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10 Watercolor Painting Techniques for Beginners

Improve Your Watercolor Knowledge, Skills and Confidence

By Courtney Jordan, Online Editor

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I’ve never been a real big fan of warming up. Not when I’m exercising or (trying to) sing or write calligraphy or anything else I’ve dabbled in. No, I’m more of a “let’s jump in and do this” kind of person. And that has proven to be totally okay in certain circumstances…but definitely not when I began exploring watercolor painting. Warming up to my watercolor lessons was essential because I needed to get familiar with the fluidity of the medium while trying to figure out how to paint watercolor works with some kind of control, so that the pigments didn’t just slip and slide all over the place.

That resulted in me observing as many watercolor workshops as I could, participating in watercolor painting lessons given by instructors when I was able, and most of all warming up my watercolor painting skills on my own by practicing a few essential beginner watercolor painting techniques.


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1. Learn Basic Watercolor Techniques

I’m a reader at heart and learn best that way so I started by delving into a lot of watercolor instruction resources. I wanted to hear directly from practicing artists what they thought of their chosen medium and what they had to share in terms of tips that might help me. If you’d like to set yourself on the same path, Watercolor Artist’s 2012 Annual CD is a great place to start as it has an entire year’s worth of step by step watercolor articles and demos to share. Splash: The Best of Watercolor, Light & Color is also a resource I reach for to learn the methods of contemporary watercolor artists.

2. Start with Your Very Own Watercolor Palette

I created my own palette of watercolors as opposed to buying one premade. Painting this way allowed me to better understand what each color was capable of doing and how I could work with it. A starter palette for you can include cadmium yellow, cadmium red, permanent rose, French ultramarine, cobalt blue, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and burnt umber. I also added Cerulean blue and viridian because I love those colors!

3. Improve Your Brushstrokes Through Watercolor Drawing

I wanted to better understand how to diversify my brushstrokes in watercolor painting and so my strokes would end up somewhat resembling what I wanted them to, which meant a lot of watercolor drawing exercises focused on holding the brush and making stroke after stroke with all my different brushes to see the results.

4. Master Working with Wet Paint

Working wet into wet strikes terror into my heart because you can’t anticipate the results, but that is part of the fun. Mary Whyte taught me that in her DVD, Mastering Watercolor Portraiture. Just be sure to practice working wet paint into wet paint and with paint applied to wet paper—the two get very different results.

Recommended Products for Beginner Watercolor Painting Techniques

Mastering Watercolor Portraiture | Watercolor Portrait Techniques

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Watercolor Artist 2012 Annual CD | Beginner Watercolor Painting Instruction & Lessons

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Watercolor Wisdom | How to Paint Watercolor Lessons, Tips and Techniques

Watercolor Essentials eBook
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5. How To Lift Your Watercolors

Lifting out is a watercolor painting technique used to create highlights and it sounds pretty much like what it is—you lift out color with a tissue or sponge while it is still wet. Certain colors like alizarin crimson are more stubborn than others and can leave a residue so be aware of that.

6. Create Blooms and Backruns

To create blooms or backruns in watercolor painting, lay down a wash and let it dry for a bit, then add the second wash.

7. Practice Makes Perfect

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Practicing making smooth washes is not just a beginner watercolor painter’s struggle—everyone is challenged by this. One way to do so is to practice using a large brush to make the fewest, broadest strokes as possible on your paper from edge to edge. Remember to tilt the board your paper is on and the wash will course down without dripping messily.

8. Use Scratch Paper as You Learn

Painting wet strokes on to paint that has already dried keeps each layer relatively intact, but before you do this “for real” make a few practice runs on scratch paper so you know what expect.

9. Watercolor is About the Journey, not the Destination

Remember that while warming up with watercolor painting or any other artform is crucial, you can’t think of art-making as a race. There is no finish line. It is a journey not a destination, so embrace all that you learn as you learn it and pursue each watercolor painting technique like it is brand new to you. Watercolor Wisdom was a great watercolor guide that taught me many techniques and exercises that really opened up the world of watercolor painting and allowed me to do just that.

10. Leave Preconceptions About Watercolor Techniques at the Door

When you get in front of the blank page or canvas ready to lay down your first watercolor painting stroke, you want to work with no preconceptions. That way you make discoveries that really matter in your process, which is truly what will allow each of us to go from watercolor painting beginners to artists with more advanced skills. And for more top watercolor instruction, be sure to look into Birgit O’Connor’s Watercolor Essentials eBook, in which she teaches a watercolor demo from beginning to end in seven areas of watercolor painting, plus 33 watercolor exercises that will help us work out the kinks in our approaches and learn new techniques. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan is the Online Editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.