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Baby Steps to Beginning Watercolor Painting

Updated on April 14, 2016
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How to Paint Watercolor

So you would like to try your hand at watercolor painting? Here are three baby steps to take before you can take off full speed ahead:

  1. Assemble the proper supplies
  2. Familiarize yourself with the brushes and paints
  3. Practice a simple landscape

Step #1: Assemble Supplies

To begin, you can start with basics and still produce lovely paintings. Here's what you'll need:

Basic Brushes

Buy four good quality sable or synthetic watercolor brushes. You can add more later if you wish. I prefer sable brushes, but some artists like the synthetic ones because they are not quite as soft.

  • #4 round
  • #8 round
  • #10 round
  • 1" flat wash brush

Good Watercolor Paper

Good paper is expensive, but it will make a difference. Get at least 140 lb weight paper in a watercolor block or single sheets. Look for 100% cotton paper that is acid free. You can use less expensive paper for your practice, but you'll find that every painting looks better on fine quality paper. I like Arches or Windsor Newton 140 lb. or 300 lb. watercolor blocks.

Palette

You can use a large, plain white dinner plate to start out or purchase a white plastic palette with at least six or eight wells and a flat place to mix your paints. Later, you may want to invest in a covered plastic palette, as it will be easier to protect your paints from dust and reuse them.

Water Jar

Use a glass or plastic container that holds about a cup of water. You may even want two water jars, one for rinsing your brush and a clean one for wetting your paper.

Paper Towels or a Soft Cotton Cloth

Fold up a cloth or some white paper towels to keep near your palette to blot excess water or paint off your brush.

Watercolor supplies for a beginner: Paints, brushes, and paper.
Watercolor supplies for a beginner: Paints, brushes, and paper. | Source

Paint

Watercolor paints come in pans or tubes. A basic set will contain eight to ten colors. I prefer tube colors, but good quality pan colors are fine. Purchase student grade or professional grade watercolors. You will find that each artist has their own idea of what a basic set contains. This is my list of basic colors:

  • new gamboge yellow
  • yellow ocher
  • burnt sienna
  • sepia
  • cadmium red
  • alizarin crimson
  • cerulean blue
  • hookers green
  • Payne's gray
  • a neutral tint

Fold up a cloth or some white paper towels to keep near your palette to blot excess water or paint off your brush.

Start with eight to ten basic watercolors. I like Windsor Newton tubes, professional grade.
Start with eight to ten basic watercolors. I like Windsor Newton tubes, professional grade. | Source

Step #2: Become Familiar with Your Materials

Before starting your first painting, it is important to become familiar with the way your paints, bushes, and paper work together. Practicing a few different methods will help you when you are aiming for different textures, smooth blending of colors, or a gradient of one color.

Set up your palette.

  • If you are using a plate, then just squeeze a few colors on the edge, spaced far enough apart so they don't run together. If you have a palette with wells, you can squeeze each of your colors into one of the wells.

Test the dilution of color.

  • With a wet brush, pick up some of the paint and swirl it around in the center of your palette. Add more water with your brush if the color doesn't move around freely. Stroke a few strokes of paint onto a practice piece of paper and try spreading it out to produce a gradient from darker to lighter.

Experiment with different brush strokes.

  • Try some broad, flat strokes with your flat wash brush. Try dipping one of your round brushes in water and turning it to make a fine tip. Pick up some paint and draw some fine lines.
  • With the same brush, pick up some color on the flat edge of the brush and use just the edge to create lines or grasses.
  • Load a round brush with more paint and use it on its side to create a texture that skips across the paper.
  • Pick up a bit of paint on the tip of a round brush, spread the bristles flat, and try dry brushing on dry paper for a feathery look.

A plastic watercolor palette with a lid will protect paints when not in use.
A plastic watercolor palette with a lid will protect paints when not in use. | Source

Step #3: Practice Basic Techniques

Here are a few basic techniques you should practice before attempting a painting:

Broad, flat strokes for large, smooth areas.

