Some people think that, in the art world, watercolour paints are the equivalent of swimming in the kiddie pool.

How many of you can recall sitting at a table, early in your primary education, gleefully smearing cerulean blue and cadmium yellow on a piece of craft paper, ostensibly depicting a sunny sky?

There might have been a house, a few stick figures – your family, and perhaps a tree, all standing on blindingly green grass.

In our Early Years/Nursery School, we were all watercolour artists.

Perhaps that is why there is such derision heaped on watercolor painting; scorn that is not in the least deserved. The fact is, painting with watercolors is more challenging than working with oil paints or acrylic paints.

Their thicker consistencies and the fact that they don’t readily absorb into canvas make those paints easier to control. Even gouache, with its gum arabic binder, is easier to paint with than paints that consist solely of pigment and water.

Artist and painter Eleanor Crow should know; she works well with oils but it is her collection of London’s classic storefronts, all painted with watercolours, that have made the news this week.

So rich are her colours, so vibrant her work that you may be tempted to take up watercolour painting yourself!

Enter Superprof: we have listed tips, tricks and techniques, as well as resources you could draw on to help you master one of the most fundamental forms of visual art: watercolour painting.

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Watercolour Painting for Beginners

By invoking your presumed ‘beginner’ status, we’re operating under the premise that you are probably not an art student headed towards a brilliant future of exhibits and the possible inclusion of your work into the Royal Collection Trust.

If you were that artist, you would probably already know everything there is to know about the paintbrush, watercolors and painting techniques!

Whether you propose to wield a brush for fun or profit (or for grades, just now), surely these points will give you food for thought.

Has your water colour art ever looked this good?
Did your primary school watercolor art look this good? Image by Prawny from Pixabay

Buying Supplies

Start out with a kid’s paint set, just to see if you like it – Marjorie

If you are like most people, you want to try things out before dedicating yourself wholly to their pursuit. In that sense, Ms Marjorie’s advice could be well-founded.

On the other hand, the very nature of watercolour painting, it’s particular difficulties and idiosyncracies fairly demand that you spend a bit more than a pound or two on paints and paper.

Watercolor paper is the perfect base upon which to build our argument.

Let’s try an experiment: grab a sheet of copy paper out of your computer’s printer. If you don’t have such paper, go for tearing a sheet out of a notebook. Now, wet your fingers and run them along the paper’s surface, as though you were fingerpainting and watch what happens.

This type of paper’s surface is resistant to water; it will not absorb colour well, making it harder to keep the paint where you want it. Worse: if you tape this paper to an easel so that you can work standing up, you will find that the water literally runs off of the page!

If you leave the wet paper for just a moment, you’ll find it will start buckling, creating a wavy effect that will impact your final image’s look.

Even using craft paper, slightly heavier and more absorbent, you end up with the same nightmare scenario.

Watercolour paper is specially designed to absorb a degree of moisture while maintaining a flat surface. Furthermore, its texture and thickness are designed to work with watercolour paint.

There are two broad categories of watercolour paper to choose from: students’ quality and artists’ quality. The latter is acid-free and meant to withstand the test of time; the former is better suited to the fledgeling artist. It also costs a bit less.

Paints also come in students’ and artists’ grades.

Students’ paints are less expensive because they pack more fillers and binders in them; they are not quite as richly pigmented as professional-grade watercolour paint. Again, if you are just trying your hand at watercolour painting to see if you enjoy it, students' paints would be sufficient.

As for brushes, there are different grades here, too. You may bypass the top-of-the-line Kolinsky sables for now; a synthetic bristle brush would suffice for you to determine whether you want to continue painting with watercolours.

Once you’ve made that determination, you could make your second round of brush-buying from the natural-bristles selection.

In making these suggestions, we take a page from Jerry’s experiences with watercolours.

His mother, being a painter herself, took him shopping for supplies at Winsor-Newton. He staggered home with armloads of high-priced watercolor paint and tools only to discover, after trying his hand at it, that he didn’t have the patience for water colors.

