Watercolor Techniques for Everyone

Updated on March 4, 2018
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Gymnasts

Watercolor on paper.
Watercolor on paper. | Source

Too Hard?

Yes, watercolor is different than oils, but not harder. If you started painting with oils and acrylics you know that the basic rule of thumb is to start with the dark colors and finish by adding the highlights. Well, watercolor has to be treated the opposite. Because watercolor has no real “white”, you must consider the paper to be the white and plan ahead of time where you will NOT PAINT to leave the highlights or white of the paper. So then you are laying down progressively darker and darker colors until the darkest shadows are added last. This isn’t harder, but it is opposite of the way oil painters are taught to think. The following are a few tips that may help.

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“Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together”

— --John Ruskin

Dalhia

Watercolor on wrinkled paper
Watercolor on wrinkled paper | Source

Asking Questions

  • Remember that some of the best art in the world is art that leaves you asking questions. The artist has left something of a mystery in his style, in his composition, in his subject matter.
  • If you stand back and ask yourself, "Who lives there" or "Where does that path go" or "What are they talking about" or "How does that blue take my breath away," that's great art because the viewer has become emotionally involved.
  • When you paint, try to leave a little mystery, a little left unsaid, a line or two missing. This is why many experts say there is a point at which the painting has become "overworked." We artist's tend to be perfectionists, but in this one instance restrain yourself. You will love your work more for it.
  • The paintings in this article, were developed from either en plein aire, from life or still life, or photographs.
  • It is a good practice to keep photographic references for future use. I keep my photos in plastic sleeves in binders so they are easier to locate and they won't get damaged if I should splash paint on them.
  • Many times I will find something new in an old photo that didn't inspire me before. But even so my photos are only a starting point for me.
  • You should never try to copy a photo exactly, that's what we have cameras and computers for. Let the photo inspire you and then be creative and spontaneous from there.

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“A man throws himself out of the fourth-floor window; if you can’t make a sketch of him before he gets to the ground, you will never do anything big.”

— --Eugene Delacroix

Facts about paints

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Watercolor art

Do you like watercolor paintings in your home?

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More wrinkled paper effect.
More wrinkled paper effect.
More wrinkled paper effect. | Source
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Color Facts:

  • Burnt Umber is iron oxide fired at a high temperature or “burnt”. Basically a burnt orange.
  • Burnt Sienna is also a calcined earth or earth fired at a high temperature.
  • Cadmium is an artificial mineral color.
  • Carmine red is made from female cochineal beetles from Peru and the Canary Islands, dried and crushed.
  • Greens are made from ground malachite mixed with gum Arabic.
  • Indigo (blue) is from a plant that yields a dark grayish blue.
  • Lakes signify colors made from synthetic dyes.
  • Lamp Black is made of burnt carbon or soot from lamps.
  • Madder Red is a transparent ruby-red color from the root of the madder plant; mostly replaced today by Alizarin Crimson.
  • Purple is usually made of ground mollusk shells.
  • Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone) mainly from Persia and China; today it is made artificially.
  • Yellow is made from saffron (a type of crocus).
  • Zinc Oxide (Chinese White) is a by-product of brass production and is used to replace lead white

More On Colors

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“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is00unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

— --Alice Neel
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More wrinkled paper effect.Splatter effect.
More wrinkled paper effect.
More wrinkled paper effect. | Source
Splatter effect.
Splatter effect. | Source

More On Watercolor Paint

  • The Hooker Green is good in both light and dark. It mixes well with yellow or blue and I like them both.
  • The Lamp Black however is a dull lifeless color with only a few uses such as outlining or the pupils of eyes. I prefer Indigo, which is not black but a blue-black. When thinned it makes a cool grey and for hair it adds great blue highlights. It mixes well with other colors and has a life of it’s own. If you were choosing between Indigo and Lamp Black, I would say go with Indigo.
  • Chinese White is not what most people think. Many new watercolorists have tried oils and acrylic before diving into watercolor. If you have you know that in oils or acrylics, the dark colors are applied first and the whites and highlights are last. Because oils and acrylics are mostly opaque, white covers the dark colors easily. This is not so in watercolor. These colors are transparent (for the most part) and white is blocked out first on the paper and not painted at all. White is the color of the paper. So why do they sell “Chinese White”? Chinese White is used to mix with other colors and make them slightly opaque and pastel looking. But it cannot be used to cover a “mistake” because when it dries you can still see through it to the mistake underneath. What happens is it simply muddies-up the mistake. Also it is not pure white. It never matches the color of the paper. You will be very unhappy using it as a “white-out”. Painting over with white acrylic would look better (though I don’t suggest that because acrylic is shiny). It is always best to try to wet the area and blot off the offending spot with paper towels than to try any kink of cover-up.

