How To Learn Watercolor Painting

Woman painting

Watercolor painting--painting in any medium--is one of the most fulfilling hobbies you can have. If you are interested in learning to paint in watercolors, you might want to take some online art courses.  

To get started with watercolor painting, go to an art supply store and shop around.

You will need:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Tubes of paint
  • A plastic watercolor palette
  • An assortment of brushes.

Do not try to learn to paint with a child's set of watercolors. These are made with a very small amount of pigment and a large amount of filler and it will be difficult to have the same effect as with 'adult' watercolors. Most paint manufacturers produce a 'student grade' of watercolor, which is significantly more economical that the 'artist grade,' but it suffers from the same problem as the child's set of pan colors--weak, inferior pigments. If you can afford it, buy fewer tubes and get the artist grade of paint.

A good beginner's set of colors is: Ultramarine Blue, Windsor Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red (actually looks orange), Cadmium Yellow, Thalo Green, Burnt Sienna. You'll notice I don't suggest black. You can make an impressively dark black by mixing deep greens and reds, so most watercolorists scorn buying black paint, preferring to mix their own as needed.

Purchase a 'studio palette' for your paints. This is a large, usually plastic tray, with wells around the edges and a wide area in the middle for mixing your colors. To prepare your palette, squeeze out  a quantity of each color into its own well and allow it to dry. You are essentially creating the equivalent of the child's set of pan colors, only you are using professional grade pigments and palette.

When painting in watercolor, you will dampen the pigment cakes you will be using, either with a wet brush or a small spray bottle of water. When working, dip your brush into water, then smoosh it around in the paint, getting it well-soaked with color-laden water. Then smoosh your brush into a clean spot in the center of your palette, transferring the paint from the brush to the plastic. Now if you are going to mix a color, clean your brush and pick up the mixing color and add it to the puddle in the middle of the palette.

Test the resulting color on a little scrap of watercolor paper for both hue and saturation. That is, is it the right shade? And is it the right intensity?

A Few Simple Watercolor Techniques

A Wash

  1. To produce a wash of color, something you might do when painting a sky or as background for a field, first mix up the correct color on your palette. Make up a LOT of paint. It is annoying to run out and have to try to color match the first batch, all the while your wash is drying and streaking.
  2. Use a large 'mop' brush or similar brush.  This is a brush that is larger and wider than the round brush, and is perfectly suited to this purpose.
  3. Have the area outlined that you want to 'wash' with color.  Once you begin, you will be working quickly, so you want to know where you are going before you begin.
  4. Have your painting support tilted up slightly.  You usually paint watercolors on a flat surface, but making a wash is one of the exceptions.
  5. With your brush saturated with the mixed color, quickly draw a straight line from left to right (or if you are left handed, from right to left). The paint will bead up and form a line at the bottom of your first swath of color.
  6. Now move your brush down and make the next stroke, overlapping your first stroke slightly so that you collect and carry away the beads of paint from the first stroke. You must move quickly to prevent the earlier stroke from beginning to dry before you place the next one, or your wash will have visible lines in it.
  7. Continue on down the paper, replenishing your brush with paint from the puddle on your palette as needed, until you have reached the end of the area to filled with 'wash.'  Now dab your brush semi-dry on a paper towel and gently pick up the beaded color from the last stroke of paint.

Dry Brush

Dry brush is a technique useful for creating textures, patterns and details.

  1. Mix up a dark color in the center of your palette. You want a lot of pigment in this mix, compared to the amount of water. The paint should be slightly 'thick.'
  2. Use a flat brush, whose width depends on the size of the area you are going to be texturing.
  3. Dip the brush in water and then dry it on a paper towel so that it is 'damp.'
  4. Now pick up some of your mixed, thick paint from your palette, and stroke your brush lightly over the surface of the paper.
  5. Rather than flowing smoothly and effortlessly over the paper, the brush will skip, separate and jump, making broken parallel lines that can easily duplicate wood grain, the bark of a tree, or an animal's fur.

Watercolor is a challenging art form, but it doesn't have to be intimidating. Splurge on good supplies, treat yourself to an online art class or some books on the subject, and begin!


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