I love watercolour, but it’s been an on-off relationship. I love the effects it gives, fresh, artless, glowing, but I had no idea of the amount of work it takes to be able to predict how the water behaves. It’s definitely the water that’s the trickiest part of watercolour. When I started out trying to paint pictures, I’d pick a lovely reference photo and set out, only to end up quite often crumpling it up in frustration as the painting descended into a muddy puddle, or the top layer of the paper peeled away.

But perseverance is key, and so here’s how I taught myself. If you have been wanting to try watercolour, but have been feeling the fear of the blank piece of paper, then maybe try this approach.


Take the pressure off yourself

I gave myself permission to make mistakes. And I decided that rather than painting pictures, I needed to practice effects, and try to learn how to tame the water. (I’m still trying , but it’s a noble aim, right?)

Watercolour effects painting lessonSo, I drew up some exercises for learning about different watercolour effects. I think it’s really useful for people of all abilities to practice familiar techniques and try new ones.

If possible, it’s great to do this in a group where you can see other people trying colours or using marks you’d never have thought of and trying to think of subjects you could use them with.


Types of watercolour painting

There are different ways to use your watercolour paints, to suit different subjects and effects: wet in wet painting, wet on dry painting, texture and masking.

Wet in wet painting

  • Loose abstract backgrounds
  • Indistinct ‘distant’ backgrounds in landscapes
  • Smooth transitions and gradients of colour

Wet on dry painting

  • Detailed, realistic work
  • Illustrative work
  • Building depth and tone

Adding texture

  • Suggesting complicated areas of detail that would become dead or overworked if painted faithfully
  • Abstract, loose or illustrative work

Masking techniques

  • Precise edges
  • Preserving the white of the paper
  • Creating the illusion of texture

Choose the right materials

I’ll talk more about materials in later posts, but make sure you have:

  • Paints – you can use watercolour pans or tubes (or both). Colours painted with pans are not as intense (depending on the brand you use), and it tends to be easier to remove the paint from the paper if you make a mistake. Tubes give great colour and a wider range of opacity.
  • Brushes – choose a wide flat brush and a couple of different sizes of round brush as a minimum
  • Watercolour paper – papers are marked by weight – use a minimum of 140 lb/300 gsm if you want to paint without stretching the paper. Light paper will bend and warp or ‘cockle’
  • Kitchen roll – for removing excess water from your paper and brush and lifting areas of paint for different effects
  • Water pot (or two) – jam jars are great for this

Get to know your paints

Even more fundamental to effects is colour and the way your set of paints works.

Try this:

Making a colour chart for your watercolour pan setUse your paints to make a chart that shows how each colour looks on paper, it’s very hard to tell how they will paint from looking at the pans. Do this if at all possible when your paint set is new, and you still have the details of which colour is which.

Your new set should also give you information about the ‘transparency’ of each paint. I have a set of Saint Petersburg White Nights paints which are marked with stars, 0 being very transparent, 3* being very opaque. Your painting will be affected not just by the colour you choose but by how transparent it is.

This reference chart will be invaluable when planning colour for your paintings, certainly while you’re starting out.


There’s lots more to find out, I’ll be adding tips and exercise for you to try soon. If you don’t want to miss a post, sign up below to get an email link to each one.

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