This is a guide covering how to paint with watercolors.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
What is a Watercolor Painting?
Watercolors are a type of painting made by mixing pigments with water and brushing them onto paper. They have a well-recognized soft, delicate appearance with thin washes and transparent color.
There are a few different techniques for watercolor painting, like wet on wet, washes, and wet on dry.
There are very few or even no lines in watercolor painting, as the color and brushwork create the outlines of the subject being painted, giving watercolors a fluid effect.
The white background that the colors are usually painted on gives them a natural luminosity, and often these large white areas are left exposed to further brighten and highlight the page and provide contrast to the colors being used.
Is Watercolor Painting for Beginners?
Although watercolor poses a challenge for a lot of artists who used to work in slow-drying oil or acrylic paints, watercolor painting is, for many of us, a memory we have from childhood.
Watercolor painting is popular with children and beginners because the pigments are water-based, making them less messy than oil or acrylics; they dry quickly and are easy to work with.
The medium can take some getting used to, especially for artists who have typically worked with other types of paint, but in general watercolor painting is fantastic for beginners who have never worked with paint before, or who want to explore a different way of artmaking.
The possibilities for watercolor painting are extensive, with many different techniques that can be applied to create various effects.
Although it might be difficult to go over a watercolor painting to fix any mistakes, as the pigment is so thin, it is nice and easy to pick up another sheet of paper and start again.
With the easy steps below and a bit of practice, anyone can master the art of watercolor painting and explore its many advantages.
How Do You Start Your First Watercolor Painting?
The first thing to consider before starting a watercolor painting is what supplies you will need.
There are a few basic things that will set you up for success, and they are usually easy to find, readily available, and inexpensive.
The three main things you will need to start your first watercolor painting are, of course, watercolor paints, thick absorbent paper, and some brushes.
1. Watercolor Paint
Watercolor paints come in many different varieties, either in tubes or pans. Some come with only a few pigments that can be mixed, while others have a range of colors already mixed for you.
To paint with watercolor tubes, you will also need a palette on which to mix the colored pigments with water.
If your watercolor set has a more limited range of colors, a palette will also be useful for mixing your own hues.
If you buy the colors in a pan, you can simply spray or drip some water over the top of the colors to get them, and then pick them up with a wet brush.
It is also a good idea to have two jars, or glasses, of water – one for dipping the brush to mix and apply color, and one for rinsing your brush between colors.
The type of brush you use depends on the type of painting you want to do. A larger, thick, and flat brush is useful for applying broad strokes of color wash for background or large expanse.
Smaller, fine tip brushes are better for creating more detailed lines or lettering. It can be helpful to have a variety of brush sizes and shapes to experiment with when you are starting your first watercolor painting.
Finally, it is a good idea to keep some towels nearby to dry the brushes and to wipe up any spills.
Do You Sketch Before Watercolor?
Watercolor painting usually doesn’t require sketching beforehand. This is because the colors themselves are used to create shapes, definitions, and contours.
This is where you can use your imagination, and get creative, rather than having to stick to a strict sketch.
You might have something in mind that you want to paint, but it will really only take shape once you start applying the watercolor to the surface you are using.
If it helps, you could draw a sketch first and then apply the colors to a blank piece of paper, referring back to the sketch as a guide.
If you paint over the sketch itself, the problem is that the lines of the sketch will be visible through the thin washes of paint.
This is one of the more fun and exciting elements of watercolor painting: that it is more free and spontaneous than other mediums.
However, it can be helpful to create a color chart before you start your watercolor painting. This is done by applying each color in the palette to a piece of paper with a varying degree of pigmentation, to show how the color looks on paper and with different amounts of water.
Then label each color so you can refer back to the chart when you next take out your watercolor paints.
What Do You Paint Watercolors On?
It is important to choose the right type of paper to paint on with watercolor because the surface of the paper is going to get wet.
The paper needs to be thicker and more absorbent than normal drawing paper – a general guide for the weight is 140lb/300g or higher.
How Do You Paint with Watercolors?
Watercolor painting can take a bit of practice, patience, and experimentation. The way you use the watercolor paints depends on what effect you are trying to achieve.
In this simple guide, we will look at some tips for how to paint with watercolors for a few different techniques.
1. Wet on Wet Watercolor: Soft, Blurred Lines and Flowing Edges
Start with your brush, water jars, and paints. Dip your brush into a jar of clean water, and paint it straight onto the paper (without any color) in the area you want to paint.
For instance, if you are painting a lake, wet the area where the lake will be with the water from your brush.
Before it dries, pick up some moistened paint from your watercolor palette and paint over the area you just outlined with the wet brush.
You can either drag the brush along to create longer strokes or dab it to see how much water and paint you need to create the desired effect.
This technique is usually used for painting landscapes, skies, or background washes, as it gives a soft and flowing effect.
2. Wet on Dry Watercolor: More Defined Lines and More Control
This technique is similar to the wet on wet method, but you apply your dampened watercolor paint with a wet brush to dry paper.
You can achieve different levels of color intensity depending on how much water you mix in with the pigment.
The amount of water you use will also affect the precision of the lines you are painting. This technique is used normally for making outlines or adding a bit more detail to your painting.
3. Layering With Watercolor: How to Build Up Color
The most important thing to remember when layering your watercolors is to start with the lightest colors first.
That way you can add more intensity and depth to the lighter areas of your painting until you have the look you want.
It is also important to note that watercolors will become reactivated when you paint over them with more water or a wet brush.
This can affect the original color you’ve used and make it seem less vibrant, so exercise caution when layering watercolors.
It is best to let your watercolors dry in between layers to avoid too much blending or running of color.
To further explore some watercolor painting tips, we recommend checking out this in-depth video by Emily Artful:
Watercolor painting is a fun, creative, and simple way to enjoy using color and artistic techniques.
The speed at which the water dries, and the lack of control that some styles of watercolor painting allow for, can be challenging, but there are some easy tricks to master this skill.
These watercolor painting ideas for kids, beginners, and experienced artists mean that anyone can experiment with watercolor to create beautiful pieces of art.
Having the right tools, understanding the medium, and setting yourself up for success will eliminate most of the potential for things to go wrong.
Watercolor can be used for a variety of subjects, from landscapes to portraits to typography, depending on the technique you use. It allows you to be creative and express yourself freely; all it takes is some preparation and practice.
Harriet Maher a freelance writer based in Otautahi New Zealand, where she grew up. After completing an Honours degree in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2014, she was awarded a full scholarship for a Masters in Art History at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 2017. She has a lifelong desire to learn, so she’s passionate about new and innovative art practices, and she’s always seeking out new ways to look at and understand art. Her writing attempts to make the invisible seen, and the unsayable said.