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Unique Handmade Christmas Cards: Ink and Wash Watercolor Cards

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RedElf (Elle Fredine) is a photographer and published author who enjoys crafting and finding unique gifts.

An example of a handmade ink and wash watercolor Christmas card.

An example of a handmade ink and wash watercolor Christmas card.

Create a Beautiful Custom Christmas Card

Christmas—that time of year when we smile at strangers, share fellowship with those outside our usual circles, and exchange greetings with family and friends around the world. Many exquisite vintage cards are available, as well as fun modern designs, but my favorites, purely for their personal touch, have always been unique handmade greeting cards.

When I worked in retail, part of my job was to dream up ideas for seasonal crafts—Halloween crafts, Easter crafts, and Christmas crafts. I loved developing Christmas card ideas. I used to teach how to make all manner of Christmas cards: paper tole cards, embroidered cards, paper appliqued cards, and one of my favorite classes—ink and wash Christmas cards.

How to Make These Unique Handmade Cards

Let's get started. This is how I taught the ink and wash class.

Creating Design Patterns

Not everyone feels comfortable creating their own greeting card designs, so I always provided a selection of "patterns" for the cards we would then complete over the course of the evening.

  1. A few weeks before the class, I would gather my stash of designs, culling them for the clearest pictures.
  2. Then I reduced the nicest ones to line drawings and carefully created the tracing-paper patterns for my students to use.

Gathering Necessary Materials

Once the pattern is ready, it is quite simple to make these beautiful cards. All you need are a few simple materials:

  • cardstock
  • a waterproof pen
  • watercolor paints
  • newsprint or craft paper
  • an electric iron set on low heat
  • a cup of strong, black coffee (to create the "antique" background)

The card stock I prefer is sturdy and has a slightly pebbled surface. I like the way it "grabs" the pen. Strathmore makes an excellent product, with approximately the same feel as 300 lb cold press paper, but a lighter, smoother card stock will work equally as well.

For the "antique" background, any good coffee will do; just make sure it is well-cooled before using it.

Antiquing the Cards

  1. Select the number of cards you wish to antique, and spread several layers of newsprint on your work surface to contain any spills.
  2. Splatter the coffee over the card stock. The coffee will dry much lighter than it appears when first applied, so let the card stock dry between each application to check the effect.
  3. You may wish to add some more splatters here and there for an artistic effect.
  4. Once you have achieved the desired intensity of color, iron the card stock on the back until it is nicely flat and dry, using low heat to prevent scorching.
The same design as shown at the top of the article, inked on plain cardstock, ready for tinting with the watercolor washes.

The same design as shown at the top of the article, inked on plain cardstock, ready for tinting with the watercolor washes.

"Inking" the Design

Choosing the Right Pen

My favorite pen for this type of project, pictured below, is an inexpensive Sakura Microperm in size .03 to .05, which is readily available in the scrap-booking section of most craft stores.

These inexpensive pens are excellent for this kind of project. They contain waterproof ink, and they usually last through a number of projects. I always kept a few spares available for students to use during class, but most purchased their own so they could make more cards at home.

Outlining and Achieving the Right Intensity

  1. Trace the pattern onto the "antiqued" card after the coffee splatters are dry.
  2. After tracing the pattern onto the card stock using black graphite paper and a pencil, any extra lines or smudges are carefully erased.
  3. Outline the image in pen, referring to the original drawing for exact line placement. Then, using a soft flicking stroke, begin building up the layers of ink until the desired darkness is achieved.
  4. A common error is to try to lay in the dark areas too quickly. It is always better to build up the intensity in stages because an area can always be darkened somewhat, but removing or lightening an area that is too dark can be almost impossible. Take your time, and build up the dark areas slowly.
  5. Once you have achieved the desired intensity (darkness), set your card aside for a few moments to let the ink "set up". You may want to start inking another card now—I often have several on the go at the same time.
This is the completed card on "antiqued" card stock.

This is the completed card on "antiqued" card stock.

Adding Some Color

Once your card is dry, you can begin adding the colored washes. Keep several pieces of paper towel handy, and if the wash is too strong or you accidentally blob on too much at once, simply dip a corner of the towel into the color to remove most of it.

