Painting with Watercolors
You’re about to embark on a journey through the wonderful world of watercolor, so get ready to be inspired and read on!
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Time to read:
21 min
Date:
Jun 30, 2020

Always wanted to paint with watercolors but were afraid to try?

Well, here’s the good news—it’s easier than you think!

In this article you’ll learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this fascinating medium. You’ll discover how it’s made, how long it’s been around, how to decide between tubes and pans and how to paint with it. We’ll introduce you to some famous watercolorists, as well as the supplies you’ll need to get started or improve the art practice you’ve got now.

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Table of Contents:

Why Watercolor?

There are so many reasons why children and adults, pros and student artists love watercolors. The benefits are endless, from not having to mess with smelly solvents to easy setup and cleanup, plus the fact that you can get sets just about anywhere. They’re one of the most accessible and affordable art mediums you can use and for that reason, beginners are drawn to them. The unpredictability of this water-based medium makes them tough to master, which is why seasoned artists continue to paint with them year after year. They are luminous and totally unlike any other mediums.

The benefits are endless, from not having to mess with smelly solvents to easy setup and cleanup.

With all these benefits, it’s no wonder their popularity continues to grow. In fact, from May 2019 to April 2020, the online search term “watercolors” increased by 149.17%!

What Exactly Is Watercolor Paint?

When minerals are crushed and combined with a water-soluble binder, you end up with watercolor paint. Unlike oil paint, the gum arabic used as the binder is what gives it the ability to dissolve with water. Its watery nature is what makes it react in different ways depending on if it’s applied to a dry or moist surface. Artists use this to their advantage to create hard and soft edges, stable or gradient colors, and when mixing on the palette or the canvas. They also appreciate that this water-based paint dries fast but reactivates with a mist of water.

When Did Watercolors Come About?

When looking at the history of watercolor, we assume that early cave dwellers used them to paint scenes on their walls. But, the true story of watercolors really begins in the 1400s. Artwork from that era shows that early watercolorists were discovering and grinding their own pigments they mixed with resins. It was such a difficult process to do that once an artist had their own formula, they kept it under tight wraps, never divulging their secret. This continued until about the 18th century, when certain shops started popping up in some of Europe’s major metropolises. In these shops, patrons could get both pigments and resins. Then it didn’t take long for manufacturers to discover how lucrative it would be to prepare and sell ready-mixed formulas. They came as large premixed slabs. The artist would cut off a chunk, take it home and grind it into a light powder. After adding water to it, they were ready to paint.

In 1780, the idea of cutting the chunks and molding them into solid cakes was discovered and the modern panpaints we use today were born.

The evolution of watercolor didn’t end there. During the late 1830s, preassembled sets became available and suddenly artists weren’t the only ones painting; hobbyists and school children had joined the ranks in using these new easy-to-use paints. Watercolors took another revolutionary turn with the invention of the metal tube specifically for holding oil paint a decade later. Watercolor manufacturers saw the opportunity presented and reformulated their pan paints to create fluid paints that could fit inside these convenient little tubes.

Since then, more hues have been uncovered and new ways to up the intensity of the colors have been developed. Today’s modern paints are more vibrant than their forbearers and have played an important part in watercolor painting and how it’s recognized within the larger fine arts community.

Tubes or Pans?

Today’s tubes and pans are a little different than those of yesteryear. Now, you can get tubes in a multitude of sizes, while pans can be bought separately, in plastic cases, or empty so that you can fill them yourself.

Besides being packaged differently, there’s a difference in how each kind of paint is used. Using tube paint requires a palette for mixing colors, while paint in pans can be mixed in the lid of their container. For the tube painter, it is typical to drag a bit of the paint on the palette into a drop of water, while the one who uses the pans will moisten the paint first before use. When using tube paints it’s important to remember to always keep the tops securely tightened after you finish using them, as these paints have a tendency to dry out if not stored properly. You can purchase a tube alone or in sets, but for anyone who would rather work with panned paint, there are a few more choices. You can buy a complete set that includes the primary colors and neutrals, there are empty sets that you can fill with paint yourself and create your own custom palette, and there are empty pans you can purchase to glue into your own containers, such as candy tins, loaded with colors of your choice for one-of-a-kind watercolor kits. Preliminary sketching is a popular use for pans. Due to their portability, using them for quick painting excursions or when traveling farther from home or the studio is also a typical practice. Artists tend to reserve the tube paints for the studio and detailed versions of their earlier sketches or for large works. There are artists who only use either tubes or pans and don’t ever use the other.