Use your 1" wash brush to mix a color with some water, making a puddle of paint on your palette. Pick up the color with your dampened brush and brush a smooth area with the color.

Gradient.

A monochrome gradient is painted by using strong color at first, then adding water to thin and lighten the color. Since you do not add white to watercolors, you will get light colors by applying thinner application of the same color.

Use the edge of a flat brush for sharp lines.

Make sharp, dark lines with the edge of a 3/4" flat brush. This technique is excellent for grasses or deep, straight shadows. Load the edge of your brush with color and practice using the edge of the brush to make deep lines.

Since you do not add white to watercolors, you will get light colors by applying thinner application of the same color.

Practice broad strokes with 3/4" flat brush, experimenting with a gradient or a solid wash of color. You can also use the edge of brush for fine lines such as grasses.
Practice broad strokes with 3/4" flat brush, experimenting with a gradient or a solid wash of color. You can also use the edge of brush for fine lines such as grasses. | Source

Painting on Dry Paper

Painting on dry paper is a good way to get intense colors, detail, and texture in your work. As long as your brush does not have too much water on it, the paint will stay where you put it. You can use very tiny brushes to add fine detail or larger ones to create texture in wood or trees. Combining dry brush techniques with rough paper will leave white areas in the painting that will spark it with light.

Hint: If you intend to paint a soft background behind a building or tree with a lot of texture, be sure to do that first with a wet-on-wet technique. Your background should be perfectly dry before starting on the textured areas or they will run.

Combining dry brush techniques with rough paper will leave white areas in the painting that will spark it with light.

Using the Point of a Round Brush

A good quality round brush will form a point if it is rolled slightly as it is loaded with paint. Use a light touch to paint fine straight or curved lines with the pointed tip of your round brush.

Painting Textures with Dry Brush Techniques

Painting with a fairly dry brush onto dry paper is a great way to create rough textures. Load a damp #10 round brush fairly heavily with a dark color. Use the brush on its side and pull it up along a tree trunk or a barn board. The paint will skip slightly, giving some very dark texture with white highlights.

Use a #10 round on its side for bark texture and feathery strokes on leaves and feathers. The tip of the #10 round will give you fine lines.
Use a #10 round on its side for bark texture and feathery strokes on leaves and feathers. The tip of the #10 round will give you fine lines. | Source

Practice Wet-On-Wet Painting to Blend

  • Use your 1" flat brush to wet a 6 inch square of paper. If the paper is too wet, blot gently with a paper towel to pick up excess water.
  • With the same brush, mix some gamboge yellow with water and apply to the top one third of the area.
  • In the middle third, paint a fairly wet strip of sap green.
  • On the bottom third, paint a strip of Payne's gray.
  • Pick up the paper and tilt it slightly to let the colors blend into each other.

Playing with many colors on wet paper! Abstract style watercolor is an experiment of wet-on-wet painting technique.
Playing with many colors on wet paper! Abstract style watercolor is an experiment of wet-on-wet painting technique. | Source

