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How to Start Watercolor Painting – A Beginner’s Guide

We all have our favorite watercolor pictures. Maybe it’s Thomas Girtin’s ‘The White House at Chelsea’ which is a celebrated watercolor painting for its simple use of the paints. Its subtle contrasts and stoic silhouettes are very reminiscent of Rembrandt.

Or perhaps its Paul Klee’s ‘Southern Garden’ with its use of mixed watercolors and ink used in a highly surreal and abstract way, showing watercolors were not just for landscapes,

Without a doubt, watercolors are one of the most fun and interesting ways you can go about painting. No matter what your skill level is, using watercolors to paint can be easy and fun.

Using watercolors as the medium for your painting allows your creations to gain a glow that just cannot be achieved through other means. You can build texture with oil for example, but only with watercolors can you still get the same luminosity after throwing down layers upon layers.

There is also an aspect of uncertainty when using watercolors and excitement other painting methods just can’t give. Watercolors cannot be as easily controlled or manipulated, they change on various surfaces or when coming into contact with different colors.

In this guide, we’re going to get you started with this technique. With a little know-how and some handy tips, this beginner’s guide to watercolors will teach you how to begin watercolor painting.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Getting Started: Materials You’ll Need for Watercolor Painting

Choosing your colors

Whenever starting out on a new hobby, especially painting, the first rule is not to get over-excited. Yes, have some enthusiasm about it, but don’t go thinking you need to buy everything in the shop. First and foremost, choose a few varieties of colors that interest you. For example, if you’re thinking of painting a landscape of a forest and lake; try buying some greens, blues, and browns. Buying a hundred colors will not only set your bank balance back, but it will also confuse and overwhelm any beginner.

Most artists will tell beginners that you only need 7 colors to get started with watercolor painting. These are:

  • Burnt ember (brown)
  • Raw sienna (dark yellow)
  • French ultramarine (blue/Violet)
  • Alizarin crimson (dark red)
  • Lemon blue (strong yellow)
  • Rose madder (lighter red)
  • White

This is a good video showing a watercolor painting using only 2 colors!

Watercolors come in tubes or in pans that range in price. For beginners, I would recommend buying pans as they are easier to separate and control the amount you put on your brush. Watercolors also are separated by quality, the two grades being students and artists. Artist quality paint is the better one but sadly more expensive. If you are a beginner just wanting to test the waters, buy student quality to start off with. Check out our review of the best watercolor paints to get you started.

Paper

Think using a sheet from the printer will do it? Wrong. Choosing the best type of paper to paint on is important for what level of work you’re doing. Choosing heavy paper (600-800gsm) means you won’t need to stretch the paper but can be more expensive.

The texture is especially important as you have hot pressed paper (great for detailed paintings), rough paper (produces great luminosity), or cold-pressed paper.

The latter – also called ‘not paper’ – is a popular and versatile paper that is recommended for beginners but needs to be stretched.

Do you need an A1 size sheet to create your masterpiece? Probably not. As a beginner, I would stick to anything under 10 X 15 inches. This is roughly just under A3 size.

Stretching

Not only do you have to stretch for your workouts, but now you have to do it for your paintings as well! You may be asking why it is so important to stretch paper beforehand, well here is the reason:

As you will be using a fair amount of water while painting, using normal paper without stretching will result in ‘cockling’.

Cockling is where wrinkles and ridges are created in paper which cannot be flattened out; imagine dropping your book in the bath, what happens when the pages dry? Once again, using heavier paper allows you to ignore stretching but I’d do it anyway considering how easy it is!

Items needed:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Gummed tape
  • Flat board​

Method:

  1. Allow 1” free room around the board when cutting your paper to the length of your board.
  2. Soak the paper in cold, clean water. You can even do this in your own bathtub as long as it is clean.
  3. Lightweight paper needs 4-5 minutes, heavy paper needs up to 20 minutes.
  4. Pick up the paper and let it drain the excess water
  5. DRY your hands
  6. Tear off lengths of gummed tape
  7. Lay down the paper on the flat board until completely flat
  8. Attach the tape to the edges of the paper all the way around
  9. Make sure there are no wrinkled bits of paper
  10. Leave the paper to dry (outside is best)
  11. Carefully peel back the gummed tape once the paper has dried

You can use staples or heavy tape if you have no gummed tape available. This is a great video explaining some of the basics of paper stretching.

Brushes

The tool of every painter, the extension of the artist’s hand, the item you can buy pretty much anywhere; brushes! Every watercolor painter needs a good brush to get the best out of whatever paints they buy. Something extremely cheap might leave bristles lying in the paint; something ridiculously expensive might make your bank balance frown. When looking to buy paint brushes for watercolors, you only need to have a few core items in your repertoire.

The four brushes I would recommend any watercolor painter to have at the ready would be:

  • 1-inch brush. You can buy a one inch and a half hake which is a soft brush made of goat hair
  • 1 half-inch brush used for sharper edges
  • A number 10 round brush which is your big brush
  • A number 2 rigger brush which is thin with bristles

Sable haired paintbrushes are highly recommended for use this style of painting as they have excellent shape retention and a steady release of color. These can be a little expensive, so if you’re on a budget you can get some pretty good synthetic brushes.

Anything else?

You might be thinking of starting up painting and immediately want to buy an easel to get your Da Vinci hat on. You don’t really need one as a beginner. They can be expensive and cumbersome to start out on, try using a piece of cardboard propped up by something. It’s reliable and will last until you’ve gotten the hang of watercolors enough to know you want an easel.

A palette is used by many professional artists as they have a range of colors to use. As a beginner, it might be best to just use a cheap white dinner plate (obviously don’t eat your dinner on it straight after).