If you’re new to the medium, it’s a good idea to give both a try until you discover which is beneficial to your specific needs.

Both watercolor tubes and pans have distinguishing pros and cons. Preference for one over the other usually depends on the size and type of artwork an artist creates. For artists who create large works, tube paints offer the ability to have the most paint at one time and get rid of any fear of running out of paint. It lets the painter add generous amounts of color to big areas without variations. Artists whose work depends on intensified color will achieve this by using paint straight from the tube, as it is highly saturated with pigment. That being said, using paint from a tube makes it difficult to determine how much paint you actually need. It can also prove to be problematic on the palette. If one color becomes contaminated from another, the pure form is lost and more paint must be added. Both cases can lead to wasted paint.

Both watercolor tubes and pans have distinguishing pros and cons. Preference for one over the other usually depends on the size and type of artwork an artist creates.

Those who prefer watercolor pans cite that portability is one of its strongest advantages. Sets come in multiple sizes, from just a few basic colors to those with several shades. The lid doubles as a palette so the amount of supplies needed to paint is also less, adding to their convenience. Setting up to paint with pans is easier, only requiring the application of a quick mist of water. Another benefit of using pans is less paint is wasted. The downside is that the pan’s small size makes it more challenging to get enough paint for large areas while keeping consistency in color and tone. Also, they promote “rubbing” the paintbrush to lift the color, which may wear away or damage the bristles.

Tubes
Pros
Come in large sizes, so there’s always plenty of paint on hand
Extremely saturated hues
Easily used straight out of the tube or thinned with water
Great for covering large areas
Cons
Hard to gauge how much paint you’ll need, which could lead to wasted paint
May become contaminated on the palette, in which case, more paint will need to be added
Tubes
Pans
Pros
Portability and less mess when painting away from home or the studio
Fewer supplies
Quick and simple set up, just open mist with water
Less paint is wasted
Cons
Harder to paint large areas and get consistency in color and tone
Encourages “rubbing” the paintbrush to lift the color, which can damage your brushes
Pans

Basic Watercolor Art Supplies

You’ll be happy to know that painting in watercolor does not require a long list of supplies. This is one of the reasons it’s been a favorite medium for kids for so long. Even the most inexpensive set, with a limited color selection, can provide hours of painting pleasure. As long as you have the paint, a brush, paper, and water, you’re all set. The important thing to remember is that watercolor reacts differently than oil, acrylic, or gouache. So it’s important to have the correct supplies to achieve the best results. Here’s an explanation of the supplies needed for watercolor painting.

Hard-Lead Pencil

Watercolorists start their paintings with a light sketch of their subject so that it won’t show through once the paint is applied. To do this they typically use drawing pencils with a hard lead. The harder a pencil’s lead, the lighter the mark it makes will be. Therefore, you should choose to make your sketch in pencils that start with HB and go up to 4H, as the rising number before the H indicates the increasing hardness of the lead.

Paper

The most important supply besides the paint is the paper for this medium. Watercolorists choose their paper carefully, as this water medium tends to cause the paper to warp or buckle. For this reason, it’s important to use paper that is heavy enough to withstand getting wet.

Weight

There are two standards that categorize the weight or density of paper—the United States standard and the European. With the US version, a paper’s weight is given in pounds or the weight of 500 sheets (a ream) in a basic size. European paper standards use GSM or grams per square meter which is the weight of a sheet with a surface area that is one square meter. When choosing paper, you will always see both weights shown on the packaging. The recommended paper to use with watercolor starts at 140lb (300 gsm) and goes up from there. Although the thickness of a sheet of paper can coincide with the weight of the paper, having a higher weight doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a thicker piece of paper. The paper may be thicker simply because it contains more wood or cotton fiber and/or some elements have been added to make it more ecologically friendly.

