Painting with Watercolours – Tips for Beginners

View from the Saltees island in watercolour painting

Painting with Watercolours – Tips for Beginners

Painting with watercolours is one of the trickiest mediums as watercolour paint is not at all forgiving! Because watercolour paint leaves a translucent layer, you can’t paint over mistakes. However, I believe that there are no such things as mistakes in art, only opportunities for improvement. 😀 Here are some simple tips for beginners that would suit all ages. I have used these tips with children and teenagers on my art courses and they have yielded some beautiful results but they would be suitable for adults too.

The first tips for painting in watercolours are all about choosing the correct materials. Here is a list of you will need:

moody lanscape with dark trees, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
Watercolours are ideal for creating atmospheric landscapes. (Painting by Paulette Fedarb)

Necessary Materials for Painting with Watercolours:

1. Paper

Watercolour paper is very thick. This is because a lot of water is added to the paint to give it the transparent quality and when water is placed on paper, the paper can buckle. In addition to this, if you make repeated brushstrokes in the same area on the paper, the surface of the paper can start to break down and tiny beads or paper begin to appear on the surface.

When you buy watercolour paper, look for a block that is specifically labled watercolour or aquarelle paper. This paper is typically 300g/ m2 thick but can come in lesser or greater thicknesses. It comes in either smooth or textured varieties but I would recommend smooth paper for beginners.

Buy your own:

Canson Artist Series Montval Watercolor Paper Pad, Heavyweight

It is possible to use finer grade paper but you would need to stretch the paper first before painting on it. To stretch paper you need:

  • a firm board larger than your page
  • sticky backed brown paper tape
  • paper
  • a shallow basin of water
  • a sponge
How to stretch paper:
  1. break off srips of gummed paper tape slightly longer than the lengths of the four edges of your sheet of paper
  2. make your paper damp all over by immersing it entirely but briefly in the basin of water
  3. lift the paper out of the basin and allow excess water to drip back into the basin
  4. lay the paper on the board
  5. using the sponge, smooth the paper, working from the centre outwards to ensure there are no wrinkles or bubbles
  6. moisten the gummed side of the strips of tape and lay along the edges of your paper, on all four sides, making sure to overlap onto the board so that the paper is competely surrounded by tape
  7. allow the paper to dry completely before you start to paint
  8. once your painting is complete, and dry, carefully remove it from the board using a sharp bladed craft knife

2. Paint Brushes

a selection of 4 watercolour paint brushes
A selection four different brush head sizes and shapes.

Paint brushes for watercolour are typically very soft bristled and absorbant, and the bristles may be synthetic nylon (cheapest) or made from pony tail hair, or even sable tail hair (most expensive). I would recommend nylon bristles for a beginner.

Brush tips come in a range of sizes, the smaller the tip size, the finer the details you can paint. A wide fan-shaped brush head is useful for painting large areas of colour block eg. the sky. It is useful to have a range of sizes to give you flexibility.

Buy your own:

Paint Brushes 12 Set

3. Paint

travel palette, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
My watercolour mini travel palette by Windsor and Newton

Watercolours come in two formats, either in tubes, or in cakes set out in a palette. The type you choose is a personal preference but I prefer using a palette. A palette contains dried cubes or discs of compressed paint powder which becomes usable after water is applied to the paint. Knowing how much water to add in order to gain the intensity of colour you need is a matter of practice. The rule is that the more water you add to the paint, the lighter the colour becomes. See below for an exercise on how to become familiar with how much water to add to your paint.

Water colour tubes contain paint that is already in a liquid format. As the paint is highly concentrated you only need to squeeze out tiny amounts onto a palette. You then add water to the paint and mix together until the desired consistency is achieved. I would recommend a palette with indented and divided sections for creating your shades so that the colours don’t bleed into one another.

This mini palette below is ideal for travelling as it is compact and also contains an expandable brush. The inside of the lid can be used as a mixing palette and the range of 12 colours are shades that are ideal for landscape painting. You can buy your own here:

Winsor & Newton Cotman Water Colour Paint Sketchers’ Pocket Box, Half Pans

You may prefer to buy a larger pallet for use at home with a wider range of colours, I also have this gorgeous pallette which is made by Pelikan:

a palette of watercolour paints with 24 colours
A double layered palette containing 24 shades – all the colours you’d ever need!

However, if you would prefer a set of tube watercolour paints, you could get a set similar to this:

COLOUR BLOCK 32pc Watercolor Paint Tubes Set with Brushes

I mentioned above that water colour is an unforgiving medium, however, it is possible to buy white watercolour paint which can help to minimise mistakes when painted over them in small amounts. It is a translucent medium though so it won’t be possible to rectify really large or dark areas completely.

4. Sundries

The other tools you’ll need is: a mixing palette – you could use a plate for this, a jar of clean water, paper towel or a clean absorbant cloth, a sharp pencil, a rubber.

dauns of paint, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
Practice becoming familiar with your paints and paper first.

Tips for Painting with Watercolours for Beginners:

  1. The number one tip is practice! You will paint hundreds of paintings you don’t like but don’t use that as an excuse to give up. Be prepared to paint and paint and paint!
  2. Become familiar with your paints first. Practice mixing a dab of water with each colour separately and painting daubs of colour onto paper. The more water you add, the paler the shade of colour will be. Create different sized strokes, dots, lines and areas of shade.
  3. If you are using tubes, squeeze out tiny amounts of paint onto a mixing palette to begin with.
  4. Pick a subject matter that is not too complicated to start with. Painting landscapes are a good idea or, if the weather is bad, create a still life indoors from a bowl of fruit or an arrangement of flowers, shells, leaves, branches etc. The beauty of painting natural objects is that they don’t need to be very accurate for the results to be fabulous and they are always open to your own interpretation.
  5. Using a pencil, draw a faint outline of the subject matter on your paper. Don’t press too hard as the pencil will show through your paint.
  6. Begin with the palest colour first add some water and use light brush strokes.
  7. Leave areas of white paper shining through for areas of bright sunlight of reflections.
  8. Painting a second layer with the same colour will create a darker shade of the colour.
  9. Build up layers gently with the darker colours.
  10. Try not to over paint the same section too many times as the surface of the paper will become compromised and will start to bead.
  11. Remember this is not a colouring – in exercise, allow yourself to paint freely and don’t be restricted by your pencil lines.
  12. Keep your brushes a clean as possible and try not to muddy your paint in the palette by painting a dirty brush onto a new colour.
  13. Wash your brush well between colour changes.
  14. Keep refreshing the water so that you don’t paint with dirty water.
  15. You can control the amount of water on your brush by dabbing it onto dry kitchen paper.
  16. Never store brushes on their tips or leave them standing in a jar of water for too long as the bristles will fall out.
  17. Once the painting is dry, you could add detail with a black fineliner – this is a great technique for enhancing features and creating contrasts.
  18. Have fun!
  19. Paint another picture!!
  20. Don’t judge your first attempts!!!
a half completed watercolour painting, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
Draw very faint pencil outlines first to get an idea of composition. (Painting by Annie Bryans)
seascape with waves in watercolours, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
Note how white areas of paper have been left blank for the foam of the waves. (Painting by Annie Bryans)
Tuscan Landscape with watercolour and ink, Painting with Watercolours - Tips for Beginners
You could finish off your painting once it’s dry by adding detail with a black fineliner. (Painting by Paulette Fedarb)

Have you found this post helpful? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

*Please note that this post contains affiliate links, if you choose to make a purchase, I receive an absolutely miniscule commission, which helps go towards keeping this blog alive, and me in coffee – thanks!

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