Golden Rules of Watercolor | Avoiding Basic Pitfalls

Watercolor painting is a beautiful and versatile art form that captivates both artists and viewers with its delicate and luminous effects. Although it may appear effortless, mastering watercolor techniques requires dedication and understanding of certain rules.

The golden rule of watercolor is to work from light to dark, using transparent layers called glazes to build depth and richness in colors. This rule, combined with choosing quality materials, controlling water, being patient, and embracing spontaneity, ensures a successful watercolor painting.

By following these golden rules and avoiding common mistakes, you can elevate your skills and create stunning watercolor masterpieces that truly capture the essence of your subject. In this article, we will explore the most important rules and mistakes to keep in mind as you embark on your watercolor journey.

Golden Rules of Watercolor

Rule 1: Choose the right materials

Quality of watercolor paper, paints, and brushes

The foundation of any great watercolor painting lies in the materials you choose. Investing in high-quality watercolor paper, paints, and brushes can significantly impact your final result.

While it might be tempting to save money on cheaper alternatives, you’ll find that professional-grade materials provide better performance and longevity.

Watercolor paper comes in various textures, weights, and formats. Heavyweight, acid-free, and 100% cotton paper is ideal for watercolor painting, as it can handle the moisture and maintain its integrity.

Cold-pressed paper offers a medium texture suitable for most techniques, while hot-pressed paper is smooth, perfect for fine details.

When it comes to paints, opt for artist-grade watercolors, which have higher pigment concentration and better lightfastness.

These paints produce more vibrant and lasting colors than their student-grade counterparts.

Additionally, selecting quality brushes made from natural or synthetic fibers ensures better control and paint distribution, enhancing your overall painting experience.

I’ve covered all the quality materials in three separate articles:

Be sure to check these out!

Quality of watercolor paper, paints, and brushes

Rule 2: Control the water

Balancing water and paint

One of the most challenging aspects of watercolor painting is controlling the water-to-paint ratio.

Too much water can result in washed-out colors, while too little can make it difficult to achieve smooth transitions. It’s essential to find the right balance to create the desired effects.

Experimenting with different amounts of water and paint on a scrap piece of watercolor paper can help you develop a better understanding of how to achieve various effects.

Wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques

Two primary techniques in watercolor painting are wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry. Wet-on-wet involves applying wet paint to a wet surface, allowing colors to blend and flow naturally.

This technique is perfect for creating soft backgrounds, gradients, and loose, expressive strokes.

Wet-on-dry, on the other hand, involves applying wet paint to a dry surface, resulting in more control and defined edges. Knowing when to use each technique can significantly enhance your paintings.

Rule 3: Work from light to dark

Importance of preserving white space

Watercolor is a transparent medium, meaning that the white of the paper plays a significant role in creating highlights and light areas.

When planning your composition, consider the areas you want to keep white or light, as it’s challenging to regain these areas once they’re covered with paint.

Using a light pencil or masking fluid can help you preserve these spaces.

Layering and glazing

To create depth and richness in your watercolor paintings, work from light to dark, gradually building up layers of color.

This process, known as glazing, involves applying thin, transparent layers of paint atop one another, allowing each layer to dry before adding the next.

This technique creates luminous and complex colors, adding dimension to your artwork.

Layering and Glazing Watercolor Techniques
Picture Credit: The Mind of Watercolor on

Rule 4: Be patient

Allowing layers to dry

Patience is crucial when working with watercolor. Rushing the process or applying new layers before the previous ones have dried can result in muddy colors and unwanted blending.

Take your time, and allow each layer to dry completely before proceeding. Using a hairdryer can speed up the drying process if needed.

Avoiding overworking the painting

Overworking a watercolor painting can cause the paper to become damaged or the colors to appear dull and muddy. It’s essential to know when to stop and allow the painting to stand on its own.

Sometimes, less is more, and a few well-placed brushstrokes can convey more than excessive detail.

