Salt is a fun, experimental tool to use when watercolor painting. Salt painting, or what is also commonly called salt technique, is very easy to do, and the results can be surprisingly wonderful.
Of course, the results can also be surprisingly not wonderful. When using salt with watercolor, you're never going to be completely in control, but there are a few things you can do to gain the best results possible.
There are infinite watercolor effects that are possible when using salt with watercolor, but this simple tutorial on basic salt techniques should help you get started and make the most of this common ingredient in your watercolor paintings.
Video Tutorial: Salt Technique with Watercolor
Before we dive into the various factors involved in salt painting, I thought it might be helpful to share a simple video tutorial on how to use salt with watercolor. After watching the video, the information below should give you more ideas on how you can experiment with this technique.
P.S. Big "thanks" to my very generous & techie young son who put together my video. We have a lot to learn, but I'm thankful he is so willing to help his very non-techie, not young mama.
P.S.S. That initial, weird blue stuff is masking fluid applied with a Molotow masking pen— the best masking vehicle ever! I'll never go back to toothpicks, Q-tips, or junkie brushes for application.
Instructions & Tips for Using Salt with Watercolor
Listed are the steps for the process I used in the video above:
1) Paint underlying watercolor colors.
2) I allowed the page to dry until the moisture sheen on the surface of the paper was just beginning to disappear, but you can vary this to get different effects. (More on this below.)
3) Sprinkle salt in desired areas.
4) Allow paper and paint to completely dry. (Very important!)
5) Lightly brush away salt. Be careful! When removing the salt, it's all to easy to sand or scratch the surface of the paper.
6) Continue painting the rest of the scene.
Salt Painting with Various Salts
My subtitle sounds kind of redundant, but it makes sense! There's a huge array of salts available, and each type will react differently on a page.
One of the most common table salts is the brand name Morton or a generic similar. Because of the additives and fillers in this salt (just read the label), I don't keep this salt around the house. Though it will work in a painting without harm, I've only used it when traveling (hey, those salt packets are free!) and with lackluster results.
Above are some examples of salts that I've tried, from finely ground to grated to course Kosher. I actually love the grinder because it simultaneously releases various sizes of salt granules, so I find it a great advantage with watercolor.
By the way, if you decide to try that one, go ahead and buy two so your housemates (like mine) won't constantly have to search for the salt on your studio table.
(So sorry, sweet family! I needed the salt shaker. Again.)
Salt Painting with Various Papers
I mainly use cold-pressed watercolor papers when painting, or as my friends across the pond say, "not hot pressed." Except for the samples below, every other example in this post is painted on cold-pressed.
No matter your personal choice, salt painting works fine on most watercolor papers— hot, cold, and rough. And except for Yupo (which is always a hot movin' mess and never seems to dry in my humid, southeastern climate), I really can't tell much difference.
In the examples above, I tried to make sure that I sprinkled the same amount of salt on a similar wash at the exact same stage of drying, but there's no way to perform a lab experiment with this... at least not in my house. But you may can do better than me!
This is one of the many reasons that you never know what you'll get when doing a salt technique. Have fun experimenting!
Saturation Level of the Paper
When using a salt technique, I think the greatest variable depends on the saturation level of the paper. The general rule is that the drier the paper, the less effect the salt will have. Placing salt on a very wet wash or pigment load will result in a lot of movement, while sprinkling salt on a nearly dry wash will result in a very limited effect.
The saturation level of paper is a great way to control the final look that you want to achieve. However, it's not a hard and fast rule because humidity, the type of salt and paint used, the paper's characteristics, and many other variables can affect pigment movement and control, but the paper's wet/dry ratio is the best gauge.
Other Variables Using Salt Technique
I just mentioned this above, but when using a salt technique, I've noticed that certain pigments or paints will move more than others on a page. Staining pigments may not react as strongly as nonstaining pigments, and granulating pigments may sometimes go a little crazy or not react at all. Weird.
Humidity in the air and in the paper can also affect the process. Also, the same pigment but in a different watercolor brand may also react differently to salt.
If you are interested in having more control, it's going to take practice. It's a good idea to do some test swatches like the ones above but with the paints in your palette. Once you discover a few colors and techniques that work best for you with the products you use, you'll be able to more accurately predict the results... most of the time.
Examples of Watercolor Paintings with Salt
Fine salt was applied to a barely damp wash throughout the grassy area at the bottom with the greatest concentration on the right. The tree and grass details were added after the salt wash was completely dry. (Remove the salt first!)
Salt was applied on the bottom left to a very wet wash. I also dropped in darker colors on top of the salt and then allowed it all to dry before painting in the flower details. You can see where a few salt flecks escaped into the tree foliage above the flowers, but I liked the effect so I didn't correct it. (I may go back and add in more flower details where the salt left white spots. Salt is such a fun experiment!)
Course salt was applied to the bottom, right corner to a moderately damp wash to create "flower heads." When the wash was nearly dry, I gently removed the salt and painted in the flowers.
Salt was applied to a very damp wash all throughout the orange area on the bottom. This pushed the paint and formed really interesting dark and light values within the stems and foliage. You can watch a video of the first layer of this painting on my Facebook page.
69 More Watercolor Techniques to Explore
A wonderful book that I highly recommend is Zoltan Szabo's 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques [affiliate].
This book is extremely light on instruction— Szabo basically gives examples of what is possible with watercolor and leaves it up to the reader to figure it out— but his list along with the abundant photos that he shares provide loads of ideas and inspiration.
Since I'm naturally curious and rather impatient with instruction (not a good trait, by the way), I've found Szabo's book extremely helpful. Consider it a springboard to your own experiments and worth the very inexpensive price, especially if you are good to the earth and purchase it used.