Step-By-Step Practice Landscape

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tape paper to board, then use 1" brush to wet paper evenly with clear water.With the same brush, paint the sky blue. Add some alizarin crimson as you move towards the horizon.Use a #10 round brush to roughly paint in some Payne's gray clouds on the wet paper.Paint a wet yellow ocher to strip at the horizon line.Under the yellow ocher, paint a strip of sap green. The colors will flow together.With the #10 round brush, mix some of the green and gray together.Use a hair dryer to dry your paper.Use the edge of your flat brush to pull out some grasses from the deeper green areas.Add a few clusters of tree trunks along the horizon, then paint in some foliage on the distant trees. Deepen green shadows.Using a natural tint on a round brush (fairly heavy and dry), roughly paint in a tree trunk and some branches. If you wish to paint some foliage on the tree, wet irregular areas where the leaves will go and drop in some bits of yellow ocher in the branches and on the ground.While the paper and color is still wet, add some areas of cadmium red and sap green. The colors should flow together slightly.
Tape paper to board, then use 1" brush to wet paper evenly with clear water.
Tape paper to board, then use 1" brush to wet paper evenly with clear water. | Source
With the same brush, paint the sky blue. Add some alizarin crimson as you move towards the horizon.
With the same brush, paint the sky blue. Add some alizarin crimson as you move towards the horizon. | Source
Use a #10 round brush to roughly paint in some Payne's gray clouds on the wet paper.
Use a #10 round brush to roughly paint in some Payne's gray clouds on the wet paper. | Source
Paint a wet yellow ocher to strip at the horizon line.
Paint a wet yellow ocher to strip at the horizon line. | Source
Under the yellow ocher, paint a strip of sap green. The colors will flow together.
Under the yellow ocher, paint a strip of sap green. The colors will flow together. | Source
With the #10 round brush, mix some of the green and gray together.
With the #10 round brush, mix some of the green and gray together. | Source
Use a hair dryer to dry your paper.
Use a hair dryer to dry your paper. | Source
Use the edge of your flat brush to pull out some grasses from the deeper green areas.
Use the edge of your flat brush to pull out some grasses from the deeper green areas. | Source
Add a few clusters of tree trunks along the horizon, then paint in some foliage on the distant trees. Deepen green shadows.
Add a few clusters of tree trunks along the horizon, then paint in some foliage on the distant trees. Deepen green shadows. | Source
Using a natural tint on a round brush (fairly heavy and dry), roughly paint in a tree trunk and some branches.
Using a natural tint on a round brush (fairly heavy and dry), roughly paint in a tree trunk and some branches. | Source
If you wish to paint some foliage on the tree, wet irregular areas where the leaves will go and drop in some bits of yellow ocher in the branches and on the ground.
If you wish to paint some foliage on the tree, wet irregular areas where the leaves will go and drop in some bits of yellow ocher in the branches and on the ground. | Source
While the paper and color is still wet, add some areas of cadmium red and sap green. The colors should flow together slightly.
While the paper and color is still wet, add some areas of cadmium red and sap green. The colors should flow together slightly. | Source

Painting a Practice Landscape Using Wet and Dry Techniques

Painting on wet paper can give backgrounds and skies a delicate blend of colors that flow into each other. Wet-on-wet painting is a good technique for landscape. With a little practice, you can learn to put just the right amount of water on your paper to achieve the look you want. Here is an exercise to try painting wet-on-wet for a delicate sky:

1. Unless you are using a watercolor block, tape your paper to a flat board as shown.

2. Use the large, flat wash brush to wet down your whole piece of paper and spread the water so that the paper is wet, but there aren't any puddles.

3. Choose a sky color. (For this exercise, I used cobalt blue.) With a 1" flat brush, paint a smooth coat in the sky, darker at the top of the paper and lightening up as you get to the horizon line. Now dip your dampened brush into a neutral tint or Payne's gray and add a few cloudy areas. Do not brush it around. If your paper is still fairly damp, the gray will blend into the blue while still keeping the cloudy shapes. (See illustration.)

4. Let background dry naturally or with a hair dryer before continuing.

Hint: Don't overwork the sky or clouds. Once the color is on the paper, let the colors flow into one another for a natural, soft look.

5. Use the edge of your flat brush to pull out some grasses from the deeper green areas.

6. Add a few clusters of tree trunks along the horizon, then paint in some foliage on the distant trees. Deepen green shadows.

7. Using natural tint on a round brush (fairly heavy and dry), roughly paint in a tree trunk and some branches.

8. If you wish to paint some foliage on the tree, wet irregular areas where the leaves will go and drop in some bits of yellow ocher in the branches and on the ground.

9. While the paper and color is still wet, add some areas of cadmium red and sap green. The colors should flow together slightly.

Desert Sunset Watercolor by Stephanie Henkel.
Desert Sunset Watercolor by Stephanie Henkel. | Source

Conclusion

When you feel comfortable with your supplies, go on to try painting some simple subjects or landscapes. For a simple exercise in painting wet-on-wet backgrounds, see How to Paint a Desert Sunset Landscape.

