Watercolor Painting for Beginners | Your Step-by-step Guide


“You don’t need to create masterpieces from day one. Your ‘best works’ will never be masterpieces. Your masterpieces would be the ones you’ll hardly put much thought into.” These are the three pieces of advice I wish I could drill into every beginner watercolorist’s head. I’ve experienced the joy and satisfaction that comes from working with these vibrant, fluid colors. But the most important thing is to enjoy!

A beginner should start with watercolor painting by gathering essential materials, learning basic techniques, understanding color theory, practicing brush control, and exploring washes. Additionally, study composition principles, follow step-by-step guides, and practice regularly.

In this beginner’s guide, I’ll share my insights, tips, and personal experiences to help you embark on your own watercolor journey without stressing yourself out. Whether you’re a complete novice or looking to expand your artistic horizons, watercolor painting can be an exciting and rewarding way to unleash your inner artist.

Materials Needed for Watercolor Painting

Embarking on your watercolor painting journey requires a basic understanding of the essential materials you’ll need to get started.

Having the right tools at your disposal will make your learning process smoother and more enjoyable.

In this section, we’ll cover the primary materials needed for watercolor painting, including paints, brushes, paper, palette, water container, and paper towels or cloth.

1. Watercolor paints

Watercolor paints come in various forms, such as tubes, pans, or liquid concentrates.

When starting out, it’s a good idea to invest in a basic set of watercolor paints containing primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), as well as a few secondary and tertiary colors.

You can mix these colors to create a wide range of hues. As you gain more experience, you can expand your color palette by adding more specialized shades.

There are two main types of watercolor paints: artist-grade and student-grade. Artist-grade paints offer higher quality pigments and better lightfastness, which means they won’t fade as quickly over time.

However, they can be more expensive. Student-grade paints are more affordable and suitable for beginners, but they might not have the same vibrancy and permanence as artist-grade paints.

Do check out my article on the Best Watercolor Paints.

Watercolor paints

2. Brushes

Brushes are a crucial component of watercolor painting, as they directly impact the application of paint onto the paper.

There is a wide variety of brush types, sizes, and shapes to choose from, each designed for specific purposes.

For beginners, it’s advisable to start with a few basic brushes, such as a round brush (sizes 4, 8, and 12), a flat brush (1-inch width), and a detail brush (size 0 or 1).

Brushes can be made from natural hair, synthetic fibers, or a blend of both. Natural hair brushes, such as those made from sable or squirrel, tend to hold more water and paint, providing a smoother flow.

Synthetic brushes are more affordable and durable, but they might not hold as much water or paint as natural hair brushes.

My article on the Best Watercolor Brushes will help you choose a great brush!

3. Paper

The quality of watercolor paper plays a significant role in how your painting turns out. Watercolor paper is specifically designed to absorb water and pigments without warping or deteriorating.

There are three main types of watercolor paper: hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough.

Hot-pressed paper has a smooth surface, while cold-pressed paper features a slightly textured surface, and rough paper has the most texture.

When choosing watercolor paper, you should also consider the paper’s weight, which is measured in pounds (lbs) or grams per square meter (gsm).

Heavier paper can handle more water without buckling or warping. For beginners, it’s recommended to start with cold-pressed paper with a weight of at least 140 lbs (300 gsm).

My article on the Best Watercolor Papers will guide you toward a reliable one.

4. Palette

A palette is essential for mixing and controlling the amount of paint you apply to your brush. Palettes can be made from various materials, including plastic, porcelain, and metal.

For beginners, a simple plastic palette with multiple wells for different colors and a mixing area is an affordable and practical choice.

As you progress, you might want to invest in a more durable palette, like porcelain, which allows for smoother color mixing and is easier to clean.

5. Water container

A water container is necessary for cleaning your brushes and thinning your paints. You can use any container that can hold water, such as a jar, mug, or plastic container.

It’s a good idea to have at least two containers: one for clean water and another for rinsing your brushes. This will help you avoid contaminating your clean water with pigments from your brushes.

