Painting with Watercolors: Getting Started

Painting with watercolors is one of the easiest ways to take up an artistic hobby.  Watercolor is so easy to use. All you need to get started today is some watercolor paper, a few good brushes, watercolor paint and a jar of water. In fact, a short visit to any local hobby or art store will get you set up with those supplies quicker than you think. 

You don’t even half to change clothes to sit down and paint. The basic idea is to sketch out your intended subject on watercolor paper and then paint it.  Of course, that basic skill gets expanded into a whole wealth of techniques and levels of skill as one practices, but at its heart, painting with watercolors is a simple idea of putting water and paint on a sheet of watercolor paper.

To Begin, Gather Your Supplies and Play

Monk Parakeet

Let’s say you decide you are going to watercolor today.  What do you do?

You’ll need the following to start:

  • watercolor paper, 
  • a basic watercolor paint set,
  •  several watercolor brushes
  • some paper towels, 
  • a jar of water, 
  • a foam or plastic plate to act as a mixing surface, 
  • and a place to paint.

Play and practice for a little while. Use your first sheet of watercolor paper to test putting paint down with water. 

First rule.. watercolor is mostly water. You only need very small amounts of paint.

If you bought tubes of paint, on your mixing plate, squeeze out a few colors around the edges of the plate. 

If you bought a set of pan colors, get your brush wet and pull some paint onto your mixing surface.  Pull in bits of color and mix and see how they look. 

On your test sheet of watercolor paper, put some water down and dab in the paint. See what happens.

Watercolor painting is a study in controlling where water goes on dry paper.  When you paint your picture, know that paint will follow the water, so where you don’t want paint, don’t put water.

And don't add more paint and water to areas that are still wet!  If you don't wait until the paper and paint are dry, adding more water and paint will create watercolor blooms

There are different methods for painting with watercolors.  You can put water and paint down on dry paper. (This is the wet-on-dry technique).

Or you can wet the paper first, and then come in with water and paint. This is the wet-on-wet technique.  There’s a good video here on how watercolor works on the paper: 

Practice using both methods and see how different you can make them look.  Let the paper dry and then add another layer of paint and water.  The more layers you add, the darker and less transparent that area of the painting will look.  Try painting different colors over each other.  Look at the colors and see if you can tell if mixing them gets you results that you like.

Your First Painting with Watercolors

When you are ready to start your first painting, sketch your subject on a new sheet of watercolor paper.  And about the pencil you use...

Most watercolor paint is transparent. The idea is to let the white of the watercolor paper show through.  So, when you are sketching, use a pencil with a hard lead, that doesn’t make dark marks (such as an HD pencil) and a light touch.

Once you have your drawing, decide on and mix your colors on your mixing surface.  Where you want the color to be light on the paper, use lots of water to small amounts of paint.

As the paper dries, you can go back and darken areas by adding another layer of paint and water.  This is called glazing. The Mind of Watercolor Youtube channel is a great resource for learning basic watercolor techniques.  He has a good video on glazing and layering here: 

Overall, the best way to start with watercolor painting is to play and practice.  Draw out simple sketches of flowers, or birds, or cartoon characters or whatever, and just practice painting them, using various combinations of color and water/paint combinations.

On this site, I get into much more detail on painting with watercolors, but this page should get you started.  Happy painting!