Starting with Watercolor

Watercolor painting is not the easiest to get into. It has its own set of rules, and it can be a challenge to learn them. If you’re interested in watercolor painting, a class is a great idea, but for those of you who don’t have the time or money, here’s a short primer to help you get in touch with your inner watercolorist.

Watercolor paints, brushes, paper, pallete, a rag and two mason jars filled with water

Getting started in watercolor painting is not as expensive as some other art mediums. An old rag, some paper towels and some mason jars are some things you might have around your house. You can get an inexpensive set of paints in tubes for $10-$15 at Target or any craft store. You’ll need something for a palette to mix your paints – it needs to be non-porous and waterproof. I picked up these two mixing palettes at Michaels. You can find a 10-15 page sketchbook of just watercolor paper at most craft stores as well (do not use normal paper, even sketchbook paper- it will buckle!).

Four watercolor brushes- a liner, a small detail brush, a large round and a large flat

Lastly, you’ll need brushes. Brushes are surprisingly the one thing I would recommend investing in. There is nothing like starting a painting and realizing it’s covered in hairs from your brush. All brushes do this occasionally, but if you get bargain brushes, you’re going to find this happening constantly.

A tube of blue watercolor paint, with a small dab next to it

Always go with tubes of paint. Fresh watercolor paint out of the tube will always be the most vivid. Start with just a dab of each on your palette – a little goes a long way. Make sure to spread them out so the colors don’t mix when you add water. Once you’re done painting for the day, only clean paint off the areas that are too small to save. Otherwise, just let your paint dry on the palette; you can reconstitute it later with water. Don’t throw away paint!

Two hand, one painting with watercolors on paper
Painting on wet paper will cause the pigment to disperse wherever there is water.

There are two main ways to paint with watercolors: paint on a dry surface, or paint on a wet surface, called a wash. Painting on a wet surface will cause the pigment to disperse. You can get great atmospheric effects this way, and mix paints on the surface of the paper instead of on your palette. On the other hand, it’s not good for details. Painting on dry paper will give you the control you want. A good painting utilizes both; just remember to let washes completely dry before you paint on top. If you’re unsure, check the surface in the light. If there’s still some moisture, let it sit longer. If not, lightly touch it with your finger – if the surface is colder in that area, it’s still not dry.

A piece of paper with a blue wash of color using paint on a wet surface, painting with a round brush on a dry surface, and painting with a flat brush on a dry surface
From left to right: A blue wash of color using paint on a wet surface, painting with a round brush on a dry surface, and painting with a flat brush on a dry surface

Brushes are almost more important than any other part of the process. You can get by with just a few, but the more variety the better. Large flat and round brushes are good for washes, but not so great with details. Smaller brushes are great for details, but it becomes time consuming for washes. It’s a fine balance, which is why it’s good to invest in a variety.

Two mason jars, one with clear water, one with murky water with a paintbrush sitting inside of it.

Cleaning your brushes is incredibly important. Watercolor painting relies heavily on the amount of pigment in the water on the brush. If you still have pigment from your previous color on your brush, it’s going to muddy anything else you paint. This is why I recommend having two mason jars: one for clean water to use for painting, the other to clean your brushes.

A white paper with a blue streak of watercolor, with a paintbrush at the bottom dabbing at the paper.
You can use your paintbrush almost like a sponge to remove water from the paper.


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  • Your brush not only puts pigment on the page, it can take pigment and water off. Washes can dry unevenly if there’s too much water, so try the following technique to remove some water without losing pigment: Hold your paper upwards at about a 45 degree angle. Once all the excess water has gathered at the bottom, use a dry brush and lightly run it across the area with water. This should pick up some of the water on the page. Dry your brush, and do it again until all the excess water is gone.
  • Always keep some paper towel in your non-dominant hand. This can be used to dry your brush and catch any dripping before it’s too late.
  • Don’t be afraid to draw it first! As long as you draw lightly and erase an excess lines, there’s no reason not to draw out what you’d like to paint first. Because watercolor isn’t as forgiving as some other paints, it’s good to be as prepared as possible.


By Bipolar Gurl

Bipolar Gurl is an artist and... well, that's about it really. Multi-talented she is not.

6 replies on “Starting with Watercolor”

Another helpful thing to have is a drawing board. A piece of masonite from the hardware store works. You can get your paper wet and then use Kraft Tape to tape the paper flat to the board while it’s wet. This will keep the ripples from too much water to a minimum as long as you let everything dry before you cut your painting free as it stretches the paper fibers and then forces them to dry flat.

I haven’t mucked about with watercolor in years. It was never my gig and always a little too fussy and unforgiving for me. I was more of a chalk pastels person with their infinite workability.

Drawing boards are wonderful- I use them mostly if I’m drawing anything larger than 9×12. I remember doing epic watercolors when I was in college (not so much since) and we’d carry them around on the board- very portable, and like you said, helps with the buckling =)

I don’t do a huge amounts of watercolor anymore, but I’m getting back into it. I feel like there’s some things you can do with watercolor that you can’t do with anything else, so what I usually do is use it for washes or some details, and do the rest with ink, charcoal, prismacolor pencil, etc. etc. Mixed media is the bomb =)

And yes- unforgiving is right! It’s not like acrylics or oils where you can redo- one wrong brush stroke and it all goes to hell. :)

What a great intro for beginners!

Also good for begin water colorists –

Watercolor pencils. Sooo much fun. Sketch something out, then apply watercolor paint on top or just lightly brush over it with water. I found this to be useful when I started. I’d try to sketch lightly with a pencil first but always still saw the pencil lines underneath. That fixed it for me.

If possible, I recommend anything by Caran d’Ache.

“Lastly, you’ll need brushes. Brushes are surprisingly the one thing I would recommend investing in. ”

So much truth to this.

That’s a great idea- sketching the initial concept with the watercolor pencils. Never thought of that for some reason!

I’ll be honest though, I was never a huge fan of watercolor pencils. I think it’s great for beginners to get used to how watercolors work, but because i’m not a watercolor purist I would put prismacolor colored pencil on top of watercolor if I like the sketchy effect. (Conversely- debating writing an article on mixed media.)

Then again… I never used the GOOD variety of watercolor pencils, so maybe I need to give it another shot. :)

I hate it when it buckles! I think I’m a little obsessive with that, which is why when I can I’ll invest in the better paper. But I definitely love the effects you can get when you use a whole lot of water compared to pigment, I just don’t like the negative effects of that (the buckling) :)

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