Fortunately, he could give his mother all of those costly supplies; who would you give yours to if you found you didn’t like to paint with watercolours?

Maybe, if Jerry had known how to start painting with watercolours, he would have enjoyed painting with them...

Gradation is a useful technique in watercolor art
Gradation, going to progressively darker shades, is a watercolor technique every aspiring painter should master Image by JL G from Pixabay

Watercolour Techniques for Beginners

Did you watch The Big Painting Challenge on BBC 1 last year?

Watercolour artists make it look so easy, don’t they? From landscape painting to portraiture, they make art on paper seem effortless.

They are only able to to that because they spent hours mastering watercolour techniques like dry-brush and wet-on-wet – brushing your paper with clear water before applying any colour. They know how to block out white spaces using masking fluid and which order they should apply their paint.

Did you know that, if oil or acrylic paint is your medium, it is common to paint the dark colours first but when painting with watercolours, you should paint light colours first?

In part, the reason for that is that it is difficult to cover dark colours with lighter ones, making the light-before-dark technique one that beginner watercolour painters quickly adopt.

Of course, painting light before dark calls for you to visualise which parts of your design will be light and which ones will be dark; to that end, sketching your design would help tremendously. Then, you could paint those translucent burnt sienna flowers before the dark green foliage.

What if you accidentally end up with forest green paint on your previously-painted yellow flowers?

You can use several techniques to correct that mistake:

  • Lifting: using a clean brush, a paper towel or a sponge, simply ‘lift’ the offending droplet away
    • This technique is also called ‘scrubbing’
  • Scraping: using a razor blade or painting knife, remove the unwanted paint
  • Use a Magic Eraser – amazingly effective!
  • Use Watercolor Ground: essentially a type of liquid paper, it will restore your ill-placed blotches to white; just remember to repaint the flower after it dries!

No one says that you have to learn watercolor techniques; if all you’re looking for is an outlet for stress, you may enjoy wantonly flicking droplets of paint onto your paper – yes, that too is a painting technique.

However, if you are serious about learning watercolour painting, then picking up on the various techniques such as washes, dry-versus wet methods of painting and gradating will help you advance as a watercolor artist.

This combination of ultramarine, greys and white is deceptively hard to paint
Watercolor paintings such as these are deceptively complex to paint! Image by Rosa Palma from Pixabay

Watercolour Painting Tutorials and Resources

Any information you’re looking for, you can find online, including watercolor tutorials.

That doesn’t mean that the content available online should be the sole, go-to resource for beginner painters. You may, for instance, consider learning how to paint with watercolours guided by a Superprof tutor!

What got you interested in painting with watercolours?

Did you see an advert for classes at your community centre, supermarket or library? Or, perhaps, one sleepless night, idly cycling through YouTube, you came across a video of an artist dabbing paint on paper while relaxing music played in the background?

Indeed, there are plenty of YouTube channels targeted to the novice watercolour painter. They will be a great guide as you progress in mastering this art form but, first, you should learn a bit about it from a more concrete source: books.

Some might snort in derision at this suggestion; what special benefit does a book provide that one cannot gain from online resources – including digital books?

They are quite right; there is nothing wrong with online resources or digital books. One should use that argument carefully though, lest it is countered with: why work with watercolour paints when you could learn how to use Photoshop brushes and create digital art?

With that point succinctly made, let us introduce the book that takes top marks for us: The Tao of Watercolor by Jeanne Carbonetti.

You know how athletes talk about ‘the zone’ they get in to deliver a superior performance? This book does the same for watercolour painters; it helps them fully immerse themselves into the art of watercolour, letting the work itself become the path of inspiration.

This is by no means the only book on watercolour painting to be had; likewise, recommending only books would narrow the focus of learning how to paint with watercolours to the perspective of those artists who have written books.

That is why we have a whole article devoted to the subject of tutorials and resources; let us know if we can help you further, won’t you?

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