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10 Watercolor Painting Tips for Beginners

Practical painting tips for anyone starting to use watercolors.


From a technical point of view, learning to use watercolor is simple: add water to the paint, put brush on paper, and you're painting. It's the beginning of an exciting and intriguing artistic journey. These 10 watercolor painting tips will help you avoid basic mistakes and get better results right from the start.

1. Watercolors Dry Lighter

Watercolor painting tips
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
With watercolor paint, a color will always look more intense (stronger and darker) when it is wet. A color will always be lighter and paler when dry.

It's something you get a feel for through practice and experience. If your paintings look insipid, make the colors more intense by using more paint and less water, or painting another layer of a color over the first.

2. Test a Color First

Photo of Tate Britain Turner Watercolor Color Testing in Margin
Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans
Watercolor paint dries very fast, so test a color on a scrap of paper or on the edge of your painting before using it. That way you'll know whether it's the hue and/or tone you're after.

3. Dry Watercolor Remains Soluble

Even once watercolor paint has dried, it remains water soluble. You can re-wet the dried paint with water on a brush and it will 'turn' back into paint. This means you can lift the paint off the paper to fix a mistake, lighten a color by removing some of it, or even mix it with new paint. Though you do need to be careful you don't scrub at the paper too much and damage the surface.

4. Watercolor Paint is Transparent

Watercolor paint is transparent. You can see through the layers of color you've painted, making it near impossible to hide mistakes. Don't fight against this, but embrace it and work with it.

5. Light to Dark

Because the white in watercolor comes from the white of the paper, not the paint itself, the usual advice is to paint from light to dark. To start with the lightest colors and tones, and build your way up to the darkest. But don't be afraid to experiment with putting down dark colors early on in a watercolor painting, as it may turn out to be an approach that works for you!

6. Use a Decent Watercolor Brush

Watercolor tips brushes
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Rather have just one, good brush than a handful of cheap ones that splay out and drop hairs. It'll save you a lot of frustration. A good brush retains its shape so you can get a very fine brushmark from the point; it holds a good quantity of paint so you need to reload it less often.

7. Don't Add Too Much Water

Watercolor painting tips
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
Avoid inadvertently adding more water to your paint after you've washed your brush by dabbing the brush onto a dry cloth before putting it in the paint again. If you've loaded a brush with paint and decide you needed less paint, hold clean cloth at ferrule end of the brush hairs to soak up some of the excess. Doing it at this end helps keep the pigment at the tip of the brush.

8. Watercolor Paper Isn't Identical

Watercolor painting tips
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
The label "watercolor paper" covers a lot of variations. Not only in the thickness of the paper, but also how smooth the surface is and how 'white' it is.

9. Stretch Thin Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper tips
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans
The more paint you use and the thinner the sheet of paper, the greater the likelihood is that the sheet will buckle. This can be prevented by stretching the paper first.

10. Masking Fluid Mistakes

Masking fluid or frisket is very useful for blocking off areas where you don't want the paint to be. But do check first that it'll come off the paper, as it'll soak into very soft paper and then not come off without destroying the surface of the paper.
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