Everything You Need to Know About Watercolor Painting

Are you an aspiring artist looking to enhance your watercolor painting skills? If so, you've come to the right place! Watercolor painting is a timeless art form cherished by countless artists, and its enduring appeal is not without reason. With its ethereal washes and the ability to achieve intricate glazing effects, the world of watercolors is a captivating realm waiting to be explored.

A beautiful watercolor artwork flatlay with references

Artists' Watercolor 24 Pan Set

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into all aspects of watercolor painting to equip you with the knowledge you need. From understanding watercolor's unique properties as a medium to mastering fundamental painting techniques, we've got you covered. Whether you're a beginner or looking to refine your existing skills, our watercoloring tips and step-by-step instructions will help you confidently embark on your artistic journey.

I. What Is Watercolor Painting?
II. A Brief History of the Emergence of Watercolor Painting
III. Famous Watercolor Paintings by Artists
IV. How Do You Use Watercolor Paints?
V. Step-By-Step Guide on Starting a Watercolor Painting
VI. Basic Watercolor Techniques
VII. Tips and Tricks for Watercolor Painting

So, gather your beloved watercolor paints and brushes, and let's dive right in! Together, we'll unlock the secrets of creating breathtaking watercolor masterpieces.

I. What Is Watercolor Painting?

Watercolor painting is a versatile and captivating art form that uses water-soluble pigments to create stunning works of art. It is characterized by its transparent and luminous qualities, allowing light to pass through the layers of paint and reflect off the white paper underneath. Unlike other painting techniques, watercolor relies on the interaction between water, pigments, and paper to achieve its unique effects.

Artists often dilute the pigments with water to create various levels of transparency, creating washes and layers of color. The delicate and fluid nature of watercolors lends itself to a wide range of techniques, including wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, and dry brushing, for example. These techniques enable artists to achieve different textures, gradations, and effects in their paintings.

A cute watercolor fish artwork detailed with fine liner pens

Fine Liner Pen Set

Whether it's capturing landscapes, still life, portraits, or abstract compositions, watercolor painting offers a sense of spontaneity, vibrancy, and fluidity that can evoke emotions and create visually stunning artworks. It is a medium that invites exploration, experimentation, and the expression of one's unique artistic vision.

II. A Brief History of the Emergence of Watercolor Painting

Watercolor painting has a rich and fascinating history that dates back centuries. Its origins can be traced to ancient civilizations, where artists used pigments mixed with water to create vibrant illustrations and manuscript illuminations. However, it was during the Renaissance period that watercolor began to emerge as a distinct medium, with Albrecht Dürer being one of the most notable artists during this time.

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In the 18th century, watercolor gained popularity as a medium for landscape painting, particularly in England. Artists like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable embraced watercolors to capture the transient qualities of light, atmosphere, and natural scenery. This remarkable period marked a shift from watercolor being primarily used for sketches and studies to becoming a respected and independent artistic form.

During the 19th century, watercolor societies were formed, exhibitions were organized, and instructional books on watercolor techniques were published. This further contributed to the medium's growth and recognition. Notable watercolorists like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent expanded the possibilities of the medium, showcasing its versatility and expressive potential.

A watercolor painting of a bird sitting on a tree branch

Fine Watercolor Brushes

In the 20th century, watercolor continued to evolve with the emergence of new artistic movements. Modernists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky experimented with abstraction and innovative techniques, pushing the boundaries of traditional watercolor painting. The medium also gained popularity in America, with artists like Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O'Keeffe incorporating watercolors into their artistic practices.

Today, watercolor painting remains a vibrant and thriving art form. It has adapted to the digital age, with artists exploring digital watercolor techniques using software and tablets. Watercolor societies, workshops, and exhibitions continue to celebrate the beauty and versatility of the medium, attracting artists from all walks of life.

III. Famous Watercolor Paintings by Artists

  • "The Blue Boat" by Winslow Homer: A masterpiece by the American artist Winslow Homer, known for his mastery of watercolor. This painting depicts a solitary boat in a tranquil blue water setting, showcasing Homer's ability to capture the play of light and atmosphere.

