8 Beginner Watercolor Tips

It’s never easy starting out on a new venture. We know more that we did last year and there’ll be more to learn as we go on this journey!

Here are a 8 watercolor tips for beginning watercolor artists. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Plan your project.

This could be an entire post on it’s own but here are the basics. Take a look at your photograph or whatever you’re using as a reference and think about how the composition will be on your paper. Take a look at the ‘rule of thirds’ for starters. What do you want the focal point to be? 

Plan out your palette. What colors and combinations will you be using? Have your paint, water, and towel laid out on the correct side – depending on whether you’re right handed or left. You don’t want to be reaching across your work with a dripping brush!

Do a sketch of your composition on some scrap paper or a journal so you know how the various tones will be. Then get a light sketch ready on your working paper. 

2. Don’t outline your shapes with paint

Start at one side of a shape or sky, or mountain and bring your paint down to fill the shape with your brush. If you outline the brush stroke may dry and leave a line when you come back to fill the rest of it with color. 

3. Use the right amount of water for the effect you want

This is watercolor so use that water! Generally a dry brush on dry paper (dry on dry) is reserved for certain textures. Most of the time you’ll need to pre-wet the paper and then use a watery paint mixture. Get to know when the right time is to start putting the paint down. This takes practice! (more on that later)

The flip side to this is getting in a rush and going over your wet paper before it’s ready. If you do this you may get lighter than desired color and the paint may ‘bloom’ in a way that you don’t want. 

4. Don’t overwork your painting

Ok, I’m preaching to myself here! The temptation is to keep applying colors and going over and over your work. Be intentional about what you’re doing and then leave the layer to dry. Also, don’t use too many colors. Try to stick to a simple palette (3 max).  After you gain some experience you can get some amazing detail by working slowly in layers, letting each one dry before applying the next. (see Anna Mason Art for an example!)

5. Start ‘loose’

One of the beauties of watercolor is it’s transparent, flowing look compared to other paint mediums. Don’t get stuck in the details when you’re starting out. Plan what you can and let the watercolor do the rest. Let your initial paintings have a misty look. After it dries you can always go back and add more detail to your primary subect. 

6. Use a wide variety of tones in your painting

You can really direct the viewer’s eye by using tone in the right way. Leave your background light and darken your subject with multiple layers. Or do the reverse . Using different tonal values will give your watercolor painting a lot more interest. One exercise is to use only one color paint for your entire painting. Then you don’t need to think about color combinations and you can focus more on the tonal value. (see my video on monochromatic painting)  

7. Let whites be white

This goes back to planning your watercolor painting. Most watercolor artists leave the white of the paper for their white color. You can also mask areas that you want white then remove the mask or scrape the color when dry to reveal white paper.  There are also some watercolor whites that can be used but this isn’t as common as just leaving your paper white. 

8. Finally, as promised – practice

There’s nothing that will move you along faster as a watercolor artist as practice. This may mean setting aside a specific time every day or two to actual make mistakes and learn a better way! 

It also helps to keep an area set up for your work. Make it comfortable – have good lighting, put on some of your favorite music, and shut off the interruptions (did I say cell phone?) !

Soon you’ll be seeing positive results out of your dedicated practice.

Happy painting!

Rowboat in the water with broken oar

On a trip to the Maine coast this past summer, I captured a photo of this rowboat splashing around in the water. I was drawn to the color of the boat offset by the dark water. Also it was evident that the boat hadn’t been used in a bit by the brackish water in the bottom it.

After sitting down to do the watercolor, I noticed that one of the oars had broken off. This added all the more to the story!

I was happy with the coloring and visual movement of the water. Please feel free to watch the video that’s been sped up and shortened considerably from the actual painting.

How-to monochromatic painting

Working with one color in a monochromatic painting is a great way to work on a project without getting caught up in the confusing world of mixing watercolor paint.

Here’s the video that I did to outline my process in doing the painting. I hope you enjoy! Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more like this!

Larger Than Life Flower Painting

I don’t usually paint flowers as I find they’re lacking the emotion and ‘story’ that I think is important in a successful painting.

However, it makes a great study and is helpful for practicing technique so still worthwhile.

I took a photo of our last Dahlia of the season (2016), enlarged and framed it on the computer screen and took a screenshot to use as a reference photo. I’ve always admired closeups of plants and flowers so I thought I’d give it a try! 

Larger than life watercolor painting

What do you think? Do you like painting larger than life flowers?

Tip- How to Flatten Watercolor Paper

Lately I’ve been painting on either watercolor blocks or 300# Canson paper that requires no stretching and stays relatively flat. However I do at times need to flatten the paper before mounting on a board and framing.

This is a short video that shows how I flatten watercolor paper if needed. Someone asked about the heat setting on the iron. I’m not sure exactly but my wife usually keeps it on a cotton setting so that’s probably where it landed!

Painting a Little History

This mill stood across a stream where I grew up (Fall River in Bernardston, MA, USA) until I was about 5 or 6 (mid 1960’s) I remember hearing a big boom early in the morning on a spring day when the water was high from the yearly snow runoff. My father was just going to work and turned around to tell us what had happened. The tall mill that had fallen into disrepair had collapsed to the ground. Many years I fished below the log dam across from where the mill had stood.

The painting is from an old photograph that I had acquired. It shows the men posing along the river near the building where they worked. Also to note is the overhanging section on the 3rd floor that I’m told was their outhouse. No shoveling out was necessary as it projected over the river below!

Fall River Barn

For all of you history buffs:
The mill was at the site of an old foundry. It was purchased in 1853 by E. S. Hurlbert. He began making steel hoes, corn knives and rakes with his crew of 15. The business expanded and he expanded to make brick and plastering trowels and also a fine line of cutlery.

old mill watercolor painting

Through my younger years, I would search along the bank opposite the mill and find the glass handles that were most likely discarded because of some defect. I’m thankful for the rich history that surrounded my childhood and the opportunity to paint this piece of the past!