Let’s face it! To get started with watercolors can be intimidating. Adding to the pressure is the myth in the art world that watercolor is too complex and difficult.
Yet, the truth is:
Watercolor is a simple and rewarding art medium, well within your reach.
I don’t want you to lose out on the pleasure of watercolors because you’re having troubles getting started…
That’s why in this guide, I will help you with the basics. We’ll start with setting up your studio with minimal art supplies. Then we’ll go over the core concepts of watercolor paints, watercolor techniques and learning strategies in easy to understand steps. All tied together with some practices to keep you inspired.
- How to Start Learning Watercolor Painting
- What Watercolor Supplies Will I Need?
- Understanding Watercolor Paint
- Learn the Basics of Watercolor Painting
- Master The Main Watercolor Techniques
- What To Paint With Watercolors
- Practising Watercolors
How to Start Learning Watercolor Painting
I’ve noticed that beginners are a bit tough on themselves. You might be judging your initial paintings with watercolors too harshly or feeling unsure about choosing art supplies.
When I started painting with watercolors, I found the white paper to be quite scary! I’d stare at the sheet, too anxious to get started.
Don’t let such obstacles rob you of a wonderfully satisfying and enriching experience like watercolor painting.
Let’s dive a little deeper to understand where these emotions come from and how to overcome them.
Struggling with self doubt
Do you scroll through watercolor paintings in your Instagram feed and feel like you’ll never match up? Worried that you might end up making the ‘wrong’ kind of art?
I’ll let you into my secret. I’ve torn watercolor paper from my sketchbook because I felt the watercolors painting was too ‘bad.’
It was only when I learned to loosen up and accept the imperfections that I actually started enjoying myself. This meant I painted more and started getting more confident.
No watercolor painting ideas?
Sometimes we have no idea what to paint. We can wait for days and hours for inspiration to hit us, and keep feeling demotivated.
What I’ve found is that to break this spell I just need to put brush to watercolor paper and make marks.
Don’t take watercolors so seriously. Not everything you do has to be a completed artwork. Try some exercises and play with your paints.
Have a handy list of creative prompts and worksheets will help you nurture your creativity. Here’s a few to get you started:
- Paint the view from your favourite window
- Fill an A4 sheet with a simple outline of an element – a leaf, a t-shirt or just a circle. Now mix different colors and fill these shapes
- Create swatches of your water colors and make a color wheel
- Start painting the ingredients of your meal
- Write fun phrases in your thinnest brushes on water color paper
Can’t devote hours to art practice?
You don’t need to. Carve out one hour to paint on weekends. You can even find a local art group, like an Urban Sketchers chapter, and paint with them.
Too busy for even one hour? No worries!
Watercolors are the most portable paints. Keep a compact kit with an A5 sized sketchbook in your bag.
Now you can fill pockets of time such as waiting for an appointment to make a quick watercolor sketch. Or use a bit of your lunch break daily, to sketch your meals … who knows – it might end up becoming a unique food art coffee table book one day!
What Watercolor Supplies Will I Need?
You don’t need a ton of watercolors, and very expensive watercolor paper and accessories.
This is a medium that’s simple and light on your wallet. You just need a small set of watercolor paints, decent 300 gsm watercolor paper and a few brushes.
You’ll find the supplies will fit into your bag so that you can even paint on the go. Added bonus – you won’t need as much dedicated studio space as mediums like oil color or sculpting.
