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Starter Guide for Painting with Water Colors

Updated on April 6, 2019
Watercolor Painting by vladimir 7
Watercolor Painting by vladimir 7 | Source
Color Palette with Paint
Color Palette with Paint
Pigment Wonderland
Pigment Wonderland

Watercolor Painting - Choosing Your Paint

Watercolors for painting come in both tubes or small solid blocks. The choice between the two is really up to you.

The color in the tubes dissolves a little easier in water, and will aid in a more spontaneous approach.

The small solid blocks take a little more time to get the coloring right.

You can buy a box palette already filled with colors, but it is best to buy an empty box and fill it with your own colors.

Endless arguments can be made about the colors that should form the basic palette.

Check out the most common that are in relation to the subjects you wish to paint. There should be a range of all the prime colors, including black and white.

You can add extra colors as your subject demands, but a vast range of tones can be made up from the prime colors.

If you have never used water colors before, try experimenting a little on a blank piece of paper.

This will help you get the feel of mixing colors and seeing how water affects the outcome of those colors.

Paint the colors out to full strength first, then add more and more water to make them lighter and more transparent.

Start mixing colors. Try the different yellows with the blues to see the number of greens possible.

For a range of grays, try mixing blue and red, blue and brown, green and red, blue and black. Remember Natures' grays are never just 'gray' or diluted black.

Some say white should not figure int the watercolor palette, but it does have its uses.

Colors mixed with it assume a solidity, and this can be effective in architectural subjects.

White can also be used for the tiny details on a dark background.

Watercolor Painting - Brushes and Palettes

The quality of brush is important, cheap brushes are a false economy, and over time you will spend more money replacing them.

Buy sable or squirrel brushes, if possible, with care these brushes will last a long time.

The number and size of brushes you use is up to you.

To to begin with buy a broad flat brush (Number 10 or 12) for washes.

A couple of round brushes (Number 7, 8, or 10) and a thin one (Number 3 or 4) for detail work.

Take good care of them. Thoroughly clean them in clear water after use, reform them to points and store so the heads are not bent.

Choose a palette similar to that above with depressions for squeezing the colors into. It also has large pans for mixing colors in them, plus room for keeping brushes.

This makes a good compact set for outdoor and indoor work.

An old china plate can make an equally good mixing palette.

Always clean your palette well after use.

Watercolor Painting of the the USS Constitution
Watercolor Painting of the the USS Constitution | Source

Watercolor Painting - Paper

Ideally buy paper of the best quality, heavyweight watercolor paper which can be bought in pad, block or sheet form.

Anything less than heavyweight may wrinkle under a wash.

To remedy this, stretch the paper first.

You can float it in a sink full of water or hold it under the tap, but do not make it soaking wet.

Shake off the surplus water and lay the paper on a drawing board so it is quite flat and unwrinkled at the edges.

Stick the paper to the board with gummed tape around the edges.

When the paper is dry you can paint on it without fear of wrinkling.

Cut your finished picture from the board and tape frame with a razor blade.

Below is a video on a different method to stretch your paper.

Different Method to Stretch Paper

Most watercolor paper is grained.

The heavier grained paper is very suitable for large subjects.

The very light grained paper is good for delicate flower paintings.

You can buy a watercolor board, which consist of watercolor paper mounted on cardboard.

These not only overcome the wrinkling problem, but make a drawing board unnecessary and are ideally portable for outdoor painting.

You will need also drawing board no less than 10 inches by 12 inches, a water container, and a soft clean rag.

For outdoor painting, a screw-top plastic bottle which holds at least a pint of water is handy to have, as well as a comfortable stool and something to carry your equipment in.

An easel is a matter of preference, some are happy to rest their board on their knees, and other prefer to stand.

A simple sturdy easel, adjustable to about three positions should be quite adequate.

Watercolor Painting - Choosing a Subject

If this is your fist attempt at a watercolor painting, consider starting with a still life.

All of its qualities, such as color, lighting position, etc. will remain constant for as long as it takes to paint it.

You can start with an outside scene if that is what really interests you.

Just remember that light and shadow tend to suggest depth and volume, so midday may not be the best time to paint outside.

Look at your subject from every angle, look at the colors and shapes involved and try to see them in relation to one another.