Are you a sketcher? Do you like to do rough sketches with pencils before putting your watercolors on? If this is you, buying some good quality pencils might be in order. A 2B pencil is great as it’s soft and doesn’t comes through once the paint is applied. I would also recommend getting a HB and a 4B pencil to give some varying degrees of thickness.

Painting Techniques

You have your brush, your stretched paper, and a few paints ready at your side. Are you ready to begin playing with watercolors? Don’t worry, it’s an easy and fun painting method that any beginner can do with a few helpful tips.​

There are a few basic rules of thumb when it comes to watercolors:

  • Draw lightly with the pencil; you may want to erase and change any sketches
  • >Use the right brush for whatever you are painting. Delicate building work would be ruined by using a number 10 brush
  • Keep loose, stretch your arms and legs every now and again. If you are working on the same piece for several hours, getting a cramp in the arm would be counterproductive
  • As mentioned before, only use a few colors, to begin with. Get used to how the water changes colors and how to blend before using a larger range
  • Added extra layers of the same color will darken the value and give a warmer texture to the area
  • Keep a bottle of masking fluid handy, this will be explained later
  • Sketch a practice picture first on a smaller piece of paper to get a full idea of what you actually want to paint
  • Practice, practice, practice! As a beginner, watercolors can seem overwhelming but with a little practice, you will learn to love using them.

Opacity

Opacity is a wondrous thing when working with watercolors as you control exactly how light or dark the colors are.

Opacity

You can clearly see on the image above how the amount of water used has completely changed the opacity of one color. The best advice when working with changing opacity is to practice. Playing around with the level of water is the only way to truly learn to paint with watercolors.

Masking fluid

Masking fluid is a handy way to keep parts of the paper white. This is useful for any beginner who struggles to keep the paint to one specific area of the paper. The only problem with using masking fluid is that you have to know exactly where you want to paint.​

Masking Fluid

When your painting is complete the masking fluid should be lifted up easily showing the white paper underneath.

Masking Fluid Underneath

Painting Skies

I suggest trying something very simple as your first sky picture to learn how the colors mix together to add value. Try something like the picture below:

Painting Skies

The first step in painting skies with watercolors is to do a quick sketch of where you want your clouds to be. This will give you an idea of where the colors should start and end.
  • Hold the paper at roughly 30 degrees – this can be accomplished by propping up a few books. This will make the water pool in a bead at the bottom.
  • Give your brush a generous dollop of whatever blue you have to hand. Paint a line across the top area of the clouds
  • Leave spaces for the clouds, you don’t need to be exact, just have a play around with leaving areas and define as you go along
  • Next, you don’t need to just use blue and white; throw in some light reds and yellows to give the sky a warm texture.
  • The sky will appear lighter as it gets closer to the horizon, add in extra layers of washes. At the horizon, try stroking the brush with a light yellow to give a warm texture
  • Use any suitable color for the ground, either yellow or burnt ember for sand, greens for grass or brown.

Painting Landscapes

Painting Landscapes
  • I would highly recommend sketching a smaller version of the landscape you wish to paint to get an idea of the shapes and colors needed. Mark out key shapes such as mountains, buildings or trees. You do not need to include details.
  • Start with the sky, your blues on a big brush. Remember the color should get lighter and warmer as it reaches the horizon.
  • Apply a few brushstrokes to define the areas of trees, you can add in larger brushstrokes to cover the areas and then blend in darker colors to add value.
  • Use masking fluid to save any areas you wish to use later such as rivers, buildings or other shapes.
  • Add in, using a 1-inch brush, small lines to show branches, weeds or any small details.
  • Keep simple for your first landscape. Try to use bigger buildings without adding doors and windows as they can complicate matters.

A simple landscape to try and copy for your first watercolor:

Simple Landscape

Painting the Seashore

  • Painting the seashore follows a lot of the basic principles of painting skies. 
  • Start with your blues for the sky and give a little more definition to your clouds. 
  • For the horizon you want yellows, reds, oranges blended together to give a warm, sand texture. 
  • If you’re feeling more adventurous, you could try adding grass or try to add in small birds or figures walking across the sand.

Painting Flowers

Painting flowers seems hard but is actually a fun and easy method to test out blending watercolors. They are also easier because they are a small area and do not require any detail.

Painting Flowers

  • For the stem, start with a nice green you like the look of. Take a smaller round brush and lightly stroke upwards to create a line. Try not to make it perfectly straight, it works best being a little lopsided!
  • The edge of the flower should be a smallish round green area, once again this does not have to be perfect! 
  • Take whichever color you want for the petals and mark out a few smaller circular areas for the petals. This does not need to be precise or accurate, even the quickest and messiest paint strokes can look amazing in the end!
  • Add a few extra layers to the bottom of the petals to give them a darker appearance
  • You can add extra details as much as you want. Bees, leaves, definition can all be added with practice.

A great looking flower watercolor to try as your first painting:

Simple Flower

Summary

Painting with watercolors can seem like a scary prospect as a beginner. However, it is one of the easiest and quickest painting methods to take up and get a pretty good looking creation in no time.

Getting the right equipment is important but you needn’t spend a lot of money, stick to the few items I have listed. If you get into watercolors and find you enjoy it, you can always buy more paints and upgrade your kit.

Watercolors are fantastic in that they change and can be different for everyone. Buy some paper, do some stretching and get out there! The only way to learn watercolors is by doing it. Learn to change the opacity of the paints, learn how to layer, learn how to blend and define areas. Here’s a great example to get you inspired:

Watercolor Masterpiece

Good luck!

Kara Mars