Colors

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Paint

All these colors come in tubes of varying sizes depending upon the manufacturer and the brand. My advice is to squeeze out only a little at a time onto you pallet. I had a man in my class once who did not want to be bothered with tubes, so he bought a large pallet and immediately squeezed the entire tube of each color into the wells. This seems like a great idea except for one important factor. Several of the colors do not age well outside of the tube. Burnt Umber, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue and Purple Lake all tend to crumble after a month or so. Once this starts the only thing you can do is throw the dry lump away and replace it with fresh paint from the tube. These tubes last a long time and I doubt that my student painted enough pictures in one month to have used up the entire tube worth of paint on his pallet before having to replace it. I paint every day and it takes me many months to use up a full tube of paint.

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More wrinkled paper effect.Beach comber.
More wrinkled paper effect.
More wrinkled paper effect. | Source
Beach comber.
Beach comber. | Source

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

— --Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso

Brushes

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Special Effects

A Word On Brushes

  • I have several favorite brushes listed here. Of course the best are sable brushes but even I can't afford to have all sable brushes, and I have been painting for decades. The rule of thumb with buying brushes for watercolor is to see if they are Natural Hair brushes or Nylon. The cheaper synthetic brushes, usually nylon bristle, don't hold enough water and leave streaky brush stokes with watercolor. These brushes are good for acrylic but not watercolors. While this is not a bad thing for things like tree trunks, you will hate it on flowers and faces. Natural hair such as squirrel hair, goat, mongoose, badger, hog, ox, pony, sable (not necessarily from sable, but from any member of the weasel family), or camel hair, hold the water better, spread the paint smoother and longer. There are a few synthetic labels today that are almost as soft as real hair and are worth the extra price.
  • Camel hair labels, interestingly enough, have no hair from camels at all. This is the label for any and all other leftover hair, blended together. This is why camel hair brushes are usually cheaper than any others. Even so I find them to be very useful and I have many in my set. The cheaper ones sometimes shed, which is annoying, so it is worth paying for good brushes.
  • Bamboo brushes are usually made of hog hair bristles with a bamboo handle and used for calligraphy, oriental-style painting and watercolor. They are different to use but usually affordable and versatile. I have many bamboo brushes on hand for painting and I keep small ones in my travel kit. When traveling you only want one or two brushes and the bamboo is best because you can use them for large washes and small details too.
  • These days they make a high-priced synthetic hair brush that has the same soft smooth texture and characteristics of sable without the same high cost. Taklon brushes are made of man-made filaments dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent. These are higher priced than the camel hair brushes but are well worth the money. Winsor and Newton Cotman make a set of synthetic hair brushes that are reasonable and versatile. If you can't afford a lot of brushes I suggest you get a #10 or #12 round. It will do almost everything you will need to do for one price.

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My dad.Persimmons.More persimmons.
My dad.
My dad. | Source
Persimmons.
Persimmons. | Source
More persimmons.
More persimmons. | Source

“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”

— --Paul Gardner

Frosty Trees

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Frosty trees and bushes made with a sea sponge.Sponging really works well for trees and flowers.
Frosty trees and bushes made with a sea sponge.
Frosty trees and bushes made with a sea sponge. | Source
Sponging really works well for trees and flowers.
Sponging really works well for trees and flowers. | Source