Set yourself up for success with the right watercolor supplies:
- The best quality watercolor paper (A5 or A4 size) you can afford (I like Canson XL Watercolor Paper)
- A basic set of 6 to 12 watercolors in tubes or pans (I prefer my Daniel Smith Watercolor Set)
- A watercolor brush set of 3 to 4 essential brushes (A good starter set is the Silver Brush Basic Watercolor Set)
- One hardboard that’s larger than the watercolor sheets you choose
- Absorbent paper towels and a napkin to wipe excess paint
- Scraps of paper to test your colors
- Two jars of water – one for rinsing brushes and the other for mixing colors
- One 2B pencil and a sharpener
- One palette or an old white porcelain plate to mix colors
Good to have for convenience:
- Masking tape or clips to hold the paper in place
- A spray bottle with clean water to wet the paper and paint
- A clip to hold the pages of your sketchbook in place
- Couple of cotton earbuds to soak up paint precisely
- An eraser
Additions for some useful effects:
- White gel pen for highlights (such as white lines on a red t-shirt)
- A fine black ink pen with waterproof ink for direct drawing and detailing
Yes, I’ve deliberately left out the ruler – because it is best to learn to draw freehand for a natural look.
Get your studio space ready
Once you have your supplies, the next step is to set up a space for painting. Try to find a quiet corner in your home with natural light. Set it up with a table and you can get started.
If you don’t have space for a dedicated studio, use a study table or even your dining table.
Choose a spot with good natural light so that you see the true colors of paint. Sunlight is ideal for painting with watercolors. However, if you paint in the evenings, ensure there is a lamp with white light.
Understanding Watercolor Paint
Watercolor paint is different from other opaque mediums like pastels, acrylics, markers and oil paints.
As the name suggests, the magic of watercolor paint is in the watery, transparent texture. It is a spontaneous and fun medium with an unpredictable nature.
How to keep your watercolor paintings transparent and vibrant:
- To paint well with watercolors, watercolor transparency is crucial. Plan to complete the painting in two to three layers.
- Work in big shapes, such as the entire sky or the entire foreground. Start by blocking in the largest shapes using very light, watered down colors. Then add color for the details.
- Always color from light to dark. Find the brightest areas – such as the sky or foliage – and color those first. Then lay in the details.
- Plan to leave some of the first layer color as it is – the brightest spots to show the depth.
- Paint quickly as watercolor tends to dry out fast.
Learn the Basics of Watercolor Painting
To move further with watercolor painting techniques, you’ll need to get comfortable with using water color paints.
The problem is most online resources are way too detailed – this information overload can be overwhelming.
That’s why I’ve distilled this huge topic into a few easy-to-implement concepts. You’ll find they make a difference in your painting:
How Do I Use Colors?
Pick a dab of paint with a wet brush and apply in on the palette. Now dip the brush in clean water, and press it in near the dab of paint to release water. Mix it into a smooth blend. Test on your spare paper to check the color.
Exercise: Make a puddle for each color. Rinse your brush between puddles to make sure it’s clean. Now mix colors from two puddles. Create a color wheel with the different shades you have created.
Learn about color theory to be able to mix colors well.
How does the paint flow?
Watercolor flows from wet to less wet surface when the paper is at an angle. If you use less water, the paint will not tend to flow as much.
How much water should I add?
Start with adding less water to the paint dab. Keep adding till it reaches a good milk like consistency. Keep in mind that watercolor paint becomes lighter when it dries.
Exercise: Mix paint and water of three consistencies: tea, milk and butter. Make a color wheel for each consistency. Compare and study these once they are dry.
What are warm and cool colors?
In general, a warm color has a bit of yellow or red in it and appears to move towards you.
A cool color has a bluish tinge and appears to move away from you.
Whether a color is considered “warm” or “cool” depends on how it compares to other colors within the painting. For example, green could be considered a cooler color within a primarily yellow painting, however, it could be considered a warmer colour compared with blue.
Exercise: Keep an apple near the window. Paint it using cooler orange for shadows and a warm orange for the sunlight side. Mix a dot of blue in the red for a cooler tinge. And, mix a dot yellow for the highlight.
Master The Main Watercolor Techniques
Make sure you are comfortable with watercolor paint qualities before moving on to different techniques of painting with watercolours.
I’d suggest starting with the two most simple techniques:
Wet on dry technique
Applying wet paint on a dry paper allows you to achieve detailed lines and textures.
