I’ve never been a real big fan of warming up. Not when I’m exercising or (trying to) sing or write calligraphy or anything else I’ve dabbled in. No, I’m more of a “let’s jump in and do this” kind of person. And that has proven to be totally okay in certain circumstances…but definitely not when I began exploring watercolor painting. Warming up to my watercolor lessons was essential because I needed to get familiar with the fluidity of the medium while trying to figure out how to paint watercolor works with some kind of control, so that the pigments didn’t just slip and slide all over the place.
That resulted in me observing as many watercolor workshops as I could, participating in watercolor painting lessons given by instructors when I was able, and most of all warming up my watercolor painting skills on my own by practicing a few essential beginner watercolor painting techniques, and here are my favorite tips and methods so far. Enjoy!
1. Research is underrated
Delve into a lot of watercolor instruction resources. As often as you can, hear directly from practicing artists–what they think of their chosen medium and what they have to share in terms of tips that might help you. Consider a subscription to Watercolor Artist Magazine. It is a great place to start as you will receive an entire year’s worth of step-by-step watercolor articles and demos to explore during your studio time, growing in your creativity and skill with each issue you receive. Splash: Best of Watercolor—Digital Collection is the resource I keep close at hand to learn the methods of contemporary watercolor artists. With more than 350 paintings showcasing contemporary watermedia, this collection truly celebrates all the unique innovations and explorations of watercolor painting.
2. Don’t Buy a Pre-made Palette
Create your own watercolor palette rather than going the easy route with a pre-made one. Painting this way allows you to better understand what each color is capable of doing and how you can work with it. A good starter palette might include:
- Cadmium yellow
- Cadmium red
- Permanent rose
- French ultramarine
- Cobalt blue
- Raw sienna
- Burnt sienna
- Burnt umber
*I also add Cerulean blue and viridian because I love those colors
3. Learn to Hold Your Brush the Right Way
Learning to hold you brush right can also help you get the strokes right. Start with watercolor drawing exercises that allow you to get comfortable holding each brush. Make stroke after stroke with all your different brushes to see the results. You want to better understand how to diversify your brushstrokes in watercolor painting and so your strokes end up the way you want.
4. Practice Painting Wet Into Wet
It once struck terror into my heart! Yes, you can’t anticipate the results, but that is part of the fun! Just be sure to practice working wet paint into wet paint and with paint applied to wet paper—the two get very different results.
5. Learn to “lift off”
Lifting out is a watercolor painting technique used to create highlights and it sounds pretty much like what it is—you lift out color with a tissue or sponge while the paint surface is still wet. Certain colors like alizarin crimson are more stubborn than others and can leave a residue when you lift out so be aware of that.
6. Practice Making Blooms or Backruns
To create blooms or backruns in watercolor painting, you only need to remember two steps. One: Lay down a wash and let it dry for a bit. Two: Add a second wash where you want your bloom or backrun to appear. (For more detail on this technique, download the Splash 16: Exploring Texture eBook. Filled with the best watercolor artists our editors could find, this resource highlights the techniques of 100+ artists who push textures like this to the max.)
7. Practice Making Smooth Washes
This is not just a beginner watercolor painter’s struggle—most watercolor artists no matter how experienced are challenged by this. One way to finesse smooth washes is to practice using a large brush to make the fewest, broadest strokes you can, working them from paper edge to paper edge. Remember to tilt the board your paper is resting on and your wash will course down in the direction of your tilt without dripping messily.
8. Experiment with Wet Watercolors on Dry Surfaces
Painting wet strokes onto paint that has already dried keeps each layer you put down relatively intact, but before you do this “for real” take a few practice runs on scratch paper so you know what expect and you can experiment with how wet to make your second layer and what kind of color dimension you get with these successive layers.
9. Don’t rush
When you are warming up with watercolor painting or any other artform, remember not to think of what you are doing as a race or as something to rush through. There is no finish line. It is a journey not a destination, so be present in all that you do and embrace all that you learn as you learn it, pursuing each watercolor painting technique like it is brand new to you.
10. Work Without Preconceptions
When you gather your brushes and paints and are standing in front of the blank page or canvas ready to lay down your first watercolor painting stroke, clear your mind. Don’t paint with any preconceptions. Your mind will be clear to make discoveries that really matter in your process, which is truly what allows each of us to go from watercolor painting beginners to artists with more advanced skills.