Watercolor Glossary

Watercolor glossary of painting terms

This watercolor glossary is made up of terms I have used on this web site. It is not exhaustive and is based on my own definitions as I explain the terms to my students.

Back run: See Watercolor cauliflower below.

Backing board:  Board on which to tape you watercolor painting while working on it. Can be made from sealed plywood, perspex, or other waterproof (and preferably light) surface such as gator board.

Broken Edge: Watercolor painting technique where the side of the brush is quickly dragged across the surface of the paper to leave a broken edge of painted and unpainted sections of a wash. See Dry Brush.

Cast and form shadows:   Cast Shadow is caused by and object which blocks the light source causing a sharp edged shadow to be cast e.g. a sharp shadow on the side of a face caused by the nose blocking light. Form Shadow is the shadow created due to the rounded shape of an object as it moves further from the light source.

Cast shadow:  Shadow caused by and object which blocks the light source causing a sharp edged shadow to be cast e.g. a sharp shadow on the side of a face caused by the nose blocking light.

Cauliflower: See Watercolor cauliflower below.

Dry Brush: Watercolor painting technique where the side of the brush is quickly dragged across the surface of the paper to leave a broken edge of painted and unpainted sections of a wash. See Broken Edge.

Easel: Used to support your painting and backing board at a suitable angle to allow the water and paint on your painting to flow downwards as needed. You can find the details of a simple desktop easel here: simple desktop watercolor easel.

Form Shadow:  The shadow created due to the rounded shape of an object as it moves further from the light source.

Full Sheet: A standard size of watercolor paper when bought as loose sheets. Its size is approx 76cm x 56 cm (30″ x 22″)

Gator Board: A lightweight polystyrene foam board which is sandwiched between layers of wood fibre veneers. I have found it very useful as a backing board when painting with watercolors.

Glaze: Transparent watercolor wash over a totally dry under layer.

Gsm:  Term referring to the weight of the watercolor paper being used.

Half Sheet: A half of a Full sheet of watercolor paper. Its size is approximately 54cm x 36cm (21″ x 14″”)

Liquid masking:  Using a liquid latex to protect a part of the painting so you can paint over it. Once dry the masking is removed leaving the paper below untouched.

Masking:  Using a liquid latex to protect a part of the painting so you can paint over it. Once dry the masking is removed leaving the paper below untouched.

Masking tape:  Tape which is easily removed without damaging your paper. Used to hold your watercolor paper to a board or to protect part of your painting so you can paint over it with touching the paper underneath.

Mud:  This occurs when you disturb a wash while it is in a barely damp stage, just before it dries and you end up with a dull, rough looking area of your painting rather than a smooth looking surface which results when you lay down a wash and leave without continuous fiddling as it is drying.

Pre-wet:  Wet an area of your painting with clean water. This is done either when doing the first wash or if for a second or subsequent wash let the water stand for a little while, say 30 seconds and then your can drop additional color into it. I often use this technique when painting flowers. The emphasis is on dropping the color from the tip of your brush instead of pushing it into the paper – otherwise you will lift the painting which was previously laid down and you will create mud.

Quarter Sheet: A quarter of a Full sheet of watercolor paper. Its size is approximately 37cm x 27cm (14.5″ x 10.5″)

Round Brush: Most commonly used watercolor painting brush. Must come to a nice point when wet and hold lots of paint and water. See Buying a round watercolor brush for picture.

Tone:  A term referring to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. In painting objects further away are seen as lighter in tone than those closer to us. This is as a result of the effect of the atmosphere between the viewer and his object.

Under painting: The initial wash laid down on your paper. A glaze goes on top of the underwash after it is completely dry – otherwise you you can create mud. The underwash can also be the finial wash if a passage of your painting is done in one go.

Under wash:  same as under painting above.

Watercolor Block: This is made up of a number of sheets of watercolor paper which has been glued on all four sides and attached to a stiff backing board. With a watercolor block you do not need to tape it down. I have found the sheets tend to flatten when dry. According to the literature on Arches watercolor paper a block eliminates the need for stretching. I’m not sure if this means they are pre-stretched or that the glue allows the paper to dry flat again.

Watercolor Cauliflower: When you paint into painted damp paper with more water in your paint mix than is on your paper the damp paper soaks up the water and pushes the paint already on its surface along leaving a shape colloquially called a watercolor cauliflower. They can be created on purpose to create texture but usually they are unwanted and can ruin a watercolor painting. Also known as a back run.

Watercolor Paper: Hot Press or Smooth, Cold Press or Medium (also known as NOT – Not Hot Press, though is not so common) and Rough. The smoother the paper the faster the paint will dry. The reason for this is that the texture of Rough Paper has lots of little troughs which hold water, hence keeping the paper wet longer. Cold Press has smaller troughs so dries faster and smooth dries the fastest.

Watercolor Wash:  Refers to the laying down of watercolor onto your paper in a continuous manner so that you end up with a smooth looking transparent layer of pigment.