Try wet on dry technique with your brush almost horizontal to the paper – so that you are painting with the side of the bristles. Observe the texture.
Wet on wet technique
It’s exactly as the name sounds – applying wet paint on a wet paper surface.
- Start with wetting the paper surface. Wet the entire sheet for a landscape or just the shapes for an object painting.
- Now pick the colors you want to use with a wet brush. Rotate and then lightly tap the brush on the palette lightly to ensure the bristles are not too loaded.
- With a gentle hand glide the brush over the paper … and you’ll find the paint spreads beautifully on the wet surface. It will dry a shade lighter.
Let the colors flow and blend into each other for that typical spontaneous aquarelle feel.
After practising these two basic techniques, you can go on to learn more watercolor techniques for beginners.
What To Paint With Watercolors
You have everything in place. There’s still one key decision to make – what to paint?
Here are a few easy watercolor ideas for you to get started:
Painting simple landscapes allows you to practice watercolor painting in a fun, lively way. It is a great way to put your color wheel into use.
Just look up for some inspiration. Not at your ceiling. Step out and see the sky. Get inspired by the clouds and colors. Now make your own sky painting with watercolors – it could be just a small snippet, like I’ve made below.
Paint reflections in water using basic watercolor painting techniques.
I like to paint directly on wet paper for a soft feel to the foliage.
You can paint one rock as an element – exploring the contours.
Or, paint a rocky landscape like a river bed.
Paint in your garden
Painting outdoors can feel daunting for beginners. Especially in crowded places. A good baby step is to paint in your own garden.
You can paint the entire garden like Shari Blaukopf does here:
Rose & other flowers
Start painting your favourite flowers – experiment with different styles. Try painting as realistic as you can get. Then, make more loose, playful floral arrangements.
You can use these bright watercolor paintings for greeting cards and gift notes as well.
If you love being in nature, a nature journal is a great way to use your watercolor paint and document bird life around you. Along with birds, you can add in all kinds of nature-inspired art here from seashell to moths and insects!
No – you don’t need to live in a zoo to paint them. A visit will do. Or, try painting from reference photos from National Geographic magazines.
Don’t forget our lovely house pets … they make a great watercolour painting subject too!
Here’s a video tutorial for inspiration:
Buildings & Houses
Fruits, vegetables, cookies, cakes, spice jars, coffee, tea … the list is endless. You’ll find the most colorful inspiration in your kitchen!
Silhouettes of people
Painting people in watercolor can be a bit scary. There are so many features, proportions and details to get right.
I’d suggest exploring figures in a colorful and playful way – by painting the silhouettes first. Try to capture the posture. And, then adding in a few details to show clothes and shoes.
The last item on my list is portrait painting with watercolor as it can be a lot of pressure. Especially if the aim is to bring complete resemblance on paper.
Staying Motivated: 20 Minutes Watercolor
Choose a small, simple subject and paint it within 20 minutes. It could be your keychain, a chair, the day’s vegetables or even a used teabag.
The time limit forces you to be spontaneous. And, since you are not working from a tutorial or trying to recreate a famous painting – the pressure will be much less.
I promise you – this small practice will fill you with motivation. You’ll find it calms and relaxes you – like meditation! As well as improves your skill over time.
My Absolute Secret Motivation Tip
We’ve learnt the basics – from getting motivated to choosing watercolour paints and setting up a studio.
Followed by an insight into the nature of watercolor paint and a step-by-step overview of the essential techniques. Lastly, I’ve shared ideas and practise tips to get you going.
What more is there? Staying motivated beyond the high of getting started.
I was watercoloring for a couple of months, when I got demotivated. I felt there was no progress and was ready to give up. There might come a point when you feel the same way.
How do you overcome this artist’s block?
Take out your very first watercolor and compare it with your latest art work. Trust me, you’ll notice the progress … and feel inspired to practice more!
So go grab those brushes and start painting.