6. Paper towels or cloth

When working with watercolor paints, it’s important to have paper towels or a cloth handy for blotting your brushes, wiping up spills, and controlling the amount of water on your brush.

Keeping a clean, dry paper towel or cloth nearby allows you to quickly remove excess paint or water from your brush, which can help prevent unintended drips or overly wet brush strokes.

Additionally, you can use a paper towel or cloth to lift paint from your paper if you need to correct a mistake or create a specific texture or effect.

Basic Watercolor Techniques

Mastering a few fundamental watercolor techniques will provide a strong foundation for your artistic journey.

As you practice and experiment with these methods, you’ll develop your unique style and approach to painting. Here are five essential watercolor techniques every beginner should know:

1. Wet-on-wet technique

The wet-on-wet technique involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface. To execute this method, first dampen your paper with clean water using a brush or a spray bottle.

Then, load your brush with diluted paint and gently apply it to the wet surface. The paint will spread and blend naturally, creating soft, diffused edges and beautiful color gradients.

This technique is ideal for creating atmospheric backgrounds, skies, or water reflections. The wet-on-wet method allows for organic color blending and flow, resulting in an expressive, loose appearance.

Keep in mind that controlling the paint and water ratio is crucial when using this technique to prevent unwanted bleeding or pooling of colors.

Wet-on-Wet Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: Kirsty Partridge Art on YouTube.com

2. Wet-on-dry technique

In contrast to the wet-on-wet method, the wet-on-dry technique involves applying wet paint onto a dry surface.

This technique provides more control over the paint application, allowing for sharper, more defined edges and shapes.

To perform the wet-on-dry technique, load your brush with paint and apply it directly to dry paper.

Wet-on-dry is perfect for adding details, outlining shapes, or painting elements that require precision.

Since the paint doesn’t spread as much as in the wet-on-wet technique, you can achieve cleaner lines and more distinct color separations.

Wet-on-Dry Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: Jenna Rainey on YouTube.com

3. Dry brush technique

The dry brush technique entails using a brush with minimal water and paint to create textured, rough strokes on the paper.

To use this method, load your brush with paint, then remove most of the moisture by blotting it on a paper towel or cloth.

Next, lightly drag the brush across the paper’s surface, allowing the bristles to skim the paper’s texture.

This technique is excellent for suggesting texture, such as tree bark, grass, or rough surfaces. By varying the pressure and angle of your brush, you can achieve a wide range of effects and textures.

Dry brushing
Picture Credit: Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff on YouTube.com

4. Layering

Layering, or glazing, involves applying multiple transparent layers of paint to create depth and complexity in your painting. To layer your watercolors, first paint a wash and allow it to dry completely.

Then, apply another thin, transparent layer of paint over the first wash. Repeat this process as needed, allowing each layer to dry before adding the next.

Layering allows you to build up color intensity, create subtle color shifts, and add dimension to your artwork.

By using transparent layers, you can achieve a luminous, glowing effect as the light passes through the layers and reflects off the paper.

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

5. Lifting

Lifting is the process of removing paint from your paper to create highlights, correct mistakes, or alter the painting’s appearance.

To lift paint, dampen a clean, dry brush or a paper towel with water and gently press it onto the area you want to lighten. Then, lift the brush or paper towel straight up, removing some of the paint in the process.

Lifting Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: Maria Raczynska on YouTube.com

Understanding Color Theory

Color theory is a fundamental aspect of any form of visual art, and watercolor painting is no exception.

A basic understanding of color theory will enable you to mix colors effectively, create harmonious color schemes, and evoke specific moods in your paintings.

In this section, we’ll discuss primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, color mixing, and warm and cool colors.

1. Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors

Primary colors are the building blocks of all other colors and cannot be created by mixing other hues. In traditional color theory, the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.

When you mix two primary colors, you create secondary colors. For example, mixing red and blue produces purple, blue and yellow create green, and red and yellow result in orange.

Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary color with an adjacent secondary color, such as red-orange or blue-green.

2. Color mixing and creating harmonious color schemes

When you start with a basic set of primary colors, you can mix them to create a vast range of hues.

