Watercolor Painting Tips

Because of the misunderstanding that watercolor is too hard to control and unpredictable, many people shy away from it. While it is true that watercolor is a medium that is challenging to master, it is very easy and economical. All you really need to begin is paint, water, and a brush.  You can use watercolor as your primary artistic medium or primarily as studies for oil or acrylic paintings. The rewards of this challenging and somewhat unpredictable medium are great. Here are some tips to help you get started:

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1. Use a portable set of pan paints.

Watercolor paint comes in three different forms: liquid, tube, and pan. You can start with any kind, but keep in mind that sets of pan paints are compact, portable, and offer an array of easily accessible colors. Some of the most popular brands you can try are Windsor & Newton or Cotman Watercolors.

2. Use a few good brushes and take care of them.

Watercolor brushes typically have soft, long hairs. This allows the medium to be applied easier. The best ones are from natural fiber such as sable or squirrel.  Since these type of brushes are expensive, other good quality soft synthetic brushes have been developed that are alot less expensive. The selection of the type of brushes as well as their sizes are ultimately a personal preference. Even though there are a number of different shapes and sizes of brushes, you should only need one or two larger flat brushes for laying a wash and several different round brushes of different sizes for details. For example, a #12 round, #10 round, #6 round, and a couple flat brushes 1″ or thereabouts.

It is important that you clean the brushed thoroughly with running water when you get done painting and dry them with a paper towel or rag by squeezing them gently. Reshaping the tip with your fingers and storing them upright on their handles is a good idea also. This prevents the brushes from getting splayed and ruined.

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3. Use Watercolor Paper That is At Least 140lb in Weight 

The heavier the paper, the thicker it is. 300lb weight paper is the thickest and can carry a lot of water. 140lb paper is the most commonly used and may still need to be stretched depending on your painting style and whether you use a lot of water. 90lb paper is too thin for anything other than experimenting and practicing. I suggest not using this light of a paper.

You can buy watercolor paper as individual sheets, in a pad, or on a block. I suggest buying a pad or a block. This gives you a hard surface and keeps the paper stretched until the paint is dry and you’re ready to cut it off the block and start another painting. Pads with heavyweight paper are also quick and easy to use.

4. Plan your composition out 

Doing this helps knowing where your highlights will be. With watercolor you paint from light to dark, leaving the white of the paper as your lightest lights. So you need to have an idea, in advance, where those areas will be so you can paint around them. You can carefully avoid them, or you can paint a masking fluid over these areas to protect them. The masking fluid dries into a rubbery material that you can easily take off with rubber cement remover. You can also use an artist’s tape or painter’s tape to mask out areas you want to leave white.

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5. Always mix more paint than you think you will need.

Beginner painters are often very careful with the amount of paint they mix, mixing only a little bit and then having to repeatedly mix more. This can be frustrating, particularly when you are trying to lay a wash over your painting surface. Better to mix more of the color than you need than to try to have to replicate the exact color you made.

6. Test your colors out on a piece of paper before painting.

It is hard to tell the exact color of paint by just seeing it on your palette because it will dry lighter on paper than it appears when wet. Have an extra piece of paper handy to test your colors on before applying them to your painting so you know exactly whether you have the color and value you want.

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7. Use large containers of water and keep the water clean.

Inexperienced painters often choose a small container of water to use to clean their brushes between colors. They quickly find that the water gets dark and murky, muddying their colors and turning their whole painting brown. The best way to keep your colors pure is to keep the water clean, and the water stays clean longer if you use a large container. A good idea would be to use two large containers, one to clean the brushes, and one to wet the brushes before applying color. If you see the water is brown, it is time to change it!

8. Don’t overmix your colors.

Another way to avoid having your colors become muddy and brown is to avoid mixing too many colors together. It is important to understand and learn the color wheel and color mixing and trying to keep yourself from mixing more than two colors together at once. You can also layer colors on the painting surface either as a glaze by overlaying washes (wet-on-dry), or adding another color to an already damp surface (wet-into-wet).

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2 thoughts on “Watercolor Painting Tips

  1. Gorgeous paintings. I’m one of those people who have tested out watercolors and shied away from them a little due to difficulty of control. But it actually is easy if you just let it happen.. some of my better paintings are the ones where I just lay the paint down and let it do what it wants to do. The worst ones are where I try to make fixes too fast. Good observations. Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks Genny! Watercolor is definitely difficult to control. No doubt about that! I find it to be very rewarding at the end. I agree with you on letting watercolor just do it what it wants to do and not try to fix it in between this process!

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