A lot of people ask me questions about how to paint with watercolour. It’s easy to feel that watercolour is an intimidating medium. Mistakes are hard to fix, you have to work quickly. But it’s also a beautiful medium and not as hard as it can look. Below is a quick introduction on using watercolours and a few fun tricks and tips.
Starting out- You first need the tools of the trade. If you want to have a serious attempt at watercolour you need some serious tools. A lot of people just have a quick try, don’t use the right materials and then give up when it doesn’t work, which is often the fault of the poor quality materials.
Brushes– Sable or Synthetic? Both have their advantages, and are fine for watercolour painting. Some brushes such as ponyhair and other soft brushes aren’t suitable, you need something that keeps it shape and spring when wet. Sable is lovely, but expensive, synthetic don’t last as long, but are much cheaper and work almost as well. A quick note though, do look after your brushes well! Never leave them standing in water, clean them well and give them a good shampoo every now and then. It sounds silly but it will keep them good much longer. Also, never use your fine brushes for mixing paint, use an old brush for mixing, scrubbing and any other rough work.
Paper- You want a good paper, and most good watercolour paper is very unlike any standard paper. Ever got a piece of copy paper wet? Not pretty, lay a brush on it and it will bead and tear. Watercolour paper is thick, absorbant and resistant to tearing when wet. It’s often made of 100% cotton, and comes in hot pressed (ultra smooth) cold pressed (medium) and rough. The texture is up to you, but I suggest a good medium for starting out.
Paints- Pans or tubes? Again, it’s very much personal choice. I prefer pans, because then you have your palette laid out before you, without having to squeeze out tubes everywhere. There are quality differences between the brands and price ranges, but even the cheapest will suffice for starting out, although once you get started you will realize that cheaper brands do have much inferior pigment that can be muddy, grainy, and not allow use of certain effects like salting.
Starting your artwork.
You have your idea and grab your pencil. Wait! Watercolour paper is great for watercolour but not adding pencil before painting can be risky! Unless you’re a very confident sketcher, it’s a good idea to sketch your idea on a separate piece of paper, anything will do, cheap copy paper is fine. Scribble all you want and get it right there, because lead pencil is hard to rub off watercolour paper and can damage the surface from the pressure. Once you have your sketch you need to get it from there to the watercolour paper. There are a number of ways to transfer. Having a light box is the easiest, you simply trace your sketch onto the watercolour paper. You don’t even need a light box, you can, if you’re careful, tape your sketch, covered by your watercolour paper up to a bright window and trace it that way. Otherwise, turn your sketch over and shade in the back of it with a dark lead pencil (4b or more) then turn it back over, place it on top of the watercolour paper and draw over the lines of your sketch firmly and it will transfer to your watercolour sheet like carbon paper. Your sketch on the watercolour paper needs to be fairly light, and just lines, little to no shading. Lead pencil can blend with the watercolour and make it muddy and yucky.
Preparing your watercolour paper– I personally don’t do this because I’m lazy, and I also use 300gsm paper which is resistant to buckling when wet, but it’s good practice to stretch and tape down your watercolour sheet before painting to prevent the paper buckling and deforming because of the water. You want to soak your watercolour paper completely for a few hours or even overnight, place it on a non-absorbant surface and smooth it down with clean hands then tape down the edges with gum tape and allow it to dry completely. This will keep it flat while painting.
Finally, brush to paper!
The thing about watercolour, is it’s all about how much paint, and how much water is on your brush. If you’re using pans, the paint starts out completely dry, it’s just pigment and base to hold it together. With tube paint as well, you will most likely be adding water to it to spread the pigment further. Do some experiments before you start your painting to get the feel of how wet or dry the brush should be when painting. The wetter the brush, the more it flows smoothly, the dryer it is, the darker and more vibrant the colour. A good way to control the amount of water on your brush is to always keep a tissue in your other hand while painting which you can dab your brush on to soak up that excess water. And try to keep your water pot as clean as possible! Even have two pots, one for washing brushes, and another that stays clean for mixing colours and painting.
Wet in Wet- An important aspect of watercolour is how it reacts when wet, and how water reacts with it. When watercolour is painted on a dry area it behaves like most other paint, but when painted onto a wet area is diffuses and spreads, becoming soft. This can be very useful for creating soft gradients. Try wetting an area of the paper, loading a fairly dry brush with colour then brushing it across the wet paper to see how it behaves. Another behaviour of watercolour is it’s reaction to clean water. Clean water dropped onto, or painted into a wet painted area can lift the paint back off the paper, and spread it away from the clean water like a halo. This is good to practice to learn how to clean up any mistakes quickly before they dry!
From light to dark- Watercolour is a subtractive medium. You start with a white surface, which basically means a surface reflecting lots of light. As you add colour onto it, you make the surface darker, subtracting light. The more layers you add, the darker it gets, and there’s not really much going back. The only way to make it lighter again is to use an additive medium, such as acrylic, where you can add light back on over the top. With watercolour you want to start painting in your darkest areas first, though not with pigment too thick or dark all at once! If it’s too saturated it will easily bleed out as you add moisture around it. The darkness comes through layers of paint more than a single hit. Any very bold colours can be added at the end.
Lifting paint and cleaning mistakes- When talking about water I mentioned that clean water will lift the pigment back off the page. If you make a mistake and it’s still wet, you can often lift the paint back up with a dry tissue, but if it’s already starting to dry, drop some clean water onto the area and let it soak for a second to release the pigment and then try lifting it off with a brush or tissue. If it is completely dry, you can still clean away some of the paint. Soak the area as above with some clean water, and use a soft brush, or if you are careful and your paper is strong, a bristle brush, to gently scrub the area.
Opaque and Transparent Colours- Not all brands are the same, but most generic watercolours have different kinds of colour, transparent and opaque. Some colours inherently have more white pigment in them, making them opaque when painted over, others are just the colour pigment which is like a glassy transparent wash when painted on. Depending on what kind they are will affect how the behave on the paper and what order you may want to paint your layers of colour.Here is a list of a few general colours and which type they are (this often can change depending on the brand, and the quality of the paints).
Transparent- Viridian, Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, Permanent rose, Alizarin crimson, Cadmium Lemon, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine, Raw Sienna, Naples Yellow
Opaque- Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, Cadmium scarlet, Cadmium orange, Cadmium yellow, cerulean blue