Learn Watercolor Painting With This Simple Guide

How To Start Watercoloring

I'm sharing everything as I deconstruct how I learned to paint in watercolor. Watercolor requires few art supplies and can be done virtually anywhere. Watercolor is easy to transport, dries fast, and easy to learn.

How To Start Painting Watercolor

To start watercolor painting, first gather the art supplies. Art supplies needed for watercoloring include watercolor paper, watercolor paints, pencil, paintbrushes, a white paint palette, and cups to hold water.

  1. Understanding The Materials
  2. Stretching Watercolor Paper
  3. Drawing The Art Composition
  4. Paint Mixing & Diluting
  5. Controlling The Water
  6. Creating Watercolor Washes Wet On Wet
  7. Adding Details Wet On Dry
  8. Matting & Framing Watercolor Paintings

Understanding The Materials

The first step in watercolor painting is understanding the art materials and techniques.

Watercolor Paint

Watercolor paint is made of color pigments mixed with gum arabic. Gum arabic is water-soluble. The best watercolors are professional-grade or labeled as extra fine and come in a tube. While watercolor paint sets are available, consider buying watercolor paints individually. Kits often contain white and black paints. Some artists avoid using white or black paint in a watercolor painting. Buying colors individually offers the advantage of designing a palette of colors best suited to the needs of the artist and subject matter.

Which Paper For Watercolor Painting?

Watercolor painting is done on watercolor paper. Watercolor paper is available individually by the sheet, on a pad, or in a block. Watercolor paper comes in many sizes, weights, and thicknesses. It's best to buy the best quality paperweight that one can afford.

Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper vs Hot-Pressed Watercolor Paper

The main difference between cold-pressed watercolor paper vs hot-pressed watercolor paper is the texture of the paper. Cold-pressed watercolor paper is created without heat. The cold-pressed paper has a texture or tooth.

Small dips in the paper's surface form little ditches, holding watercolor paint in place while it dries. Cold-pressed paper is very nice for watercolor painting.

Hot-pressed watercolor paper is created with heat. The heat smooths the paper's surface. The hot-pressed paper has less texture or tooth. Printmaking papers are often very smooth like hot-pressed paper.

Which Brushes For Watercolor Painting?

The best watercolor brushes have natural hair bristles. Kolinsky Sable paintbrushes are often considered the best paint brushes for watercolor.

Calligraphy paintbrushes often work well for beginners. Look for calligraphy brushes that have a bamboo handle and natural hair bristles that come to a point. You can often find inexpensive calligraphy brush sets made of natural animal hair. Natural bristle brushes soak up water which is ideal for water coloring. Choose a brush that soaks up water well. You want a brush to hold water within the bristles. For painting fine lines and details, look for bristles that come to a nice point.

Pencil For Watercolor

A hard pencil sharpened to a very sharp point can be used to lightly draw out a painting's composition before painting in watercolor. Pencil marks will not erase after they have been painted over with watercolor. Therefore, it's best to make pencil marks as light as possible. A kneaded eraser can soften pencil marks further, leaving light traces of the lines or boundaries to follow while painting.

Watercolor Painting Without Pencil

To create a watercolor painting without pencil marks, consider drawing the art composition with a watercolor pencil. Watercolor pencil marks are water-soluble, therefore the marks can be softened with water and worked into the painting.

Paint Palette

White is the best color for a watercolor paint palette. Virtually any white waterproof surface will work. Ceramic palettes are a nice option. Many watercolor palettes have small dips or cups, each holding a different color. This is convenient as it keeps the colors from touching or running into one another. Beginners and young painters often use a styrofoam egg carton as their first watercolor paint palette.

Cups To Hold Water

Two cups of clean water should be available. Some paint pigments are toxic, so it's important to use containers designated only for painting. Don't contaminate kitchen cups or glasses with paint. One cup of water should be used for diluting paints. The other cup of water should be used for cleaning brushes between colors. Keeping the water clean will keep the paint colors clean. Change the water often while painting to prevent muddy color.

Art Board For Stretching Paper

Watercolor paper should be fastened to a board prior to painting. The board offers flat support for the paper. The paper can be taped to the board with masking tape. A better option is to stretch the watercolor paper.

Why you should stretch watercolor paper:

Stretching watercolor paper prior to painting will prevent wrinkles in the final painting. The paper stretching process keeps the paper flat and tight, resulting in a nice, flat final watercolor painting.

Can I Flatten A Watercolor Painting?

It is difficult to flatten a watercolor painting once wrinkles have dried into the paper. Stretching watercolor paper before painting removes the need to flatten a watercolor painting. A slightly wrinkled painting may be pressed between heavy books for a period of time. This may help to flatten the painting slightly. The best practice is preventative. Stretch the paper before painting.

