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10 Pointers to Painting with Watercolor

Updated on January 25, 2017
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.

Clement Farm

Watercolor of my grandfather.
Watercolor of my grandfather. | Source

10 Tips to Improve Your Watercolor Paintings, Starting with the Right Tools.

The painting process is all about making the water your friend. Your paint must have the freedom to flow and be free to move if you are to achieve a spontaneous, loose look. My mantra has become, "fly, be free" because so many of my students are afraid of the water. Jump in. It won't hurt. So what if you create something that won't hang in the Louver, or even in your home. It's not about that. It's about the joy of painting. The freedom and happiness the combinations of color bring to you is far more important. Then if you end up with a masterpiece, or even a happy accident, it is an added bonus.

Many of the pictures I do are planned to the last detail before I begin, but sometimes I like to just pour paint on the surface of the paper and see what it will do before I even know what I am going to paint. It is being spontaneous. This makes a number of "happy accidents" that I couldn't have by planning. That sort of uninhibited approach is something for you to work toward. To begin you may want more control than that. That's okay. We can explore several creative paths in this article.

Carrie and Mike

Watercolor of Carrie and Mike
Watercolor of Carrie and Mike | Source

1. Using photo references.

Why not copy a photo exactly?

There are several reasons for not copying a photograph exactly. One of the main reasons is that no camera can capture the whole of a scene exactly or perfectly. Even if it is staged there will be something that an artist can do to change it (make if perfect) that a camera cannot. Another reason is that many times a camera will distort the perspective in a building or a certain low or high angle of the scene that only an artist can correct (or Photoshop). I find it more fun to put parts together. The sky from this photo with the trees from that photo and the house or people from another. The only thing an artist must be careful about is making sure that the light and shadows and perspective match on the final picture. In the painting here, I copied the photo exactly and didn't notice the distortion in my brother-in-law's arm and torso until I was finished with it. It could have won awards except for that mistake.

When I was in school I was incredibly shy. I found it impossible to speak to someone I didn’t know, and grateful and relieved when I found my language in art. It speaks through line, design, contour, color, shape and subject. I remember when I was afraid or angry I would sketch snakes, especially cobras. When I was feeling happy and energetic, I sketched deer jumping and leaping across my paper. My voice got me noticed and even won me a few awards. Eventually I overcame the fear of talking but art is still my first language. I like to say that I am bilingual and English is only my secondary language. This is the way you should look at your paintings. You are speaking to an unseen audience and what would you like to say? Do you tell them about yourself? About your life? About your loves? About your sorrows? Think of art as a language you are just learning, and like any new language, you will get better at it the more you practice it.


My desk


2. Have painting space.

Set up a place for your art.

My suggestion is to find a place in your home where your work and paints can be left undisturbed. Set it up and leave it there. It will be inviting you to paint at a moments notice and when you must leave it for pressing matters of your life, it will wait there for your return. If you have to set up your paints and brushes, water and paper, every time you paint, you will be less likely to sit down and indulge yourself.


The Buck Stops Here

Oil painting
Oil painting | Source

3. Paint for yourself.

Paint what you like best. You will find if you are passionate about what you are doing your audience will see the passion and be passionate about it too. What ever you do, try not to compare yourself with others, myself included. This will discourage you to continue. Remember there will always be people who are better, more experienced, and people who are just starting and know less than you. Be happy with yourself and your work where you are today, while striving to be better tomorrow. Above all, give yourself permission to paint a "failure" or a picture you don't intend to keep. I have many of those. I call them experiments that didn't work out. Some I keep just to remember what not to do next time. If I have some, I'm sure everyone has some.

The hardest part about selling art is that you are expected to paint what someone else may want, not what you want. This is hard but I have found that no one comes to me unless they like my style, and therefore they want what I can do for a painting. In part this helps to paint what they want, because they want it my way.

“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you can have, the better it is – unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.” Alice Neel

Watercolor set up


4. Start with Your Tools


What we paint with and on makes a difference in the outcome of the painting, so I start with the tools of the trade. Artists have their favorite color combinations and his/her favorite brushes, so it seems a little presumptuous to tell you, which you should buy and use. With the thousands of brushes on the market and the dozens of colors and brands it could get a little confusing at the start. I will list here my favorites and hope that as you get more ambitious and confident, you will experiment with some of your own choosing.

