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A Watercolor Painting Begins with Patience, Planning and Plenty of Practice

Updated on April 21, 2013

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise watercolor painting
Bird of Paradise watercolor painting | Source


Art just doesn’t happen. Good art is planned. Watercolor because of the nature of the medium; water and pigment, can capture a sense of spontaneity. This spontaneity also makes it somewhat hard to control, so it takes both patience and planning when executing a watercolor painting. There are strategies to enable a student to learn patience and to plan their painting.

A watercolor is created working from light to dark. Allowing sufficient dry time between layers of washes keeps a painting from becoming muddy and having shapes melt or run into each other.

Working on more than one painting at a time trains an artist to allow for dry time. These paintings don’t have to be full size paintings. Having several, 4 to 6 mini-paintings going alongside a main painting will allow not only for dry time, but allow a student to warm up, experiment and more usual than not create some very sweet card size work. These paintings can be scanned and placed into templates in InDesign Illustrator or even Publisher and printed as cards and stationary. You don’t have access to any of this software, your artwork can be uploaded to an account on numerous sites and placed into a template. Once that is done you can purchase items using your original art. Mini-paintings can be framed. There is a market for them online at eBay under the category of ACEO cards cards. There are guidelines for creating ACEO cards that you can follow if you want to explore this outlet. But for now the mini-paintings are encouraged to allow you to stop and let your watercolors dry. Each paint time is referred to as a session.

A moderately detailed watercolor may have 10 to 20 sessions. That doesn’t mean the work will be done over a period of 20 days. During a typical watercolor class or homework session a student may have 3 to 4 sessions on each piece they are working on.

Learning when to stop is an important skill that comes with experience. A good instructor will tell a student when to STOP and lay the painting aside. A typical guideline for knowing when to allow for dry time is when an area you want to paint is next to another wet area. Unless you want the colors to run together, it is time to stop.


During each class or home work time a student you should work on at least one main painting and 4 to 6 small paintings. In order to do this you will need reference photos. To learn how to paint you can use any photo you want to use. However, if you have aspiration for selling your work one day it is best to get into the habit of using your own photos or getting permission from the photographer to use theirs. It is permissible to use photos from sites like Flickr as long as you use photos that have what is called Creative Common license. Read more about this topic at

Most artists collect ideas to work on and it is a good habit for beginners to get into. Some artist collect photos. Some make quick sketches in a sketch book when they have a moment of inspiration. Some jot notes in a notebook so they can collect reference photos to use to work out their ideas on paper later. If you are going to work from photos, it is a good idea to organize your reference photos and to protect them. Using sheet protectors will enable you to both protect your photos and organize them in a binder, keeping them in the same place so you can easily find them when you are ready to paint. If you don’t want to use a binder put your covered photos in a plastic container or box. Some artists like to work from a laptop, smart phone or notepad. It is a good idea to collect photos on your computer in one folder whether you print them out or use your screen to view your reference photos.

Once you have decided what you want to paint you need to choose the size of paper. For a beginning student a medium size paper is best so you don’t become overwhelmed by the size and detail of a piece. It is easier to concentrate on a portion of a floral arrangement, part of a landscape or a single object as opposed to the whole thing.

The question do I sketch out what I want to paint first or do I start to paint is a common question. A good practice is to draw a few light lines to help you establish placement in the work. Lightly sketching an idea out is an acceptable practice. It is not uncommon to see pencil lines in finished watercolor paintings. Just don’t overdo it. Once you have your lines in place begin to paint your lightest and largest areas. Watercolors are not only painted from light to dark, but also from basic shapes to more detail as the painting progresses.


Practice painting lines to warm-up and to learn what your brush can do.
Practice painting lines to warm-up and to learn what your brush can do. | Source


Afraid to start? One of the most common obstacles in creating art is the fear of a blank white sheet of paper. Fear of getting started is a lot like writer’s block. It is something that needs to be dealt with. Fear of starting is connected to fear of failure. Sure if you paint you might not like what you do, but if you never start then you will never paint anything you like. Most artists are never satisfied with what they do, especially during the process. Knowing this helps you to keep at it. This is where the mini-paintings come in handy because they are small there isn’t a lot of investment in them time-wise or material-wise. Allow yourself to start the painting process, tell yourself it doesn’t matter, and then just paint.

Another way to get started is to use drawing paper because it is less expensive than watercolor paper and do some warm-up exercises. Here are three warm-up exercises.

Practice painting lines with a large round brush. Use an 8 x 10 piece of paper and start one side with a loaded brush and squiggle it across the page. Load the brush again with the same color or clean the brush, then load with another color and repeat the squiggly line across the paper. Watch what happens where the lines touch. Load the brush again, change directions and squiggle the line. Repeat two or three more time.

Repeat the exercise, but this time add pressure while you practice the strokes to make the line wider. Pull up to make the line thinner.

Another fun and interesting warm up exercise is to wet an 8 x 10 sheet of paper and let it dry for a minute or two. While it is still fairly wet, but not super soaked take a large round brush and do the same line exercise you did above and watch what happens.

Whether you are making small quick paintings or are practicing painting lines have fun and relax. Loosen up, and get ready to learn to paint.

Apply pressure to your strokes

Find out what happens with varying pressure applied to the stroke of your brush.
Find out what happens with varying pressure applied to the stroke of your brush. | Source

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for sharing this very creative talent. I appreciate your clear step by step instructions and suggestions.

    • ruthieonart profile image

      ruthieonart 5 years ago from Plano, Texas

      Do you have any examples of your work posted?

    • Vacation Trip profile image

      Susan 5 years ago from India

      Interesting hub. I also do watercolor painting some times but i don`t consider any of this point and just do it whatever comes to my mind. Thanks for sharing. Voted Up and interesting.

    • ruthieonart profile image

      ruthieonart 5 years ago from Plano, Texas

      I studied under an abstract expressionist and very much appreciate your viewpoint. However, at the moment I am teaching beginners who I believe deserve some basics. Even the decision to not plan is a decision. I think an article on what I learned from my teacher would be excellent for a more advanced student. I will write that. Even she gave us warm up exercises and a point of inspiration to start. Thanks for the input

    • The Unlearner profile image

      Jo 5 years ago from Isle of Wight UK

      I have just begun t use water colours again. I am not a planner of anything, and I prefer unprecious free flowing art. I do acknowledge that practice is advantageous, but I think that the most important element in creating art, is that it comes from your authentic self, and that you love the experience of creating a painting.