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How to Approach Watercolor Painting As a Beginner

Being a beginner means you need to start somewhere and that's fine; just take it slowly and enjoy your new painting skills! Watercolor painting is both enjoyable and a bit frustrating at times. It all depends on how you approach it. It is one of the most versatile mediums to work in. You can paint from very controlled and detailed, to very loose and impressionistic. It is recommended that you don't begin with the idea of creating a masterpiece your first time! Take small steps and learn in stages.

You will have to do a bunch of painting before you feel completely comfortable with the medium. Don't give up if your first attempts are less than perfect. It takes time and repeated effort to get comfortable with painting in watercolors. But it is worth it!

Many instructors begin with the "wet-into-wet" technique, but this article will introduce you to the most common technique, "wet-into-dry", meaning a wet brush into dry paper.

Let's begin with using watercolors!


  1. Image titled LayOutPaper Step 1
    Lay a sheet of watercolor paper out on a table. Draw some very simple design on it with light pencil marks. A square or circle is a good idea.
  2. Image titled DabOfPaint Step 2
    Put a small dab of any color of watercolor onto the white palette plate.
  3. Image titled WetBrush Step 3
    Get your brush lightly wet. If there is too much water in the brush, dab it on the towel to soak up the excess, or lightly shake the excess out of the brush.
  4. Image titled DropWaterOnPaint Step 4
    Drop a couple of drops of water (from your paintbrush) onto the dab of watercolor that you have on your palette plate. Don't use too much — just enough to make the watercolor liquid.
  5. Image titled PaintSquare Step 5
    Dip your brush into the watercolor liquid on your palette, and lift a small amount of color onto your brush. Next, paint this inside the shape drawn on your paper. If the paint is too thick, and stays in one place, dip your brush into the water again and add a little more water to the paint on the paper. Keep experimenting with different amounts of water versus paint mixtures to get a feel for just the right amount of water versus paint you desire. If you want a "dry brush" look, you will use less water on your brush versus the amount of paint. If you want a very wet flowing look, you will want more water versus paint. Fill in the shape with color on your paper.
  6. Image titled LetDry Step 6
    Let the picture dry.
  7. Image titled TapeCorner Step 7
    Take a piece of watercolor paper, tape down the edges firmly on a drawing board. Using a big brush or a sponge, get it wet all over. Then try painting into that with different colors. As the paper dries, observe the different ways the paint reacts with how much water there is on the paper.
  8. Image titled StripesOfColour Step 8
    You can get a very smooth background light color by going wet into wet. Colors mingle with each other on the paper easily and some colors migrate more than others. Try laying down stripes of blue, then a stripe of yellow or gold next to it, then a stripe of red after the gold when it's very wet. You'll see the mixtures your colors create as they form a smooth gradation.
  9. Image titled ExperimentWithWetness Step 9
    Try letting it dry until the sheen is gone but the paper is still damp. Now your strokes will still be soft edged but a little more defined. Once the color's down, let it dry completely and then add details wet on dry.
  10. Image titled TrySimpleScene Step 10
    Use a very simple subject at first that has broad areas of color. Mix some sky blue. Mark some hills and a tree in your sketch lines. First paint them in loosely wet in wet. Then start adding some large details wet on damp. Finally add all the smallest details with wet on dry when it's completely dry.
  11. Image titled CheckForDryness Step 11
    You can tell when the paper is completely dry because it will no longer feel cool. Hold the back of your hand over the painting, but do not touch it. It takes a little practice to really feel the dampness this way, but touching your painting could damage it or leave skin oils on it. Don't remove the tape around the edges until it's completely flat and dry. The tape is what's keeping the paper flat or flattening it out again when it bubbles up.
  12. Image titled UseWaterColourBlock Step 12
    You can use a watercolor block that's gummed on all four sides like the top of a writing pad instead of taping your paper down. It's a little more expensive but very convenient for a beginner.
  13. Image titled TryUsingSalt Step 13
    Try using a big wash — lots of light color — in an area. Then shake salt in it before it dries. You'll get some beautiful effects that you can use to make snowflakes in the sky or lichen on rocks.
  14. Image titled UseCrayonAsMask Step 14
    Try drawing on the paper with a white colored pencil, wax crayon or candle end to see the lines show up when you watercolor over them.
  15. Image titled TryMaskingShapes Step 15
    Try cutting out shapes in masking tape and painting inside those shapes to get exact shapes. Anything you mask with masking tape will stay clean and white.
  16. Image titled PaintDarksFirst Step 16
    Always paint watercolor paintings by painting the dark areas first and paint around the light areas. Paint around or mask anything you need to keep white. Getting used to "negative painting" like this will also help you get more accurate outlines to objects than trying to draw the object itself. Try drawing just the shape of the space around the cup exactly and the shape of the space within the handle instead of drawing the cup. You'll see a big difference in accuracy!
  17. Image titled TryGlazing Step 17
    Try "glazing." Once a watercolor mark or area is completely dry, mix a thin wash of another color and paint over it quickly. It will change the color and, if you do it carefully, won't disturb the details you painted under it. A light gold glaze on sunlit areas in a landscape can make the sunlight look much richer.
  18. Image titled Research Step 18
    Read books and articles on watercolor and try the ideas in them. Watch videos on YouTube and other places to get ideas for watercolor techniques. Then paint something you really like. A good type of painting that translates well to watercolor is Sumi-E or Japanese ink painting — those strokes and techniques are just as beautiful in watercolor.


