Beneath the Waves: A Watercolor Tutorial for Kids of All Ages!

There’s something very special about diving under water and looking up to see the sun surrounded by ripples of turquoise. When there’s a school of fish silhouetted against the blue, it becomes truly magical. I wanted to create a painting which captured this effect and let me practice the wet-in-wet technique with my watercolors.

Wet-in-wet painting got its name because you use wet paint on wet paper. The paint can travel through the water and you get interesting soft effects. It’s a great technique for creating backgrounds, and is just plain fun. You can use watered-down acrylic paints or gouache for wet-in-wet painting, but I like it most with translucent watercolors. It’s important to use watercolour paper when painting wet-in-wet as other papers won’t be able to handle all the water we’ll be using and will buckle and tear.

Painting Wet In Wet Watercolor Before You Start

Stretching The Paper

My first step was to stretch my paper so that it could hold large wet washes without buckling. To do this, you need a large brush or a small sponge, a sturdy board to tape the paper on to and some masking tape/ decorator’s tape. A wooden board is great if you have one, but you can also use very heavy cardboard, like the card you find on the backs of pads of paper.

Using my foam brush, I spread water all over my paper. I used enough to get the whole surface wet, but not so much that it was running over the edges. To check I hadn’t missed any spots, I held up the paper so it reflected the light and covered any dry patches. I then placed the wet paper on to a stiff piece of cardboard and put masking tape around each side to hold it flat. If you’ve used too much water, you might find that the tape won’t stick. Use your large brush or sponge to remove some of the excess water and try taping again.

Watercolor Stretching The Paper Example

The Wet-In-Wet Wash

Then came the fun bit- color! I made a big wash with lots of ultramarine blue and viridian green, which gave me a lovely turquoise, and added plenty of water to lighten the colour. I knew I’d want some darker areas in my wash, so I made a second, thicker mix with the same colors. This time I only added a little water so the consistency was more like fruit juice, and I used a little more blue.

Watercolor Wet In Wet Wash Step 1

I checked my paper and found that one area had almost dried, so I gave the sheet another light wash of clean water. I tried to keep the amount of water on the paper quite even so I’d get more control over what the paint did. I then picked up some of my wetter, lighter mix with my big brush and began to paint. I left a circle of white where I wanted to give the effect of the sun shining through the water, and started to paint rough circles around this. The water on the paper made the circles flow together, giving them hazy edges. To get some more variation in color, I went over some circles twice. As I painted farther from the sun I introduced my thicker, darker mix, and switched between my two paints to create the feeling of ripples and sunbeams. As I got closer to the edge I used my darker mix more, and went back over a few areas with more paint to deepen them further.

Watercolor Wet In Wet Wash Step 2

If the wash gets dry

When I’d finished my wash, I noticed I’d missed adding colour in a couple of spots. My first wash was almost dry so I needed to be careful. If I added more of my wet wash, the water would flow into the drying wash and would create back runs and cabbaging. These marks can be fun to play with, but I wanted to keep my wash smooth. If I waited until the paint dried and painted wet-on-dry then the new area would have had hard edges. I could also wait till the whole thing dried and carefully put a wash over the whole painting then patch up the area, but the places where the paint overlapped would show and I’d risk lifting or smudging the paint from my first wash. In the end I decided not to fix the white patches, as they looked a bit like the sun was reflecting in the water. Sometimes when things go wrong in watercolour, it can be a good time to get creative!

Mixing Black Watercolor

Mixing Black Watercolor Example Fish Silhouettes

My paint box doesn’t have a black included, and I like making my own as I think the colors I can get are richer and more interesting than the pre-made shades. My favorite recipes are ultramarine blue with burnt sienna or burnt umber (which are both orange browns), or a bluish green like viridian or phthalo green with a crimson red such as alizarin crimson or permanent red deep. These pairs are opposite each other on the colour wheel, so they make neutrals when blended. Yellow and purple can make interesting neutrals too, but pure yellow isn’t dark enough to make black. You could have a go at mixing your own black, or can use a pre-mixed color, gouache or even a marker pen if you prefer.

I sprayed my paints and left the water for a minute or two so I could get nice thick colour. When mixing black, you need plenty of pigment and only a little water or you’ll make grey. I checked that my washes were dry and started to paint the silhouettes of fish swimming around the sun, then added a shark for fun. You could include other sea creatures instead, like whales or turtles, or how about a diver or a submarine?

Painting Wet In Wet Final Painting Example Fish Silhouettes Andrea England

Taking It Forward

Think about changing the colors to create different scenes. What colors would you choose for a moonlit sky or a sunset? What would you use as silhouettes? What would happen if you painted in stripes of color instead of circles, or what if you left cloud shapes white? Try using smaller areas of wet-in-wet to create texture on a larger painting, or to create a soft background before adding detail in the foreground with thicker washes of color.

I hope you have fun with this tutorial!

Recommended6 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
  1. Laura Kate 3 years ago

    Excellent instruction. I think this tutorial is really good for upper elementary students.

  2. Karen Fortier 3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this post Andrea.

  3. Sandra Strait 3 years ago

    Another great tutorial, Andrea! Like many things watercolor, wet in wet is easy – once you have the knowledge and lots of practice! Every artist has to do the practice, but your explanation is sure to help many learn what to do in their practice.

  4. LoriCtoo 3 years ago

    Great tips! I actually painted a cabbage the other day and was having problems painting in the texture. Now I know! Lol

  5. Anita Sinha 3 years ago

    Such a cool technique!👏💕👏 Thanks for sharing!🙏

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