Understanding how colors relate to one another is essential for creating harmonious color schemes in your paintings.

A color wheel, a circular diagram that displays the relationships between colors, can be a helpful tool for visualizing these connections.

There are several approaches to creating color harmony in your artwork.

Some common methods include analogous color schemes (colors that are next to each other on the color wheel), complementary color schemes (colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel), and triadic color schemes (three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel).

3. Warm and cool colors

Colors can be categorized as either warm or cool, based on their perceived temperature. Warm colors, such as red, orange, and yellow, are often associated with heat, energy, and excitement.

Cool colors, like blue, green, and purple, evoke feelings of calm, tranquility, and freshness.

Understanding the emotional impact of warm and cool colors can help you make deliberate choices about the colors you use in your paintings.

For example, a landscape with warm, golden hues can create a sense of warmth and sunlight, while a scene with cool blues and greens can convey a serene, peaceful atmosphere.

Warm and cool colors

Brush Handling and Control

Developing good brush handling and control is essential for successful watercolor painting. Mastering various techniques will enable you to create different textures, shapes, and effects in your artwork.

In this section, we’ll discuss different types of brushes and their uses, holding the brush for various strokes, and pressure and angle techniques.

1. Different types of brushes and their uses

There are several types of brushes to choose from, each designed for specific purposes. Here are a few common brush types and their uses:

Round brushes: These versatile brushes have a pointed tip and can hold a good amount of water and paint. They are suitable for creating fine lines, broad strokes, and washes.

Flat brushes: These brushes have a flat, rectangular shape and are excellent for creating straight edges, bold strokes, and large washes.

Detail brushes: These small, fine-pointed brushes are perfect for adding intricate details and delicate lines to your paintings.

Experimenting with different brush types will help you discover their unique capabilities and determine which ones best suit your painting style.

2. Holding the brush for various strokes

The way you hold your brush greatly affects the strokes you create. For delicate lines and fine details, hold the brush close to the bristles, similar to how you would hold a pen or pencil.

For broader strokes and washes, hold the brush further back, near the end of the handle. This will allow for a looser, more fluid stroke.

3. Pressure and angle techniques

Varying the pressure and angle of your brush can produce a wide range of effects and textures. Applying light pressure and holding the brush at a higher angle will result in thin, delicate lines.

Conversely, using more pressure and holding the brush at a lower angle will create broader, more substantial strokes.

Experiment with different pressures and angles to see how they impact the marks you make on the paper.

This will help you develop a better understanding of how to achieve specific effects and textures in your paintings.

Painting with Different Types of Washes

Watercolor washes are a fundamental technique used to apply paint to the paper, creating a smooth, even layer of color or a gradual transition between colors.

Mastering various wash techniques will allow you to achieve a wide range of effects and moods in your paintings.

In this section, we’ll discuss three main types of washes: flat wash, graded wash, and variegated wash.

1. Flat wash

A flat wash is an even layer of color applied uniformly across the paper.

To create a flat wash, start by mixing a sufficient amount of paint with water in your palette, ensuring the mixture is consistent and smooth.

Using a flat or round brush, apply the paint to the paper in horizontal strokes, working from top to bottom.

Be sure to maintain a consistent level of paint and water on your brush to achieve a smooth, uniform wash.

Flat washes are ideal for painting large areas of color, such as skies, backgrounds, or large shapes.

The even application of color provides a clean, uncluttered appearance that allows other elements in your painting to stand out.

Flat Wash Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: The Mind of Watercolor on YouTube.com

2. Graded wash

A graded wash is a gradual transition from a saturated color to a lighter, more diluted version of the same color or even to a different color.

To create a graded wash, begin by applying a well-mixed paint to the paper using horizontal strokes.

As you work your way down the paper, gradually add more water to the paint mixture on your palette, diluting the color. This will create a smooth transition in your wash.

Graded washes are excellent for creating depth and atmosphere in landscapes, skies, and backgrounds. The gradual shift in color can suggest changes in light or create a sense of distance.

