Starting out in the world of watercolor painting can be both exciting and intimidating. As a watercolor artist who has been exploring this vibrant medium for many years, I remember my own initial struggles as a beginner and the joys that followed when I started to make progress. Watercolor painting is an incredibly creative art form, but it does require patience, practice, and dedication to master. In this article, I will provide some watercolor tips on getting started for beginners - from selecting materials to different techniques and painting skills to creating stunning works of art. I want to share what I have learned in this art form over the years, and hopefully make your experience in the world of watercolors less challenging.
"Wan Chai" Watercolor on Paper by RAINB.W

Essential Tips for Choosing Painting Materials

We can easily feel overwhelmed by all the different tools and materials when we first start out with watercolor painting. That's why my best advice to any beginner is to begin painting with what you have. Just start painting! Don't worry about buying expensive supplies right away and you can always upgrade later when you're more comfortable. With that said, here are some of my basic supplies recommendations and considerations when choosing your materials.

1. Choosing your watercolor paper

Choosing the right watercolor paper can make all the difference in the final outcome of your paintings. So I wanted to talk about this first. Some important factors to consider are the paper thickness and texture. The thickness of the paper typically ranges from 180-600gsm, the thicker the watercolor paper, the less likely it will buckle. Texture is also important, with cold pressed paper having a slightly bumpy surface that provides more tooth for the paint to adhere to, while hot pressed paper has a smoother surface that is better for fine details. Additionally, paper can be made from either 100% cotton or a blend of cotton and other fibers. High quality paper is usually 100% cotton. Although this type of watercolor paper is more expensive, the differences in absorbency and durability is noticeable.

2. Choosing your watercolor paint

A basic set of 12 colors (or less) should have enough variety for beginner projects and practice sessions – try not to overwhelm yourself by purchasing too many colors at once since mixing them together creates a vast range of shades and hues anyway. Watercolor paint come in two types: pan/cake sets which hold their shape after drying (good for travel), or tube paints which offer vibrant color from concentrated pigments (great when blending). 

3. Choosing your watercolor brushes

There is no one-size-fits-all brush here; each type has its own purpose so experiment until you find the ones that work best for your style and technique. I would recommend starting simple with some larger flat brushes (such as a hake brush) for background washes and larger areas, and a smaller pointed or round brushes for finer details and thin lines. Additionally, watercolor brushes can have either synthetic or natural bristles. Synthetic watercolor brushes are more durable and firmer in feel but may lack the natural texture and absorption properties that come with natural bristles.

The Most Important Thing in Watercolor

4. Water Control

Water control is the most important aspect of watercolor painting. It's all about how much paint versus how much water you use. We call this the water to paint ratio. The combination of how wet or dry our paint is, versus how wet or dry our watercolor paper is, affects the different results we render in our painting. An example of this is the wet on wet watercolor technique where the surface is wet and the wet paint bleeds and blends together. Compare this to wet on dry, where the surface is dry and the brush strokes are watery. The combinations of these techniques depend on how much water is used and the desired effect and this is practically what watercolor really is.

5. Timing

Timing is everything when it comes to watercolor painting. Sometimes, that means working quickly while the layer is still wet to blend colors together and create soft, dreamy, and ethereal effects. Other times, its about waiting until the layer is damp or completely dried to allow for sharper lines and stronger contrasts. Learn the difference between what its like to paint on wet paper, damp paper or it is completely dry. Knowing when to use each technique is crucial to mastering watercolor painting.

6. Beautiful "mistakes"

The unpredictability of how water moves and interacts with the pigment is part of the art. Imperfections can add character and depth to a piece. Embrace the sudden bloom of color or that unintentional drip of paint in the painting process, these "mistakes" give watercolor paintings the character and personality that simply cannot be replicated in any other medium - sometimes these may just turn out to be the best part of the painting.

The Fundamentals in Painting

7. Understand Basic Color Theory

As a beginner painter, getting the colors right can be crucial in creating the desired mood and appeal in your paintings. Understanding the basics of color theory is essential in achieving this. Color theory involves understanding the relationships between different colors and how they interact when they are placed close together. This knowledge is important as it helps you know how to mix colors effectively, avoid color clashes, and create balance and harmony in your paintings.