Sea Sponges

  • These make the best texture for trees, flowers, rocks.
  • They are relatively inexpensive and last a very long time.
  • Sea sponges come in many "grades" or textural smoothness. "Silk" grade has very small holes and smooth texture; not very good for our purposes but excellent for work with ceramics. "Natural" is okay but still the holes are too small to be of use for paintings. "Wool" sea sponges have large holes and are best for painting, I found.
  • Once you have tried one you will not want to do without it.
  • To use a sea sponge, get it wet. I know. This sounds elementary, but you can't imagine how many people get their first dry sponge, dip it in the paint and try to make it work. It's a sponge. It really needs a little water.
  • Once you have a nice soft wet sponge, wring out all the water; or at least as much as you can squeeze out. Believe me there will be plenty left.
  • Now choose your color and dap the rough texture part of the sponge in the paint.
  • If the paint is dry make sure to add a couple drops of water and wait about 5 minutes before applying your sponge.
  • Once you have some paint on your sponge, dab it onto the paper.
  • Don't drag it or shift it on the paper. You want the texture pattern and not a streaky pattern.
  • When you need to reload paint don't add any more water to the sponge (like you would a brush), just dip it in the paint and dab again.
  • Practice on a sample paper first.
  • Later when you are done, wash the paint out of the sponge before letting it dry completely.

“Art is idea. It is not enough to draw, paint, and sculpt. An artist should be able to think.”

— --Gurdon Woods

Wax Resist Paintings

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The little white flowers are made with white crayon before the grasses are painted in.Again the little white daisy flowers are created with white crayon before the grasses and fence posts are painted in.The white outline on feathers and bird are drawn in before the painting is done.
The little white flowers are made with white crayon before the grasses are painted in.
The little white flowers are made with white crayon before the grasses are painted in. | Source
Again the little white daisy flowers are created with white crayon before the grasses and fence posts are painted in.
Again the little white daisy flowers are created with white crayon before the grasses and fence posts are painted in. | Source
The white outline on feathers and bird are drawn in before the painting is done.
The white outline on feathers and bird are drawn in before the painting is done. | Source

White Crayons, Wax, Paraffin, or Candles

  • The technique of wax-resist requires wax.
  • Crayons are the best since they are already shaped for drawing. However, any wax will work.
  • Many artists use a heating device, which will drip or drag hot melted wax in thin lines as directed by the artist.
  • The crayons work fine without heating, however, the lines are thicker and the artist has to press very hard to make sure of coverage.
  • Light wax lines will not show well once the paint is applied.

Salt Effects

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Painting large pieces of paper with lots of paint and splashes, then adding salt makes for great gift wrapping paper and decorative paper for gift boxes and bags.White crayon on the tree trunk and salt in the colored sky make this interesting effect.Salt on the cliff makes it look rocky and granite-like.Salt in the background makes an otherwise boring background interesting.Salt in the green makes the background look more gritty and adds to the interest./Salt works best with darker colors as it shows up better.
Painting large pieces of paper with lots of paint and splashes, then adding salt makes for great gift wrapping paper and decorative paper for gift boxes and bags.
Painting large pieces of paper with lots of paint and splashes, then adding salt makes for great gift wrapping paper and decorative paper for gift boxes and bags. | Source
White crayon on the tree trunk and salt in the colored sky make this interesting effect.
White crayon on the tree trunk and salt in the colored sky make this interesting effect. | Source
Salt on the cliff makes it look rocky and granite-like.
Salt on the cliff makes it look rocky and granite-like. | Source
Salt in the background makes an otherwise boring background interesting.
Salt in the background makes an otherwise boring background interesting. | Source
Salt in the green makes the background look more gritty and adds to the interest.
Salt in the green makes the background look more gritty and adds to the interest. | Source
/Salt works best with darker colors as it shows up better.
/Salt works best with darker colors as it shows up better. | Source

Salt

  • Any salt will work: sea salt, rock salt, iodized salt, table salt, even Epson salts.
  • The salt must be sprinkled on while the paper is still wet.
  • There is a timing involved her because if the paper is too wet the salt completely dissolves and leaves no pattern. But if the paper is too dry the salt merely sits there and does nothing.
  • The salt takes 10 to 20 minutes to make its patterns and after it is dry you can brush the excess salt off. Only the pattern remains.

“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.”