Texture

Another consideration with paper is its texture. Watercolor paper comes in three distinct textures: hot press, cold press, and rough. These textures are a result of the different pressing and drying processes used in papermaking. A hot press paper uses hot cylinders to flatten the paper pulp, giving it the smoothest surface, similar to when you iron the wrinkles out of your clothes. Cold press means the paper has been flattened on cold cylinders so its surface is slightly textured, like when you hang your clothes to dry and they come out feeling a little rough. Rough paper is produced by going through cold metal rollers between sheets of felt, where it picks up irregularities that give it even more texture.

Why is texture important? The more little nooks and crannies a paper’s surface has, the more paint it will hold in those areas. If your goal is to have a finished painting that is hyper-realistic, then a hot press paper’s smooth surface will probably be your best bet since the paint is more likely to sit and stay on the top of the paper. If you want a more “painterly” look to your work, you will want to choose paper that’s cold-pressed or rough, since with these the paint sinks into the pits and spreads on the surface.

Strength

For watercolor painting, you need strong paper. How the paper is made will have a bearing on how strong it is. Paper is made of either cotton or wood cellulose pulp and there are three ways to turn it into sheets. It can be pressed by hand, in a machine, or in a mold. The way the pulp is pressed will determine the strength of the paper, for example, the machine-made paper is typically the strongest, with molded paper next in strength and hand-made paper the most fragile. For further information, check our blog on how to choose watercolor paper.

Brushes

Two important things to keep in mind when deciding which brush to use are the bristles and the shape of the brush. Both of these factors will determine the density and size of your strokes. As you get more and more proficient at watercolor painting, you’ll discover that you’ll gravitate toward a certain brush for a certain stroke you want to make. If you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to get a variety of brushes in different shapes and sizes and experiment to find the one that fits your style of painting best.

Bristles

Watercolor brushes are softer and more flexible than those used for oil painting and acrylics since water is absorbed into each bristle, unlike oil and acrylic which tend to sit on top of the bristles. For brushes that soak up the most paint, natural bristles made from animal hair, such as sable, squirrel, pony, or goat are the best and can get a little pricey. But there are plenty of synthetic versions that mimic their quality and offer the absorbency and flexibility that natural hair is known for. That doesn’t mean you should rule out harder bristle brushes altogether. For creating scumbling or dry-brush techniques, some watercolorists use the hard bristle brushes usually reserved for oil and acrylic painting.

Shape

The tip or shape of the brush will determine the shape of the stroke a painter creates. That’s why brushes come in a variety of shapes, including round, flat, angled, and liner. Before you get overwhelmed by all the choices, here’s an overview of the most typical brushes used for watercolor painting:

Round

These versatile brushes can make thin or thick lines and short to medium strokes. They are good for sketching, outlining, and filling in small areas as well as for washes and glazing.

Flat

The straight top of this brush can create flat edges, bold strokes, and fill in wide areas.

Angled

Bristles cut at an angle allow this brush to make or paint around curved lines and to place paint in tight corners.

Liner

The very thin tip of this brush is often used for hand lettering and for adding intricate details and tiny highlights.

Watercolor Brush Pen

Another handy brush to have is a refillable watercolor brush pen. This brush has a reservoir in the barrel that can be filled with water, making it a convenient water supply when painting on the go. As pressure is applied to the tip, water seeps into the bristles. The barrel is shorter than a regular paint brush so it’s easy to control and store when not in use.

Paint

Watercolor paint comes in two grades: student and professional. All watercolors contain pigment and gum arabic as well as a wetting agent and moisturizer. Student-grade paint is made with lesser-quality pigments and includes more fillers and extenders. Artist-grade paint is highly pigmented and more permanent. The difference in pigment quality will have a direct bearing on the intensity of the color. Another important characteristic of the paint is its permanence. This refers to the lightfastness of the paint, or how well it withstands exposure to light and keeps from fading or changing color over time. Arteza watercolor paints always include a lightfastness rating.