A famous watercolor painting, "The Blue Boat" by Winslow Homer


  • "The Hay Wain" by John Constable: Although primarily known for his oil paintings, John Constable also produced remarkable watercolor works. "The Hay Wain" is a famous watercolor landscape painting that showcases Constable's skill in capturing the English countryside with its rustic charm.
  • "Rhine Bridge and Schloss Wörth" by J.M.W. Turner: J.M.W. Turner, a British artist known for his dramatic landscapes, created numerous stunning watercolor paintings. "Rhine Bridge and Schloss Wörth" is a notable example, displaying Turner's ability to capture light, atmosphere, and the sublime in his watercolor works.
  • "Iris Garden at Horikiri" by Ohara Koson: Ohara Koson was a renowned Japanese printmaker and painter known for his beautiful watercolor bird and flower prints. "Iris Garden at Horikiri" is a captivating watercolor painting that showcases Koson's delicate brushwork and mastery of color.
  • "Untitled (Vase of Flowers)" by Georgia O'Keeffe: Although primarily associated with her iconic oil paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe also experimented with watercolor. "Untitled (Vase of Flowers)" is a notable watercolor study by O'Keeffe, reflecting her unique style and focus on capturing the essence of natural forms.

"Untitled (Vase of Flowers)" by Georgia O'Keeffe

  • "Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter" by John Singer Sargent: John Singer Sargent, known for his exquisite portraits, also produced captivating watercolor paintings. "Tintoretto Painting, His Dead Daughter" is a powerful watercolor portrait that showcases Sargent's mastery of capturing light and emotion.
  • "Wind From the Sea" by Andrew Wyeth: Andrew Wyeth, well-known for his realistic and beautiful work on rural landscapes, still-lifes, and portraits, displays his remarkable skill in this painting of his neighbor's window overlooking the Maine countryside. The billowing curtains create movement, as his expert use of glazing techniques made the painting come alive. 

A famous watercolor artwork, "Wind From the Sea" by Andrew WyethIV. How Do You Use Watercolor Paints?

Unlike other paint mediums, watercolor is considered one of the more accessible and beginner-friendly mediums. This is because to work with watercolors mainly, you only need water and a brush! When you want to have darker and more saturated colors, use less water. For lighter and more transparent looks, add more water. 

If you'd like to see a watercolor painting process, you can watch this fun watercolor tutorial: 

 You can easily reactivate watercolor pigments on your palette for future use, and it's easier to clean on your brushes, hands, and other materials. These are just a few of the many advantages of using watercolors. With so many versatile possibilities, watercolor is an excellent option for artists seeking to express their creativity and capture the essence of the world around them.

Watercolor Paint

Watercolor is made with various ingredients, depending on the manufacturer, but it is typically composed of three significant elements: pigments, a binding agent like Gum Arabic, and water. Some companies also add other components, such as plasticizers, to avoid brittle and cracked paint when drying, and brighteners to affect how lightfast the colors change when dried. 

A watercolor painting of some onions, eggplants, and tomatoes on a cutting board

Watercolor Paper Pad (9"x 12")

There are many different ways to use watercolors, depending on the type of watercolor product that you're using. Watercolor paints come in various forms, including tubes, pans, brush markers, and liquid watercolors. 

Watercolor tubes contain concentrated pigments that can be diluted with water, while pans consist of dried cakes that can be activated with a wet brush. On the other hand, watercolor brush markers consist of a marker-like barrel filled with water-based ink with watercolor-like properties. These markers have a brush tip instead of a traditional marker tip, which allows for versatile brush strokes and varying line widths.

Meanwhile, liquid watercolors are heavily-pigmented watercolor inks contained in portable bottles. These usually have dropper tips, so you can easily control the amount of pigment to use on your artwork. 

