A Beginner’s Guide To Watercolor

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Learning to paint is a little like learning to cook. You do not necessarily need to become a five star chef. You need only to learn to prepare tasty, nutritious meals. Not everyone who takes brushes in hand will become a professional artist, but anyone who learns the basics will have a skill they can enjoy for a lifetime.

The nature of watercolor gives the painter both freedoms and limitations unique to this medium. A beginner will benefit from using a guide to learn how to control the peculiarities of this appealing and luminous paint.


There is a wide assortment of paints available and although there are hundreds to choose from, you can start with a basic few paints and add as your pocketbook allows and you progress in your craft. It is ill advised to purchase student grade watercolor paints merely because you are a beginner. There is a significant difference in quality and usability between the two classes. Any watercolor guide that is being frank will tell you that learning to paint with inferior paints make it more difficult for the beginner. If you begin with a basic assortment, your costs can remain minimal purchasing quality watercolor paints.


As with paints, brushes come in many levels of quality. There are times that an inexpensive brush might be suitable, and a skilled craftsman can work wonders with a ratty, worn out house brush. Working with good brushes is a real pleasure. They hold copious amounts of water, spring back in a lively fashion and do not shed like a dog. Buy good brushes as your budget may guide you and treat them with respect and care. There are two basic types of brushes. Natural bristles and synthetic bristles are the two broad categories. Within those two groups, there is a wide range of styles and quality levels. Because of the breadth of this topic, a guide is necessary to help the beginner negotiate the unfamiliar terms and uncertainties of this subject.

Each style of brush is available in both natural hair and synthetic fibers. The finest brushes are made with Kolinksy sable fur. They are the most costly and are somewhat delicate. There are also red sable, squirrel, ox and goat. Synthetic bristles are either white bristle or orange bristle. The orange bristle brush simulates sable hair brush and is a good alternative.

An artist’s brush is very personal and we develop an affinity for certain characteristics as we broaden our experience with different types. There are flats, rounds, filberts, mops, fans and liners. Each has physical characteristics that make them suitable for particular jobs. A guide that explains how each shape is used can be very helpful to the beginner until he is comfortable with each brush. There are also specialty brushes for specific uses. A beginner may add these to his tabouret as budget, inclination and skills allow.


One can paint on any paper surface. However, if the artist expects the work to survive for any long period, he must use archival, acid free paper that will not deteriorate. Watercolor paper is made of cotton rag. It may be machine or hand made. There is a variety of thickness available, which is measured by weight. It is also available in three textures: Rough Press, Hot Press and Cold Press.

The style of painting you do will dictate the type you will use.

Rough Press

Rough Press has a great deal of tooth. Paint will pool in the textured surface. It has a grainy appearance and is ill suited for high detail work.

Hot Press

Hot Press has the least texture of the three. Paint flows smoothly over the surface. It has little grain or tooth to mar a large, even wash.

Cold Press

Cold Press has somewhat of a textured surface. It works well with most painting styles and can be considered the general duty paper of choice.

No guide can educate you in which paper is best to use. It changes as your style dictates, and experimentation is the only sure way to know which one is right for your purpose.

Stretching Paper

Watercolor paper is stretched so there is no curling or buckling. Pre-stretched blocks are easy to use and are ideal for the plein air artist. They are, however, more costly and have limited, smaller sizes available. Individual sheets are more economical and are available in much larger sizes. They need to be stretched unless they are very thick. To stretch, the artist needs a surface larger than the paper. The sheet is moistened and then taped securely on all four sides to the board or table. As it dries, it shrinks and becomes taut and flat. It is now ready to paint.

Watercolor does not require a lot of tools or paraphernalia. It is easy to learn and takes a lifetime to master. By using a guide to help you select the basics, a book for tips and techniques, and a small place to set up, a beginner can enjoy, dream, and learn a craft that can give a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

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