Proven Steps of Watercolor Painting Mastery

14 May 2013

Procida, Italy IV by Keiko Tanabe, watercolor, 14 x 21, 2008.
Procida, Italy IV by Keiko Tanabe,
watercolor, 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 watercolor fan in the last few years with quite a few watercolor artists on 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.

Go abstract. To understand what watercolor 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.

Living on the Streets by Dean Mitchell, watercolor, 15 x 11, 2009.
Living on the Streets by Dean Mitchell,
watercolor, 15 x 11, 2009.
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 that 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.

Seattle Newsstand by John Salminen, watercolor painting, 22 x 30, 2007.
Seattle Newsstand by John Salminen,
watercolor painting, 22 x 30, 2007.
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, as 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. To help you accelerate your process and produce the best watercolor paintings you can, consider Soon Warren's new DVD, Watercolor Crystal. You'll find instruction on composition, subject matter, and formal execution. To share your own hard-won tips and skill, as well as the kind of challenges you are addressing in your work, leave a comment. 

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kmcelwaine wrote
on 4 Jun 2010 7:52 AM

I have learned so much by studying the work of these three wc artist. Outstanding! By doing the exercises each day that I do during my commute on the train in wc works to keep my oil painting fresh. Kathleen the BusPaintings artist

on 4 Jun 2010 8:15 AM

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!

on 4 Jun 2010 8:56 AM

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.

Joan Nixon wrote
on 4 Jun 2010 9:54 AM

Great article!  Exactly what I try to pass on to my students.  Thanks!

Joan Nixon

Joan Nixon wrote
on 4 Jun 2010 9:56 AM

Thanks Courtney, great article with advice to watercolorists and exactly what I pass on to my students.

Joan Nixon

Maui Artist wrote
on 4 Jun 2010 11:42 AM

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

timgoss wrote
on 5 Jun 2010 11:34 AM

Thanks Courtney. Those are great reminders for all of us splashing around on watercolor paper.


Luart wrote
on 5 Jun 2010 3:43 PM

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

oldbioprof wrote
on 11 Jun 2010 5:44 PM

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.

mgbattman wrote
on 15 May 2013 1:55 PM

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 !!!

on 17 May 2013 9:05 PM

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

on 18 May 2013 8:35 AM

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

libo wrote
on 28 May 2013 2:51 AM

The experience and the comfort of thought and clear through Brush strokes and the story that the creator wants to tell us