Beginning Watercolor – Advice to My Younger Self

Watercolor Painting for Beginners

Watercolor painting for beginners is a challenging medium when you dive into it for the first time.

Watercolor painting is famous for artist-to-media break-ups, and proclamations like “Oh, I tried watercolor once, and it came out AWFUL!” 

The pigments re-wet after drying, many colors stain paper, making a need to lighten a passage almost impossible. Watercolors dry lighter in value compared to when they’re wet. And the white of the paper has to be preserved in the painting plan for softest hues and bright spots. 

But don’t frustrate yourself trying to figure her out. Watercolor is just particular, and with a little direction, and time spent getting to know her, you’ll fall in love. Pinky promise.

a flat paint brush against a paper towel with pigment leached from the brush to the paper
Watercolor pigment is lovely – even when soaking into the waffle of a paper towel

Advice to my Younger Self

If I could go back in time and advise my watercolor beginner younger self, I’d insist on a regular practice of playing with watercolor in small format. I’d only have one rule for those practice sessions: No painting a “thing” allowed. 

The exercise should be a courtship of the medium. No recognizable objects like a flower, a house or a landscape.

Drawing an object, and painting with watercolor are two distinct skill sets. If you’re new to both drawing and painting, you’re attempting a double decker of a challenge, in a practice that’s supposed to be relaxing and fun.

Keep track of the paper in your sketchbooks by labeleing the covers with tape and a marker
Keep track of which paper is in each of your sketchpads by writing the brand, surface and weight of the paper somewhere inside the book. Use a white pan on the cover, or tape a label on the rear.

One Skill Set at a Time

Full attention on the watercolor pigments alone is worth a little focus and playful experimentation, regularly.

Do your watercolors respond to wet-into wet vs dry glazing?

How do your watercolors mix on different papers? 

How many watercolor pigments on your palette have visible particles, and which of them “over-ride” the colors they’re laid on top of?

Is one color more transparent or more opaque than the other?

Which brushes give you different mark-making with your watercolors?

Can each of your watercolor pigments be lifted with a clean, wet brush after they dry, and which of them stain?

Which of your watercolor greens are warm, and which are cool? And what of the same question for your reds, blues and yellows?

Which temperature dominates when you mix a warm watercolor with a cool in the same color range?

Six tiny scraps of watercolor paper with color watercolor washes in random colors
Tiny courtship swatches; play with your watercolors to get to know them before you commit to painting a particular scene or object so you know what to expect from your palette.

First, Learn how to Drive

Watercolor is an amazing medium for quick creative decompression and art-making. Only have 30 minutes? Assemble a pile of watercolor paper scraps you’ve labeled, your palette, a brush and a quarter cup of rinse water, and PLAY.

  1. Dip a brush into your clean water, and paint a clear 3×3 square of wet on your watercolor paper. (Note on the back of the paper which brand, weight and surface you’re experimenting with.)
  2. Before it dries, dip your wet brush into cerulean blue (collect a good amount of pigment, don’t be shy) and pull a horizontal stripe of blue along the bottom of your wet square.
  3. Rinse your brush and collect some alizarin crimson.
  4. Brush another bold stripe at the top of your wet square.
  5. Rinse your brush, collect a yellow (again, lots of pigment) from your palette and pull it through both colors in a vertical stripe.
  6. Put the brush down and tilt your paper to watch how each color interacts, and which new colors emerge as they mingle.
  7. Do this on a variety of watercolor papers (again, labeled on the back so you get to know the paper in your stash) with an assortment of colors from your palette.
  8. Don’t touch the wet colors; just let the pigments commune and dry, so you can see what the end result looks like.
watercolors being dropped next to each other on wet paper to spread and migle into new colors
A shear wash of Permanent Lemon Yellow, with Cerulean Blue across the top and ultramarine blue drops. See how this high contrast color test dried much lighter as the base for the next color test in the video below.

Learn by Playing

After your little color garden dries, notice what happens to the pigments:

Did the edges blend and disappear?

Did the color lighten considerably?

Which color dominated in the mixing?

Duplicate a grid of squares on a bigger sheet of watercolor paper, and experiment with wet-into-wet color-touching-color for a date night with your paints.

Try not to mix them deliberately. Practice letting the pigments interact of their own accord as they’re suspended in water on your paper. 

swatches of watercolors on different watercolor papers by belinda del pesco
Test the papers in your stash….

Make Learning Watercolor Painting Fun

The fun you have with letting your pigments interact as you watch, without interrupting them, will stay with you. And you’ll learn that manipulating them creates muddy colors, while letting them mingle creates beautiful color transitions.

The wonder and delight will inform your next adventure of painting a still life, or a landscape.

You’ll remember your swatches as you select pigments for a sky or a flower petal, and you’ll be more inclined to let the colors dance together on their own, without your brushes noodling the colors into potential mud.

 

After your swatches of watercolor dry, you can play with them some more by layering other colors on top to see which ones are transparent at various water-to-pigment ratio loads on your brush.

 

 

Watercolor Painting Resources

Many paint manufacturers have downloadable PDF color charts of their pigments. Here’s one from Winsor & Newton watercolors, in both their professional series pigments, and their Cotman series.

If you’re new to watercolor paper, I’ve assembled a three page watercolor paper primer with all the things I wanted to know, but couldn’t find when I started. Get the Watercolor Paper Information here.

