Watercolour painting for beginners: everything you need to know to get started.
Watercolour is a beautiful and versatile medium. Artists, beginners and professionals alike are attracted to its immediate and delicate nature.
It’s an unpredictable medium in the way it dances and feathers across the paper. But its characteristics can be harnessed to create a variety of interesting effects. Create layers of washes and utilise the transparency to illustrate soft, luminous, light filled passages. Or choose to paint with spontaneous rich dry brush strokes for a distinct appearance.
Watercolour paintings have a signature look that no other medium can achieve. Read on to find out how to get started with watercolour painting for beginners and intermediate painters. Use this guide, even if you’re well acquainted with watercolour, but want to brush up on some of the basics.
Some basics: what is watercolour paint?
Watercolour paint is simply pigment suspended in a water soluble binder. In most brands of paint, that binder is gum arabic, however some brands use a synthetic binder.
Pigments can vary in their working properties. Some will be more transparent than others, some stain paper, whilst others lift off cleanly. Certain pigments have granulating properties, which is where course pigment grounds are visible in the paint film. By learning more about the properties of the pigments you use, you will have a better understanding of the medium itself. You can find information about pigments that your chosen brands use on their websites.
The watercolour medium has translucent properties, so it allows the tones and colours of previous layers to show through. Layers are built from light to dark, with the darkest shadows applied to the paper last.
How is watercolour different from other painting mediums?
Similar to acrylic and gouache paint, watercolour is water soluble. Unlike acrylic paint, It is also resoluble when dry. Colour can be rewetted for days at a time on the palette and on paper.
Watercolour paint is easy to clean—just swill your brush in some water. Oil and acrylic are slightly more difficult to clean, as it requires extra materials such as solvent or brush soap.
Both watercolour and gouache use gum arabic as a binder, whereas oil paint uses drying oil and acrylic paint uses a type of acrylic polymer.
It is a fast drying medium unlike oil paint, that can take as little as 5 minutes to dry for each layer (if you’re in a hot, dry environment).
Because watercolour is transparent, you can achieve luminous, light filled effects that are more difficult to achieve with mediums that have a higher level of opacity. Watercolour paint has a low viscosity, this means that it’s not possible to build surface texture. Viscous mediums like oil can retain their shape when dry, whereas watercolour will run and dry flat.
What are the benefits of watercolour painting?
Of all the mediums, watercolour is perhaps the most easy to clean and transport. Painters enjoy using it as a sketching medium to take en plein air (outdoors) to capture the light of the scene.
Watercolour is easy to work with, due to its fast drying nature and immediacy. The painting medium has an elegant and delicate quality to it, that’s irresistible to artists wanting to achieve that sort of effect.
Another advantage of watercolour, is that it is relatively cheap to get started. Paint is much cheaper than oil and acrylic and you don’t need to buy expensive canvases or easels. All you really need is a few tubes of paint, a soft brush, paper and a jar of water. You don’t need a large studio space either, just a desk or a table and some good lighting.
The only drawback of watercolour is that it’s more difficult to correct mistakes if you mess up. This contrasts with oil and acrylic, where you can layer opaque paint to cover mistakes. Watercolour may require more foreplanning. However, it’s not impossible to correct areas. Pigments that don’t stain will lift from paper when wet with something absorbent like a sponge.
Paint light to dark
The most essential principle of watercolour painting for beginners to learn is to start with the lightest and most transparent colours and gradually build the dark sections of your painting. If you start painting dark colours too soon, the painting can start to feel heavy and overwhelming and the dark colours are much more difficult to remove and alter.
Build up the dark areas slowly, layer by layer, maintaining passages of light from layers beneath.
Get the right watercolour supplies
To start painting, you will need some essential supplies. Luckily, watercolour painting is a budget friendly medium, making it perfect for beginner artists to try.
You don’t need too many supplies to start painting. Just grab some paint, paper, water and brushes. However, the types of watercolour supplies you choose will affect how the finished painting looks. For a more in depth insight into which watercolour supplies you need, read our guide.
- Watercolour paint: choose a set of either panned or tubed colour. Pans are easier to transport and paint flow can be easier to control, making them great for beginners. A brand like Daniel Smith uses lightfast pigments, meaning they have a high level of permanence and won’t fade over time.
- Brushes: soft brushes are best for watercolour painting as they are supple enough to move the runny paint, creating thin or thick lines depending on the amount of pressure applied. Sable brushes like these from Da Vinci are made from weasel hair. The sable brushes are soft but have a slight spring, so they retain their shape. Synthetic brushes like these from Princeton are much cheaper so are better for beginners and those on a budget. The synthetic brushes are vegan friendly and are slightly springier than sable, so they require a lighter touch when painting.
- Paper: watercolour paper comes in three varieties: hot pressed is smooth and less absorbent, cold pressed is textured and more absorbent and rough is the most textured and absorbent. Thicker paper is better for watercolour painting, 260gsm or higher is optimal. Alternative surfaces such as Aquabord and Yupo paper are worth experimenting with.
- Palette: If you choose to use tubes instead of pans, you’ll need a palette to squeeze paint into. Ceramic or plastic palettes with wells to keep colours in and a space for mixing work best.
- Mediums: There are mediums and additives specially made to alter the working properties of watercolour when incorporated into the paint mixture. A fixative medium will make your paint water resistant when dry, making it possible to layer colours on top of one another without bleeding into previous layers. Lifting mediums make it possible to lift staining pigments cleanly from paper.
- Water jars: Get two water jars and a paper towel to clean brushes before changing colours and at the end of the painting session. The first water jar can be used to remove pigment, then wipe on the paper towel to remove the excess, then swill in the clean water to ensure there’s no paint residue, then wipe on the towel one last time to dry. This will leave brushes squeaky clean.
- Brush soap: This is completely optional, but brush soap cleans and conditions brushes at the end of a session, helping them to retain their shape and last longer. The masters brush cleaner and preserver conditions and preserves bristles so they stand the test of time.
- Fixative: This is another optional supply. Spray the finished painting with fixative to make it water resistant and protect before framing.
There are many techniques central to watercolour painting that can yield a variety of effects. To learn about different watercolour techniques in depth, refer to this guide. Here are some of the most essential techniques to learn.
A flat wash is an even wash of colour. Use this as a background colour, for a sky wash or any solid shape layer.
Use a soft brush, either sable or a synthetic watercolour brush. Round brushes work well for smaller washes. Flat or mop shaped brushes work best for larger areas. Use the largest brush you can manage for the space you intend to paint, this way there will be fewer visible brush marks.
When painting, aim to make the paint layer appear as even as possible. Start with a well loaded brush and sweep the surface from one side to the other. Pick up the pooled colour from the paper and move it underneath to the other side. Repeat this action until you’ve filled the whole area. If colour collects at the bottom of the wash or around the edges of the masking tape, get a clean, damp brush and absorb some of the extra colour to get a more even finish.
If your colour wash doesn’t look as even as you’d like it to, go over it again to smooth it out.
The lifting technique involves cleanly lifting colour from the paper to reveal layers beneath. This technique is carried out while the colour is still wet, and you’ll need something absorbent like a sponge or cotton ball to lift the paint.
This technique works best with hot pressed paper and when using non-staining pigments. Staining pigments are absorbed into paper fibres, whereas non-staining pigments sit on top of the paper. Look either on the paint tube, the manufacturer’s website or on the brand’s paint colour chart to see whether the pigment is staining or not. If the paint is marked with the letters ‘St’ then it will stain paper.
If you want to lift staining pigments from paper, or you just want to ensure that your paint will lift fully, there are a couple of options to consider before applying the paint.
Yupo paper gives the ability to create completely clean lifts, even with staining pigments. This paper is non-absorbent and made from a type of plastic. Make sure to use a fixative on your finished artwork if you decide to try this paper out.
Another option is to use a lifting medium. Apply it to the paper in the areas you want to remove before painting, wait for it to dry, then apply paint. Get a clean brush while the paint is still wet and lift away the colour.
These are just two examples of techniques you can use with watercolour, to learn about nine more techniques, read our guide.
Brushwork techniques: control, patterns and mark making
The way you hold your brush and move it across the page will affect the kinds of marks you make. Apply more pressure to get a thicker line, or create ultra fine details with a light touch.
First, be mindful of how you hold the brush. Hold the brush near the ferrule (metal clamp) to achieve controlled detailed marks, in contrast, hold near the end of the handle to create loose, sweeping strokes.
Once you’ve mastered brush control, you’ll feel more confident in mark making and start to get creative with the kinds of brush strokes you use.
If you have a flat or filbert shaped brush, use the edge to create sharp, thin lines. Vary the pressure of a soft, flat brush to create abstract leaf shapes and petals.
Use a round brush to create blades of grass, start with a relatively dry brush by loading it with colour then wiping excess on a paper towel. Then apply light pressure to create the grass blade, reducing the pressure on the tip at the end and lifting off the page. This will create a thin, sharp blade of grass.
There are plenty of other brushwork techniques you can use—get creative! Splatter paint onto the page by flicking your brush, you can even blow wet paint with a straw.
To be able to mix colour quickly and accurately, you should have an understanding of how pigments combine to create new shades. This knowledge will come with practice, but you can also learn to identify pigments and where they sit in relation to one another on the colour wheel and how this affects how they are mixed.
The primary colours are of course red, blue and yellow. But a pigment will never be red, blue or yellow in its purest form. Instead, each colour will ever so slightly lean towards another colour on the wheel.
To give you the capability to mix the largest range of hues and tones, you should include two kinds of primary colours in your palette. A basic watercolour palette could have one warm and one cool version of each primary.
How to choose a colour palette
Here are some colour recommendations, if you are hand picking tubes or pans:
Blue: Ultramarine (cool), Phthalo blue (warm)
Red: Cadmium Red (warm), Magenta or Carmine (cool)
Yellow: Lemon Yellow (cool), Cadmium Yellow Deep (warm)
Look for the colours here.
Each of these colours is close to primary, but for example, ultramarine slightly leans towards red. Cadmium Red slightly leans towards yellow and Lemon Yellow ever so slightly leans towards blue. By using these colours in a palette, very few tones will be omitted when it comes to mixing.
I would recommend getting earth colours like burnt umber or burnt sienna on top of the primaries to use in shadows and nature scenes.
Of course, if you’re selecting a set of colours, there are some brilliant options available too. The set of 12 pans by Schmincke contains the primaries and some extra earth colours which are brilliant for all manner of subjects. The Daniel Smith Essentials Set of 6 also offers a great chromatic range of primary colours for mixing.
Of course, you don’t have to follow this colour palette selection to a tee, but it’s useful to be aware of how different pigments interact and which colours they lean towards, as this will allow you to create cleaner mixes.
How to mix colour
Using this knowledge of roughly where pigments sit on the colour wheel and in relation to one another, it gives you an idea of how to mix them. You know that Cadmium Yellow has warm undertones and leans slightly towards red, and that Cadmium Red leans towards yellow, so if you mix these it will make a vivid orange.
However, if you were to mix a cool red like Magenta with a cool yellow, like Lemon Yellow, the orange you create will be slightly duller, as both pigments lean slightly towards blue. The complementary pigment neutralises the colour. In the colour wheel, you can see that blue and orange are opposite each other on the colour wheel.
Mixing ‘duller’ colours isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if you like to paint with realistic colours, the less saturated mixes are the ones you’ll be making the most. More neutral colours look far more elegant compared to highly saturated colours.
Preparing the paper for painting
Watercolour paper should be stretched before use to avoid warping and buckling. If you anticipate you’ll be using heavy washes, it’s necessary to stretch the paper first, even if your paper is thick.
Stretching is a fairly easy process and you might have some of the supplies you need to do it already. Refer to this guide to learn how to stretch paper.
Watercolour painting for beginners: Pin it!
Watercolour painting: Further reading
Discover the best watercolour paint brands and the differences between each in this comprehensive guide.
The best watercolour books for beginners, intermediate and professional level artists to improve skills and get inspired.
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