Belinda Del Pesco

Watercolor: Mermaid Intern (and Beginning Watercolor)

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

Pick a Tough One

Watercolor is a challenging medium if you dive into it for the first time without any direction.  It’s 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, it dries lighter than it looks when wet, and white sections of your final design are usually void of any pigment; the white of the paper has to be preserved in the painting plan.  But don’t hurt 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 Myself

If I could go back in time and advise my younger self, I’d insist on a regular practice of playing with watercolor in small format, with one rule: 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. Single file, people – One at a Time.  Full attention on the pigments themselves is worth a little focus and playful experimentation, regularly. How do your colors respond to wet-into wet vs dry glazing? How do your colors mix on different papers?  Which pigments have visible particles, which of them “over-ride” the colors they’re laid on top of? Is one more transparent or more opaque than the other? How many of your pigments can be lifted with a clean, wet brush after they dry, and which of them stain?

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? Pull out an assortment of watercolor paper scraps, 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 on your paper.
  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 paper 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 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? If you duplicate the little square in a grid on a sheet of watercolor paper, 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.  The fun you have with letting your pigments interact as you watch, without interrupting them, will stay with you.  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.



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.

Watercolor artists are on instagram in delightful droves.  If you follow them, you can scroll through inspiring images every day to kickstart your own creative mojo. Have a look at Jennifer Orkin Lewis, known as August Wren, and Charlotte Hamilton, on instagram as Blue Shine Art, and Watercolor Illustrations, a curated harvest of watercolor art on instagram, and Nan Rae, and Melanie April, and Cindy Lane, and Marcos Beccari.  There are many, many more, so if you have a favorite, please share with a link in the comments.

If you need the structure of lessons to practice your watercolor skills, there are wonderful books available for self-paced sessions at a table 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.

Learn How to Use Your Tools

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, how to shade, suggest light and depth, and how to paint all that 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. Don’t do that. Stay with it, and play with your watercolors. Get acquainted first, and you’ll be rewarded with a confidence 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!


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)

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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.

14 thoughts on “Watercolor: Mermaid Intern (and Beginning Watercolor)”

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  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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. 🙂

  11. 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.

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