Watercolour painting for beginners
Embrace a new creative skill with our guide to watercolour painting for beginners! We'll look at some basic watercolour techniques, the materials you'll need to get started and more
Watercolour is a fantastic medium to use if you're new to painting. It's one of the most accessible and portable forms of painting and even beginners can produce beautiful images with a little practice.
You can use watercolour paints to create quick sketches or take your time to paint more detailed designs, such as botanical paintings. Once you start using them, you'll quickly develop your own style and be able to paint your own unique pictures.
Use watercolour paints for luminous, slightly translucent paintings. If you're looking for flat and opaque colours, you'd be better off opting for acrylic paints or gouache which can be used to create bold, graphical paintings. Watercolour paints can also be used effectively in combination with other mediums, such as pencils and other types of paint.
Watercolour painting is extremely relaxing and a great way to spend an afternoon. You'll be surprised how calm you feel after a painting session! Painting is a mindful activity and it's very difficult to worry about anything else while you're focused on your painting.
Read on to explore our guide to watercolour painting for beginners…
Looking for some watercolour painting ideas to help you get started? Learn how to paint easy watercolor flowers, how to paint watercolour pebbles, how to paint a watercolour cactus, try monochrome painting for beginners or learn how to paint a watercolor galaxy. We've also put together a collection of easy watercolour painting ideas, fall painting ideas and art journal ideas to inspire you.
If you'd like to try painting in a different medium, take a look at our oil painting for beginners guide, beginner's guide to gouache, beginner's guide to acrylic paint or our how to use oil pastels guide.
Featured image by iStock/LightFieldStudios.
What you'll need to start painting with watercolours
To get started, you'll need watercolour paints, watercolour paper and a set of brushes. You might also find it useful to have a container for water to wash your brushes and a roll of kitchen paper to hand (for cleaning brushes and soaking up excess water).
To mix your paints, you can either use an artists' palette or a plate. Don't worry about ruining or damage your plate – the paint will wash off easily with a bit of water and washing up liquid.
Watercolour paints are made using pigment and a binding agent such as gum arabic. When mixed with a little water, they can be used to make luminous, translucent paintings.
Watercolour paints are available in sets and can be bought very cheaply. Alternatively, you can buy watercolour paint in tubes from some suppliers. If you take care of your watercolour paints, they will last you a really long time so if you decide to invest in a more expensive set then you will definitely get good value for money.
Here are a few watercolour paint sets to help you get started:
- Buy the WHSmith Art Watercolour Table set (12 colours) from WHSmith (£6.99)
- Buy the Watercolour Paint Essential set (24 colours) from Amazon (£11.69)
- Buy the Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Sketchers Pocket Box (12 colours) from WHSmith (£18.99)
You can find even more watercolour paints to buy in our best watercolour paints guide.
Watercolour paper is thicker than other kinds of artists' paper because it needs to be able to absorb a lot of water and pigment. You can use cartridge paper when you get started, but you may find that your paper buckles and warps if you use too much water.
You'll achieve much better results if you choose a pad of watercolour paper instead. There are three types of watercolour paper: hot-pressed paper (HP), cold-pressed paper (referred to as CP or NOT, meaning that it is not hot pressed) and rough.
Use HP paper for more detailed watercolour paintings, CP for most styles of watercolour painting and rough paper for less detailed work such as landscapes.
Here are some watercolour paper pads to buy when you're starting out:
- Daler Rowney Aquafine Cold Pressed Watercolour Pad (A4, 12 sheets) from Cass Art (£5.50)
- Daler Rowney Aquafine Hot Pressed Watercolour Pad (A4, 12 sheets) from Amazon (£6.25)
- Winsor & Newton Professional Rough Watercolour paper (9 x 12 in/22.9 x 30.5cm, 20 sheets) from Amazon (£25.19)
Watercolour brushes are designed to allow your paint to flow smoothly onto your paper. They should spring back into shape after each stroke and keep a nice point.
Paintbrushes are traditionally made using horse hair, but today you can buy synthetic brushes that are just as good. Take care of your brushes by washing and drying them after use – never leave them standing up in water because they can bend. If they come with a case, store them in that to help protect the bristles – especially if you're planning to take your paints out and about with you.
Here are a few paintbrushes for watercolour painting to start you off:
8 watercolour techniques for beginners
If you're new to watercolour painting, it's a good idea to start with some simple watercolour techniques for beginners. These are your basic foundation skills which will allow you to start creating beautiful artworks straight away.
A wash can be used to either fill a large space on your painting or to create a light background.