Graded Wash Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: ANH Art on YouTube.com

3. Variegated wash

A variegated wash is a blend of two or more colors that smoothly transition into one another. To create a variegated wash, start by applying one color to the paper using horizontal strokes.

While the paint is still wet, introduce a second color by blending it into the first color’s edge. Continue to work your way down the paper, allowing the colors to mix and transition naturally.

Variegated washes are perfect for depicting colorful skies, sunsets, or any situation where you want to achieve a harmonious blend of colors.

This technique adds visual interest and can evoke a sense of movement or energy in your painting.

Variegated Wash Watercolor Technique
Picture Credit: Louise De Masi on YouTube.com

Basic Composition Principles

Understanding and applying basic composition principles can greatly enhance the visual appeal and impact of your watercolor paintings.

A well-composed painting engages the viewer and guides their eye through the artwork. In this section, we’ll discuss the rule of thirds, focal points and visual balance, and creating depth and perspective.

1. Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition guideline that helps create visual interest and balance in your artwork.

To apply the rule of thirds, imagine your painting divided into nine equal sections by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines.

The intersections of these lines are called “power points,” and they serve as ideal locations to place key elements of your composition.

By positioning the main subject or focal point along these lines or at their intersections, you create a sense of balance and harmony in your painting.

This technique prevents your composition from feeling too static or centered and can lead to a more engaging and dynamic artwork.

2. Focal points and visual balance

Establishing a clear focal point in your painting helps guide the viewer’s eye and provides a point of interest.

A focal point can be a dominant element, such as a figure, building, or tree, or an area of contrast in color, value, or texture.

When arranging the elements of your composition, consider their visual weight and balance.

Distribute the elements in a way that maintains visual balance and prevents the painting from feeling lopsided or disjointed.

3. Creating depth and perspective

Incorporating depth and perspective in your watercolor paintings can create a more realistic and immersive experience for the viewer.

To achieve depth, use techniques such as atmospheric perspective, which involves using cooler, lighter colors and less detail for objects in the distance.

This mimics the natural way that light and atmosphere affect our perception of distance.

Linear perspective, which relies on converging lines that recede towards a vanishing point, is another method to create the illusion of depth.

Utilizing size and scale, overlapping elements, and variation in value and detail can also contribute to a sense of depth and three-dimensionality in your paintings.

Step-by-Step Guide for a Beginner Watercolor Painting

Embarking on your watercolor painting journey can be an exciting and rewarding experience.

The following step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of creating a beginner watercolor painting, from preparing your workspace to adding the finishing touches.

Step 1: Preparing your workspace

Before you begin painting, it’s essential to set up a comfortable and organized workspace.

Ensure you have all the necessary materials at hand, including watercolor paints, brushes, paper, a palette, a water container, and paper towels or a cloth.

Find a well-lit area with enough space for your materials, and consider using a table easel or a board to prop up your watercolor paper at a slight angle to prevent pooling of water and paint.

Step 2: Choosing a subject and creating a sketch

Select a subject for your painting that inspires and motivates you. It can be a landscape, still life, or even a portrait. Start by creating a light pencil sketch of your chosen subject on the watercolor paper.

Keep your lines loose and light, as you’ll be painting over them later. If you’re unsure about composition, remember to apply basic principles like the rule of thirds, focal points, and visual balance.

Step 3: Applying the first wash

Begin by applying a flat or graded wash to establish the base colors and tones of your painting.

For a flat wash, mix a consistent, smooth paint mixture on your palette and apply it to the paper using horizontal strokes.

For a graded wash, start with a saturated color and gradually add more water as you work down the paper, creating a smooth transition.

Allow the first wash to dry completely before moving on to the next step.

Step 4: Building up layers and adding details

Once the initial wash is dry, begin building up layers and adding details to your painting.

Use a variety of watercolor techniques, such as wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, and dry brush, to create different textures and effects.

Start with lighter colors and gradually build up to darker shades, being mindful of preserving the light areas of your painting.

During this stage, focus on defining shapes, adding shadows and highlights, and refining your composition.

Remember to be patient and allow each layer to dry before applying the next one to avoid unwanted color mixing and muddy results.