How To Stretch Watercolor Paper

Here's how to stretch watercolor paper.

Stretch watercolor paper to create a tight, smooth painting surface. Paper wrinkles when it gets wet. Even heavy-weight watercolor papers can buckle with heavy painting. The paper fibers expand as they absorb water. The expansion causes wrinkles to form in the paper. If the paper is allowed to dry on its own, the wrinkles will often become permanent.

How To Stretch Watercolor Paper:

  1. Dampen The Paper
  2. Manually Smooth Out Wrinkles
  3. Tape Paper To A Board
  4. Let Paper Dry

Dampen The Paper

Paper fibers expand when they get wet. Paper tends to wrinkle, cockle, or warp as the fibers expand. Stretching watercolor paper before painting prevents wrinkles from forming during the painting process.

To stretch watercolor paper, dampen both sides of the paper.

Manually Smooth Out Wrinkles

Place the damp paper onto a drawing board or wooden board. Center the paper on the board. The board should be several inches bigger than the paper leaving room for tape to be applied along each side.

Gently smooth out any wrinkles that may have formed. Manually smooth the majority of the wrinkles out by hand. Don't worry if you can't get all of them out. The remaining wrinkles should gradually disappear during the stretching process.

Tape Paper To A Board

Use gummed paper tape to secure the damp paper to a wooden board.

The adhesive side of gummed paper tape is activated by water. Use a clean, damp rag to wet the adhesive side of each piece of tape. Tape the paper to the board.

Cover about a quarter of an inch of the edge of the paper with the tape. Tape each side of the paper securely to your board. Cover about a quarter of an inch to half of an inch of each side of the paper's edge with the gummed paper tape.

Paper fibers expand when wet and shrink as they dry. As the paper dries, the fibers shrink, pulling firmly against the taped edges. The result will be a tight, smooth watercolor surface once the paper is fully dry.

Let The Paper Dry

Allow the stretched paper to dry fully before sketching the art composition on the paper

Keep the paper taped to the board throughout the painting process.

If new wrinkles form in the paper during the painting process, these wrinkles should flatten out each time the paper dries as long as it is still fastened to the board.

New wrinkles may form during wet paint layers. The new wrinkles should disappear as the paper dries between paint layers.

Stretching watercolor paper keeps a watercolor painting flat and wrinkle-free.

The paper should remain fastened to the board during the painting process. The tape will continue to hold the paper tight as the paper absorbs water again and again with each watercolor paint layer.

The finished painting can be freed from the board with a utility knife.

Drawing The Art Composition

Lightly sketch the art composition out prior to drawing. Keep the lines light. Pencil lines that have been painted over cannot be erased.

If you prefer a watercolor painting that contains no pencil marks, consider sketching the composition with a watercolor pencil. Watercolor pencil marks will soften with water during the painting process.

A kneaded eraser can also be used to lighten the initial sketch before painting. The drawing serves simply as guidelines. The artist will paint within the lines of the sketch to create the painting. The lines only need to be visible to serve as a guide for painting.

Paint Mixing & Diluting

Squeeze out a small amount of paint and add water to create a small puddle. Gather the colored water into your paintbrush and begin painting.

How to mix watercolor paint:

To mix colors, use the brush to gather a small amount of each color. Add water to the mix to create the desired color and value.

Keep the color puddles separated on the palette to prevent contaminating one color with another. Aim to mix only 2-3 colors together. Mixing too many paint colors together will make muddy-looking colors.

Controlling The Water

Control of the water is directly connected to the quality of the paintbrush being used. A good paintbrush will offer good control. A poor paintbrush can offer terrible control.

Wet only the area that you want to color. In watercolor painting, when you wet an area of the paper, a boundary is created where the wet paper meets dry paper. The paint color will not bleed past this boundary. If using too much water, the paint may run outside of the boundary, but it won't bleed outside of the boundary.

How To Do Watercolor Painting?

  1. Lightly Sketch The Composition
  2. Mask Off White Area
  3. Paint Large Areas First
  4. Layer Color
  5. Paint Details
  6. Remove Masking

Sketch The Composition

Begin a watercolor painting by lightly sketching out the composition onto the prepared watercolor paper. Include the shadow shapes and highlight areas. Imagine the subject as a paint-by-number. Lightly outline areas that will be broken into different colors.

Masking White Areas

Whites are left untouched in watercolor painting. The clean white of the paper becomes the highlights or white areas of a painting. These areas can be protected by masking materials.

Masking fluids are latex-like products that can be painted over an area. Masking fluid for watercolor is sometimes called liquid frisket. Masking fluid for watercolor can be applied with a paintbrush. Use an old paintbrush, one that you don't really care about.