— --Alfred North Whitehead

Rubbing Alcohol In A Spray Bottle

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Like salt, it makes interesting decorative paper.Alcohol sprayed on the background makes an interesting pattern.Alcohol spray mimics stucco patterns on walls.Alcohol dripped onto wet paint makes interesting chicken pox too.
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Like salt, it makes interesting decorative paper.
Like salt, it makes interesting decorative paper. | Source
Alcohol sprayed on the background makes an interesting pattern.
Alcohol sprayed on the background makes an interesting pattern. | Source
Alcohol spray mimics stucco patterns on walls.
Alcohol spray mimics stucco patterns on walls. | Source
Alcohol dripped onto wet paint makes interesting chicken pox too.
Alcohol dripped onto wet paint makes interesting chicken pox too. | Source

Rubbing Alcohol

  • Like the salt, rubbing alcohol can only be applied to its best advantage with the paper wet.
  • It can be sprayed from a spray bottle, dropped from a dropper, or painted on with a brush.
  • The effect is very interesting and has many uses. I like it for backgrounds behind flowers.
  • Don't overdo it. After the first couple of sprays, the paper gets over saturated and the effect doesn't work anymore.
  • Hold the spray bottle at least 9 to 12 inches from the paper or you won't get a mist but a unattractive "splat".

“It’s like golf. The fewer strokes I can take, the better the picture.”

— --John Marin

Plastic Wrap Effect

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Paint the background first or last, either way the background must be dry before painting the rose.Plastic on my background.Plastic wrap on the mountains makes them look rugged and eroded.Plastic wrap on the water makes it look like the water is moving.
Paint the background first or last, either way the background must be dry before painting the rose.
Paint the background first or last, either way the background must be dry before painting the rose. | Source
Plastic on my background.
Plastic on my background. | Source
Plastic wrap on the mountains makes them look rugged and eroded.
Plastic wrap on the mountains makes them look rugged and eroded. | Source
Plastic wrap on the water makes it look like the water is moving.
Plastic wrap on the water makes it look like the water is moving. | Source

Plastic Wrap

  • Like the salt and alcohol, the plastic wrap must be applied when the paper is still very wet.
  • It only takes a few minutes (3 to 5 depending on the humidity in the air) and when you pull the plastic wrap off, a pattern will remain.
  • This effect is good for erosion on mountains, ocean waves, or just interesting texture on rocks or special effect boxes.
  • What happens is that the paint soaks into the paper where the plastic is touching it. It almost bruises the paper there and nowhere else.

Splatter Effect Painting Samples

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Just for fun I covered the oranges with a cut out paper and splattered sky colors all around.I added splatters everywhere on this painting, not caring if it landed on the rooster or not.Again I splattered color all around just to add to the drama of the design.I splattered dark colors just on the rocks.  I didn't mask out the rest but tried to keep the splatters just on the rocks where I could.
Just for fun I covered the oranges with a cut out paper and splattered sky colors all around.
Just for fun I covered the oranges with a cut out paper and splattered sky colors all around. | Source
I added splatters everywhere on this painting, not caring if it landed on the rooster or not.
I added splatters everywhere on this painting, not caring if it landed on the rooster or not. | Source
Again I splattered color all around just to add to the drama of the design.
Again I splattered color all around just to add to the drama of the design. | Source
I splattered dark colors just on the rocks.  I didn't mask out the rest but tried to keep the splatters just on the rocks where I could.
I splattered dark colors just on the rocks. I didn't mask out the rest but tried to keep the splatters just on the rocks where I could. | Source

“Art is the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature.”

— --Edward Hopper

Splatter Effect

  • An old toothbrush, or even a stiff bristle acrylic paintbrush, make for a good splatter brush.
  • Load the brush with paint and pull the bristles toward you to make the splatter land on the paper.
  • If you pull the bristles toward the paper the splatter goes straight up to your face and clothes.
  • Splatter adds some interesting tone and detail to rocks, sandy beaches, backgrounds or even decorative paper. I love the effect for barnyard scenes.

Outlines Work For Some Things

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Blue outline made this flower pop.Light colored outline on this Geisha girl added to the costume and Oriental feel of the piece.
Blue outline made this flower pop.
Blue outline made this flower pop. | Source
Light colored outline on this Geisha girl added to the costume and Oriental feel of the piece.
Light colored outline on this Geisha girl added to the costume and Oriental feel of the piece. | Source

Outlines

  • Actually there are no outlines in real life. But sometimes a black or even purple or blue outline adds some extra dimension and detail that cause a painting to pop.
  • Sometimes I add outlines just to see if I like the effect. Other times I leave that out.
  • It is all a matter of taste.

“It is better to paint from memory, for thus your work will be your own; your sensation, your intelligence, and your soul will triumph over the eye of the amateur… Do not finish your work too much.”