Step 4 Building up layers and adding details

Step 5: Finishing touches and evaluating your painting

As you near the completion of your painting, take a step back and evaluate your work. Identify areas that may need some final adjustments, such as adding contrast, deepening shadows, or refining details.

Use a fine detail brush to make any necessary finishing touches.

Once you’re satisfied with your painting, allow it to dry completely before removing it from the easel or board.

Take a moment to reflect on your creative process and what you’ve learned throughout your painting journey. Every painting you create will provide you with valuable insights and help you grow as an artist.

Drying Techniques and Controlling the Drying Process

In watercolor painting, managing the drying process is essential to achieving the desired effects and preventing unwanted outcomes.

Understanding how to control the drying process will help you maintain the integrity of your artwork and refine your techniques.

In this section, we’ll discuss speeding up drying with a hairdryer, controlling wetness to avoid unwanted effects, and working in different humidity levels.

1. Speeding up drying with a hairdryer

If you’re in a hurry or need a specific area of your painting to dry quickly, using a hairdryer can be a helpful solution.

Set the hairdryer to a low or medium heat setting and hold it at a safe distance from the paper (approximately 12 inches) to prevent damaging your artwork.

Move the hairdryer in a consistent back-and-forth motion, ensuring even drying. Be cautious not to blow the paint around, as it may cause unwanted blending or smudging.

2. Controlling wetness to avoid unwanted effects

Managing the wetness of your paper and paint is crucial to achieve the desired effects in watercolor painting.

Too much water can lead to paint bleeding, while too little water can result in uneven washes or hard edges. To control wetness, pay attention to the amount of water on your brush and the paper’s surface.

Use a paper towel or cloth to remove excess water from your brush before applying paint. If you notice puddles forming on the paper, gently lift the excess water using a dry brush or a paper towel.

Practicing these techniques will help you avoid unwanted effects and maintain control over your painting.

3. Working in different humidity levels

The drying process in watercolor painting can be influenced by the surrounding humidity levels.

In high humidity, your paint may take longer to dry, which can be both advantageous and challenging, depending on your desired outcome.

Slower drying times allow for more time to blend colors and create smooth transitions but may also result in unwanted blending if not managed carefully.

In low humidity, your paint will dry faster, making it more challenging to blend colors and achieve smooth washes.

To counteract the effects of low humidity, try using a spray bottle to mist the paper lightly or incorporate more water into your paint mixture.

You can read more about watercolor and drying times in my article on How Long Does It Take For Watercolor To Dry?

Tips for Improving Your Watercolor Skills

Becoming proficient in watercolor painting requires patience, dedication, and a willingness to learn.

As you progress on your artistic journey, it’s essential to continuously refine your skills and explore new techniques.

Here are some valuable tips to help you improve your watercolor skills and unlock your full artistic potential.

1. Practice regularly

Consistent practice is the key to improving your watercolor skills. Set aside dedicated time to paint and make it a regular part of your routine.

By practicing regularly, you’ll become more familiar with the medium, build muscle memory, and develop a better understanding of how to control the paint and achieve various effects.

As you continue to paint, you’ll discover your strengths and areas where you need improvement, which will guide your growth as an artist.

Practice regularly

2. Observe and learn from other artists

Learning from other artists can be an invaluable source of inspiration and knowledge. Study the works of watercolor artists you admire, and analyze their techniques, color choices, and composition styles.

I have an article on the most expensive watercolor artists to get you started.

Attend workshops, classes, or watch online tutorials to expand your knowledge and learn new techniques.

Engaging with the artistic community through social media or local art groups can also provide you with valuable insights and feedback.

3. Experiment with different techniques and materials

Exploring various techniques and materials will broaden your understanding of watercolor and encourage you to step outside your comfort zone.

Try working with different types of brushes, papers, and paint brands to discover what works best for you.

Experiment with various techniques such as wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, and dry brush to create diverse textures and effects in your paintings.

By pushing your boundaries and taking risks, you’ll uncover new possibilities and develop a unique artistic voice.