Masking fluid often ruins paintbrushes. Clean the brush as soon as possible after applying the frisket or the paintbrush may be unsalvageable. The masking fluid dries on the painting and protects the paper during the painting process. The dried masking fluid can be rubbed off once the painting is finished and fully dry.

To remove masking frisket or masking fluid, simply rub it off with a clean, dry fingertip. The painting should be fully dry before removing the frisket.

I am seldom satisfied with the edge quality left by liquid friskets. I prefer to leave all-white areas untouched for a neater appearance. Areas protected by frisket often have uneven, messy edges once the frisket is removed. Practice using a frisket before relying on it in a painting.

Masking tape can be used to mask white areas. Cut the masking tape to shape and stick it over the area to be protected. Paint as usual. Pull the masking tape off once the painting is finished and fully dry.

Masking is optional. White areas can be preserved by never getting them wet. Carefully paint around these areas, preserving the clean, white paper surface as a highlight.

Paint Large Areas First

Apply watercolor washes to large areas first. Establish the overall color of an area. Dilute the paint appropriately to create light washes of color.

Layer Color

Color saturation will increase as layers are painted. Expect the first layers to be light in color and transparent. Slowly build up layers to intensify the color and darkness.

Paint Details

Once the painting has reached satisfactory levels in color and value, begin adding details. Details are often painted wet onto dry.

Painting on dry paper allows for sharp details and harder edges. The paint used for details is often diluted with less water making the saturation a bit stronger. Aim to apply transparent layers of watercolor, even for the darkest of darks.

Remove Masking

Remove masking materials once the finished painting is fully dry. Avoid leaving masking fluid on for long periods of time. If many weeks or months pass, masking fluid may become difficult to remove.

How To Watercolor Painting Techniques:

  1. Wet Into Wet Watercolor Painting Technique
  2. Wet Onto Dry Watercolor Painting Technique
  3. Dry Brushing Watercolor Painting Technique
  4. Creating Watercolor Washes Wet On Wet
  5. Adding Details Wet On Dry
Wet Into Wet Watercolor Painting Technique

Watercolor washes are often created by painting wet into wet. Select an area to work on.

Wet the area with a clean paintbrush and fresh, clean water. Take care to wet the boundaries precisely.

Watercolor pigments will bleed up to the edge where the water meets the dry paper. The color will stop at the boundary. Wetting a specific area is one technique or way of controlling the movement of the color. Once an area of the paper is wet, paint can be touched into the area.

Mix a desired color on the paint palette and dilute the color with water. Load this color into the bristles of the paintbrush. Allow the paintbrush to soak up the colored water.

Touch the paintbrush to the wet area of the paper. The color will bleed out of the brush and begin spreading across the wet paper. This is one form of the wet into wet painting technique. Paint can be brushed into the wet area or touched into the wet area.

Two colors can be painted side by side in the wet area. Allow the two colors to bleed into one another to form a gradient. Brushstrokes will not show when painting wet into wet. Allow one area to fully dry before wetting an adjoining area. Wetting an adjoining area too soon will destroy the boundary, allowing color to bleed into the new area.

Wet Onto Dry Watercolor Painting Technique

Wet onto dry watercolor painting is exactly as it sounds. Wet paint is painted onto dry paper. Wet onto dry is ideal for painting details. Sharp lines and hard edges can be created when painting wet onto dry.

Brushstrokes are more likely to show up when painting wet onto dry. When painting a large area, the paint may dry before the entire surface has been painted. This can result in brushstrokes or visible edges. If undesirable, these brushstrokes can be prevented by painting the first few layers as wet into wet, topped by detailed layers painted wet onto dry.

Dry Brushing Watercolor Painting Technique

The dry brush method is achieved by diluting the paint with less water. The diluted paint is then loaded onto the brush.

Before painting, the brush is wiped against a clean paint rag. This removes much of the water and paint, the remaining paint is brushed across the dry paper. Dry brushing on cold-pressed watercolor paper can produce a textured effect.

When dry brushing, the paint adheres only to the tips of the paper's textured, cold-pressed surface.

Creating Watercolor Washes Wet On Wet

Watercolor washes are created by applying diluted paint over large areas of the painting. Watercolor washes are often done with a large wide paintbrush called a mop brush.

Watercolor washes may be applied at the beginning of a painting to establish the overall color of an area. Watercolor washes may be applied in the final area to shadow an area. Payne's Grey is a great color to use for shadows. Diluted Payne's Grey can be painted over almost any color to create the look of a transparent shadow.