Avoiding overworking the painting
Picture Credit: NVfineARTstudio on

Rule 5: Embrace spontaneity and imperfections

Capturing the essence of the subject

Watercolor painting is known for its expressive and spontaneous nature. Embracing this aspect of the medium can lead to stunning and unique artwork.

Instead of striving for photorealism or perfection, focus on capturing the essence of your subject.

Experiment with loose brushstrokes, expressive washes, and bold color choices to create paintings that evoke emotion and tell a story.

Letting accidents become artistic features

One of the most exciting aspects of watercolor painting is the unpredictable nature of the medium.

You might find that happy accidents, such as unexpected color bleeds or blooms, can add character and interest to your artwork.

Instead of trying to fix these perceived imperfections, consider incorporating them into your painting and turning them into artistic features.

This approach can lead to more organic and dynamic compositions, setting your work apart from others.

Rule 6: Don’t overload the brush with paint

A common mistake many watercolor artists make is overloading their brush with paint, which can lead to heavy, uneven application and a lack of control over the painting process.

To avoid this issue, always ensure you wipe off excess paint on the edge of your palette or a paper towel.

This technique allows you to apply paint in thin, controlled layers, preventing the paper from becoming oversaturated.

Rule 7: Plan the composition

Jumping into a painting without carefully planning the composition can result in an imbalanced or cluttered artwork.

To avoid this pitfall, take the time to sketch out your composition lightly on the watercolor paper before beginning to paint. Consider the rule of thirds, focal points, and negative space as you plan your piece.

A well-thought-out composition will make your painting more visually appealing and harmonious.

Rule 8: Don’t overwork or scrub the paper

Overworking or scrubbing the paper with your brush can damage the paper’s surface, resulting in a rough texture and dull colors.

To prevent this, apply your brushstrokes with a gentle touch and avoid excessive back-and-forth motion.

If you need to lift color from the paper, use a clean, damp brush to gently dab the area, then blot with a paper towel to remove the moisture.

This technique helps preserve the paper’s integrity and ensures a smooth, clean finish.

Rule 9: Clean your brushes between colors

Failing to clean your brushes between colors can cause unintentional color mixing and muddy results.

To maintain the vibrancy and clarity of your colors, rinse your brush thoroughly in clean water before switching to a new color.

A dedicated brush cleaning container with multiple compartments can help keep your water fresh and prevent color contamination.

Clean your brushes between colors
Picture Credit: The Mind of Watercolor on

Rule 10: Practice, practice, practice

As with any art form, the key to improving your watercolor technique is consistent practice. Dedicate time each day or week to painting, even if it’s just for a short period.

Remember that progress may be slow, but each painting you create will contribute to your growth as an artist.

As you practice, be patient with yourself and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem.

Rule 11: Experiment with different techniques and materials

One of the best ways to expand your watercolor skills is to experiment with various techniques and materials.

Try different types of paper, brushes, and paint to discover what works best for your unique style.

Explore new techniques such as wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, glazing, and lifting to add depth and dimension to your paintings.

By stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing experimentation, you can unlock new creative possibilities and enhance your artistic expression.

Rule 12:  Learn from other artists and resources

Learning from other artists and resources can provide valuable insights and inspiration for your watercolor journey.

Attend workshops, watch online tutorials, or join a local watercolor group to benefit from the knowledge and experience of fellow artists.

Study the work of renowned watercolorists and analyze their techniques to incorporate elements into your own paintings.

Additionally, books, blogs, and social media platforms can offer tips, tricks, and inspiration from a diverse range of artists worldwide.


Mastering the art of watercolor painting involves following golden rules, such as choosing the right materials, controlling water, working from light to dark, being patient, and embracing spontaneity and imperfections.

By being mindful of common mistakes and implementing the tips shared in this article, you can refine your technique and create captivating artwork.

Remember, the key to success lies in practice, experimentation, and learning from others.

Embrace the journey and enjoy the process, as each painting brings you closer to becoming a more skilled and confident watercolor artist.

Mehak Verma

I love creating both traditional and digital watercolour art. Why? As a kid, transitioning from sketch pens to paint brushes and water soluble colours was a big deal. Hope you find what you're looking for on my website.

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