4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Embrace the fact that making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process. Instead of fearing errors, view them as opportunities to grow and refine your skills.

When you encounter challenges or are unsatisfied with the outcome of a painting, take the time to analyze what went wrong and determine how you can improve.

Keep a positive mindset and remember that each mistake brings you one step closer to becoming a more skilled and confident watercolor artist.

Preserving and Displaying Your Finished Artwork

Once you’ve completed a watercolor painting, it’s essential to preserve and display it properly to ensure its longevity and showcase your artistic achievements.

In this section, we’ll discuss fixing mistakes and imperfections, proper storage of watercolor paintings, and framing and matting options.

1. Fixing mistakes and imperfections

Even experienced artists may encounter mistakes or imperfections in their finished artwork.

If you notice small errors, such as stray paint splatters or uneven edges, try using a clean, damp brush or a small piece of sponge to gently lift the paint.

For more significant issues, you can consider carefully cutting or tearing the paper to remove the affected area, or use an opaque paint or gouache to cover up the mistake.

2. Proper storage of watercolor paintings

To preserve the quality of your watercolor paintings, proper storage is crucial. Store your artwork in a cool, dry, and dark environment to prevent fading and discoloration.

Place acid-free tissue paper or glassine paper between each painting to prevent them from sticking together or transferring color.

Avoid stacking paintings under heavy objects, as this may cause creasing or damage to the paper. If possible, store your paintings in a dedicated art portfolio or archival storage box for added protection.

Proper storage of watercolor paintings
Picture Credit: Lorraine Watry on YouTube.com

3. Framing and matting options

Framing and matting your watercolor paintings not only enhances their visual appeal but also helps protect them from environmental factors.

When choosing a frame, opt for one made of acid-free materials to prevent yellowing or deterioration of the paper over time.

Use UV-protective glass or acrylic glazing to shield your artwork from harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause fading.

Matting is an essential aspect of framing watercolor paintings, as it provides a barrier between the artwork and the glazing, preventing condensation or moisture buildup.

Select acid-free matting materials to preserve the integrity of your painting. Choose a mat color that complements your artwork and enhances its visual impact.

Double or triple matting can add depth and sophistication to your framed piece.

Finding Inspiration and Staying Motivated

As a watercolor artist, maintaining inspiration and motivation is essential for continued growth and progress.

It’s not uncommon to encounter creative roadblocks, but there are numerous strategies you can employ to reignite your passion and stay on track.

In this section, we’ll explore using reference images or painting from life, participating in online art communities, and setting personal goals and challenges.

1. Using reference images or painting from life

Inspiration can be found all around you, and one way to tap into this is by using reference images or painting from life.

Observing and capturing the world around you can provide a fresh perspective and spark new ideas. Try taking photographs during your travels, visiting local parks, or simply exploring your own backyard.

Alternatively, you can find a wealth of reference images online or in books, magazines, and other media.

Experiment with various subjects, from landscapes and cityscapes to still lives and portraits, to keep your artistic endeavors diverse and stimulating.

2. Participating in online art communities

Joining online art communities can be a powerful source of motivation and support. Share your work, exchange feedback, and discuss techniques with fellow artists from around the world.

Social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, as well as dedicated art forums and websites, offer countless opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals.

Engaging with others who share your passion can inspire you, challenge your abilities, and help you develop your artistic voice.

3. Setting personal goals and challenges

Setting personal goals and challenges can provide a clear sense of direction and purpose in your artistic journey.

Establish both short-term and long-term objectives that are realistic, achievable, and aligned with your aspirations.

Consider participating in art challenges, such as daily or weekly prompts, or create your own customized challenge tailored to your interests and skill level.

Track your progress, celebrate your accomplishments, and use setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow.

Conclusion

Watercolor painting is a rewarding and expressive art form that offers endless possibilities for creativity and growth.

As you embark on your artistic journey, remember to remain patient, persistent, and open to new experiences.

Embrace the challenges and joys of watercolor, and continue exploring this captivating medium.

With practice and dedication, you’ll unlock your full potential and create stunning works of art that reflect your unique perspective and talent. Happy painting!

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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