Watercolor artists are on instagram in delightful droves.  If you follow them, you can scroll through inspiring images to kickstart your own creative mojo. (Don’t compare yourself. Just be inspired.)

Have a look at Jennifer Orkin Lewis, known as August Wren, and Charlotte Hamilton, on instagram as Blue Shine Art. Watercolor Illustrations is a curated harvest of watercolor art on instagram. Check out Nan Rae, and Melanie April. Be inspired by Cindy Lane, and Marcos Beccari. 

There are many, many more, so if you have a favorite, please share with a link in the comments.

the beginnings of a figure painting in watercolor by belinda del pesco
The lessons you learn with mixing and playing with the exact colors on your own palette will inform your watercolor paintings. Make a plan to paint.

Watercolor Painting Lessons

If you need the structure of lessons to practice your watercolor skills, there are wonderful books available for self-paced sessions, after dinner, with a brush, paper and pigments.

Have a look at Adele Earnshaw’s Painting the Things You Love for lots of helpful tips on watercolor glazing and using your own photos as references. 

Gina Rossi Armfield’s No Excuses Watercolor is full of exercises and demos in a loose, journaling style that’s accessible and fun. 

Cathy Johnson’s Artist’s Sketchbook: Exercises & Techniques for Sketching on the Spot is a wonderful take on sketching and painting the things in your home, your garden, and while traveling.

drawing a still life for a watercolor painting using the grid method
Laying a drawing out on watercolor paper for a still life painting – using the grid method of drawing.

Learn How to Use Your Tools, First

You wouldn’t build a house till you learned how to use your tools, right?

Beginning artists often start with a love of watercolor. And then they mount a campaign to learn how to draw, how to see and render recognizable, realistic objects. They also want to learn shading, and how to suggest light and depth. Oh, and also how to paint. And they tackle that herculean effort with the finicky media of watercolor.

That’s a looooong list of firsts, and when you stack them in a pressure-to-perform sandwich, it’s easy to see why so many beginners give up on watercolor.

painting a watercolor still life on the kitchen counter

Learning Takes Time

Beginner painters get so twisted in uncertainty, they procrastinate about painting anything for months. Don’t do that. Stay with it, and play with your brushes, papers and watercolor paints.

Part of learning is discovering what you don’t know. Be encouraging to yourself, look for improvements and aha! moments more earnestly than you scour your paintings for mistakes. Research the methods that trip you up in books and on youtube. Be your best advocate to learn watercolor painting.

Get acquainted with your watercolors and supplies first, and you’ll be rewarded with the confidence of familiarity in your tool box that will carry you forward with a lot of joy in your artistic journey.

Thanks for visiting today, and I’ll see you in the next post!

Belinda

A little girl in a swimming pool looking up into a shadow of a figure
Mermaid Intern 4.75×6 watercolor on paper (sold)

Art Quote

A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.

~Roald Dahl (1916-1990)
an art title generation system with proven results in an online class
How to Title Your Art is a new online class demonstrating three variations of a title-generation system I use successfully on every piece of art. Click Here to check it out.

15 thoughts on “Beginning Watercolor – Advice to My Younger Self”

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  8. This is an excellent piece. The Resurces section is especially helpful, introducing me to a number of tools, including the Instagram sites, that are new to me.Thank you.

  9. Hi Belinda! I’ve followed your blog for a while, enjoyed your art and your take on “things”, but today’s page takes the cake! And that Mermaid Intern is a simply gorgeous watercolor! See ya later! Inspired to go play in the water.

  10. Playing is the key thing in watercolour…of course there is learning some theory as with anything but once certain things are understood…push those parameters and see where it takes you. Happy accidents are always fun in any medium but watercolour seems to have many surprising facets….only discovered by entering that world often. DOnt get put off by people saying its the most difficult medium…it isnt. Also people say you cannot correct mistakes….you can!…The biggest thing with watercolour is WATER….let it do the work for you..you will be surprised by how much of that is true Bx

  11. Kathryn Malta

    Hi Belinda, you really hit on all my frustrations. My primary medium is oil paint so I’m used to controlling the paint; making it obey me. Love watercolors, but nothing works for me. The idea of playing with the colors is very appealing to me and as soon as I’m through writing this, I’ll be trying your ideas. Keep them coming. Kathryn

    1. Hi Kathryn, I can just imagine the brain-strain in going from oil painting to watercolor! They are both beautiful, but they’re such different animals! I hope the playtime with your pigments is fun, and informative. Don’t be afraid to dabble over and over, till you start to feel like you can anticipate what the colors are going to do, and which colors give you the tints and hues you use frequently in your work. It really is kind of a courtship. 🙂

  12. Susan Cooper

    Thanks, Belinda, for permission to play! I am taking it all so seriously that I forget it is supposed to be fun. I can’t wait to try your suggestions, and thank you for recommending the books!

    1. Hi Susan,
      Know that you aren’t alone in forgetting to play. I do it all the time, and then I remember when I see a beautiful bloom of pigment traveling through water on my paper: Oh yeahhhhhh, this is a really beautiful medium, and it’s fun too!? Silly artists! I hope your playtime with pigments is fruitful, and helps you get better acquainted with your palette.

Write something.... pretend we're neighbors, and we’re painting watercolors together in the garden....