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Watercolor Painting Supplies You Need

To get started in watercolor painting, you'll only need a few supplies: 

  • Pencil - For creating a rough sketch or outline before painting. Since watercolor is translucent, make sure to use a light hand to cover up lines easily. 
  • Canvas or watercolor paper - Like other paint mediums, canvas is a go-to surface for watercolor artworks. You can also use durable watercolor paper because regular paper will buckle and tear under the weight of water. 
  • Watercolor paint - Of course, you can't start your painting without some watercolor paint! Whether it's tubes, pans, or markers, you have many options that offer various application techniques. 
  • Painter's tape - Some artists love creating a white border around their watercolor paintings in order to frame them. If you are interested in doing so as well, you would need a low-tack tape that won't tear your paper while still providing enough masking. 
  • Brushes - There are paint brushes in various sizes and tip shapes that are specifically tailored for watercoloring - such as fine brushes, flat brushes, and round brushes
  • Tin or container - As you constantly work on your watercolor artwork, you would need a tub of water to clean your brushes and change your colors in between while also using the water to reactivate your paint. This tub of water would also be essential for adding more water to your artwork.
  • Paper towel or cloth - Besides being handy for clean-ups in your workspace, paper towels are great for blotting techniques, which involve dabbing certain areas of your painting to make them lighter. 

A watercolor painting of a dragon

Watercolor Painting Supplies

You can add other items to this list, such as mixed media, markers, embellishments, gel pens, and fine liner pens for adding details, but these are the core materials you'll need to get started in watercolor painting. 

V. Step-By-Step Guide on Starting a Watercolor Painting

Once you have your supplies ready, you're all set to begin your first-ever watercolor painting! To help guide you on this journey, here is a step-by-step guide on how to start watercolor painting as a beginner: 

1. Figure Out Your Subject

Are you painting a landscape? A portrait? An animal or still-life? Or perhaps you just want to paint abstract watercolor washes? Have a picture of the subject you want to paint in mind and use that to guide the entire creative process. 

2. Mix Your Colors in Advance

Prepare your color palette. Use your brushes to mix water with the paint, creating the desired consistency and intensity. You can experiment with different color combinations and test them on a spare piece of paper or your watercolor palette.

3. Create a Light Sketch

Watercolor on its own as a beginner can be challenging if you aren't following a composition. Having an outline will help you immensely and enables you to plot your light source, highlights, shadows, and other perspective elements. 

4. Start With Imprimatura 

Imprimatura in Italian means "first layer". In watercolor painting, imprimatura means using a neutral color to cover your entire painting with a thin layer of paint. It will serve as the foundation for your pigments and will help you get a more accurate representation of lights and shadows. 

A beautiful watercolor painting of some koi fishes in a pond

Watercolor Accessories

5. Paint Your Tonal Layers

Once you have primed your canvas with imprimatura, start painting in your tonal layers. Use light colors first because making shadows is easier. While you can create highlights with blotting and adding more water, darker colors are harder to undo if you make a mistake. 

6. Add Details and More Layers

Once your first few layers are dry, gradually add more details and layers to your painting. Use smaller brushes for finer details and create texture by varying brushstrokes and techniques.

7. Final Touches and Details

Once your painting is nearly complete, add any final touches or details to enhance the overall composition. Remember to step back periodically to assess your work and make any necessary adjustments, and voila! You made your first watercolor painting - give yourself a pat on the back, and practice to improve your skills over time. 

VI. Basic Watercolor Techniques 

When it comes to watercolor painting techniques, there are so many fun ways to experiment. With the different forms of application, brushstrokes, and direction that you can do, you can end up with beautiful and unique results. Here are some basic watercoloring techniques to learn as a beginner: 

  • Wet-on-Wet Technique - Wet the paper with clean water before applying paint. While the paper is still wet, apply watercolor pigment using a brush. The colors will spread and blend more freely on the wet surface, creating soft, diffused edges and gradients.
  • Dry Brush Technique - To do this technique, use a relatively dry brush with minimal water and more concentrated paint. Apply the paint to dry paper, allowing for more control and crisp brushstrokes. This technique is great for creating texture and details, such as leaves, waves, and ground paintings. 
  • Wash Technique - Wet the paper evenly with clean water. Load your brush with a diluted pigment and apply it to the wet areas, letting the colors flow. You can use this technique for large areas of your painting or as an underpainting.
  • Glazing Technique - This technique allows you to build up layers of color and create depth and richness in your painting. Just wait for the first layer of paint to dry completely, then apply a transparent layer of watercolor on top of it.

