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Tips For Successful Watercolor Paintings

Updated on July 9, 2020
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Watercolor on wrinkled paper
Watercolor on wrinkled paper | Source

Watercolor Tips

I’ve been painting for about 50 years in oil, acrylic, ink, colored pencil, and watercolor. My favorite has become watercolor for its versatility and vibrancy. I have a few suggestions here that will help you create successful paintings. Come with me to explore the possibilities.

Persimmons | Source

Hot Press vs. Cold Press

Typically watercolor paper comes in 140 pounds and heavier. In that range, there are hot press and cold press papers. It can be hard to decide at first.

The distinction of hot press or cold press refers to how the paper is made. After the pulp is removed from the deckle it is placed on a press to squeeze out the extra water. A hot press paper is usually smoother than the cold press. I like the cold press for landscapes because it has lots of texture to hold paint. However, if I am planning a portrait I may go for the hot press so there are fewer texture bumps on the face.

Watercolor Tea Roses
Watercolor Tea Roses | Source

Stretch Paper

You may have seen videos of artists preparing a piece of paper for painting. They soak the paper in water for 15 minutes or so, then stretch the paper onto a board, staple and tape the wet paper down and wait for it to dry. This long process keeps the paper from buckling during the painting process. Since my students did not have the time to spend on this, we skipped this step usually and flattened our slightly warped paintings after the paint dried later. You may wish to try this stretching method someday but it is not absolutely necessary to complete a fabulous painting especially if you are using heavier paper than 140 pounds.

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

— Tony Robbins
Ghost Cats.  There are 6 ghosts in this painting.  Can you find them?
Ghost Cats. There are 6 ghosts in this painting. Can you find them? | Source

Water Cups

A word to the wise: the real-hair brushes cannot stand in water without becoming permanently curled. You don't want this. The curly brush hair is hard to paint with. Also leaving a brush in water tends to water-log the wooden shaft or handle. When the handle swells with water then dries the ferrule or metal sleeve holding the hair becomes loose and will eventually let the hair fall out. Bald brushes are hard to paint with too.

Water is an important resource for your painting process. It is wise to have two cups of water near you for painting; one for dipping into clear water and one for cleaning your brush. I like to keep a bucket nearby as well to replace muddy water as often as possible. I have seen artists use a large pint or gallon jar of water instead of smaller cups. They then clean the brush and dip for water to mix from the same jar. It makes sense that the water will not be contaminated very quickly if there is a lot of it, but I still like to have two jars so I won’t have to break my rhythm to go get more water. Every artist should choose what is comfortable for him/her.

Seashell | Source

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My paints in trays ready to paint
My paints in trays ready to paint | Source


Absorbent towels are handy for cleaning your brushes between colors and for mopping up spills or making clouds in the sky, etc. The towels can be cloth or paper, your choice. I use cloth for my classes because they seem more cost-effective and ecologically sound. I just throw them into the washing machine and they come out good as new. However, when I am painting outside, I use paper towels so clean-up is easier for the carry-out. I just find a receptacle and toss the used paper.

Best Friends.  The whiskers were masked ahead of time with masking fluid.
Best Friends. The whiskers were masked ahead of time with masking fluid. | Source

Masking Fluid

This is a very useful substance and saves the white of the paper for you. It goes on like rubber cement but peels off easily as long as the paper is completely dry. If the paper is still wet, it tends to peal some of the paper with it. To apply this fluid to the paper before painting, you must use a "discard" brush. The fluid is made of liquid latex and dries quickly and permanently in brushes. You do not want to use your best brushes unless you have first treated the hairs of the brush with soap so the latex will not stick to the hairs. Even then you must rinse often and apply more soap before dipping into the masking fluid again. This method I used to paint small flowers or fine lines that you wish to stay white. The eyelashes and whiskers of these zebras were masked out before painting the background. That's how they stayed white.

My Watercolor Class on Skillshare

“If it (painting) weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.”

— Edgar Degas
Primroses.  I thought it was funny that the people at RiteAid don't know how to spell so I left it exactly as it was, then people keep telling me I'm spelling Primroses wrong.
Primroses. I thought it was funny that the people at RiteAid don't know how to spell so I left it exactly as it was, then people keep telling me I'm spelling Primroses wrong. | Source

Studies on Color

Studies show that red is warm but also an agitating color, the color of anger. Blood pressures will rise in a red room, which is probably why most decorators don’t paint bedrooms all red. Red also gets attention. Often the police will pull over a red car fist. It is such a good attention-grabber that they use it for stop signs and stop lights.

Violet, being the last color in the spectrum right before invisible light, is considered a spiritual color. It is used to symbolize heaven and is often worn by priests and religious officials. Yet being close to the end of the spectrum it also is a camouflage color. If you want to be obscure and unnoticed, wear violet. A girl at a dance wanting to be chosen to dance shouldn’t wear violet or risk being overlooked.

A Walk In The Woods With Tiffany
A Walk In The Woods With Tiffany | Source

“Art is like a border of flowers along the course of civilization.”

— Lincoln Steffens
Seagull | Source

Contrast Focus

These are just a few of the things that are interesting about color and color theory. When painting you want to notice the dominant color in a painting. A forest painting will have a dominant green. An ocean will have dominant blue. Once you identify the dominant color think about adding the opposite color from the color wheel to give it a spark of attention-getting contrast. In a forest, I’d add a red bird or a few red flowers. In the ocean painting, I add some orange in the clouds or sky or orange and tan color in the beach. It is the spark of contrast that will make your painting successful.

Have a cheerful yellow day!

The Tulip Wrap, watercolor on wrinkled paper
The Tulip Wrap, watercolor on wrinkled paper | Source


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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA

      Rachel Alba,

      I get a lot of pleasure making them too. I'm so happy you like them. I hope you are well. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan,

      It's so kind of you to check this out. Have a great day. Thanks for commenting.



    • profile image

      Rachel Alba 

      12 months ago

      I love your water color paintings. Thank you for sharing them and keep showing them. I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing them.

      Blessings to you.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      12 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      A lovely article with lots of helpful ideas. Thank you for your encouragement.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, Linda. You are so kind and faithful in commenting. I sure appreciate your visits to my pages.



    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      12 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I've tried painting with watercolor, but I wasn't very successful. I hope to start again. Your tips will be very useful.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA

      Lorelei Cohen,

      Isn't it funny how we get ideas like that, that certain things are only for kids? But there is a professional quality to watercolor, especially when painted with good paper and good quality paints. Happy painting. Thanks for commenting.



    • Ladymermaid profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      12 months ago from Canada

      I have purchased both watercolors and acrylics so am preparing to paint for the first time in many years. Thank you for the watercolor tips. When I was younger I just presumed watercolors were for kids but now it is fun to know that adults also get to play with them.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA


      I so appreciate your kind comments all of the time. I love showing my work. It affirms me and makes me feel that it's all worthwhile, especially when I get down about not selling anything for a really long time. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      12 months ago from Fresno CA


      I'm so happy you got something out of it. If you click on the link in the description on YouTube you can get two months free of the Skillshare classes. They have thousands of classes on lots of things including art. I love them. Thanks for commenting.



    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      12 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      These are really helpful. I have all the materials I need to start water colour so this is just what I need.

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      So enjoyed seeing this article. Your interesting info and tips encourage a wanna-be water colorist, and it was delightful to see your paintings posted here. Thanks for adding the intro vid to your crumpled paper class.


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