A cardboard frame held up against the subject can help you to decide the best position to paint from.

Once you have decided, make a rough sketch, this may help reveal any weaknesses in composition that were not apparent before.

Remember, it is best not to have the horizon in the middle of a landscape and bear in mind your main subject and what perspective you wish to portray subject in..

Atmospheric landscapes, tranquil water scenes, deep skies and low horizons are always attractive subjects.

Do not always let the romantic get the better of you.

Busy street scenes, industrial scenes, people and night lights are as much a part of our life and equally worthwhile subjects.

Market Watercolor Painting
Market Watercolor Painting | Source

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Tips for Best Results in Watercolor Painting

  • Change your water often as murky water will distort your colors.
  • Always make sure your block colors are clean and clear of other colors before using them.

Watercolor Painting - Getting Started

The basis of good watercolor painting is a good pencil drawing in which light basic lines convey the main groupings and outlines. The rest should be done with the brush.

Clouds or highlights which will remain white (paper white) should be suggested with the very faintest of lines.

The most important thing to do well is a simple wash. This means covering an area of paper with an even coat of color, which can be the basis for a sky or a foreground which will later take darker tones and details.

First mix a good quantity of color. Tilt your board at a slant, then using the large flat brush, take a brush, full of color and draw it lightly across the top of the paper.

The color will tend to drain to the bottom of the brush stroke but this will be taken up with the next stroke which you work across in the same direction as the fist.

The excess moisture and color at the bottom of the last stroke can be caught up with a dry clean brush.

To produce a graduated wash which pales towards the bottom, add less and less of the color and experiment with a graduated wash of different colors.

For example: Start with blue, blend it to bluish green then to greenish yellow with the faintest touch of red at the bottom.

Transparent washes of pure unmixed color can be effectively used to tint and highlight a pencil or pen drawing. This can be a pleasant alternative to pure water colors.

Seascape Painting
Seascape Painting | Source

Watercolor Painting - Using the Colors

It is best to work upwards from light tones. Light colors can always be intensified in tone and color as you build up the picture, but you cannot supper impose a light color over a dark one.

It is possible to lighten a dark color, not by over painting, but by drawing a clean damp brush across the dark color when it is wet. The brush will pick up color and reveal a light area.

You can also pick up moisture and color with blotting paper, tissue or a clean absorbent rag.

There are also times when a highlight needs to be revealed in a dark area.

Instead of painting around the highlight, it can be revealed by rubbing the slightly wet masking color, with the end of a brush handle cut to a smooth wedge shape.

Long thin lines can be revealed by a quick stroke with fingernail.

You can apply the colors to dry paper, or paper dampened with a clean brush wet with water.

Painting on wet paper tends to soften outlines and allow colors to blend and blur at the edges. This can be very effective in cloudy or rainy scenes, subjects with little color contrast and in portraits.

This also demands rapid working, which tends to encourage spontaneity and boldness of approach, so the result may well be far more satisfying than hours of finicky brushwork.

Painting on dry paper results in firmer lines and so lends itself to scenes with good contrasts and bold outlines.

Neither method is the definitive technique, one picture often requires both. A feeling for the approach necessary will develop simply with practice.

Never be afraid to abandon a picture that has gone wrong.

Start afresh and learn by your mistakes. Watercolor painting is meant to spend just a few hours over, or for quick bold impressions, just a few minutes.

This concludes the basics of painting with watercolors. I hope it has been both informative as well as entertaining.

Thanks for stopping by & happy painting!

© 2015 Dawn


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    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great hub and very helpful guide for starters who want to learn watercolor painting. I enjoy painting but mostly I have done oil painting on canvas or clay pots.

      Interesting and beautiful paintings shared by you. Thanks, Voted up and pinned!

    • kulikoff profile image


      4 years ago from Moldova

      Great post!

    • Dbro profile image


      4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Very nice article, Eccentric-Lhee! This is a very thorough introduction to the art of watercolor. As I'm sure you know, though a simple premise - water, pigment and paper mixed to create an image - the process can be complex, subtle, and sometimes maddening! This simple combination has intrigued me for over 40 years.

      Thank you for providing such a clear, concise introduction to this wonderful art form.


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