Watercolor painting is an age-old tradition. For centuries, artists have been mixing pigments with water to create finely-detailed paintings of the world around them.
We love the immediacy of the medium—the way you can bring it to the beach or the park and just paint without making too much of a mess. We love the range of effects that watercolor paints can produce.
But, anyone who’s ever painted with watercolors knows that mastering the medium is difficult. Water, after all, is quite hard to control. It runs. It drips. It reacts to the paper in all kinds of unexpected ways. While these side effects might be exciting for artists who are open to surprises, they can be frustrating for those who want complete control over the paint.
We’ve compiled some tips and techniques you can use to become a watercolor pro.
Get Yourself Some Good Materials
You’d be surprised how much the quality of the paint will affect the final product. See, many manufacturers skimp on the pigment in order to save money. Find yourself some watercolor paints that are filled with rich, colorful pigments. You’ll be much happier with the results.
Find some good brushes, too. Cheaper brushes tend to lose bristles when they get wet. This is particularly frustrating for watercolor painters.
Paper is Important
Not all paper is suitable for watercolor. Glossy paper, for example, is hard to paint on because it’s not very absorbent. Computer paper doesn’t work too well, either.
The best paper for watercolor painting is thick, porous paper. The heavier it is, the better it absorbs water.
When just starting out, you can use whatever you want. But, when you want control over the paint, use paper that soaks the pigment right up.
Mount Your Paper
One of the most frustrating things for first-timers is that watercolor makes the paper buckle as it dries. Essentially, the water soaks into the surface and creates all kinds of wrinkles in the paper.
In order to avoid this effect, you can stretch the paper over a panel (like you would with a canvas). If you don’t want to do that, you can tape it down to a piece of wood or cardboard. Make sure the paper is as flat as possible when you mount it so that it has very little room to warp as you’re painting.
Sketch Out Your Composition
Most expert watercolorists make a preliminary drawing before they get to work. They use a pencil to sketch out what’s in front of them on the paper, and then paint over that drawing.
In order to avoid having pencil lines in your painting, you need to sketch very lightly. Otherwise, the pencil will be visible through the paint. If you’re going for a more expressive aesthetic, the pencil lines aren’t always a bad thing.
Start with a Small Palette
One reason why we love watercolors is that the pigments bleed over into one another. This allows for easy shading and blending.
When two similar colors blend into each other, the results can be dazzling. However, if two mismatched colors happen to mix, the results might not look so great.
Early on, use a limited palette. This will allow you to test out the material and get used to the way things mix with each other. Once you start to gain control over the paint, you can move on to more complex color schemes.
Layer, Layer, Layer
The masters of the medium create their works by painting very thin layers on top of one another. Some of them allow each layer to dry before adding the next. Others simply paint wet-on-wet.
Whichever method you choose, always paint the lightest layers first. Gradually add darker layers. Remember, you can always cover up a light color with a darker one but you can’t cover a dark color with a lighter one.
It’s easy to limit yourself to light, washy colors. But adding darker colors on top will make the lighter tones really pop.
“Value” is the term we use to describe the range of tones in a painting. The value of any painting can make or break the composition.
So, it might be tempting to use only a few shades of blue. However, the wider the range, the more powerful the painting will be.
Utilize Masking Fluid
Have you ever wondered how watercolorists can paint straight edges or well-defined shapes? How do they prevent the paint from dripping and running?
Well, there’s actually a product called “masking fluid”. This is a liquid tool that kind of acts like painter’s tape. It’s essentially a form of rubber cement that water-proofs a certain area of the paper. You apply it to the paper, make your painting, and peel the dried substance off when you’re done.
The use of masking fluid is an art in its own right. It can be just as difficult to master as watercolor paints themselves. But, once you get a handle on it, you’ll be able to achieve all kinds of new, exciting effects.
Don’t Overdo It
Artists are often guilty of pushing their work too far. You need to know when you’re finished.
If a painting feels like it might be done, take a break for a while. Work on something else. Make a sandwich. Go for a walk. When you’re done with that, come back to the piece and see how it looks. If it still needs work, then you can resume painting.
Don’t Let Mistakes Get You Down
The biggest mistake people make with watercolors is getting too hung up on errors. If you mess up your painting, don’t just throw it in the trash. Don’t do that. Move to another section of the composition if you have to. Keep going.
The more mistakes you make, the better you’ll get. It takes time to understand the nuances of this medium. It’s going to be frustrating at first, but take your time and go with the flow.