I like Winsor and Newton Cotman brand because they are good true colors and at the same time affordable. Reeses is also a good brand and affordable. But prices fluctuate and vary regularly, so you may find a brand that becomes more affordable.

I prefer a 10-well pallet for my watercolors, and arrange the colors like a rainbow starting with red and ending with violet, saving the last three wells for the earth tones. This arrangement makes the colors easier to find and creates a logical picture for my mind to follow.


Test your colors


Did you know there were so many facts about colors before?

See results


Alizarin Crimson: a lovely deep blood red that is transparent and smooth.

Permanent Rose: a deep pink, perfect for flowers.

Cadmium Red Pale: a very orange color. All the cadmiums tend to be orangey.

Cadmium Orange: a yellow orange.

Lemon Yellow: a true yellow. Very lemony.

Hooker Green, light: a true tree green, great for nature.

Hooker Green, dark: a darker green than light but still true to nature.

Ultramarine Blue: a purply blue, sometimes called French Ultramarine.

Intense Blue: a bright American flag blue, sometimes called Thaylo blue.

Prussian Blue: a dark, midnight, navy blue, perfect for making shadows on trees.

Purple Lake: a burgundy wine color

Diozanine Violet: a true deep purple.

Yellow Ochre: a tan, sand color, semi-opaque and perfect for many nature scenes.

Burnt Umber: a dark brown, good in nature and good mixing.

Indigo: a dark, dark blue, almost black. A good alternative to the flat black in paints.

Lamp Black: a sooty black, flat and lifeless, to be used sparingly as it doesn't mix well.

So many facts about colors


Mistakes to avoid

5. Brushes



You will find it useful to have a 1-inch flat for large areas. The 1-inch flat works as a mop in that it hold lots of water, spreads it smoothly and far without having to reload paint often.

A 1-inch flat is also useful to get into corners and where straight lines are needed such as ocean horizon lines.

A #10 or #12 round is the most versatile brush. It makes a nice point and can then make some wide lines and fill in large areas without having to change brushes.

It is useful to have at least one fine line brush for your signature and other fine details. I suggest you not get a anything smaller than #4 or #5 round as you will find yourself constantly reloading smaller brushes. Try not to get a rigger, which is a long hair fine line brush. These are hard to handle and master, unless you have already worked with one and know how to manage it.

Sometimes it is helpful to have a inch flat as well for little things like bricks on walls or woven basketwork. But his is not as versatile a brush and therefore not as essential if you are cutting corners.

Watercolor on wrinkled paper
Watercolor on wrinkled paper | Source

6. Paper

Student grade paper vs. Quality Archival Paper

Paper comes in lots of weights and colors. Even white has several shades of white to choose from. Avon white, Bright white, Natural white, Eggshell white, etc. In my classes, I liked to bring Classic Laid Natural White at 80 pound. The natural white has a little color to it, sort of an ecru white or off white. The Bright White is too white to stare at for long. I buy these in "parent sheets" which refers to the paper straight from the manufacturer before it is cut into reams. The parent sheets are 23" x 35". Classic Laid is a brand name but also refers to the deckle that was used in creating the paper. A deckle is like a giant sieve that strains the thin layer of paper out of the vat of water. In the Laid deckle case, it has long wires crossed by one every inch or so. This leaves a distinctive pattern on the paper. I chose the Classic Laid because it has texture to hold the paint and has a finish so the paint doesn't soak directly into the paper too quickly. Good watercolor paper keeps most of the paint on the surface and doesn't allow it to soak through. However, the Classic Laid is a wood pulp paper, which makes it affordable for students but not great for the masterpiece you want to keep longer than 50 years. It will yellow with age.

