Watercolor is a wonderful, versatile medium — and one that scares many beginners out of their wits! In this article, I hope to dispel that fear. We’ll talk about which palette to start with, how to mix colors, and how to contour. This article includes a tutorial video and a free worksheet to boot!
Before I started writing this article, 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 We Get Started …
This beginner’s tutorial focuses on watercolor basics. If you want to learn the basics and much, much more, consider enrolling in TPK’s The Ultimate Beginner’s Watercolor Online Course. With its 10+ hours of video instruction, it’s one of the most thorough watercolor courses available on the web!
To dive into the world of 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 love this Winsor & Newton 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! 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:
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 the paint 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.)
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 art 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. Then, do the same thing with another pigment, and add it to the first pigment.
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:
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! (The Ultimate Beginner’s Watercolor Online Course provides copious guided shape painting practice.)
If you are new to watercolors, you can develop base skills with TPK’s free printable worksheet! If your printer can handle printing on watercolor paper (or 80# drawing paper), print the worksheet directly on that paper. Otherwise, print the worksheet on regular paper, then do the worksheet exercises on a separate piece of watercolor paper.
If you enjoyed this article and you’d like to “geek out” a little bit, read the All About Watercolor Paints article. In it, Jess of Greenleaf & Blueberry provides excellent information about how watercolors are made, their composition and quality, and other informational gems. I’ll also write a Part II article shortly that will encourage you to apply what you learned today in order to paint a vibrant apple.
Thanks very much for reading TPK, and happy painting!
This article was first posted in May of 2015. It has been updated to include new photos, a free worksheet, and clearer information.