  • If you use good all-rag watercolor paper like Arches, don't throw out any bad paintings you do. You can always paint over it again with acrylics or gouache or use it as a background for a pastel painting. It also will handle better than cheaper papers and if you do create something beautiful, it will last much longer without yellowing.
  • Don't worry if your first few paintings aren't as good as you expected. It takes lots of time to learn how to paint with watercolors. It's not something you can learn in a week.
  • Watercolor pan sets are convenient for painting outdoors or on trips. They're not as easy to mix large amounts of color with, but very useful for doing wet onto dry especially. A good travel brush with a sharp point on a round in medium or large size helps with these sets, sometimes the brush that comes with them is way too small for anything but details. This and a postcard size watercolor block can go in your pocket to practice painting on your lunch hour at work or school. Some of the ones Winsor & Newton makes are fancier than others and include extras like their own water bottle, extra palette flaps that fold out and so on.
  • One of the best makers of watercolor paints is Winsor & Newton. The "Cotman" brand is for use by beginners. It is less expensive and thus you don't feel as guilty using it in large quantities. Winsor & Newton "Cotman" watercolors are excellent quality for student watercolor paints.
  • Wet-into-wet techniques are also good and usually used before wet-into-dry techniques if you combine them in the same painting.
  • Find the type of paper that suits your style of painting. Different papers have different "personalities". Arches paper can take a lot of abuse. You can even wash your painting off the paper after you allow the paper to dry and re-use it.
  • Don't throw away empty half pans when you use up the paint. You can refill them from tube watercolors much more cheaply than buying new half pans, and if you rinse it completely, you can change color on it too once you find out what colors you like most.
  • Don't rush to purchase the most expensive paper or pure sable brushes. You can spend a large amount of money on supplies, but this isn't necessary! Good synthetic brushes, a small palette of good paint (artist grade paint actually works better than student grade) and 140lb cold press watercolor paper are the best things to get started. Begin small, and add supplies as you need them.
  • Watercolors come in either "pan", pencil, or tube form. There are also watercolor crayons. This article uses watercolor from the tube.


  • Never leave your brush sitting in the jar of water with its bristles face down. If you get a brush cleaner jar that has a coiled spring over it, though, you can hang it hairs down in the water as long as they never touch the bottom. If you get Chinese brushes, shape them with your fingers and hang them from a nail or hook with the loop on the other end, that's a good way to help brushes keep their shape well.
  • Don't use the same brushes for water based paints (watercolor, acrylic, gouache) and oil based paints (oil painting, oil pastels, anything with thinner.) Once a brush has been used with oils once, it's an oils brush. Label the handle with tape so you know the difference.
  • Wash your brushes with gentle dish soap or a brush cleaning soap like Masters Brush Cleaner & Conditioner. This reduces staining but some colors still stain. More importantly it will make your brushes last a lot longer.
  • Don't suck your brush to bring it back to a point or a flat edge. Shape it with your fingers. Some artist grade watercolor pigments are toxic and it's better to never get in the habit of sucking brushes.

Things You'll Need

  • Several tubes of different colors of water colors
  • Watercolor paper 300 lb. (300lb won't buckle under a lot of water compared to the other weights)
  • A watercolor brush (size 8)
  • Two water jars
  • A white plastic or china plate for your palette
  • Roll of paper towels or old clean dishrags.

Article Info

Categories: Watercolors