“An artist must train not only his eye but his soul.” Wassily Kandinsky


Hay Harvest

Watercolor | Source

Wood pulp vs 100% rag

When you are shopping for your own paper, you will find that most of the paper available at art stores is archival quality and 140# weight or better. Archival quality paper is made from 100% rag and has no wood pulp or tannic acid to cause yellowing with age. These papers will last the next 500 years and stay true white. They are also much more expensive than the wood pulp papers. The weight of the paper is measured by how much 1000 sheets will weigh… the higher number means a thicker paper. Thicker paper is less likely to buckle and warp as you paint with lots of water. However, even warped paper can be flattened again with a few books (telephone book) and a little time. The 80# paper I use works for classroom projects but if you wish, try some of the more expensive 140# to get a feel for it.

Civil War Youth


Hot Press vs. Cold Press

The good papers also have a distinction of hot press or cold press. This 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.

Lone Wolf


7. Stretching the paper or not

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 warped paintings after they paint dried later. You may wish to try this stretching method someday but it is not absolutely necessary to complete a fabulous painting.


8. Water cups

Water cups are an important tool for your painting process. You should pick short cups for your tabletop to lessen the likelihood of tipping and spilling. You will also be less tempted to leave a brush standing, hair down, in a short cup. The real-hair brushes cannot stand in water without becoming permanently curled. You don't want this. Curly 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.

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 gallon jar of water instead of two small 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 gallon of it, but I still like to have small cups instead. Every artist should choose what is comfortable to him/her.

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


Watercolor on paper
Watercolor on paper | Source

9. Towels

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.

Best Friends

Watercolor | Source

10: Art Masking Fluid - A very valuable tool to use.

This is a very useful substance and saves the white of the paper for you. It goes on like rubber cement but peals 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 eye lashes and whiskers of these zebras was masked out before painting the background. That's how they stayed white.


Watercolor comments. - Do you love to paint as much as I do? Or are you anxious to start?

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    • profile image


      13 months ago

      Thank you for sharing. I am learning but in a bit of a hurry.So when I checked your site, I realized the many mistakes one can make with no patience.

      God bless.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      2 years ago from Fresno CA


      I hope you do. Painting is so therapeutic and fun. Thanks for commenting.



    • kiddiecreations profile image

      Nicole K 

      2 years ago

      You're so talented! Thanks for the inspiration and the tips. It makes me want to do some painting today!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      Yes, I love the quotes from artists too. I collect them. I'm so glad you like this hub. Thanks for commenting.



    • thoughtfulgirl2 profile image


      3 years ago from East Coast

      loved the intro to the article, I agree, paint what you love! also love the quotes from the artists.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      @burntchestnut: Isn't that a shame? So many people fell in love with art in high school or grammar school and then wait till retirement to fall in love with it again. It's just not right!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I might try watercolors soon. When I was in high school (many years ago), I loved to oil paint, but didn't continue after I graduated.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      @favored: Yes. She was wonderful. I love that she altered my future forever. Teachers are awesome people. Thanks for visiting my lens.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      5 years ago from USA

      What beautiful artwork. Mrs. Tedrow was like many teachers who want art in their classes. Many times I supplied the materials for my students. Thank you for all the suggestions and tips. Making sure to share this.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      @John Dyhouse: I love pastels too. Mixing is the best way to get original color. Thanks for liking my lens.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      5 years ago from UK

      For a long time watercolour was my main medium, I tend to use pastels now but this is a good rundown for any beginning (or even experienced) artist. I have one reservation though, So many beginners buy boxes of paints with 2 or 3 dozen colours. THis is a bad idea since it hinders their ability to mix colours properly. I believe most artists should be happy with three or perhaps six colours (two of each primary colour, one warm and one cool). THese should allow any colour needed to be mixed.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      @Kalafina: I agree. I have painted the same picture as many as 10 times (when I was teaching doing the demonstration) and it didn't come out the same twice, even though it was the same drawing. There is something very unique about the flow of the water and colors. I love it. Thanks for liking my lens.

    • Kalafina profile image


      5 years ago

      I love painting with watercolor. I'm definitely not an artist but there is just something so relaxing about it. And I always feel like every time I paint I learn something new. It's never the same experience which is part of what makes watercolor so fun.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      @delia-delia: I paint or draw every day. It's a good exercise whether I'm in the mood or not. I think it really hones my skills.

    • delia-delia profile image


      5 years ago

      Lovely and educational and inspirational lens...Great artwork! I also love to paint, but have to be in the mood...


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