5 Watercolor Painting Tips and Techniques for Beginners

Updated on December 8, 2017
Frangipanni profile image

I am an artist who enjoys teaching people how to express their creativity with different painting tips and techniques.

Watercolor painting doesn't have to be hard!
Watercolor painting doesn't have to be hard! | Source

How Do I Start Watercolor Painting?

Attempting a new artistic venture can feel daunting. I've provided you a simple guide and principles for you to keep in mind as you begin your watercolor journey.

You'll learn the following techniques below:

  • Hard edges with the dry-brush technique
  • Soft edges with the wet-in-wet technique
  • Backwashes
  • Lifting watercolors from paper
  • Painting different types of clouds
  • Painting realistic trees

Roll up your sleeves, pick up your paintbrushes, and get ready to begin!

The Hard Edge Effect
The Hard Edge Effect | Source

The Dry-Brush Technique

You can add a lot of interest in a painting with different textures and edges. Here are the basic principles for hard and soft edges:

  • Hard Edges: Paint on dry paper.
  • Soft Edges: Paint on wet or damp paper.

To perform the dry-brush technique, use a brush loaded with pigment (and only a little bit of water) to produce crisp, hard-edged marks. These strokes tend to draw the eye towards them in a painting, so it's best to use the dry-brush technique around the center of interest.

Try It Out!

For a fun exercise, try following the steps below to get practice this method.

Method One:

  • Squeeze water from the paintbrush.
  • Dab the brush in the paint.
  • Sketch a few grass stalks with the brush tip.

Method Two:

  • Squeeze water from the paintbrush.
  • Dab the brush in the paint.
  • Fan out the bristles and make grass by flicking the brush upwards on the paper.

The Soft Edge Effect
The Soft Edge Effect | Source

The Wet-in-Wet Technique

Achieving a soft watercolor edge involves applying the paint to wet paper. This creates either a soft or blurred edge, which depends on how wet the paper is. The wet-in-wet technique is great for adding subtle backgrounds, foliage, and softer details to an art project. However, you need to keep backwashing in mind as you use this technique.


Backwashes happens when the paint on your brush is wetter than the paint on the paper. This causes the water to move down from the brush to the paper, floods the paint, and pushes out the pigment. This creates a backwash and is generally unsightly, but can be an effective way to add texture to skies, foliage, flowers, old buildings, and other subjects.

To control backwashes, make sure to keep the paint on the brush thicker (drier) than the paint on the paper.

Try It Out!

Practice the steps below to understand backwashes are made. This will help you know when to use this technique and how to avoid it.

Making a Backwash:

  • Paint a square of color. While it's drying, add a watery dab of another color and see what happens.

Preventing a Backwash:

  • Paint a square of color. As it's drying, add a thicker dab of another color and see what results.

The Wet-in-Wet Technique
The Wet-in-Wet Technique | Source

How to Lift Wet Watercolor

You can use any of the following ways to lift some watercolor pigment off the paper:

  • Dab the paper with facial tissues to create soft lighting effects.
  • Natural and synthetic sponges lighten a wash of paint in a more dispersed and textured way. You can cut them into any shape you want and use them to lift out certain shapes from the paint.
  • Paper towels result in a more angular texture. If you lay a layer of paint over another wash and realize it was a mistake, quickly lay a flat section of paper towel on top of the trouble spot and blot the entire wash before it has time to affect the underlying wash.
  • Damp brushes can lift wet paint.
  • Sgraffito is a pottery technique, but basically is a process where you scratch or scrape away color. Do note that this method will bruise the paper.

A Landscape Painting
A Landscape Painting | Source

How to Paint Clouds

Clouds are a great way to add visual textures and realism to a landscape painting. As you get started, it's good to have the following principles in mind to make it as close to the real thing as possible.

What You Should Look For:

  • Light: The top part of clouds are lit by the sun and should be brighter than the rest of the cloud. You can also note where the light hits a specific spot to draw out light in that area.
  • Shadow: Clouds have shadows, and the colors you use to portray them in relation to the sky color convey the weather conditions in the painting.
  • Size: Clouds get smaller and less distinct the closer you get to the horizon. They lose their identity as separate shapes and begin to meld together.

Try the following exercises using the methods you've learned so far to create your clouds.

  • Exercise 1: Solid Clouds. Paint a square of bold blue and use a dry brush to lift out most of the color in the areas you want the cloud to be. While the paint still damp, dab in violet to the underside of the cloud image to add shadows.
  • Exercise 2: Whimsical Clouds. Paint a square of bold blue and use a damp (thirsty) paintbrush to lift out streaky clouds from the square.
  • Exercise 3: Defined Clouds. Wet paper and let it dry a little but until the shine disappears. Then, paint a blue sky around a cloud shape. Add violet to the undersides and soften the edges with water to blend it in.

Two Ways to Paint Knots and Cracks in Trees.
Two Ways to Paint Knots and Cracks in Trees. | Source

How to Paint Trees

Trees are a common subject in landscape pieces, and can denote the scene's location, season, and theme. Keep the following ideas in mind as you add these natural elements in your work.

What You Should Look For:

  • Size: Trees become smaller, bluer and less distinct the further they are in reference to you. Their branches and foliage becomes thinner towards the top of the tree.
  • Foundation: The trunk of a tree needs to be anchored in a painting to show it's not floating. You can do this with the ground, rocks, grass, and foliage.
  • Shadow: The trunk and branches have a light side and a shadowed side. Painting with this in mind will create a three-dimensional effect.
  • Light: Foliage looks yellower where the sunlight hits and bluer when they're in the shadows.
  • Placement: Foliage is rarely a solid mass. Leave gaps, but remember that leaves and shadows cross in front of and behind the trunk and branches.

Keep these guidelines in mind as you create the trees.

  • Angle your trees in towards your painting rather than out of it.
  • Instead of painting every leaf, look for the shape of the overall structure. Here are a few examples:
    • A bunch of leaves—Gum tree
    • How leaves hang—Willow tree
    • Shape of the tree—Pine tree
  • Use a varied mix of greens, blues, yellows and reds instead of using one flat green layer. Greens are better created when mixed loosely on the palette or on the paper rather than straight from the tube. If you use commercial green, mix it with another color to add variety (eg. a little more blue, yellow or red.)
  • Paint in the knots and cracks using a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna.
  • Paint 'blobs' as shown above (with any dark mix) While the paint is wet, use a damp brush to soften the lower edges.

Remember that you can watercolor any time you have water handy. You need to practice consistently to improve, so pack your gear, go out, and paint!

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Frangipanni


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      • profile image

        xtingley 5 months ago

        Great article! I have been learning watercolor online and this article and ones like it are really helpful.

      • profile image

        Christina cleary 9 months ago

        Really found thes suggestions very clear and helpful. I,m not a painter, just beginning a new craft at an advanced age lol an need all the help I can get. Thank you for your clarity.

      • DonnaCSmith profile image

        Donna Campbell Smith 4 years ago from Central North Carolina

        Good tips. Thanks!

      • Frangipanni profile image

        Frangipanni 5 years ago

        Thank you kidscraft. I love your hubs too. Have a great day!

      • Frangipanni profile image

        Frangipanni 5 years ago

        Thanks peachpurple. Everybody can improve but always remember it's for the enjoyment. Have a nice day

      • kidscrafts profile image

        kidscrafts 5 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

        You do beautiful work! Voted up and awesome!

      • peachpurple profile image

        peachy 5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        i love water coloring. With your hub, i believe i could learn to paint well. Thanks. Voted useful