Palette

Color mixing is an essential skill for watercolorists. Artists who use tube paints mix their colors on a palette in conjunction with a cup or glass jar of water. Palettes come in different materials, each with their own set of benefits and drawbacks. For studio use, many painters use a ceramic or glass palette. These surfaces allow the paint to mix easily as it slides over their slick exteriors. The weight of this kind of palette makes these best used on a table and is not conducive to holding the palette while working. If you prefer to hold the palette or just want one that’s more lightweight, plastic and plexiglass palettes are a good alternative. Since plastic is a porous material though, it may end up stained by the paint after long use. But, these are the most affordable and readily available palettes on the market.

Disposable paper palettes are also popular. The paper has a glossy surface that doesn’t absorb the paint and it makes for easy cleanup since it can be thrown away when the work is done. Pan paints don’t necessarily need a separate palette. For paint sets that come in metal tins, the lid makes a good place to mix colors, although it’s not very large so mixing without contamination is limited.

Water Container

There are so many ways to maintain a water supply while you’re painting. You can purchase special containers or, as many artists do, use common household jars or plastic tubs that hold products such as sour cream or cottage cheese. These are convenient and a great way to keep them out of landfills.

When choosing your container, it’s better to use one that is deep versus shallow. As you clean your brush the paint from it will settle at the bottom. If the container is deep, it means the paint will settle further down and you’ll have cleaner water at the top to keep reusing. That’s also why it’s not a good idea to stir your brush at the bottom of the jar to clean it. This only causes the sediment to rise and mix with the water. It is common practice to use more than one jar of water at a time. You can use one jar for cleaning your brush and another, with the cleaner water, to dip your brush in before mixing or thinning colors on the palette. This will keep your colors clean and free from contamination. You should change the water as frequently as necessary to keep your brushes clean and your colors pure. Some artists always change their water when they go from a dark color or one with high staining capacities—such as certain greens, blues, or reds—before using their lighter hues.

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How to Paint with Watercolors

Watercolors are both the easiest medium to find and get started with, and they are also one of the more complex media to master. Because of their hard-to-control nature, it can take years of practice to be able to use this watery medium to its fullest potential. But, it’s also one of the most beautiful and artistically satisfying media, which offers a luminescent quality that can’t be achieved by other paints. That being said, these paints are also the most accessible paints on the market. You can find a watercolor set outside of art supply stores or hobby shops. Simple sets can be found at grocery stores and pharmacies and usually come with their own little paintbrush.

Just adding water isn’t enough to excel at watercolor painting.

To paint with watercolors an artist must understand how the paint reacts to differing amounts of water and how it will perform when applied to a wet or dry surface.

Once you understand these concepts, the range of what can be accomplished with these paints is enormous, from solid blocks of color to transparent layers to textural applications to the finest details. Many artists begin by applying their paint to the palette in tiny pea-sized amounts. It may not appear to be enough, but if you’re using quality paint that is deeply saturated with pigment, it only takes a small amount, especially since water will be added. Once a puddle of water has been dropped onto the palette, a gradual amount of paint can be added to it until the right water to paint ratio is achieved, depending on if the goal is to get a light or dark color. By bringing one color to another, you can mix colors together before or after combining with water. It’s a good idea to have a scratch piece of paper nearby to test colors before placing them on the work in progress. This also allows you to see the best surface for watercolor.

As you paint with watercolor, you’ll want to work from light to dark. With each layer of color you add, your section will become darker and since it is very difficult to lift or lighten the paint once it’s on the paper, it’s a better idea to begin with the lightest shades and build up the darker areas. Consequently, planning is important before even beginning a piece to establish where the lightest areas will be.

It’s a better idea to begin with the lightest shades and build up the darker areas.

Another good rule of thumb is to start with the most general areas and work your way to the fine details. By laying down a foundation of color first, depth and dimension can be created. By placing the smaller specific details in the end, they are sure to be crisp and not lost in the composition. When learning how to paint with watercolors, it’s best to experiment with several of the basic techniques on a wide assortment of paper until you get the hang of it.

