How to use salt in watercolour painting for creative effects

Want to create pretty textures in your watercolour painting? You just need a quick stop in the kitchen to grab your salt shaker. This guide will outline the best way to create fun, magical effects with something you already have at home.

What does salt do in watercolour painting?

Salt reacts to the water in your watercolour paint. When sprinkled onto your painting surface, the salt granules can absorb the water, pulling it into a little star-like shape with textured edges. It creates tiny patches of lightness within the painting where the pigment is moved around, giving a sparkly or dappled effect.

What effects can salt create?

Salt effects are often described as a starburst, with uneven edges and a textured centre directly around the salt grain. Sometimes it creates a gentle effect, and other times it will have jagged hard edges.

One of the most popular effects is a starry or sparkly sky. It can be used to make galaxies or landscapes with stormy skies. If you sprinkle salt over cloud shapes, it can also generate great light texture.

I love to use salt for emphasis in loose florals – sometimes I just drop a little over the leaves around the flowers.

floral watercolour composition with salt detail on the leaves

What kind of salt do you need?

You can use any type of salt in watercolour painting, but the different size granules have different effects.

Fine-grained table salt produces small pinpricks of light within your painting, making a light effect that’s great for making stars in a night sky. Because the salt grains are the same size, the results are usually fine and even.

Coarser salt like sea salt or rock salt with bigger flakes can also be used for larger areas or to create more pronounced textures. You may find that you need to place this salt rather than sprinkle it – try tweezers if you want really deliberate placement. Coarse salt will give larger starburst effects and hard edges.

In these swatches, you can see coarse salt (left) and fine grains (right) over a very wet paint, and underneath the same salt over a much drier paint mixture.

salt in watercolour - swatches showing fine salt and coarse grains effect after drying

How much water should you use?

It depends on what effect you want! Although the salt reacts with the water, I find medium-wet mixture gives the best effects. By this I mean that when you tilt your paper, it should appear wet and shiny, but there shouldn’t be any pools of the water, and it shouldn’t run across the paper.

If your paint is too wet, the water may ‘overwhelm’ the salt and result in more muted results. I find that if I drop salt into a paint puddle, it pretty much disappears.

If you’re after a minor sprinkling, aim for fine salt grains and paint that’s already started to dry. This will limit the textured effect of the salt.

Also, too much water will make the colours too pale, which mutes the effects of the salt. Dropping salt into darker paint creates high contrast results.

figs painting with salt watercolour effects texture

How to use salt in watercolour painting

This is a really easy creative watercolour technique that anyone can use!

  1. Start your painting and ensure the area you want to salt has an even water coverage without puddles
  2. Carefully sprinkle your salt over the wet areas, leaving space between the grains
  3. Ensure the painting sits flat as it dries naturally – this may take more time than usual
  4. Gently brush away the salt to reveal the patterns
watercolour florals with salt effect texture background

How to brush the salt off

Make sure your painting is fully dry before brushing away the salt or it may smudge. Sometimes the paint is still wet underneath the larger salt grains, so if in doubt, leave it a bit longer.

I like to use my fingertips so I can feel if the salt is stuck, but you do have to be careful not to pick up any paint. Some people prefer to use a dry brush or cloth to gently buff the paper.

If the salt sticks to your paper when it’s dried, sometimes you need to give it a little nudge to remove it. Try a circular motion to dislodge it. In desperate cases, I’ve been known to force it off with my fingernail, but be careful not to damage your paper.

loose watercolour flower composition with salt texture effects

Can I add salt then paint over it?

No, salt needs to be the last thing you add to your painting. If you try and paint over the salt granules, you’ll drown them in water and they’ll dissolve and disappear.

Now you’ve got the technique, go forth and sprinkle!

More creative watercolour techniques

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