Watercolor: 10 Tools for Better Watercolors

0609hillis1_450x300_1Artists often limit their potential by not taking full advantage of watercolor paints and supplies. Here’s advice that has proven helpful to my students.   

by Catherine Hillis

There is so much conflicting information and advice available to watercolor painting artists today 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. My students have found it helpful to focus on 10 significant issues that relate to any teacher’s theories or recommendations. I refer to them as implements in a toolbox because they are similar to the utensils a chef uses, or the woodworking tools of a carpenter. Using this equipment is essential for achieving success with the medium.


From Chinatown With Love
2006, watercolor, 29 x 39.
All artwork this
article collection the
artist unless otherwise

Tool No. 1: Don’t Be Stingy With Paint
The No. 1 reason watercolorists 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.      

One of the challenges of painting is seeing color differently, and that’s not possible if an artist doesn’t have pigments to match his or her observations. I help my students see the variety of greens, browns, blues, reds, yellows, and grays in their subjects; but if they only have the cheap colors sold in standard sets, they will struggle trying to express what they observe.<

The Three Amigos
2005, watercolor,
29 x 39.


Tool No. 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; the Stephen Quiller round palettes with 24 wells; or other brands of palettes that have room for an adequate amount of paint and areas to mix them without contamination.


Coca-Cola (My Studio) [detail]
2004, watercolor, 25 x 26.
Private collection.

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

Tool No. 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. Just as the chefs in a four-star restaurant insist on quality ingredients, artists must also use good-quality cotton-rag paper to get the maximum performance from their brushes and paints.

Tool No. 4: Start by Prewetting 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 prewetting 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.


To encourage students
to work with a wide range
of pigment combinations,
Hillis advises them
to prepare a chart of
painting values and
color mixtures, such
as the green-mixture
chart shown here.

Tool No. 5: Don’t Drown the Pigment
Learning how much water to use with watercolor pigment is the first challenge students will face. Diluted watercolor paint should usually be the consistency of two-percent milk, but this can vary depending on the technique one is using. Students will benefit from having a painting-value and mixing chart. For example, I encourage my students to prepare a chart of mixed greens so they can see the full potential of working with different combinations of pigment.

Tool No. 6: Work Large
If you are brave enough to take an art class and lay your abilities on the line for other students 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 with the tools of drawing larger objects.

Tool No. 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 a successful watercolorist, 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.


Easy Street
2005, watercolor,
22 x 28.

Tool No. 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.

Tool No. 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. I urge my students to paint from a real still-life arrangement set up in their home, spend a few hours sketching outdoors, or compare their snapshots with the person they intend to paint. Those are ways of learning how values, colors, shadows, highlights, and shapes change when recorded by the one-eyed machine.


Roussillon, France
2005, watercolor,
16 x 20.

Tool No. 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. I encourage students to squint their eyes to discover more color and more lines than the untrained eye can see.

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7 thoughts on “Watercolor: 10 Tools for Better Watercolors

  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.