Copyright ©2016 by Stephanie Henkel


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    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Steph, You are an artist of quite a few trades. Your tips and advice could possibly produce the next Thomas Kinkade! Well done! I want to paint now. Well, not now, but soon! :)

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Sunshine - You do make me smile! No reason you can't paint whenever the spirit moves you. If you've never tried it before, you may surprise yourself! Thanks for your comment!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Steph, I am here for support. I can't draw a stick man without it looking like an outhouse! However, you draw very well, and I enjoyed the tutorial....nice job!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Billybuc - You have so many other talents! Thanks for your support - I always love to have you visit and comment!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      This is a really excellent lesson! It is tempting to try with all this to come back to. Thank you. Sharing!

      Voted up. Will have to come back to share, there is no share button! Guess it is a new Hp deal...sorry.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Jackie Lynnley - Thanks so much for your kind comments and for the votes up! This hub has only been up an hour or two, and I think it might take a day for the share button to show up. Thanks for trying, though! :)

    • Rosemay50 profile image

      Rosemary Sadler 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

      This is an excellent step by step tutorial. I dabbled a little many, many years ago but this hub has inspired me to have another go. Thank you

      Thumbs up and shared

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 4 years ago from Brazil

      I always thought that art just wasn't my forte. This is just what I needed to get me started.

      You have explained it so even a beginner can understand it.

      Thank you.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Rosemary50 - Sometimes we just need a little inspiration to get started in a favorite hobby again. I'm so glad that you've decided to have another go at watercolor painting and hope you e another aspect of enjoy unleashing another aspect of your creativity! Thanks so much for the read, comments and the share!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Blond Logic - It's amazing what hidden talents we have that are just waiting to be discovered, and I'm so glad that you will give watercolor painting a try. Happy Painting!

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 4 years ago from South Carolina

      Wow! What a great tutorial on learning how to paint with watercolors and how exciting that it looks like you're turning it into a series.

      Voted up across the board except for funny.

      Hub Hugs,

      Gail

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Although I do love the stark, bright colors of acrylics on canvas, I can also appreciate the beautiful hues and blends of water colors. This is a great little tutorial on how to get started.

      Love the desert painting! It would look good on my wall :-)

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Happyboomernurse - I am hoping to do additional tutorials for beginning watercolor painting, and have a few projects in mind. This is my first (baby steps!). Thanks so much for stopping in to comment and vote!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Austinstar - I also love the bright colors of acrylics, but have found that I can achieve more softer, more delicate paintings with watercolor. I think that some artists do very vibrant watercolors...it's a matter of style. Well, if you love the desert painting, I'm sure you can do one that is similar! :) Thanks for stopping in to comment!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Stephanie, wow your desert sunset water colour is lovely. I can't paint for toffee and I admire anyone who can! This hub will be a auseful starting point for those more artistic than I :o)

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      jools99 - I'm glad you liked my desert sunset watercolor. My next hub gives instructions on how to paint one yourself! :) Thanks so much for stopping by and for your nice comments!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great hub very beautifully done and explained . Can't wait to see more of your beautiful paintings. Keep up the good work !

      Vote up and more !!!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Kashmir56 - I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub on beginning watercolor painting! It was fun to do, and I hope that it will inspire some people who have been wanting to give it a try to get out their paints and brushes. Thanks so much for visiting and for our comments!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this guide for getting started with watercolor. This is an area I have not yet ventured into, but I find this practical and encouraging.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      RTalloni - I'm so glad you found this guide to beginning watercolor painting useful. Perhaps one day you'll give it a try. Thanks so much for stopping in to read and comment!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Years ago I did a little watercoloring, but I just couldn't master it. I don't think I can relax when I paint. This is a great tutorial.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Glimmer Twin FanT - Sometimes we are trying so hard to accomplish a finished piece that it takes the fun out of it. I find that playing some favorite music and just dabbling paints and water on scrap paper is a good way to loosen up, but a lot depends on your style of painting. Each one of us is different and expects something different from our art. Glad you liked the tutorial. Perhaps you'll give watercolor painting a try again someday. Thanks for stopping in to comment!