Adding Details Wet On Dry

Details are often painted wet on dry with a fine point paintbrush. Load a round brush with paint. Lightly wring out the bristles, removing much of the water and forming a nice point with your fingers.

Fine details can be painted this way. A higher-quality paintbrush is essential for painting details. A brush that maintains its shape makes it easier to create sharp lines and finer details.

Removing The Painting From The Board

A finished watercolor painting can be cut off of the board once it is fully dry. Simply cut through the gummed paper tape along the edge of the watercolor paper.

Run your hand over the tape to feel where the edges of the paper are. Use a utility knife to cut through the tape. The remaining gummed paper tape can be removed from the board. Soak the gummed paper tape with water to soften the tape. Scrape off the remaining tape from the board.

Matting & Framing Watercolor Paintings

Watercolor paintings are usually framed under glass. The painting is surrounded by a cut piece of matboard. The purpose of the mat board is to keep the painting from touching the picture frame glass.

Is Watercolor Painting Hard?

Is watercolor painting difficult? Watercolor is no harder than other painting mediums. Each has its own rules and techniques. Learn the techniques. The medium will become familiar over time.

All painting is hard to some degree. To make watercolor easy for beginners, consider painting simple shapes and compositions.

Consider a simple still life of one or two simple objects. Light the object from one side. Focus on painting the shadow shapes and establishing the form. Complex scenes and subjects are more challenging and can be tackled with time and experience.

Do Watercolor Paints Expire?

I do not believe watercolor paints expire. Sometimes watercolor paint dries up and becomes hard in the tube. Simply cut the tube open, break off a piece of paint and soak it in a small amount of water. Watercolor paint will rehydrate and become fluid again when you add water.

Which Watercolor Is Best For Painting?

The best watercolor for painting is professional-grade paint that comes in tubes. Professional watercolor paint straight from the tube is fluid, highly pigmented, and finely ground.

Look for professional-grade watercolor paint tubes or extra-fine watercolor paint tubes. Professional watercolor paint is of better quality. Extra fine watercolors are finely milled. The paint quality they produce is less grainy.

Lesser quality watercolor paints often dry to a grainy texture. Poor quality watercolor paints can be less saturated, resulting in very light pastel color. Get a better color intensity and texture with professional or extra-fine watercolor paints.

Watercolor pans are dried watercolor paint. They require more water to wet the paint. Watercolor pans are often lower quality and produce less saturated pastel colors. Higher quality watercolor pans are available, but professional, extra-fine watercolor paint in a tube is a smart, reliable choice.

Do Watercolor Paintings Fade

Some watercolor paints fade. Paints are put through lightfast testing by the paint manufacturer. Each paint tube should have a lightfastness rating on the label.

Watercolor pigments that fade are often called fugitive colors. Fugitive colors have been known to fade over time. To prevent color fading, choose paint colors that have an excellent lightfastness rating. Alizarin Crimson is an example of a fugitive color. If the color name includes "permanent", the color has likely been reformulated to prevent fading. Permanent Rose is an example.

Look for the ASTM lightfast rating on paint colors.

A common cause of watercolor fading is exposure to light. Do not hang the watercolor painting in direct sunlight. Sunlight is known to fade paint colors.

Watercolor Painting With Salt

Have some fun experimenting. Try watercolor painting with salt. Paint an area of the paper with highly saturated color. While the color is still wet, sprinkle coarse grains of salt onto the paper.

Course salt has larger grains than the common table sale. Table salt will work, but the result will be less impressive. Let the paint dry without disturbing the salt. The salt crystals will absorb color, letting speckles of the white paper or underlying color peek through.


Learning to paint watercolor can be fun. Is watercolor hard to learn?

Learning to watercolor is similar to learning other types of painting.

Painting is a rule-based domain. Each type of painting has a set of rules defining how best to use the medium. Learning time-tested rules, techniques, and methods can make it easier to excel in watercolor.

Which type of painting is best for beginners? Watercolor is a great medium for beginners.

The art supplies needed for watercoloring are minimal. Watercolor is easy to transport. It can be done virtually anywhere. Watercolor is similar to drawing. The composition is usually drawn out onto the paper. Watercolor is then used to color in the drawing. The overall method is similar to how children learn to draw and color. Watercolor painting is a rather intuitive painting method.

For best results, consider stretching watercolor paper before painting, use professional-grade watercolor paint from the tube. There is no need to use white or black watercolor paint.

Learn to mask or preserve the white areas, and let the paper color become the highlights. Consider replacing black paint with a mixture of Prussian Blue and Payne's Grey. Use paint colors to mix deep darks which often appear richer than black. Build up deep, intense color by painting layers. Use the best natural hair bristle paintbrushes one can afford. Better brushes offer more control and make it easier to make fine lines.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones