Watercolor Painting Basics: for people who don’t have a clue (like me)

If you’ve never picked up a paintbrush, except to paint your bedroom, this post is for you.

I recently took a watercolor painting class and I’m a complete novice. I wanted to learn just the basic techniques so that I could paint more on my own. Here’s what I learned in case it encourages you to pick up a paint brush.

The supplies you’ll need to experiment with watercolor are:

  • Masking tape – If you’re using sheets of paper it’s a good idea to tape all four sides down to a surface you can move, like a piece of cardboard.
  • Brushes – I used two brushes, one a 24 and the other an 8, one big and one small
  • Watercolor paper – We used 140-weight cold press sheets of paper. You can find paper at a reasonable price at Cheapjoes.com, the Kilimanjaro paper.
  • 2 glasses of water, one for clean water (before you get paint) and one to rinse off your brush after you paint
  • A spray bottle of water
  • A sponge, which helps you to soak up water out of your brush if you need to (or you can use a paper towel)
  • A 4h pencil – this pencil draws a light enough line that can be easily covered up by the paint. where the paint will cover the lines
  • White eraser
  • Paints (see more details below)

Should You Use Hot Press Paper or Cold Press Paper?

The paper you use can give you different results. Hot press paper is smooth. You can paint fine details like you would find in a portrait on hot press paper. Hot press is used for mixed media, like a pen and ink drawing with paint on top.

Cold press paper has more interesting textures and is better for abstract paintings. The “tooth” of the paper holds onto more of the pigment. The lines are easier to smooth out.

Which paper you use depends on what you want to paint and on your personal preference. Tape your paper down regardless of whether you use cold or hot press paper to keep your clean edges.

Beginner Paint Pallet

The most expensive and highest quality paints are the Daniel Smith paints. You don’t need expensive paint when you are just starting. So if you hear a more experienced artist talk about these paints, just start with something less to decide if you like it first.

If you are looking for paint more suited to a beginner look at American Journey paints on Cheap Joe’s. This beginner set is enough to get you started and is similar to the set we used in class.

It’s nice to get a set of paints that has a blank area where you can mix colors. Mixing paints is a big part of painting with watercolors. It’s easier and cheaper to mix them on the pallet vs buying them. Mixing is the first technique you will learn in any basic watercolor class.

Basic Color Mixing

There are three primary colors: red, blue and yellow. You can make all the different colors you want to paint using these three colors.

It’s faster and easier if you get a paint set that includes the secondary colors, orange, purple and green. Here is the paint pallet that we started with and it was easy even for me to combine these colors to make any color.

How do you make black paint? Apparently, most painters mix their own black and don’t buy it. Buying black paint is tabu within watercolor painting circles. The reason is that black paint that you purchase looks more flat than a black that you mix yourself.

To mix your own black you can mix ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson (red) and burnt umber (a brownish orange). I didn’t succeed in mixing my own black, but it was dark enough to work.

If you want to get a basic paint mixing tutorial, check out this video (although it is kind of frustrating to watch how quickly she can just paint a panda),

What Does It Mean to Activate Your Paints?

You “activate” your paint by spraying it with a little water. This is the first thing we did in class because it is best way to get the paint primed for use.

Different Watercolor Washes

Watercolor painting is all about layers. You start with a lighter shade and progressively layer on more vivid darker colors. The base of many watercolor paintings starts with a wash. There are three variations of washes you can use to cover large areas.

watercolor washes

Flat Wash – Many paintings start with a Flat Wash. This means that you use a large brush to coat the paper first using a color moving in stripes down the page. Frequently people use blue because it’s a great way to start a landscape painting. This is called a wet technique.

Watch this video to see an example of how to paint a flat wash. As you can see in this video he uses a pretty wet brush. He is able to “erase” any errors by using a brush with no color to absorb the leftover wet areas.

Graded Wash – A graded wash is one where the color starts of more vivid at the top and fades as it goes down the page. To do that you can use gravity to pull the paint down the sheet. You should use less pigment on your brush/more water as you progress down the page.

Variegated Wash – A variegated wash uses two colors to cover the paper. You might start with blue at the top and fade as you go down the page and then switch to green. The important thing is to blend the two colors as you go down the page.

How To Make Clouds In Watercolor

You can use the rough edges of a Kleenex against a flat wash. Dab the Kleenex against your wet paint and it picks up round sections of color.

This is a great technique because it is easy and no two clouds will look the same, just like in real life.

Can I Erase Mistakes?

In watercolor paint, this is called “lifting” paint. Lifting paint is almost like erasing it from the page. If you have color on the page where you DON’T want it you go back with a wet brush followed by a paper towel or a dry brush and dab up the color.

This technique lifts the color by washing it out. Then you use the tissue paper to pick up the water. If you do this while the paint is still damp it’s possible. It doesn’t work with dry paper and it works better if you are using high quality paper vs. really thin paper.

Watch this video to see lifting in action, she illustrates three different techniques.

Great Video Tutorials For Watercolor Painting

After my class I wanted to learn more so I went to Youtube. There are so many watercolor artists sharing every technique you can think of. Here are a few of my favorite teachers.

Your Very First Watercolor Class

The best Basic Watercolor techniques to improve quickly

I feel like I learned a lot about painting in just a few hours. As with all things, if you spend a little bit of time painting every and you will make progress. Time will tell.

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One Comment

  1. Andrea, are those your paintings with the flowers? If so, they are gorgeous! And what a great post- I’ve learned a lot!!makes me want to paint with watercolors!

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