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Wanna Learn How To Paint Watercolors? Top 10 Tips For Beginner Watercolor Painters

Updated on January 21, 2010

Paintings made with watercolor can be some of the most beautiful works of art out there. There is something about watercolor painting; done right, it can bring any subject to life. Whether it's a portrait, landscape, or still life, a painting done with watercolors can draw in a viewer into the subtle details and smooth washes unique to this painting medium!

Unfortunately, watercolors are notoriously unforgiving. It can be tough when you're just starting out. Painting with watercolors can be incredibly rewarding, but when an honest mistake completely ruins your artwork, it's easy to become frustrated and give up. Years of trial-and-error to learn techniques which may or may not work for you seems a daunting journey. But wouldn't it be nice to create something like the beautiful artworks done with watercolors?

This quick guide will give you 10 great tips to start your watercolor career off on the right foot!

Tip 1: Get The Right Paper

Unlike painting with acrylics or oils, where you can pretty much paint on anything up to and including a piece of scrap wood in the alley, painting with watercolors is a big headache if you don't have a proper surface to paint on.

Stick with "watercolor paper". There are a huge variety of watercolor papers available, and it will take some experimentation to find what kind of paper you like best. Art supply stores stock a number of types, start with an inexpensive watercolor paper and go from there.

Another good option is a "watercolor block". These are basically small sheets of watercolor paper glued into a "sketchpad" type of setup. However, more of the edges are glued, to keep the paper from warping and buckling. These are especially good for studies and the like.

Note: Don't even try to paint on regular "bond" paper (the stuff that comes out of printers and photocopiers), or poster board, or anything like that. Stick with watercolor paper. You'll thank me.

Tip 2: Get The Right Brushes

When you're starting out in watercolors, you've got enough to wrap your mind around without having to deal with inferior brushes. Fighting with improper tools means your work isn't going to be as nice as it could be. Plus, the added frustration means you're that much more likely to give up. Which is not what we want!

I'm going to say this right up front: good watercolor brushes are expensive. But, you don't need to buy a whole bunch of them. When you're starting out, all you'll really need are a couple round brushes (small and medium), and a couple flat brushes (medium and large). This way, you can enjoy top-quality brushes from the outset, and then simply add more brushes as you go, and your budget allows.

Tip 3: Make A Proper Work Area

If you're going to be spending a good amount of time painting, you'll really need a good painting area.

If you have a room you can use as a studio, that's great! You'll be able to have a dedicated area for your painting, and room to outfit it with handy items like a drying rack, or a planfile (a cabinet with wide, shallow drawers great for storing paintings).

If you don't have the space, or budget, for such fancy items, don't worry. All you'll really need to maximize your enjoyment while painting is a table with enough space for your paper and supplies, and a nice chair that will be comfortable and easy on your back, neck and shoulders while you spend hours painting.

Try to keep your area neat and tidy, as well as organized. Clean and organized spaces are calming, while cluttered ones cause stress and frustration. Not being able to find a tube of paint or a brush when you need it also causes stress and frustration, so try to keep your area organized!

Tip 4: Don't Buy Too Many Expensive Paints

Like brushes, good quality watercolor paints aren't cheap. But rather than buy a tube of everything, you simply need the basics. The primaries: yellow, red and blue. Black. White (not quite as necessary in watercolor painting, but feel free to experiment). Maybe a nice green, or a brown. That's about it, really. You can mix any color out of those basic paints.

In fact, by limiting yourself to this basic palette, and forcing yourself to mix your desired colors by hand, you'll gain a better eye for color overall. Save money while improving your skills!

Tip 5: Practice Seeing

One of the hardest lessons for budding artists to learn, regardless of what medium they choose to use, is how to "see".

The ability to observe properly is one of the most important tools that an artist has. In order to gain this tool, however, we have to alter how we look at the world around us.

Most humans look for "content and context". When we see a face, we look to see if it's someone we know. We look to see if there is an expression on that face that contains important information, like if the person looks angry or aggressive. It's human nature. But if you want your art to capture the world around you with any accuracy, you're going to have to go beyond that.

When you look at a face, you're going to have to look and see the spatial relationship of its parts. The distance between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip, for instance. The size of the ears. The shape of the eyebrow. Not only that, but you'll have to look for the "tone" or "value" (the lightness or darkness) of the skin, the shadows and the highlights. You'll have to look for the colour. Is it warm, or cool? Is it bright, or less saturated? How would you describe the color, and how would you mix it on your palette?

Observation is an incredibly important skill for an artist. Try it out today! As you improve at observing the world around you with artist's eyes, you'll find that your artistic skills will improve even when you're not painting!

Tip 6: Do Thumbnail Sketches & Studies

When the great masters started their masterpieces, do you think they simply walked up to their canvas and started painting? Of course not. They made dozens of little sketches, and studies, to work out the large and small ideas they had for the work. And so should you.

Thumbnail sketches are a wonderful tool for artists. I will bet you'll even come to enjoy doing them. Thumbnail sketches are small sketches, no more than an inch or two square, where you can quickly express your ideas on paper and see how well they work. This is not the time to obsess over details; Simply have fun with it! Play around, doodle whatever you like. The best ideas emerge when you're not trying to censor yourself.

Try this: next time you go to start a painting, do a half-dozen thumbnail sketches of various compositions you could use, before you even think about dipping your brush into paint. Go wild. Of course, you can do more sketches if you like. Hundreds even. Just try to make it more than "a few" and you'll be alright.

