Watercolour painting is an art form that’s been used since nearly the beginning of time — there are cave paintings that show evidence of their artists having used watercolour techniques that date back to the Paleolithic era.
Watercolour painting is a medium that involves applying pigments to a canvas using water as a dissolving agent. The pigment is suspended in a binding agent, usually gum arabica, and is usually painted onto paper rather than canvas or another medium. Artists of any skill level can learn to paint in this style.
Here’s what you need to know to learn how to watercolour paint.
Materials You Need to Paint with Watercolours
It’s relatively accessible to learn how to watercolour paint; most of the required materials are available at your local crafts store and keep for quite a long time when properly stored.
As mentioned, watercolour paints are specifically formulated to dissolve in water and contain a pigment suspended in a binding agent. These paints come in two grades — student, which is slightly cheaper with less intense pigmentation, and professional, which contains better pigments but is significantly more expensive.
You can also buy them as individual shades or in a set or palette for convenience. When choosing your paints, consider how many colors you’ll need for your piece and how many pieces you want to make. With watercolours, a little bit of pigment goes a long way, so relatively small containers will last quite a long time.
While some artists prefer to use a single brush for their entire piece, for a beginner, it might be preferable to have a set of brushes in a variety of sizes so that you can choose which one will offer you the right level of detail. If, however, you choose to go with a single brush, a #4 brush is a recommended option, as it’s large enough to paint quickly but small enough to add fine detail.
The kind of brush you use is important as well. There’s a strong debate as to whether you should use synthetic or natural bristle brushes. Natural brushes like sable tend to hold paint very well and are soft enough for light washes, but they can be incredibly expensive and difficult to care for. Synthetic brushes are cheaper and easier to maintain for a long time, but won’t offer the same flexibility and hold as natural brushes.
Ultimately, your brush choice is up to preference.
Watercolour paper is thicker than other art papers and is specifically made to be wetted and dry again without warping or falling apart. The best watercolour paper is heavier than 140lb or 300gsm.
Watercolour paper comes in three textures.
While all you really need are paints, brushes, and paper, there are a few extra materials that you can use as well.
Obviously, you’ll need some kind of container for the water, which can be anything from an old jam jar to a coffee mug. You may also need rags or paper towels for blotting and resting wet paintbrushes on. Palettes can make mixing colors easier as well; you can even use a simple dinner plate for this.
How to Paint with Watercolours
There are two main methods for painting with watercolours: wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry.
The Wet-on-Wet Method
Wet-on-wet is a good technique for larger, flowy pieces like landscapes and skies.
Begin with an unpigmented wet brush and paint a section of your paper so that it is wet. Then, pick up some paint and add it to the wet section — you can do this either by sliding it from side to side or dabbing, depending on the intensity you want. When the water dries, you’ll have a more gentle gradient between colors that can be built upon later.
Wet-on-wet watercolour pieces are less strictly controlled and detailed than wet-on-dry, making them slightly more abstract.
The Wet-on-Dry Method
Wet-on-dry watercolour painting is good for high-definition pieces like illustrations and more detailed scenes.
Begin by wetting your brush and picking up some paint. Brush it onto your dry paper, then build up the color and texture of the piece by adding more water and pigment as necessary. You can use a smaller brush and less water to create more detailed lines and sharper colors.
Wet-on-dry pieces have the added benefit of being easy to adjust as you go, as the pigment won’t slide as freely as it would in wet-on-wet painting.
Tips for Watercolour Painting
Here are some more tips to help you learn how to watercolour paint.
The opacity of your pigment is going to depend heavily on the amount of water you use. Try making test sheets of a particular pigment with different amounts of water, using both techniques, to get a sense for getting the right shade.
To blend watercolors (as you might need to for gradients and contouring), apply the lightest color first, then the darkest color. Come back in with an unpigmented wet brush to blend the edges.
You can “drybrush” watercolours onto dried watercolour work by just barely wetting the brush and picking up the pigment. Your goal is to set down new color without blending it into the old layer.
Excellent subjects to practice watercolour painting with include flowers, trees, and architecture, as they are simple enough to get in a few colors and passes, but detailed enough to allow you to try again when you’ve improved and have a solid comparison.
Watercolour painting is incredibly popular, especially with the rise of modern watercolour artists, who used mixed media to make their pieces pop. You can join this movement by adding ink or acrylic outlines to your pieces, which can give them a lovely contrasting sharp-and-soft aesthetic.
Whatever you choose to do, know that there’s no wrong way to paint with watercolours. As long as you’re happy with the final result and enjoy the process, you’re a watercolour artist.