Watercolor can present many challenges – particularly if you’ve gotten your artistic feet wet with acrylics or oils before trying out watercolor.
Many feel it’s ‘harder’ to use than other paints, but if you give it half a chance, you may find you enjoy experimenting with this unique, maddening and ultimately satisfying medium.
There are tons of websites and blogs with hundreds of tips for the watercolor novice. Many tips are really techniques on different ways of getting the paint on the paper. I decided not to do that today, but I’m going to instead focus on more basic tenets of watercolor painting. Some of these tips may apply to other painting mediums, but they are important if you want to give watercolor a serious try.
Use Professional Quality Paint
Even if you’re just ‘trying it out’ to see if you really like watercolor, do yourself a big favor and buy professional quality paint. There’s a big difference between crafter’s quality and ‘the good stuff.’ You don’t need to buy a bunch to start your exploration.
Purchase a warm and cool hue of red, yellow and blue colors. If you want to splurge, get Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber to add to your palette. The difference in cost is not that much, but there’s a world of difference in quality.
Choose The Right Brushes
You don’t need super-expensive Kolinsky sable brushes; in fact, many professional artists rarely use them! There are lots of good quality synthetic brushes that are quite inexpensive.
A mop brush is good for spreading a lot of paint or water over a large area, so be sure to choose one of those. Several sizes of round brushes are very useful, and will probably the brushes you use most often. A couple of flat brushes are useful for painting broad strokes and, when turned on the side, making narrow, long marks.
Learn how to use each type of brush, and add to your collection as you see a need for other sizes or style. A word of warning; buying brushes can be very addictive.
Choose Appropriate Paper
Paper is another area where it’s important to spend a little more for big rewards. If you paint on inexpensive paper that’s not manufactured for watercolor, you’ll quickly become disenchanted with this medium.
Good quality paper, at least 140lb is what you want. 90lb paper may be okay for sketching or trying out colors or techniques, but any serious painting should be done on 140lb or 300lb paper.
There are also three different types of paper; cold press, hot press and rough. Hot press is very smooth, with no tooth. It’s great for painting detail and super-realistic images, but it’s probably not the best choice for a beginner. It’s kind of tricky to work with, and paint doesn’t absorb in the same way it does on the other papers.
Rough paper has a great deal of texture, so you won’t be able to achieve a lot of detail. If you like loads of texture and are very loose, you may be interested in trying rough paper.
Cold press paper is probably the safest choice for a beginning watercolorist. It’s smooth enough for detail work, but it has enough tooth to make the paint easy to control. As Goldilocks was said to exclaim – it’s just right.
Stretch Your Paper
Unless you’re using 300lb paper, you’ll be better off to stretch your paper. This keeps the paper flat when you start flinging water and paint over it. It prevents paint from puddling in low spots of the paper and stretching helps an artist to make smooth swathes of color and color gradation.
Small sheets may be simply taped to a board and lightly moistened with water. Larger pieces should be wetted – either by generously mopping them with water or soaking in a tub and then attached while still damp with staples and/or tape moisture-activated heavy tape.
Drawing Your Composition
If you don’t want to see pencil marks on your completed painting, make sure to use an HB pencil and draw very lightly. Softer pencils will be quite dark, while harder pencils can leave indentations in your paper.
You can erase pencil marks on your paper before you paint over them, but you won’t be able to erase them once you’ve applied the paint. Keep this in mind if your OCD makes an appearance at the very thought of pencil marks on your pristine watercolor.
Use A Limited Palette
Limiting your palette ensures your painting will have a harmonious feel. Using every color in your taboret is confusing at best and can lead to a clashing, discordant jumble of a painting at its worst.
Basic color theory is important for painters in every medium. You can read up on it in books, websites and through classes. It’s amazing what you can do with three or even two colors.
Create A Full Range Of Values
It’s usually easy to spot a beginner’s painting, just from the range of light and dark they include in their composition. Many novice artists paint very stoically in the light to mid-range of color value.
Value refers to how light or dark a color is, and it’s one of the basic tenets of art. When you’re painting, you should be sure to encompass the full spectrum of light to dark in your composition. Even a high-value painting will have some touches of dark and a low-value painting will have some highlights. This juxtaposition adds tension and helps establish the value range.
Paint In Layers
Watercolorists paint from light to dark. You can always add more paint for deeper color, but removing paint and color is a real challenge. Rather than painting one thick glop of color, it’s common to build up color intensity and depth through the use of glazing.
After applying a wash of color, allow the paint to dry thoroughly. Then you can add an additional layer of paint – either the same color or another to enhance or alter the first layer. Remember watercolors are, for the most part, translucent, so you can use optical mixing to change a color. For example, paint yellow over a dried blue area. The resulting color appears as green.
You can build up many layers of paint to create extremely dark areas by using this method. Varying your colors give more complexity to the dark area than by merely dabbing on one dark mass of a single color.
Preserve White Spaces
Make sure you leave white spaces by either painting around them or masking areas out. Larger areas are easy if you don’t forget in your paint flinging frenzy and wash over the areas with paint.
Small areas like highlights and details can be preserved by using masking fluid. This is a great product for safeguarding your precious whites and is easy to apply and remove. However, it’s lethal to paint brushes, so only use old, nasty brushes when applying this product.