  1. To make a color wash, place a very small puddle of water in a clean area of your palette or china plate. Pick up the color you desire with your damp brush and add it to the puddle.
  2. Always rinse your brush and wipe it clean before going into a new color to avoid transfer. As well, I like to test the strength of the wash on a piece of scrap paper first to ensure I have not added too much or too little color.
  3. Once you have the right hue and intensity of color, use a fine, pointed brush to wash the areas in which you want that color. You may want to use a larger, fat-barreled brush for mixing and a much finer one for applying the color to your card.
  4. Continue mixing and applying the washes to your image in this manner until you have achieved the depth of color you desire.
  5. Do not overwork your paper. You are applying color in a very small area, and it is easy to erode the finish and roughen the paper with repeated painting and blotting. To avoid this "pilling" effect, let the card dry in between color applications. You can speed it along by heating it with a dryer, but take care not to get too close to avoid scorching or curling the card.
  6. Once the tinting process is complete, let the card dry completely before adding any finishing touches, such as the stamped greeting on the example.
This chickadee drawing is another good Christmas card project.

This chickadee drawing is another good Christmas card project.

Another Fun Project

Shown sketched on plain white card stock above, the ever-popular Black-cap Chickadee is a welcome visitor to the backyard bird feeder.

His distinctive, cheerful "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call can be heard here throughout the winter, and he is a favorite subject for painters and photographers alike.

Note how the pen strokes depict the slight fluffing of feathers on his crown and under-belly and how the crosshatching on the branch indicates its twists and bends.

This is Mr. Chickadee-dee-dee on "antiqued' card stock.

This is Mr. Chickadee-dee-dee on "antiqued' card stock.

Final Tips: You Are Only as Good as Your Tools

  • Tubes of watercolor paint are highly economical, but for a beginner or a simple project of this nature, a set of pan colors is probably the best way to start. Should you desire to learn more about painting in this rewarding medium, you may wish to invest in a slightly more expensive set.
  • Many watercolor sets contain a tray and mixing wells, which are most useful for isolating colors, but a plain white china plate works beautifully. A reusable mixing palette is certainly friendlier for the environment.
  • When I am working out-of-doors, my kit includes a water bottle of fresh water for painting and two lidded tins, one for brush cleaning and the other for painting. I also carry a paper towel, some painter's rags, and one or two old, clean towels for blotting the brushes—a compact version of the kit I set out for working indoors.
  • Once the painting water becomes too colored, I add it to the contents of the brush cleaning tin.
  • I love the Cotman Watercolor sets. Their field sets are so light and easy to carry for outdoor work. I have several different sets and tend to alternate them.

© 2009 RedElf


RedElf (author) from Canada on December 05, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by to comment, quilt827. Always lovely to meet another card-maker!

quilt827 from Tampa Bay, Florida on December 05, 2011:

Enjoyed your hub! I also do my own cards and to learn what someone else has done is great! Thanks,

RedElf (author) from Canada on December 20, 2010:

anne_with_an_e, thanks so much for commenting - nice to meet you!

anne_with_an_e from here, there and everywhere on December 19, 2010:

Thanks for the idea and the instruction. I'm always looking for ideas of things to make and I love this.

RedElf (author) from Canada on November 30, 2009:

thanks so much, th! I look forward to hearing (and, perhaps, seeing?) how they turn out. I'm sure you'll do a great job.

tnderhrt23 on November 30, 2009:

This is a great hub! and I think I can do this too! Have been sending hand-made cards for years but shied away from much water color work because I just wasn't familiar enough with the techniques required to make it look good. This hub has helped and I will give it an honest try! Great job!

RedElf (author) from Canada on September 29, 2009:

Thanks so much, Enelle - years of practice ;)

Greetings, laringo. Of course you can, and thank you!

laringo from From Berkeley, California. on September 29, 2009:

Great and unique Hub. I think I can do this. Thumbs up to you.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on September 29, 2009:

Great instructions! I can see why you were a teacher - very clear - and amazing artwork! Love it!

RedElf (author) from Canada on September 28, 2009:

Thanks so much Jane, he's one of my favorites, too.

Jane@CM on September 28, 2009:

Great ideas and good instruction. I love the chickadee!