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Thanks for this detailed, comprehensive resource! Your work is beautiful.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Randomcreative - Thanks so much for checking out and commenting on my hub on beginning watercolor painting!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      This is a great way for me to make the plunge. I have shamelessly watched Bob Ross and his instructions on painting man times. He makes it seem so easy but when I pick up a brush, alas, no such beauty emerges from the end of my brush. Maybe it is not the bursh's fault???

      you have provided suggstions that sound as if even I can follow them :)

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      pstraubie48 - I do hope that my instructions give you the confidence to give water color painting another try - it is worth the effort! Good brushes do make the painting a little easier,but some people seem to be able to paint well with any kind of brush... Thanks so much for stopping in to comment!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Very useful, Stephanie. I didn't read this one until after the desert painting hub. The steps are easy to understand and encouraging. I think I will give it a try. :) Rated UP/U

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Denise - Good for you! I'd love to see your paintings once you get started. Too bad we don't live a little closer to each other...it would be so much fun to paint together!

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      I really enjoyed this hub! I'm a watercolorist too. I really appreciate the way you gave great instruction in easy to understand terms. I also appreciate that these instructions did not seem in the least intimidating. I think many people would draw and paint if they weren't afraid of failure. It seems we have both learned the only failure in art is failure to try!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Dbro - These instructions are really basic, but I hope will be helpful to the very beginner. I appreciate your taking time to read and comment on this from an experienced painter's point of view. I've enjoyed many of your articles on art! Thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image

      AudraLeigh 4 years ago

      I am impressed on how you outlined this for people like me to read. I never new water color paint came in tubes. I only thought they came in those little plates with the circles. I would really, really like to give this type of painting a try sometime. For now, I will admire your work. Thanks for writing this!!! I am sharing this!!!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      Hi AudraLeigh, Water color paints come in many forms: liquid, cake and tubes. The cake type is usually seen in children's water color sets, but they are also available in higher quality paints. I prefer the tube paints. I'd love to see you try watercolor painting sometime, especially with your number writing series. Thanks for stopping in and sharing! :)

    • profile image

      Leatrice 3 years ago

      I am so happy to find your site.I really want to try water color painting.

      Your instructions look simple for a beginner can't wait to start.

      Thankyou for sharing.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
      Author

      Stephanie Henkel 3 years ago from USA

      Leatrice - I'm pleased that you found this article useful. Much luck with your water color painting!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 3 years ago from United States

      What a perfect primer for the novice! Thanks so much for sharing your work. Awesome!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 3 years ago from USA

      The Dirt Farmer - Thanks so much stopping in to read my hub. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your comment!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great tips on how to start painting with watercolors. It can be very therapeutic too. Voted up for useful!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 2 years ago from USA

      Kristen Howe - I love watercolor painting because it can easily be set up in a small space. Because it dries quickly, it is very portable, too. Yes, I do find it therapeutic...hope you do too!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Good points Stephanie. I would love to give it a try if I'm in the mood to watercolor paint.

    • melissae1963 profile image

      Melissa Reese Etheridge 2 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      This is such an excellent and well written piece. I keep saying that I am going to get out the paints and have another go at it.

    • Mariampie profile image

      Mariam 2 years ago from Potato town

      I needed these incredible tips in improving my painting skill THANKS so helpful :)

    • kiddiecreations profile image

      N Kiddie 18 months ago

      Thanks for this hub! I love watercolor painting. Glad to find some good advice here!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      You make it sound relatively simple to paint with watercolors. I really liked the bark effect you demonstrated. Perhaps I will give it a try one of these days! Pinning this to my Do You Know This? board.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image
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      Stephanie Henkel 2 months ago from USA

      Hi Peggy, I think that the secret to good watercolor painting is to use the best paper and keep on practicing! Hope you enjoy giving it a try some day!

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