Studies are also useful tools to figure out "how things should work" when you're planning a painting. You don't have to stick to pencil, either. Maybe make a few "mini paintings" on a scrap piece of watercolor paper, to figure out what kind of color scheme you should use. Or if you aren't sure exactly how to paint a certain area, say a persons hand, you can do a few "practice runs" to try it out see what works best.

Tip 7: Make Interesting Compositions

Even if you're a good painter, using a boring composition is akin to "shooting yourself in the foot". Even if it is nicely painted, a boring composition in your painting means that no one will want to look at it for more than a few seconds, before moving on. Composition can be a very complicated subject, but luckily there are a few quick and easy tips for improving your composition skills.

First, use the "rule of thirds". Take your paper and divide it into 3 columns and 3 rows. Now start to draw your composition, putting the important parts (the "focal points") like a person's face or whatever you might be painting, either OVER ONE OF THE INTERSECTIONS or ALONG ONE OF THE DIVISIONS. This way, you won't put the most important pieces of your painting right smack dab in the middle (boring) or butted up against the edge (awkward). Try it! This method is tried, test and true, and is used by everyone from fine art painters to professional photographers.

Another great tip for designing good compositions is to avoid "tangents". Tangents are areas where edges of objects just barely touch or overlap only slightly. Viewers will find this "uncomfortable" even if they don't know why. If you find your composition has a number of tangents, here's what you can do: either A) move your objects apart a little more to give them some separation, or B) overlap them some more so their edges aren't right together.

There's plenty more to learn about composition, but if you use these two tips you'll find it makes an immediate improvement.

Tip 8: Include A Large Range Of Values/Contrast

What is "value"? The "value" of something, in art, describes how light or dark it is. Imagine a scale starting with bright, pure white and ending with deep, total black, with 50% gray in the middle.

A common mistake for beginning artists (especially those using watercolor) is to make paintings with predominantly medium values. This will make your painting appear dull and "washed out". By including a wide range of values, your paintings will have more impact and be more dramatic. Try to make the darks DARK, and the lights LIGHT.

Note: You don't have to include a full range of values in EVERY OBJECT. If you're not careful, this can make it look like everything in your painting is made out of plastic. Knowing what values to use comes back to observation (see tip #5).

Tip 9: Design Harmonious Color Schemes

What's a harmonious color scheme? Colors that "go together" well. While the actual colors you paint with will vary as you mix and blend paint, try to aim for "overall" colors that do not clash or seem garish with one another.

One easy way to do this is to use "complementary" colors. A color wheel starts with yellow, goes around to green, blue, violet, red, orange before coming back to yellow. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. For instance, yellow is complementary to violet. Green is complementary to red (think Christmas time!). Blue is complementary to orange (look at Squidoo's color scheme).

One thing to keep in mind is that when using complementary colors in your color scheme, try not to have them be the same "value" (see above tip on value and contrast) and saturation (how vivid the color is). If this happens, the colors will seem to "vibrate" next to each other which will cause those looking at your painting physical pain (heh heh). The best way to see what I'm talking about is to try it out on a scrap piece of paper... try getting two blocks of complementary colours as close as possible in value and saturation, right next to each other... you'll see what I mean. To avoid this, simply make one of the colors lighter or darker than the other, or less saturated.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to picking colors. There are also triadic color schemes, tetradic, and more. A few resources for learning about colors and how they relate to each other are:
Adobe Kuler

Tip 10: Practice, Practice, Practice!

As with anything in life, true mastery of watercolors will not come overnight, or by reading a lens on Squidoo. You have to work at it. Practice your painting with these tips in mind, and you will surely improve.

Something to keep in mind while you're painting: try to relax and enjoy the process. What use is having the ability to paint like a master if you don't actually ENJOY painting? The journey is more important than the destination. Simply have fun with your painting, and everything else will follow.

Thanks for reading!

Bonus Tip: If You Need More Help, Get A Complete Guide

These tips are great, and if you use them you can go a long way towards improving your skills as a watercolor artist. But if you're still struggling, consider buying a guide. A complete guide to watercolor can go more in-depth, and show step-by-step techniques that really break things down and make it easier to learn.

A guide I recommend is Herb Olson's "Watercolor Made Easy". Herb's guide goes over everything, and walks you through techniques to successfully paint landscapes, seascapes, trees, the figure, and more. It's available online as an eBook guide, meaning that if this seems like something that would be valuable to you, you can purchase and download the book in minutes.

I am an affiliate for this product, which means I make some money off of each book sold. That said, I'm not trying to shovel a bunch of junk on you. The product is great, and comes with a full 100% guarantee. Basically, if you don't agree that this book is worth it, you can get 100% of your money refunded, no problem.

Check out Herb's book now and Learn How To Watercolor!


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thanks for good advice. My hobby is painting. I am going to take up airbrush painting soon. I've already ordered some airbrushing supplies and can't wait to start painting with it

    • BStoneBlog profile image

      Jay Dickens 

      5 years ago

      Very inspirational article! I'm just starting to learn watercolor and you have some great tips here. Thank you!

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 

      6 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Good advice. I am retrying watercolors after a few decades and having fun "finding my voice."

    • markomitic profile image


      7 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks for reminding me of that. I was learning it in school a long time ago. Now that I read it, I can see something different than in the past. Thank you. Very interesting hub.


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