Before I started writing this post, I decided to conduct some online research on painting with watercolors for beginners. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn’t gloss over any points, and I could craft an altogether better post. And … holy moly. I personally use watercolors all the time, and the information I found on Google overwhelmed me. After reading too many “information overload” articles, I threw up my hands and decided to go rogue. In this post, you’ll find the simple points that I think are important if you’re trying your hand at watercolors for the first time!
Before you get started with watercolors, you’ll need a few basic supplies. They include:
Watercolors come in three different grades: children’s, student grade, and artist grade. I believe that the best watercolors for beginners are student grade. I learned with a Winsor & Newton Cotman set, but I really like this Sakura Koi set because it’s got 24 colors — which means you won’t need to mix your own colors as much. You really just need one good palette, and you’re good to go!
Whatever set you decide on, the first thing you should do upon receiving your watercolors is create a color chart. I like to make a chart that fits into my set container, then I tape the chart in! We’ll talk about how to make a watercolor chart in a future tutorial; but basically, you cut a piece of watercolor paper that’s slightly smaller than your set. Paint samples of each color onto it, label the colors, and your chart is finished!
Once you’ve got your watercolor palette, it’s time to think about brushes.
Brush preferences will vary by artist. I like tiny details, which means I like tiny brushes. My “staple” brushes are:
- Winsor & Newton Cotman Series 111 Round size 0000 (item number 65749)
- Grumbacher Goldenedge 4620 Round size 000
- Robert Simmons S85 size 5/0 (item number 56403)
- Grumbacher Goldenedge 4620 Round size 0 (item number 06777-1000)
- Grumbacher Goldenedge 4620 Round size 3
3. Watercolor Paper
It’s important to apply your watercolors to high-quality paper that doesn’t absorb the pigment. Watercolor paper is your safest bet!
Watercolor requires special paper because of absorbency. Watercolor paper essentially lets the paint sit on top of the paper until it dries rather than allowing it to spiderweb out. If you try to paint on, say, standard 20# printer paper, the watercolor will bleed at the edges because the paper is super absorbent. (Note that you don’t have to paint on watercolor paper! I love using watercolors in my sketchbook, as detailed in this tutorial.)
4. Water + Cloth
The last watercolor supply you’ll need is clean water to hydrate pigments and clean off your paintbrush. You’ll also need a cloth for blotting your brush.
The General Process
Watercolors are very low-maintenance. First, start with a palette of watercolors. Next, use a small spray bottle, a blunt syringe, or a spoon to hydrate the colors you wish to use. Then, dip your brush in water to moisten it, dab the brush onto a pigment, and put the pigment-rich brush on paper. That’s it!
You can control the shade of any pigment by adjusting the amount of water on your brush. If you want a very light shade, saturate your brush in water and barely touch the brush’s tip to the pigment. For medium tones, you’ll still apply pigment to a wet brush, but you’ll apply a bit more pigment than you would for a light shade. For dark tones, I blot water off my brush (it will still be wet, but not saturated), then I use the moistened paint straight off the palette.
One thing to note about watercolors is you don’t have to buy a set that features a lot of different colors! It’s easy to mix your own colors. Simply moisten one pigment with about 1/16 tsp of water, then incorporate the water into the pigment by stirring with a brush. Dab some of the color onto a slick surface, like a plate. Then, do the same thing with another pigment, and add it to the first pigment on the plate.
Mix the two pigments, and you’ve got an entirely new color!
Here are some basic color combinations:
- Red + blue = purple
- Yellow + red = orange
- Yellow + blue = green
- Orange + blue = brown
- Yellow + red + blue = black
Watercolors make it easy to create eye-catching subjects because the medium blends so well! Using a contouring technique to blend different tones of the same color in a piece grants you the ability to make something look real. With that in mind, I’m going to show you how to turn a circle into a sphere with blending and different paint opacities:
Here are written instructions, just in case you’re not in a situation where you can watch a video right now:
1. Choose one color, then use a light shade of it to paint a circle.
2. Pretend that there’s a light source near the left side of the circle. Effectively, a shadow will appear on the right side of the sphere. To start making that shadow, load your brush with more of the same shade. Paint that shade so it “hugs” the circle in a half-moon shape.
3. You can see that there’s a definite division between the medium shade and the light shade above. To get rid of that difference, use a clean, wet brush to apply water to the division between the light and medium watercolor shades. As you move your brush in a half-circle motion, the division will fade!
4. Now it’s time to add the dark shade to the bottom of your circle/sphere. Hug the dark shade around the bottom as pictured. Tease out the dark shade just as you did the medium shade, and voilà!
If you want more practice with giving shapes dimension, I recommend painting these shapes in different colors. If you understand how to contour a basic shape, you can go on to paint just about anything!
As with any skill, the more you practice using your watercolors, the more progress you’ll see! Basic watercolor tutorials abound here on the TPK website, so you can browse and take your pick of which ones to try. For more guided practice, consider enrolling in the Watercolor Illustrated Maps 101 eCourse. The course offers abundant guided practice working with watercolors for beginners: we’ll blend, layer, shade, and build to make a lovely illustrated map of Paris together!
Note that this blog post was first written in May of 2015. It was updated with new photos and information in March of 2020. This article covers the very basics of working with watercolor, and I’m sure you’re left with a couple of questions! To cover some of those questions and give you next-step guidance, I wrote Painting with Watercolors for Beginners Part II. For additional watercolor information, you can check out All About Watercolor Paints.
Thanks very much for reading TPK, and happy painting!