5 Tips to Try If You Are Just Starting Out in Watercolor

Proven Steps of Watercolor Painting Mastery

5 Essential Tips If You Are Just Starting Out in Watercolor | Proven Steps to Watercolor Painting Mastery | Artist Daily
Procida, Italy IV by Keiko Tanabe, watercolor painting, 14 x 21, 2008.

One of the best things about being at Artist Daily is seeing incredible artwork on a daily basis. This is especially true in the area of watercolor painting.

I wasn’t too familiar with many contemporary artists working in the medium before I started working here. But I’ve become quite the fan in the last few years, adding numerous watercolor artists to my “watch” list.

In the spirit of supporting the watercolorists out there and in a desire to highlight how evocative a medium it can be, here’s a top-five list of watercolor tips for those just starting out, and those who could use a little help along the way.

Load your brush.

When starting out, and to avoid creating a piece that looks overworked, paint with a sure stroke and don’t shirk on color.

5 Essential Tips If You Are Just Starting Out in Watercolor | Proven Steps to Watercolor Painting Mastery | Artist Daily
Melanie the Violinist by Dean Mitchell, 15″ x 10″, watercolor painting.

Go abstract.

To understand what this medium can do, give up control to gain insight. See how the paint and water move, and what kind of effects you can achieve by playing with the water-to-pigment ratio, surface and surface tilt, and color layering.

Don’t forget to sketch.

Like any performer or musician, an artist should explore his or her chosen medium by experimenting in a loose, pressure-free manner. Using larger brushes when sketching in watercolor helps you to concentrate on overarching compositional shapes that every good painting needs.

Find the light.

Watercolorists typically work from light to dark, which means hoarding and protecting those segments of paper where highlights will appear is crucial. Using masking fluid and tape are options, but be mindful of the distinct edges these can leave.

Carousel of Paris by John Salminen, watercolor painting.
Carousel of Paris by John Salminen, watercolor painting.

Consider a limited palette.

When just starting out, a select group of colors helps simplify the painting process and helps you develop your color-mixing skills. Avoid dark browns and opaque colors, because they tend to appear somewhat muddy and dull. Try a warm and cool of each color you want.

There are as many techniques and skills to master within watercolor painting as there are in any other medium. To help you accelerate your process and produce the best paintings you can, get a copy of Watercolor 365.

You’ll find a year’s worth of tips, fun exercises, troubleshoots and creative advice. The time in the studio will fly by in the best way with this handy guide at your side — brushstroke after brushstroke leading you to your best artistic self! Enjoy!


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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.   

13 thoughts on “5 Tips to Try If You Are Just Starting Out in Watercolor

  1. As a watercolorist, I can tell you that cad yellows are only semi-transparent and in some brands can even be a bit sedimentary. If I had to make a short list of absolute requirements for colors, I’d have to pick Indian Yellow, Sap Green, Alizurin Crimson and Phthalo Blue (Winsor Blue). These are the colors I use to create human skin tones. I recently used these 4, and only these 4, to complete a painting of a tabby cat, being able to mix all sorts of gray-browns and even a velvety black for the tones in the fur. I paint a great many florals and these are the most common colors I use for those as well.

    My personal palette contains 25 colors, of which one-third are rarely used, another third are less regularly used and the last third are used in some capacity in all paintings. This last third are all transparent and clear, bright colors, with many of the less used colors being semi-transparent and/or bordering opaque (not all watercolor pigments are transparent).

    How the paint behaves is also influenced by what surface one paints on and the ability to get the darkest darks is entirely dependent on that surface. Another topic for you for another day!

  2. Was introduced to watercolor painting last Oct. and have already sold 3 paintings. My bigest problem seems to be painting too tight. I am truly having trouble and working on loosening up and letting the painting be more free. I absolutely love this medium. What fun seeing what I can turn out of a little paint, a lot or water, and a piece of paper.

  3. Hiya Courtney, mahalo for your informative articles. I, too, am a watercolor artist and I gotta say I agree with Lynn Hurd Bryant . . .I don’t use the cads because they lack transparency and tend to flatten and don’t offer the luminosity of say Hansa Yellow Light (also known as process yellow and is a true primary). I have preferred the quinacridones for their transparent qualities and excellent layering/glazing properties. I can achieve a depth and luminous quality with them and other transparent pigments that is unsurpassed by the traditional more opaque, “chalky” pigments. I especially love quin gold and quin burnt orange. With quin burnt orange you can achieve a gorgeous brown by adding a little indanthrone blue (also transparent and non granulating). Again, mahalo for your articles.

    I look forward to receiving my summer issue of American Artist Watercolor! Lots of aloha to you,

    Carmen Gardner, Maui, Hawaii http://www.CarmenGardner.net

  4. Did Mr Mitchell,s above paintings use transparent watercolors on watercolor paper? And could he comment on his materials please? His work is beyond -magnificent

  5. Thanks for the reminders. You did a great job. Only thing I would add after painting in watercolor since the mid ’70s is to use large brushes and paint with your whole arm and not just your wrists. Keep up the good work. The gallery here is great and new watercolorists keep adding great paintings.

  6. Sometimes your pages are interesting….but when it comes to watercolor I tire of viewing a semingly endless parade of technically facile artists who essentially project a photograph and paintakingly copy it. Once in a while I wish you would choose art and artists which display an active IMAGINATION !!!

  7. I enjoyed your article,for what it’s worth, thought I’d contribute a little something I learned from Gary Spetz in reference to “distinct edges”. As your works develop & it has thoroughly dried, & you remove the masking, those edges can be softened with some gentle ‘scrubbing’ with a scrubber or a cut down old bristle paint brush and clean water, blotting with a tissue as you go. Tissue is a great friend to have in hand at all times to help control values, as they build up with transparent layers of color. I agree with you that as large a brush as possible be used to avoid over working a painting before you get to those areas that require necessary detail. Also for a realist WC painter, a good prior drawing ,in detail, is essential for a good finished work.
    Thanks, Lemay

  8. You are doing a marvelous job with this site. I look forward to reading and looking at this site every day. I am in awe of the job you are doing. What a resource for us artists who look for art that inspires.

    anita beaty