Watercolor Painting Tips for Beginners

Watercolor paints
Getty Images

Many people shy away from using watercolor because they fear that it is too difficult to control. While it is true that watercolor is a medium that is challenging to master, it is very easy and economical to get started, and once you do, you will find that it becomes less daunting as you progress.

All you really need to begin is paint, water, and a brush. It is really that simple. Whether you choose to use watercolor as your primary artistic medium, or whether you use it 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.

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 sets of pan paints are compact, portable, and offer an array of easily accessible colors. You might try the WInsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Pocket PLUS Set of 24 Half Pans, which comes with a No. 3 size brush, for a nice variety of quality paints at a reasonable price.

2. Use just 3 or 4 good brushes and take care of them.

Watercolor brushes typically have soft, long hairs made specifically to move a watery medium around. The best ones are from natural fiber such as sable or squirrel, but these are scarce and expensive, so good quality soft synthetic brushes have been developed that are much less expensive. You need to experiment to determine what shapes and sizes you like, for ultimately it is a personal preference.

Although there are a number of different shapes and sizes of brushes, you should really 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. (20 mm equals about 1 inch).

Clean the brushes thoroughly with running water and a little soap if need be when done painting and dry them with a paper towel or rag by squeezing them gently. Reshape the tip with your fingers and store them upright on their handles so the brushes don't get splayed and ruined.

Before investing in high quality brushes, you can always try a student set of less expensive brushes to experiment with shape and size, and use a soft house-painting brush to lay on a wash. You may run the risk of having some of the brush hairs fall off onto your painting, but if you're just experimenting this may not bother you.

If you want to try a wide array of brushes, here is a  great set of 36 brushes for watercolor, oil, and acrylic at a very reasonable price. 

3. Use Watercolor Paper That is At Least 140lb Weight (Medium Thickness).

The heavier the paper, the thicker it is. 300lb weight paper is the thickest - like cardboard - and can take a lot of water without buckling, which is what you are trying to avoid. 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 really too thin for anything other than experimenting and practicing.

You can buy watercolor paper as individual sheets, in a pad, or on a block. I suggest buying a pad or better yet 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 so you know where your highlights will be.

With watercolor you paint from light to dark, leaving the white of the paper as your lightest lights. Therefore 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 rub off with your finger. You can also use an artist tape or painter's tape to mask out areas you want to leave white.

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. 

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. In fact, some artists 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. Understanding the color wheel and color mixing is important, and trying to keep yourself from mixing more than two colors together at once will help.

You can also layer colors on the painting surface either as a glaze by overlaying washes (wet-on-dry),  or add another color to an already damp surface (wet-into-wet). 

Read: Watercolor Techniques: Overlaying Washes (Glazing) 

More: Watercolor Techniques: Two-color Washes and Variegated Washes

9. Don't try to make your watercolor painting look like an oil or acrylic painting.

The beauty of watercolor paint  is its transparent quality and luminance. Don't overwork it. One of watercolor's greatest strengths is its ability to show complexity of color by revealing layers of transparent color. It allows light to travel through the layers of paint and reflect back up off the white of the paper. Try to keep a light touch. For more control of the paint but less transparency, use less water on your brush; for more unpredictability and greater transparency, use more water. Try to find the balance that works for you.

10. Don't worry about making mistakes.

Many people believe that you can't fix mistakes in watercolor. That is actually not true. There are many ways to fix "mistakes" if you really can't live with  them - you can blot off watercolor with a damp tissue, sponge, or clean damp brush, or even a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser; you can change an area dramatically by applying another wash to it; you can even wash the whole painting off under running water if need be. Watch this video to see how artist Deb Watson uses the Magic Eraser to wash off her paintings and re-use them.

Watercolor is water-soluble and remains workable with just a little bit of water added to it even after it has already dried.

This is true for as long as it remains that way, even years. The only exception would be if the painting were varnished. 

Have no fear, and enjoy the fun and idiosyncratic medium of watercolor!