Watercolour tips for beginners

I was sorting out my external hard drive today, and I’d been chatting online about watercolour painting so I thought I’d see what I could find.


I found these flower paintings, they must be some of the first watercolours I exhibited, and sold. I can still remember the name of the chap who bought them. It was quite a challenge painting the form of the white flowers on a white background.

Well, I also found some notes I wrote for a painting forum a few years ago, they may help – if you are just starting to paint with watercolours.

There are many makes and types of watercolour paper, the surface and the weight are important. The weight can range from around 90lb to 300lb, I tend to use paper between 140lb and 200lb, heavier paper does not cockle as much as the lighter papers when wet so there is less need to stretch the paper.
There are three surface types, smooth (hot pressed, or HP), Not (cold pressed or CP) and rough. The surface you choose will affect the painting, for example if you want the colour to break when dry brushing then the rough surface would be the best choice. Hot pressed has a very smooth surface and would be the best choice for pen and wash.
It’s worth experimenting with different paper to see which ones you like the best.

Stretching paper.
To stretch or not to stretch?
It’s personal choice really but I would advise a beginner to stretch their paper as I feel a lot of problems faced by the beginner can be reduced by working on stretched paper. If you do not wish to stretch paper then use at least 200lb, but I find even the heavy paper curls when you are working quite wet, so I almost always stretch heavy paper.

I was going to put up some step by step pictures and instructions for stretching paper but I found these websites that show how to stretch your paper, they say it better than I can.



1. Try to handle the paper as little as possible, hold by the corners. The oil from your skin can affect the paper surface which can result in uneven washes.

2. Choose a board that won’t warp when the paper dries. (I tried hardboard and it warped so now I use plywood)

3. If you moisten the work surface before laying out the strips of gummed paper they will not curl up so they are easier to moisten.

They come in tubes or pans, I find tubes are much easier to use, (pans would take for ever if you were trying to mix a large amount of wash).
Pans are good for quick sketches and travelling.
Choice of colour is personal, however it’s worth remembering that colours have different characteristics such as opacity, staining and granulation. You will learn from personal experience as you paint or you can get a chart from the manufacturer.

Like china painting good quality brushes are important, I have mostly natural hair and a few acrylic ones. I find the acrylics don’t hold as much liquid making it harder to lay a wash. You will need at least a large brush for washes and a fine one for detail.

You will also need a fairly large water container such as a jar, and a palette of some sort, a plate will do but you will need something deeper to hold large washes.

Laying a flat wash.
One of the main techniques to master is laying a flat wash. I have spent many hours practicing this technique which was the first techniques that I was taught at watercolour class and again when I started the John Blockley course.

Here are some websites showing the technique:



I would suggest stretching a few pieces of watercolour paper about 4×6 inches to start with, from my experience your flat washes get better with practice.

1. Work on stretched paper.
2. Prop your board up on some books so you work on an angle.
3. Make sure you mix enough paint as you cannot mix up more if you run out.
4. Use a large natural bristle brush that will hold a lot of wash.
5. Don’t go back into the water jar as you will dilute the pigment.
6. Once you have finished the wash lay the board flat and leave it alone to dry.

Now you have painted a flat wash using the wet on dry technique why not try painting a flat wash using the wet on wet technique.
The procedure is the same but first wet the entire surface of the paper with clean water. Leave until the paper has lost it’s wet shine and then paint as before.

I think one of the hardest things to master when painting with watercolour is learning to control how wet to work. Some of us work wetter than others, my teacher was always telling us to not be frightened of using more water and allowing the watercolour to do it’s magic, sometimes wonderful and unexpected things happen especially with wet in wet technique.

You might like to try this wet in wet painting


This looks like good website for watercolour


Graded wash.
This wash has an even gradation of colour getting lighter towards the bottom, it is often used for skies, Ray Campbell Smith used it quite a lot in his work.

Prepare the paper and mix a wash as for a flat wash.

Here is a link showing how to paint a graded wash

1. Alternate from side to side when you pick up more water, this prevents a build up of colour on one side of the paper ( it took me a while to learn this one )
2. Depending on how you want the wash to dry you can lay the board flat, or if you want the colour to flow downwards a little leave the board tilted, if you want to prevent the colour coming too far down turn the board upside down and the colour will move towards the darkest area of the wash.

Well that should keep you busy for a while, it took me a while to master these techniques, and then they still don’t work every time, that’s the nature of watercolour though. It’s a bit like taming a wild beast; you might think you are in control.

It’s been a while since I had my watercolours out but once I have my stock for Christmas fairs ready I hope to get watercolour painting again.



About eganj1

Obsession making arts crafts, and all things creative
This entry was posted in kiln fired art. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Watercolour tips for beginners

  1. Sue Reynolds says:

    Thank you so much – I am much more prepared to paint with this medium than I was before, it will still be bad, but prepared properly kinda bad lol. I’m really looking forward to playing with this!

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