Watercolor Techniques

Watercolor lends itself to many techniques. You can paint on either wet or dry surfaces and achieve completely different results. Here are a few of the most popular ones you can try:

Wet-On-Dry

This involves using wet paint on dry paper. With this technique, you can achieve a base shade in which to add more details or defined lines. It allows the making of a smooth background color as well as sharp, crisp edges. This technique offers the artist the most control.

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Wet-On-Wet

In this method, you wet the paper with clean water first before applying the paint onto the wet surface. The paint will then spread out and merge with the water, creating all sorts of effects and can make adding large strokes of color possible. This is also how to get soft edges within the work.

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Glazing

This is when you paint a layer of color (also known as a wash) and allow it to dry before adding another layer. By layering the same colors, a dark shade is created, while adding layers of different hues can create new colors. Glazing is one of the ways artists create shadows and gradients for realistic renderings.

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Gradients

You can get beautiful gradients with one color or combine two to form a third color that gradually appears. To make a gradient in one color, start by laying down a square in one color, letting it dry, and then painting another layer on top of it. Let that dry as well. Use a wet brush and lightly swipe over the bottom of the square, pulling the paint down to form a lighter layer. Continue until you have created a swatch that has a dark area that gradually turns into a lighter one, that then ends in the lightest shade of your color.

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Dry Brush

Instead of dipping your brush in water and into the paint, use a dry brush dipped in paint and apply it to your paper. This is a good way to add texture because as you continue to stroke the dry brush across the surface some of the paint will adhere and some won’t. This technique comes in handy when you’re trying to replicate the roughness of rocks or dry grass blowing in the wind.

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Stippling

With this method, you can create intriguing patterns that can mimic the appearance of fur, stone, or other natural elements. It’s easy to do by simply dipping a crumpled paper towel or tissue or the tip of a small brush into the paint and then dabbing it onto your canvas. Because of all the color variations you will get, stippling can add a 3-D effect.

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Table Salt

Who would have thought that common table salt could be an art tool? Table salt is very absorbent so when you sprinkle it onto your wet painting, it will soak up the water, leaving an interesting impression behind. The best way to use it is to sprinkle it over a thin wash of paint and let it dry completely, then gently brush it off the surface. It leaves behind random and unusual organic shapes.

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There are so many more things you can do with watercolors. To learn more, visit our blogs on watercolor tips Basic Watercolor Techniques Read now and techniques Basic Watercolor Techniques Read now .

Famous Watercolorists

The world has known many extraordinary watercolor artists and the medium continues to extract excellence in modern-day painters. Four masters of the medium will always be included in discussions of famous watercolor artists — Albrecht Dürer, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, and Andrew Wyeth.

Albrecht Dürer
(1471-1528)
A German printmaker and painter who became famous during the Northern European Renaissance for his highly detailed and realistic woodcut prints, often painted in watercolors, of religious figures and subjects in nature. His body of work includes such iconic works as “Young Hare,” “The Great Piece of Turf,” and “Madonna of the Animals”.
J.M.W. Turner
(1775-1851)
He was the premiere watercolor painter of Britain, known for his atmospheric landscape and seascape watercolors that depicted light in a way no one had ever seen at the time. His most famous works include “The Rham Plateau, Luxembourg, the Alzette Valley,” “Burning Ship,” and “Shipping”.
Winslow Homer
(1836-1910)
The foremost American painter in the 19th century, Winslow Homer was a prolific watercolor painter, whose works depicted both seaside landscapes and people. “TheNew Novel,” “Sailing by Moonlight,” and “Salt Kettle, Bermuda” all show his romantic portrayal of both.
Andrew Wyeth
(1917-2009)
Known for his realistic works of rural life in Chads Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine, Andrew Wyeth is considered one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Famous watercolors by him include “Master Bedroom” and “The Granary”.

Next Steps

There are many ways to learn how to paint with watercolors. There are books, courses, and online videos. Seeing someone in the act of painting is probably one of the most effective ways to learn. At Arteza, we’ve created numerous how-to videos with accompanying watercolor step-by-step blogs to provide watercolor painting tips and instruction. If you’ve never tried this medium or want to get better at it, here are some links for videos that will help you.

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