Introduction to this three part series

Since there is a lot of details to each step, I’ve broken this down into a series of three posts.

This post will introduce you to the world of watercolor, go over all the necessary tools and I’ll show some simple techniques for creating a wash and watercolor elements.

Next week, we’ll continue in a second part and I’ll show you how to apply your calligraphy to the watercolor backgrounds and create your own artwork with one of the techniques I show today.

In the last part, we’ll take everything to the digital realm, and I will share how I create digital watercolor-calligraphy designs when I’m strapped for time or need to deliver digital files for print.


Tools & Paper


For watercolor designs you’ll need sturdy paper that can take a lot of water without getting buckles and wrinkles, and that doesn’t disintegrate when you use your brush on it. There is a wide range of watercolor papers out there, some are smooth (hot-pressed) and some have more structure (or „tooth“) to them (cold-pressed). Since you are writing with your dip pen on the paper too, it’s best not to use the most structured paper, as it can become difficult to write on it without the pen skipping and snagging. Very smooth paper on the other hand will sometimes not make the color flow in the most interesting forms, but it works very nicely for smaller pieces. I suggest you test out a few papers and observe how they behave. Paper is the most expensive when it comes to watercolors.

Next, for the paints, or pigments, there are different qualities available. Artist or studio grade watercolor tend to be more vibrant because they contain more pigments as opposed to cheaper paints (usually described as student, academy, etc. line) that have more binder in them. Schmincke or Winsor & Newton are good brands with a long tradition I use regularly, I also like Lukas and as a recent discovery White Nights, which is an inexpensive brand that has some great colors. They use honey as a binding agent and tend to be a bit sticky, which I don’t mind, and you get great value for your money. For the purpose of making washes and backgrounds, essentially decorative elements, you don’t need the greatest and most expensive colors in the world, just see what you can get and if you can achieve the desired effects with it on paper – I’d say paper is most important.

Watercolor pigments are available in two different forms – as tubes or in little pans. I usually use pans, because that’s what I’m most accustomed to, but tubes are also fine. There’s no difference between the quality of both.

As for brushes, I have a few flat brushes (a big flat wash brush can come in handy for bigger pieces), and some round brushes in different sizes (from 2 to 12). I mainly use synthetic brushes and I like to buy my brushes in person in art supply stores to have a look at them before I buy. Don’t take the ones with bristles already falling out or pointing to the side.

There’s one thing my mother (a trained designer) told me when I was still very little: „Don’t lend anyone your toothbrush or your paint brushes“. I think it’s true.

Also, you’ll need a water jar, some tape, a piece of cloth – things you already know from your calligraphy practice. A palette, either a ceramic or a plastic one, will come in handy to mix colors, but you can also use a simple plate.

Watercolor Backgrounds – different techniques

I’ll show you a few different techniques that are easy to learn and flexible to adapt to a wide range of creative applications – you can design cards, invitations and quotes with this, or make little place or menu cards for a special event.

For bigger pieces it can be beneficial to tape your paper down, particularly if you use a bit more water (which creates nice smooth gradients). Sometimes, though, it can help to make the color go into the direction you want and tilt the surface – if you tape your paper to a piece of wood then tilting is easier to perform.

Watercolors dry approximately 20% lighter than their wet version – keep that in mind when you want a really dark color, you’ll have to use a lot of pigment and make sure it won’t float in all directions, which watercolor tends to do when it’s wet.

Simple Gradient Wash (Ombre Effect)


The first thing I want to show you is an easy ombre style gradient in one color.

You’ll need a big flat brush, a smaller flat brush, and a color of your choice. Also some watercolor paper and tape.

Mix a decent batch of your color before you wet the paper – once you do this, you’ll have to work quite fast, because you want to apply the color only in wet areas.

Tape down your paper so it won’t wrinkle, then brush over it with broad strokes with your biggest brush and clean water. Dab off the excess water so it won’t form pools or puddles. You don’t want your paper to be soaking wet.


With a smaller brush take up a good bit of pigment – when using pan colors you’ll have to soften those a bit before you load your brush. Mix the color with just a little bit of water so that it has a consistency similar to milk.

Apply a broad stroke of this pigment on your moist paper – you will see it starts to flow in the wet areas.


Dip your brush into the water jar, then make another broad stroke slightly above the one you made before. Then do this again and again until you have gone from very dark to very light and it looks like the color has faded. The idea is to gradually apply less and less pigment to the paper to achieve a smooth transition. Let everything dry.



Layered Edges (dip dye)


This effect looks somewhat like a dip dye effect, although it isn’t made in the same way. You can create a „real“ dip dye effect with colored inks (watercolor isn’t concentrated enough for this), for this example we’ll use watercolors and brushes. It’ll look great, if a little bit different, and you have more control where your color layers will go.

You’ll need a round brush and one color of your choice. You can cut your paper in smaller pieces later (and maybe draw pencil lines before) to have a bunch of place cards or gift tags, or you can use this effect at the bottom of a menu card or invitation.

Take a good amount of pigment on your brush and begin painting a wavy or crooked line near the edge of the paper, approx. 2,5 cm (1 inch) wide. Make sure the color looks vibrant. Let it dry. Usually the paper should be completely dry after about 10 minutes. Then take your brush again and apply a second layer over the first, this time overlapping it. Make sure you apply the new layer all the way down to the edge and not just in the white parts, or it will look funny. Let it dry again.



Two or three layers are usually enough. You can experiment with different colors, two similar colors usually look great together, but opposed colors can produce an unexpected effect, too.

Let everything dry and put the paper under a pile of books over night to flatten it before you write on it with your calligraphy nibs.

If your paper doesn’t completely flatten after one night under a book pile, take a spray bottle with water and lightly spray the back(!) of your paper. Then put it between two absorbing pieces of paper or paper towels to protect it, and under a book pile again over night. This should help the paper become flatter. Don’t do this after you’ve written on the paper with ink, it can possibly destroy the calligraphy.

I hope you found this foray into a new medium interesting, and I’ll see you in part two!

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