— --Paul Gauguin

Questions & Answers

    Watercolor Comments

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      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        2 years ago from Fresno CA

        CorneliaMladenova,

        Oh no! Don't think of yourself as a failure. Paintings that didn't work out as well as you wanted are only exercises to help you get better next time. I admit it's hard to do faces in watercolor because you have to start light and work up the darker colors and shadows. The problem is that those layers make little lines on the face, which most people don't like. I like the lines, it makes it look hand painted and artsy. Keep trying. You'll get there. I know you are immensely talented. Thanks for commenting.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • CorneliaMladenova profile image

        Korneliya Yonkova 

        2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

        Thank you very much for these useful tips, Denise. I love watercolor and my passion is to experiment with different brushes, but it is a nightmare for me to paint people. I am good with creating plants and animals on the paper but when it comes to humans- I am simply a failure. Should try to work more. :)

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        denise.w.anderson,

        I'm so glad you got something out of this. It's true, there is a big difference between watercolor and acrylic. Many art shows are now dividing the category of acrylic into two: acrylic handled like oil, and acrylic handled like watercolor. Many acrylic users water it down so it flows like watercolor but is more "predictable" than watercolor and mistakes can be painted over where watercolor won't allow for that. I still like watercolor better although it takes more planning for white spaces and build up of colors.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        tdalexander,

        I'm so glad you found the tips here helpful. I hope you do try it. Don't worry if it isn't perfect the first time... it drys fast so you can afford to make mistakes and try again.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        I love painting in any medium. Lately I have been taking watercolors and scanning them into my computer to continue tweaking and painting using Adobe Photoshop. There are some very interesting tools out there.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        Ann1Az2, thank you for that. I know so few people realize that watercolors come in other than the typical Crayola set. The thing with the tray sets for kids is that the paint is made cheeper (naturally) and is not as color-fast. After a couple years the colors fade. The professional watercolors in tubes is color-fast and fade resistant as long as you keep paintings out of direct sunlight, which fades even oil paintings eventually. That's another thing people don't realize. Sunlight has a bleaching quality to it. If you put some dingy, or even colored socks on the clothes line for a couple days, the sunlight will bleach out the color and make them white. It does that with paint of any kind.

      • Ann1Az2 profile image

        Ann1Az2 

        3 years ago from Orange, Texas

        Wow, I found this to be so interesting. My mother painted but mostly with oils. Watercoloring to me always brings kids to mind, like you said in your poll. I had no idea that it even came in tubes. I've only seen it in trays, of course, for children. This puts a whole new light on it. Yours paintings are beautiful. Voted up!

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        Thanks, I'm glad you like it. I did it to mine and I have some very old, uniquely handled brushes now. :)

      • Dbro profile image

        Dbro 

        3 years ago from Texas, USA

        What a great idea! I never thought of repainting my brush handles. Nail polish is the perfect idea since it is waterproof when dry. This just may extend the already long life of my brushes.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

        Dbro, I have a few brushes like that myself. Since it is just enamel that is on the brush handles, I found I can replace it with fingernail polish and practically make an old brush new again... plus colorful. :) Thanks for visiting.

      • tdalexander profile image

        Toni Boucher 

        3 years ago

        I learned with oils and never had much success with water, but based on the tips in this article I feel confident I have enough tips and inspiration that I could pull it off now with water colors. The images are the perfect compliment too. Thanks!

      • denise.w.anderson profile image

        Denise W Anderson 

        3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

        It is good to know that with watercolors, you have to start with the darker ones! I tried watercolors in the past, but became frustrated because I was doing just the opposite. I ended up using acrylics instead for my project, as I could predict more what they would do. Maybe I will try watercolors again, now that I've learned this. I've bookmarked the page to get the information again. Great video, I bookmarked the video site as well.

      • Dbro profile image

        Dbro 

        3 years ago from Texas, USA

        Great article, Paintdrips! As a watercolorist myself, I have used most of the techniques you describe here. Watercolor is a wonderful medium, and I appreciate your clear descriptions of not only the methodology but also the characteristics of the paint itself.

        As for brushes, I have a few favorites that I have been using for years. In fact the paint has worn off the handles of a few of them, but they are tried and true!

        Thank you for writing this informative article. Hopefully people will try this great medium and find out for themselves what a joy it is!

      working

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