7 Tips for the Beginner Watercolorist

Learning a new art skill isn’t always as easy as 1-2-3. But with an understanding of the fundamentals such as color theory, and proper tools, you’ll be able to grow and improve.

Today, I want to offer 7 helpful tips especially if you’re a beginner (but want to improve in your skill) with watercolors. These are tips I found helpful as I started on my journey. So I hope they are beneficial to you, too!

7 wc tips

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1. Use quality paints

When you’re a beginner, you don’t want to spend too much money because you’re not sure if you’ll be keeping up with it. However, as it is with any skill or hobby, it’s all about using the right tools. So we’ll start with paints.

First, don’t be fooled into thinking that you need a million colors. The beauty of watercolors is that it’s all about mixing and using varying amount of water to achieve different colors and shades. If you have 10-12 basic colors, you’re good to go. My first set was the Winsor and Newton Pocket Set that has 12 colors. Since then I’ve acquired additional brands and also tube paints. But for a beginner, this is very good quality paints, for an affordable price.

Winsor and Newton Pocket Set

Once you obtain your paint set, create a swatch of the colors to show the various shades the color can produce. Some colors will seem more transparent than others. Trust me, you will reference this swatch often. I didn’t write the names on my swatch, but that would be helpful. In the Winsor and Newton Pocket Set, the colors are: lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium red pale hue, crimson Alizarin, ultramarine, intense blue, emerald green, sap green, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and china white.

WN swatch

2. Use the right brush(es)

Using the right brush is just as important as using quality paints! Brushes are made either from real animal hair (sable, squirrel, goat, etc.) or are synthetic. As a beginner, I would recommend purchasing synthetic as they are cheaper. However, I would not buy a large set of a variety of brushes just so that you have as many brushes as possible. With watercolor, sometimes less is more.

Of the different shapes of brushes, I’d recommend purchasing round brushes as they are the most versatile. You can achieve broad strokes as well as fine details.

Each brush is also designated with a number that indicates the size (note that size will vary slightly between manufacturers). For a beginner, I’d recommend purchasing a size 2 and a size 6 (or 8). The size 2 will be great for fine details, and the 6 (or 8) will be great for broad strokes as well as the details.

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Most of my brushes are Grumbacher watercolor brushes which have synthetic bristles. But they are so soft and smooth. They’re very durable and keep their shape well.


Grumbacher Size 6


Grumbacher Size 2

3. Use watercolor paper

This may sound self-explanatory, but there are some who use mix media or other types of paper thinking that it’s sufficient. However, due to the fact that watercolors use water, if the paper is too thin, it will warp significantly and turn your painting into a crinkled mess.

To avoid this, use paper that is at least 140lb (300gsm). Watercolor paper come in three textures: hot-pressed (smooth), cold-pressed (textured), and rough (very heavy texture/grainy). The most commonly used paper is cold-pressed, and you’ll find them in your craft stores or online.

For the beginner, the Canson brand is sufficient to achieve good watercolor paintings. Unless you are using a ton of water, the 140lb will be plenty thick enough.


Canson watercolor pad

4. Use sketch paper, and paint up to the pencil line

Watercolor paper should not be manipulated too much before the actual painting takes place. The more you touch the paper and transfer the oils from your skin to the paper, sketch, and erase, the more damage you do to the paper, which will affect how the paint is applied later on.

First, sketch with pencil and trace with pen on a separate piece of paper. Then either use a lightbox or a brightly lit window to lightly sketch on the watercolor paper, or re-sketch to the best of your ability. Use an HB pencil to draw even more lightly.

Watercolors are somewhat transparent, so if you don’t paint over your pencil lines, then they will show through. Another tip for avoiding this is to use your pencil lines more like guidelines rather than actual border lines. That means when you go to paint, don’t paint up to the pencil line, but stop just short of the line so that you can erase the pencil line once the paint dries.

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5. Paint in layers

Watercolor painting is often done in layers. The first is a light wash of the base color. For example, if you’re painting a red rose, the first layer would be a light pink wash. From there, you can then erase pencil lines if necessary, and build from it, adding darker washes, and details.

After the first layer, your painting might just look like blobs of color. But be patient, and with each new layer, your painting will come to life.

6. Understand the basics of color theory

As much as I’d love to just paint whatever I want and use whatever colors, watercolors require at the very least, a basic understand of color theory. And this isn’t just for the sake of the painting’s composition, but also for mixing colors.

After creating your paint set swatch, create another swatch of mixed colors. Spend some time taking notes about which colors you used, maybe how you would use the colors, etc. This will help save some time in the future when you want to produce a specific color, but can’t remember how you got that color before. It also gives you the opportunity to better understand how your paint colors behave and mix with others as different manufacturers vary slightly even if the paint color has the exact same name.

Mixed colors swatch

7. Practice, practice, practice!

Another obvious tip, but really, practice makes perfect. Trying to be a professional artist from the get go is unrealistic, but still an attainable goal. You need to be patient with the journey, forgive yourself when you make mistakes, and learn and grow from them. When I first started, I never imagined that I would be where I am now. I was too scared to use real watercolors, that I faked it and used watercolor pencils! But now, I’m glad that I spent my hard-earned money on quality paints, brushes, and paper, and spent long hours in the middle of the night painting, wasting paper, crying, and rejoicing, because I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t gone through all of that.

In this era of instant gratification and time lapse videos, it’s tempting to think that anyone can become a pro overnight. But it takes months, maybe even years. Be patient, and enjoy the process! (And this applies to any other hobby or skill!)

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Did you find these tips helpful? Do you have any other beginner watercolorist tips?

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