8 Watercolor Painting Tips

No other painting medium is quite as unique as watercolor. Watercolor paintings are unmistakable. Fluid colors dance on the surface as the water pulls the pigment, producing delicate paintings. If desired, colors can be layered, resulting in controlled complexity. Or colors can be applied boldly, with broad, loose strokes, implying the subject, rather than describing it completely.

1. Use Quality Paints

Quality matters. The materials that you use greatly influence the results that you can expect. Many artists decide to purchase cheaper brands in order to “see if they like it”, before committing a few more dollars to higher quality paints. While this is a good approach to some mediums, watercolor is different. There is a broad spectrum of quality.

Using lower quality materials inevitably leads to lower quality results. Lower quality results often lead to frustration. It is wise to spend a little more on the higher quality paints in order to give your experience with watercolor a “fair chance”.

2. Use The Right Paper

The surface in which watercolor is applied is extremely important. Surfaces must be water-absorbent and capable of accepting multiple washes of color. This means that appropriate papers and surfaces are typically heavier.

The weight of the paper refers to the weight of one ream of paper (500 sheets). The heavier the paper, the better suited it is for watercolor applications. I recommend using paper that is at least 140 lb. (300 gms). You can usually find this information clearly labeled on the front page of a pad.

3. Stretch Your Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper can be stretched to better absorb washes of color. Stretching your paper ensures a taut surface. Larger papers can be soaked in a bath of water, and while damp, adhered to a hard board. Staples or heavy tape can be used to adhere the paper. As the paper dries, it slightly shrinks, producing a suitable surface for painting.

Smaller papers can be simply adhered to a board using masking or paper tape and then lightly washed with water.

4. Draw Lightly

It’s common practice to sketch the composition before painting begins. While some artists do not mind seeing the graphite marks through the painting, others prefer to have them covered completely by the watercolor applications.

In order to ensure that graphite marks are hidden, sketch lightly with an “HB” pencil. Avoid shading and concentrate on developing the contour lines. Softer pencils (2B, 4B, etc.) will produce lines that may be too dark, while harder pencils (2H, 4H, etc.) may create grooves in the surface of the paper.

Graphite applications can be gently lifted with a kneaded eraser before painting begins. But once watercolor has been added, it is virtually impossible to remove graphite marks from the surface.

5. Use the Right Brush

Brushes for watercolor panting are varied and there are no clear rules for which brush you should use. However, brushes with softer bristles are typically preferred. I prefer to use synthetic brushes that are soft, yet springy enough to provide control. My personal favorite are Grumbacher Golden Edge watercolor brushes .

Experimentation will often lead to finding the right brush that fits with your style, but synthetic brushes are good place to start. They are inexpensive compared to many natural hair brushes like sable.

Stiffer brushes, like hog bristle, are generally reserved for textural effects and are not used for general applications

6. Loosen Up

Because the vehicle for applying pigment is water, colors will naturally flow and form interesting shapes. It is often best not to fight this and instead exploit it. Subjects do not need to be described completely. Shapes of color and value can be loosely applied, implying the subject.

Allow the paint to “do what it wants” in areas and loosen up with your applications. While watercolor can be used with a great deal of control, it’s often at its most attractive when used loosely.

7. Limit Your Palette

As is the case with any painting, or drawing for that matter, color theory should be considered. While it may be tempting to use every color that is available to you, it’s often best to limit your palette. Look for subjects that already have a defined color relationship (ie. complementary, analogous, etc.), or simplify the colors that are observed.

8. Layer Washes

With watercolor painting, darker values and progressively more intense colors can be developed through multiple applications of color. Allowing each layer of color to dry before applying additional washes produces a glazing effect. Since colors layered underneath still show though top applications, complexity in color is achieved.

Generally, darker values are developed further as the painting progresses. Lighter values are developed with minimal applications, since the white of the paper influences the resulting value.

While colors can be mixed on the palette before application, optical color mixing is also an option. One example is to layer a translucent application of blue over a translucent application of red. The resulting color would appear violet since the red and blue mix optically.