8. Color Mixing

Learning how to mix colors is another foundational skill that cannot be ignored. For example, you should know that mixing the primary colors: like a red and yellow can give you a bright and vibrant orange color. In the same way, you can also create your own green paint by mixing yellow and blue paint together. Understanding how paints behave and how to create secondary and tertiary colors can also expand your color palette. Allowing you to create more complex and dynamic pieces all while using a limited set of paints.

9. The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the more fundamental rules when creating and considering for our composition. The basic idea is to divide your canvas or paper into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically, resulting in nine equal sections. The focal point of your painting should then fall on one of the intersections of these lines, creating a sense of balance and harmony. This is helpful not only in painting but we use this in photography and other visual art forms as well.

10. Understanding Perspective

Perspective is all about creating the illusion of depth and distance in your artwork. You might see this to be applied more in architectural drawings or cityscape paintings. For example, if you're painting a city street, pay attention to how objects like buildings and street lights appear smaller the further away they are. Always identify the vanishing point of your composition first, and then draw our the perspective lines afterwards.

Experiment with Different Styles and Mediums

11. Try to Use a Limited Palette

A limited palette helps you focus on the essentials of color – value, temperature, and hue – without getting distracted by flashy extras. By reducing the number of watercolor paints you use, you challenge yourself to get creative with mixing and blending. Watercolor paintings also come out more cohesive and harmonious when limited colors are used.

12. Try Negative Painting

This technique involves painting around the subject instead of directly painting on it. So instead of painting a tree, you would instead paint around the shape of the tree to create the illusion of foliage. (example)
You can also utilise masking fluid to "leave" white on the painting.

13. Try to use salt

Sprinkling salt onto wet paint can create some fascinating and unpredictable effects on your watercolor painting. As the salt absorbs the paint and dries, it creates subtle, crystalline patterns and beautiful watercolor textures. The more salt you use, the larger and more dramatic these patterns become.

14. Watercolor paints with granulation

Granulation occurs when pigment particles settle into the crevices of the paper, creating a textured and almost grainy appearance. You can use a granulation medium, some certain watercolor paints also naturally create these interesting textures.

15. Iridescent watercolor paints

This is a type of watercolor paint that gives off a shimmering, almost metallic effect that can add a lot of depth and movement to your work. If you're looking to capture the glimmer of the sun on water, or the sparkle of an object in the light, iridescent paints are the perfect tool to make your painting pop.

Developing Your Artist's Eye

16. Study the Masters

You can learn a great deal by studying the masters. Take some time to examine the techniques they used, the colors they chose, and how they composed their paintings. You may even want to try to recreate some of their pieces to get a better understanding of how they achieved their final result. By studying the works of the masters, you'll start to notice small details that you may have overlooked before and this is one way of developing your watercolor painting skills.

17. Paint from life

Painting from life can be a truly rewarding experience. Not only does it allow you to capture the world around you in a unique and realistic way, but it also offers an opportunity for growth as an artist. By painting from life, you are challenged to observe your surroundings in detail, from the way light falls on objects to the subtle variations in color. This heightened awareness can help you to create more nuanced and compelling works of art.

18. Paint from Reference Photos

With that said, I actually also encourage beginners to paint from reference photos. Working from reference photos allows you to take your time and work at your own pace, without worrying about the subject moving or changing. Sometimes that is what we need, a controlled and relaxed environment to practice our watercolor skills.

19. Plein Aire

Plein aire painting is a beautiful way to connect with nature and express your creativity. And watercolor painting is the perfect medium to do so because of its convenience. By painting landscapes outdoors, you can capture the beauty of the natural world and create something truly unique. There's something special about being surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature while you paint. You'll find yourself embracing the nuances of natural light and exploring color in a whole new way. Plus, plein aire painting is a great way to challenge yourself and grow as an artist. You never know what you might discover while painting outdoors.

A Few Watercolor Painting Ideas for You

20. Paint a Watercolor Skyline


21. Paint a Watercolor Sunset


22. Paint a Watercolor Cityscape


23. Paint a Watercolor Seascape