor pigment and moisture from the painting surface.

Detail of salt absorbing watercolor pigment on surface of easy watercolor painting

Figure 4: Detail of salt absorbing watercolor pigment.

You need to leave the salt crystals on your watercolor paper for quite a while to let them absorb significant quantities of pigment and water. This is what I refer to as the salt effect.

You can see, in the image below, the initial stage of salt crystals working. I leave my paper untouched until it achieves the effect I am after.

Initial stage of salt absorbing water and watercolor pigment

Figure 5: Initial stage of salt absorbing water and watercolor pigment.

Once the salt has created the effect I was aiming for I dry the painting using a hairdryer. Make sure you do not use the hairdryer so close to your painting that it roughs up the wet surface. Otherwise you can lose some of watercolor painting’s beautiful translucency.

You can see from the image below the stage at which I dried my painting.

Once the required salt effect is produced dry your watercolor paper thoroughly

Figure 6: Once the required salt effect is produced dry your watercolor paper thoroughly.

After the painting had totally dried I rubbed off the remaining salt crystals with a tissue.

Watercolor painting after dry salt brushed off

Figure 7: Watercolor painting after dry salt brushed off.

You can see more detail of the final result from using salt on the watercolor surface in the close-up image of a section of my painting below.

Details of salt effect on watercolor paper

Figure 8: Details of salt effect on watercolor paper.

These salt shapes suggested to me flowers blowing in the wind or seed heads of flowers such as dandelions. So in the next step I placed various colored watercolor dots in a number of the flowers’ centers.

Paint flower centers with small dots of different water colors.

Figure 9: Paint flower centers with small dots of different water colors.

While these dots representing the centers of flowers were still wet I dribbled water from my spray bottle over the area of flowers. This made some of the colors run. I also used my size 8 round watercolor brush to add some additional colors to the various flower heads.

Using some of the burnt sienna mix that was still in my palette I added some French ultramarine and use this to create the stems of flowers. Notice how I varied the spacing between these flower stems and their shapes and colors to add interest. You can see this watercolor painting step below.

Use water spatter and brush work to finish flower impressions and stems.

Figure 10: Use water spatter and brush work to finish flower impressions and stems.

This easy watercolor painting was nearly finished. All that was required now was to place an image representing the moon the top left-hand quadrant of my painting.

This was achieved by first lightly drawing a circle using a coin as a template ( I used an Australian 10 cent coin). I then used white gouache to create the impression of the moon within the circle. The gouache was painted on about one third of the area along one side of the circle. I then used a wet brush to soften this edge which spread a very small amount of gouache to the non-sun lit part of the moon. Once the moon shape was totally dry I erased any remaining pencil marks.

Painting the moon in top left quadrant of painting with gouache

Figure 11: Insert moon in top left quadrant of painting with gouache.

I finished this simple watercolor painting by signing it on the right hand side to balance the work.

Finished easy watercolour painting with salt demonstration

Figure 12: Finished simple watercolor painting with salt demonstration.

Here is another version of this same painting.

Another version of this easy watercolour painting using salt

Figure 13: Another version of this easy watercolor painting using salt.

One of my students ended up with some pretty harsh cauliflowers because of some excess pooling of water. However when I looked at her painting it suggested to me a series of mountains in the distance. So with her permission I quickly painted a wash of French ultramarine and some alizarin over the cauliflowers shapes. This was the result:

Easy watercolor painting of a mountain range using salt

Figure 14: Easy watercolor painting of a mountain range using salt.

This technique can be used for both easy watercolor paintings and more complex ones.

A common question asked by students is does the salt damage the painting. I honestly do not know however I know of artists that have used salt in paintings 20 years ago with no noticeable damage to their work. Also as salt is often used as a preservative I suspect it will not cause any lasting damage to the work. However I leave it to you to make your own decisions on the matter, I am a watercolor artist not a chemist!

3 thoughts on “Easy watercolor painting using salt

  1. Louise Meredith

    Thanks for the demo. I now know why I failed the first time I tried this!! Love the mountains!!

  2. Leonard

    Hi Joe. I’ve been painting on and off for most of my life but as I grow older my interest especially in watercolor painting is really growing. Am hoping to take it up on a full time basis eventually but for now I know I have a lot of learning to do. Thanks for the tips. I love your work.

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