Don’t Limit Your Potential, Watercolor Artists

watercolor artists

10 Ways to Take Full Advantage of Paints & Supplies Right Now

Easy Street by Catherine Hillis, 2005, watercolor, 22 x 28.

Watercolor artists often limit their potential by not taking full advantage of their paints and supplies. There is so much conflicting information and advice available to watercolor painting artists that it is often difficult for them to know the best way to achieve satisfying results. As they are confronted with different color theories, selections of supplies, principles of composition, and techniques they become confused and timid—the two worst characteristics of a watercolorist. Here I share popular artist and instructor Catherine Hillis’ ten ways to avoid that trap so you get the most out of your time with brush in hand.

For even more in-depth strategies to create vibrant and realistic watercolor paintings, get Laurie Humble’s eBook–Watercolor Depth & Realism. You will learn to add depth to your paintings and make them pop off the canvas. Enjoy!




#1: Don’t Be Stingy With Paint
The number one reason watercolor artists fail to realize their full potential is that they simply don’t give themselves enough paint to work with. They end up thinning small dabs of paint with too much water, pushing the limits of a few tube colors, or missing the chance to vary the range of colors they see in a subject.

I recommend artists have at least 1 heaping tablespoon of paint in each well of a palette, and I also suggest that they have a warm and cool version of the primary colors arranged logically in those wells. After each use, the artists should also clean the mixing area and replace the lid so the damp color doesn’t dry out. When they are ready to paint again, they can spray each well with water so the paint is reconstituted. Tubes of paint may be expensive, but the paint is never wasted.

Roussillon, France by Catherine Hillis, 2005, watercolor, 16 x 20.

#2: Give Yourself Enough Room on the Palette
The size of a palette matters. Those six-inch round palettes have wells that are too shallow, a mixing area that can only handle one color at a time, and no lid to keep the paints moist between paintings. The best palettes are the 12″-x-16″ square plastic palettes with 22 deep wells, separate mixing areas, and a lid.

Write the color names in each well along the edge of the palette using a Sharpie marker so you become more familiar with the names and always work with the same arrangement. After a while you will instinctively know where each color is located just as you know to find the letters on a computer keyboard.

#3: Work on Professional-Grade Paper
Watercolor paint will not flow in the same manner and will not be as effective when applied to inexpensive or inappropriate paper as it will on professional-grade watercolor paper. I cannot stress that point enough. Use good-quality cotton-rag paper to get the maximum performance from your brushes and paints.

#4: Start by Pre-wetting the Paper
Most recommended painting techniques start with the application of wet-in-wet washes that establish a light, transparent value and soft color transitions as a foundation for what will follow. Those depend on pre-wetting the paper by bathing it in a tub of water or selectively brushing on clean water in specific areas of the paper.

The more water applied, the more saturated the paper will become and the more sizing will be removed. A saturated sheet remains damp for a longer period of time, and it loses some of the sizing that keeps brushmarks sharp; whereas the isolated areas of wetness dry quickly but retain enough sizing to hold crisp edges. Before you begin painting, ask yourself if you intend to use a wet-in-wet technique, a wet-on-dry application, or a pure drybrush approach.

#5: Don’t Drown the Pigment
Learning how much water to use with watercolor pigment is the first challenge watercolor artists face. Diluted watercolor paint should usually be the consistency of two-percent milk, but this can vary depending on the technique one is using.

#6: Work Large
If you are brave enough to take an art class and lay your abilities on the line for others to observe, give yourself permission to draw larger. Larger objects on paper will require more paint, but they will allow you more practice. Empower yourself by painting larger objects.

#7: Paint with Pigment Straight From the Tube, and Mix Colors
There are many beautiful pigments available on the market, and you can use them straight from the tube. However, if you want to become successful with watercolor, you need to learn how to mix colors and observe the beautiful things that happen when you do. Always try to use at least two pigments in each moistened area of the paper. Observe what happens and make mental notes about the intensity, texture, and relative temperature of the resulting mixtures.

#8: Note the Variety in Nature
Nature has always been the best teacher, and if you observe its variety and richness, you’ll become a better painter. Beginners paint trees, flowers, bushes, and grasses with perfect symmetry because they only see the similarities in those forms. But with experience, they discover the variety and repetition in the sizes, spaces, colors, textures, shapes, and surfaces of those objects, and they discover ways of representing nature with paint.

#9: Verify the Mechanical with the Natural
Almost all of us use photographs in developing our paintings, whether we refer to them only when painting details or paint entirely from scanned images on a computer screen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with photographs, but they offer a limited and distorted view of potential painting subjects.

The only way to understand those restrictions is to spend time drawing and painting directly from nature. Do it all! Paint from a real still-life arrangement set up at home, spend a few hours sketching outdoors, or compare snapshots with the person you intend to paint. Those are ways of learning how values, colors, shadows, highlights, and shapes change when recorded by the one-eyed machine.

#10: Open Yourself Up to New Ideas
Most of us have learned from life experience to see what we believe we should see, and we become restricted by the limits of our own imaginations. We need to be trained to see colors and shapes so we understand that a gray may actually contain reds, blues, and greens; and a straight line may actually mark the edge of a sloping roof. Squint your eyes to discover more color and more lines than the untrained eye can see.





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Artist Daily Blog, Watercolor Painting
Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

9 thoughts on “Don’t Limit Your Potential, Watercolor Artists

  1. i have 6 months of doing watercolors with only ideas from here and there to make them. This is the first time i see and understand the basis importance have to tell to do and how, if you want to do well. thank you very much.

  2. i have 6 months of doing watercolors with only ideas from here and there to make them. This is the first time i see and understand the basis importance have to tell to do and how, if you want to do well. thank you very much.

  3. The cost of quality watercolors limits my the size of my paintings and I know it shouldn’t. I like to use my 12″-x-16″ square plastic palettes with 22 deep wells. I should be willing to buy quality paints with the right paper and deal with it. Always looking for cakes or tubes that will not limit the size of my paintings

  4. All great information.
    As a portrait artist, working in watercolour, I use professional quality paper and paints (AAA rated Winsor & Newton, among others). I use a large white plate as my palette – with blue, red, yellow & viridian pigment squeezed out at equal intervals along the plate rim. This allows for me to dip my brush into several colours with room for the water to mix colours in the centre. I use lots of water and the colours mix themselves as well as leaving pigment on the brush to mix on the paper. The largest watercolour painting I have created is 2.4meters x 1.5meters. It meant that I had to work (from photographs) sideways and from the top down (upside down). It is all do-able as long as your arm can reach!!