To create your wash, wet a large brush and sweep it over your watercolour paper, then brush your chosen colour on top of it. Allow it to dry before adding your next colour, unless you want it to bleed into the background. Be careful not to use too much water or your paper will warp.
You can bring your brush across the page in one direction to create a textured look (this is great if you're painting a landscape as it can give the look of a cloudy sky). Alternatively, paint in both horizontal or vertical lines for a flatter, more even effect.
2. Wet on wet
As the name suggests, wet on wet involves painting on top of an already wet layer of paper or an area that has already been painted but hasn't been allowed to dry. This can be used to create some really interesting effects! Play around with it and see what you can do with this fun technique – it can be very effective to let one colour run into another or simply add a drop of colour and watch it spread across the paper.
3. Wet on dry
Wet on dry can refer to painting directly onto a dry piece of paper or painting over a section of your painting that has already dried. Use this technique to create more precise paintings and clean lines.
4. Building up colour
You can make darker or more intense shades by layering up your colours when each layer is dry. This is also a great way to layer shadows on top of paint that has already dried.
5. Creating a gradient
First, wet the area that you want to paint. Add your first colour at one end, then draw it towards the middle using your paintbrush. Wash your brush, then add the second colour at the opposite and move it gradually towards the centre until it mixes with your first colour. This is a quick and easy way to add a gradient to your painting.
6. Painting details
If you want to keep areas of your painting separate, it can be a good idea to paint around the edges first with a smaller brush before painting a larger area (such as a background). Make sure the area you are painting around has dried before you start to paint the second colour.
It's a good idea to have at least one fine paintbrush to allow you to add detail or paint more delicate parts of your watercolour painting.
7. Splattering paint
Splattering paint is a great exercise to try with kids! Just make sure you put down some newspaper first. You can put some paint on your brush and flick it towards your painting in an uncontrolled way, or flick the end of your brush using your finger for a more subtle effect. This can be a great way to add some interesting texture to your painting.
Try splattering some paint on a page and drawing a shape around it when dry to create a quirky drawing. This is used to great effect by the artists Peng and Hu who created the book Hirameki: Draw What You See (£9.95 from Waterstones).
8. Masking fluid
Masking fluid can be used if you want to keep any sections of your picture white or to protect a section while you paint another colour over the top. This technique has been used very effectively in Esther Curtis' watercolour pebbles project.
Top tips for watercolour painting
Before you try out our watercolour techniques for beginners, you might find these top tips helpful:
- Keep your watercolour set clean. Make sure your brushes are clean whenever you switch colours or your watercolour paints will get grubby.
- Want to add highlights to a dark area of your painting? It's useful to have a tube of white gouache to hand for lighter details. Use it neat or blend it with your watercolour paints for stunning results.
- Don't use too much water. Yes, water is essential for watercolour painting but if you use too much then your paper will become bumpy. If the painting is small enough, then place a piece of paper over your painting to protect it and pile some heavy books on top.
- Soak up any excess water. Sometimes you'll add water to the paper and will instantly realise that you've made it too wet. Keep some kitchen towel on hand to gently soak away the excess water when this happens. You can also rub the paint with kitchen towel to add a rougher texture.
- Change your water regularly. If you're using lots of different colours, your water can quickly become cloudy and dark. If you use dirty water when painting lighter shades then your colours won't turn out as you want them to look. Make sure you change your water frequently while you're painting and give the jar a good rinse too.
- If you're painting two different colours next to each other and want to keep them separate, wait for your first colour to completely dry before painting the second colour next to it or one colour will run into the other.
- Make a test sheet (see below). If you've bought a large watercolour set, it can be a good idea to make a watercolour test sheet. Take a sheet of watercolour paper and paint a small square in each colour, then write a note next to each colour so you can identify the pan or tube in your set. This will allow you to find the shade you want to use for your painting quickly, while also giving you a good idea of what the paint will look like when it's dry.
- Use masking tape to create a border. Taping around the edge of a piece of paper can allow you to create a clean border on your painting, just be careful not to let it get too wet. Peel it away once the paint is dry to reveal a clean edge around your painting.
Sarah Orme is a UK-based linocut printmaker, digital editor, feature writer and award-winning podcaster. She's been editing the sewing and art sections of Gathered.how – and before that our sister website calmmoment.com – for over 3 years. She’s the host of Gathered’s We’ve Made It podcast and A Calmer Life podcast. She’s a keen crafter and artist and loves creating DIY tutorials for Gathered. Sarah has previously written features for The Guardian, In The Moment Magazine, Project Calm Magazine, countryfile.com, radiotimes.com and yourhomestyle.uk. She enjoys designing her own unique lino prints and dreams of opening her own online shop. She shares her work @sarahormeprints