A colorful watercolor painting of some critters underneath the sea

Artists' Watercolor Brushes - Round

  • Dry Wash Technique - Apply a wash of paint to dry paper using a wet brush and concentrated paint. Let the wash dry partially, then lift some of the color with a damp brush or paper towel. This technique helps create textures like grass, foliage, or clouds.
  • Wet-in-Wet Technique - involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface or wet area of the paper. The colors will blend and bleed into each other, creating soft edges and unpredictable patterns.
  • Lifting Technique - While the paint is still wet, gently use a clean brush or a paper towel to lift off some of the colors. You can create highlights, correct mistakes, or add texture by selectively lifting paint.
  • Salt Technique - While your watercolor paint is still wet, sprinkle some coarse salt over the surface. The salt will absorb moisture and create interesting textures and patterns as it interacts with the paint. Let it dry completely, then brush off the salt gently.

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VIII. Tips and Tricks for Watercolor Painting

A beautiful watercolor painting of a waterfalls

Watercolor Palette - Medium

  • Start with a light touch: Watercolors are transparent, so it's best to start with light washes of color and gradually build up the intensity.
  • Preserve the whites: Plan ahead and use masking fluid or reserve the areas you want to keep white. It helps maintain the highlights and adds depth to your painting.
  • Use a limited color palette: Begin with a small selection of colors to keep your painting harmonious. Mixing colors on your palette allows you to create a wide range of shades and tones.
  • Embrace happy accidents: Watercolors can be unpredictable, but sometimes those unexpected results can turn into happy accidents. Embrace the spontaneity and allow the paint to flow and blend naturally.
  • Incorporate different brush techniques: Experiment with various brush techniques, such as stippling, splattering, or lifting. These techniques add texture and visual interest to your painting.
  • Be patient and let layers dry: Allow each layer to dry completely before adding the next layer. Patience is crucial in watercolor painting to avoid unwanted smudges or muddy colors.
  • Save your brushes: Rinse your brushes thoroughly after each session and store them properly to maintain their shape and longevity. Avoid leaving brushes standing in water for too long, as it can damage the bristles.

Remember, these tips and tricks are meant to guide you, but ultimately, watercolor painting is a creative and personal journey. Enjoy the process, embrace mistakes, and let your imagination guide you to create beautiful and expressive watercolor artwork! 

Explore the Wonderful World of Watercolors With This Guide!

We hope this guide inspires you to try out watercolors! Don't be afraid of the results; just trust the process and enjoy creating your first watercolor artwork. After all, the greatest masterpieces aren't made all at once in a day - they are made by the artists' continuous choice to apply brushstrokes painstakingly, patiently, and consistently. Apply the same to yourself, and your watercolor skills will improve in no time at all! So have fun, and stay creative!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Watercolor painting is a technique where pigments are mixed with water to create transparent washes of color. It is typically done on paper, and the transparency of the pigments allows for layering and creating subtle blends.
To start watercolor painting, you'll need watercolor paper, watercolor paints, brushes, a palette for mixing colors, water containers, and paper towels or a rag for blotting excess water.
Watercolor brushes are typically made of natural or synthetic fibers. Common brush shapes for watercolor include round, flat, and mop brushes. Round brushes are versatile and great for detail work, while flat brushes are useful for washes and larger areas. Mop brushes hold a lot of water and are good for wet-on-wet techniques.
Watercolor paints come in various forms, such as tubes, pans, and liquid watercolors. Tubes offer a wide range of colors and are great for mixing, while pans are convenient for traveling. It's advisable to start with a basic set of colors and expand your collection as you progress.
Watercolor consistency is controlled by the amount of water you mix with your paint. More water creates a lighter and more transparent wash, while less water makes the paint more concentrated and opaque. Experimenting with different water-to-paint ratios will help you achieve the desired effects.
To create smooth gradients or blends, wet the area you want to work on with clean water first. Then apply your desired color at one end of the wet area and let it flow naturally. For smoother transitions, you can also use a clean, damp brush to blend the colors together.

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