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Taking The Mystery Out Of Watercolor

If you have tried watercolor on your own, you have likely been frustrated when your colors end up running together. What started out beautiful turns into something vaguely reminiscent of that time the dog had an upset stomach. Not exactly encouraging you to channel your inner Van Gogh! Do you look at beautiful, fluid watercolors and wish you had the talent to paint one? Do you think that artists are endowed with some mysterious talent that you either have or don’t have? Have you tried watercolors and just ended up with a muddy pool of water and wondered how anyone manages to control it? Well, here's a little secret for you; anyone can paint with watercolors. Sure, there are people who have amazing talent, which really only means that things like composition and color theory come easily to them. But those are skills that can be learned, and they are only learned through practice, practice, practice. I'd like to take some of the mystery out of watercolor for you. I have found that the playful nature of this medium is endlessly soothing and a valuable stress relief technique. Hopefully, once you’ve read this blog, you will be inspired to go out and buy the basics and give it a try. Because let's face it, this world really needs fewer stressed out people.

Understanding Watercolor I think the main reason people struggle with watercolor is that they don’t understand the nature of the medium itself. Let me break it down. Pigment (paint) is going to seek water. That is both the beauty and the curse of the medium. It’s the reason that when you've painted a pink petal and you paint the adjoining leaf green while the pink is still wet, the green pigment flows directly into the pink paint, resulting in a muddy brown. So the first thing you must understand is that if you don't want colors to mix, do not paint anything near it until it is bone-dry. That's in italics for a reason. Even the slightest amount of water will draw the pigment in and result in a failed painting. I always like to give bad news first. This is the curse.

The beauty of watercolor is actually the very same thing; water seeks water. So if you are painting with colors that complement one another, letting them flow into one another on the page creates a mix much a more beautiful and organic mixture than anything you can mix on your palette. The following exercise is a demonstration of this.


Pick two colors that you love and that complement one another. Some good combinations are blue and green, orange and pink, green and yellow. Paint a large wet circle on a piece of watercolor paper. Work quickly so that the water doesn’t dry. If you have pan pigments, thoroughly wet the pigment with a spray bottle. Dip your brush in water and then roll your brush around the pigment until the brush is fully loaded with paint. Take the tip of your brush and tap it anywhere in the circle of water and watch it flow. Do this a few times in a few different places. Now, before it dries, clean your brush thoroughly and do the same thing with your secondary color. Watch how the colors flow into one another to make a third color. Play with this a while and observe the ways that the water directs the pigments.

In a nutshell, those are the two most basic ways to paint with water

color; wet on dry (wet paint, dry paper) and wet on wet (wet paint, wet paper). Obviously there is a lot more to it, but those are the two basic fundamentals to master before you move on.

What you need to start

More good news is that you do not need to go broke buying supplies to begin. Save that for once you're addicted. Soon enough you will stumble around the art supply store short of breath, eyes glazed, tossing everything into your cart and walk out muttering under your breath about how you are going to pay your mortgage this month. But I digress. That little obsession comes later; something to look forward to! In the mean-time, you can start out with a few basic supplies for around $100 if you shop around. While you don’t need to buy the most expensive supplies, please, under no circumstances buy the cheapest! There is a huge difference between cheap watercolor supplies and professional, and you will never be happy with your work if you buy the cheap stuff. In short, you can get away with a small, professional grade watercolor starter set, a pad paper, and one or two brushes.


Watercolor paper is non-negotiable. Don’t be fooled by “mixed-media” paper. While mixed-media paper will stand up to the water, you will not get the effect you desire. Watercolor paper can be pricey but you don’t need to start out with the best. A pad of 140 pound cold pressed paper is more than sufficient for your needs. There is a difference in brands however. The most basic thing that you need to know is that you want a paper that stays wet for as long as possible. The longer it stays wet, the more working time you have. Some brands that work well and won’t break the bank are Canson and Strathmore. Once you progress you can buy the more expensive brands and go up to 300 pound paper.


You can begin with only one brush but I like to recommend two so that you can do large and small work. A #8 round brush is a general workhorse and you can get a variety of shapes and lines with it. A #4 round brush will get into more detailed work. The best brushes are natural hair, but they can be pricey. To begin with, a brush with a mix of synthetic and natural hairs will do. The Silver Brush Company makes these. Do not under any circumstances buy brushes that say they are good for acrylic or oil painting. If they work for acrylic and oils, they will not work for watercolor….even if they say they will. They lie. You want a brush with a fine tip, and a large “belly” or “reservoir”. That means it will hold a lot of water, cutting down on your brush strokes and extending your working time.


You may have seen watercolor paints in pans as well as tubes and wondered what the difference is. In short, there is no difference in the paint themselves. Pan paints are simply tube paints that have been left to “cure” or dry. Each has benefits and drawbacks.

Pan paints are easier for beginners because it is hard to get too much paint on your brush. This means you waste less and you don’t run the risk of a big splotch of color that is more than you intended. They come in a variety of pre-mixed colors and they are perfectly portable. I have a very small palette of these that go with me everywhere so that I am able to paint anywhere I go. I have a larger palette that has a number of good quality pigments. You can find one just like the one I use here. I use this for teaching on location. For those of you who have taken my classes, I have not been holding out on you, I swear. I have been looking online for this palette for years and suddenly found it. So if you have asked me in the past what I'm using and I haven't given you the info, here it is. I also have a set of tube paints that I use at home. You don't need to horde paints as I do, but fair warning, once you get into it, the craving for ALL THE COLORS is hard to fight. It's right up there with birthday cake and macaroni and cheese.

Tube paints, because they are wet, are harder to get used to. Most beginners struggle to figure out how much paint to use (answer: hardly any) and they end up with over-saturated, overworked paintings that resemble an acrylic painting rather than a watercolor. However, once you have progressed, you may find you like tubes better. You can also have a much bigger palette because the number of colors in tubes is endless and you can add as you go. I prefer my students to start with pans and progress to tubes.

The important thing here is to buy professional or artist grade paints. The student grade paints are made with much cheaper ingredients, are not as saturated and are often milky instead of transparent. You will struggle and be disappointed every time with student grade paints. The good news is that you can purchase affordable pan and tube paints by starting small. You can start your supplies with only six colors. You need the three primary colors in both warm and cool hues. I get far more into detail on warm and cool hues in my classes. But for now, you need to understand that while there are warm and cool colors, each color has a warm and cool version. This simply means that a color tends closer to red on the color wheel (warm colors) or it tends closer to blue (cool colors).

In the picture below I show a cool and a warm version of each color. See if you can tell which is which.*

Lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, indigo, rose madder, and cadmium red are a good starting place if you are going to paint with tubes. A good starter set can be found in Daniel Smith Essentials Introductory Set. You can mix any color with these six.

I hope this info is helpful and you have some basic information that takes some of the mystery out of the medium. There are a lot of great watercolor tutorials online on YouTube and Pinterest. In my opinion there is nothing like having someone teach you in person. You can find my classes online at the Community Creative Center and by subscribing to my email newsletter on my website. I also teach one-on-one lessons in my studio. One of the benefits of taking my classes is that I am always available to answer your painting questions, even once the the class sessions have ended.

*lemon yellow - cool, cadmium yellow - warm, rose madder-cool, cadmium red - warm, indigo - cool, cobalt-warm

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