Watercolor Painting Tips for Beginners

Buying the right brushes and watercolor paper is key

Watercolor paints

D. Sharon Pruitt Pink Sherbet Photography / Getty Images

Many people shy away from watercolor painting because they fear that it is too difficult. Watercolor painting can be challenging at first, but it is easy and inexpensive to get started: All you need are paint, water, and a brush. Whether you choose to use watercolor as your primary artistic medium or as a study for an oil or acrylic painting, the rewards of this somewhat unpredictable medium are great. Become a proficient watercolor painter by learning about the supplies, techniques, and tricks that even accomplished artists use.

Paints and Brushes

Watercolor paint comes in three different forms: liquid, tube, and pan. You can start with any kind, but sets of pan paints are compact, portable, and offer an array of colors. All the paints you need are packaged in one set, so you won't have to buy your paint color by color.

Watercolor brushes typically have soft, long hairs made specifically to work with a watery medium. Natural fiber brushes—such as sable or squirrel—are best, but these are scarce and expensive. High-quality soft, synthetic brushes are available that are much less costly. Brushes come in many sizes and shapes, but you only need one or two larger flat brushes for laying a wash and several round brushes of different sizes for details. For example, a No. 12 round, No. 10 round, No. 6 round, and a couple of flat, 1-inch brushes would be sufficient.

Before investing in expensive, high-quality brushes, try a less costly student set to experiment with shape and size, and use a soft house-painting brush to lay on a wash. Some of the brush hairs may fall off and onto your painting, but if you're just experimenting, this may not bother you. If you want to try an array of brushes—and avoid purchasing them one at a time—buy a set.

Watercolor Paper

You'll need to invest in some watercolor paper. The heavier the paper, the thicker it is. For example, 300 lb. weight paper is the thickest—it's like cardboard—and can take a lot of water without buckling. The most common paper is 140 lb., but you may need to stretch it before using it. Avoid 90 lb. paper, which is too thin for anything other than experimenting and practicing. You can buy paper in individual sheets, in a pad, or on a block, which provides a hard surface and keeps the paper stretched until the paint is dry. 

Mixing Paint

Novice artists are often stingy with the amount of paint they mix—using only a little bit at a time and then having to repeatedly mix more. This can be frustrating, particularly when you are trying to lay a wash over your painting surface. Instead, mix more of the color than you need to avoid having to remix repeatedly.

Mix only two colors at a time: Combining too many colors can result in a brown and muddy mess. Understanding the color wheel and color mixing is important as well. You can also layer colors on the painting surface either as a glaze by overlaying washes (wet-on-dry) or adding another color to an already damp surface (wet-into-wet).

It is hard to tell the exact color of paint by just seeing it on your palette because it will dry lighter on paper than it appears when wet. Have an extra piece of paper handy to test your colors on before applying them to your painting so you know that you have the color you want.

Bring the Water

Inexperienced painters often choose a small container of water to use for cleaning their brushes between colors. They quickly find that the water gets dark and murky, muddying their colors and turning their whole painting brown. The best way to keep your colors pure is to keep the water clean, and water stays clean longer if you use a large container. Some professional artists use two large containers, one to clean the brushes and one to wet them before applying color.

Clean your brushes thoroughly with running water and a little soap each time you finish a painting session, and dry them with a paper towel or rag by squeezing them gently. Reshape the tips with your fingers and store them upright on their handles so that the brushes don't get splayed and ruined.

Plan Your White Spaces

With watercolor, you paint from light to dark, leaving the white of the paper as your lightest lights. Therefore, you need to have an idea in advance where those areas will be so you can paint around them. You can carefully avoid them, or you can paint a masking fluid over these areas to protect them. The masking fluid dries into a rubbery material that you can easily rub off with your finger. You can also use artist or painter's tape to mask out areas you want to leave white.

Keep It Light

The beauty of watercolor paint is its transparency and luminance. Properly applied, watercolor shows the complexity of color by revealing layers of transparent color. It allows light to travel through the layers of paint and reflect off the paper. So, use a light touch. For more control of the paint but less transparency, use less water on your brush; for greater transparency, use more water. Try to find the balance that works for you.

Embrace Your Mistakes

Many believe that you can't fix mistakes in watercolor. That's untrue. There are many ways to fix mistakes—you can blot off watercolor with a damp tissue, sponge, clean damp brush, or even a "magic" cleaning eraser. You can change an area of your painting dramatically by applying another wash to it, or you can wash the whole painting off under running water and start over. Watercolor remains workable even years after you finish your painting. So, feel free to experiment; you can always wash away any mistakes.