Ten newbie tips for watercolors from an experienced newbie

So now that I’ve been painting with watercolors for three months, I’ve learned a few things:

1. Sketching comes first

If you can’t sketch, you can’t paint. What’s the clich√©? You must first learn to walk before you learn to fly?

In this case, sketching comes first. Sketching is equivalent to learning to walk when it comes to pretty much any art form. Take the time to really hone down your sketching abilities before you even start dabbling in painting.

2. Do the exercises before jumping into painting

My first few paintings wouldn’t have ended up in the garbage had I done the exercises first. What are the exercises? Depends on what you want to do.

My first eyes absolutely sucked. So did my first hair. So did my first washes. If you don’t know what a watercolor wash is, definitely look it up. Also, know the difference between wet on wet and wet on dry and know when to use them.

Even amongst the early paintings I kept, you could see newbie mistakes. I decided to keep them anyways because they’re all learning experiences.

Instead of aiming for the stars right off the bat, my only goals are to either learn a new technique with each new painting or do the previous one over again except paint it better.

3. Relax

Watercolors have a mind of their own. I learned to let them do their thing. Rather than seeing everything as a mistake, I learned to let the watercolors work their magic.

To paint with watercolors, you need a different mindset than painting with acrylics or oil. With watercolors, relax, and allow the watercolors to do their things.

In the beginning, I got really angry because the watercolors started doing things I didn’t want them to do. Then I learned that that’s the beauty of watercolors. Each time you paint something, it will be unique.

4. Keep sketching

This may sound like a repeat of the first one but it’s not. It’s a reminder of just how important sketching skills are to painting with watercolors.

Despite delving deeply into watercolors, I’m still working several times a week with Allie.

my sketch before I start with the watercolors

A work in progress, initial sketch done. I always use masking tape onto a wooden board

Your sketching can always be improved. Keep sketching every chance you get.

I practice with Game of Thrones women when I don’t have Allie around. I use Duck Duck Go and simply type something like “Game of Thrones women” and hit enter. Then I go to images. I get hundreds of quality choices to practice with.

I also sketch the backgrounds in those pictures. Those help big time.

Sketching is simple. Simply draw what you see. It doesn’t even have to look good. The thing is to just do it regularly.

5. Be confident

You’ll improve. Just like anything else, you learn by doing.

I often have to remind myself this too. I get frustrated too. I’m human. I’m far from perfect.

I get frustrated and sometimes, I don’t want to do shit. But then the soldier voice inside my head screams “get up!” and I get right back to work.

Confidence is key to everything in life. You already know that though. The same applies to painting.

If you let yourself quit, you’ll never get anywhere. I also don’t even let myself rest for that long. Sure, I’ll get up and take breaks, but then I get right back to work.

6. Go easy with the paint

The easiest way to kill a watercolor? Go overboard. You can always add more. If you paint too much of something, you can’t undo. So err on the side of painting less.

For those of us who have worked on computers, that’s something that you’ll have to drum into your head. There’s no undo button in watercolors.

Just this yesterday, I destroyed a painting by painting too much. I was going to throw it out but the sketch was excellent, so my wife asked for it and went over it with acrylics. For a watercolor though, it was completely ruined.

That’s what happens when you paint with too much. Which leads to the next point.

7. Test your colors constantly

I’m a very impatient man. It’s one of my flaws as a person, but it’s also one of the reasons we have a pretty solid net worth. I don’t like to wait.

Great for making money. Bad for art.

I thought I had the colors of the last watercolor right. I didn’t test them.

When I actually painted her face, she dried orange like one of those people who overdo tanning salons. She looked very unnatural.

Once you put on a thick coat (which was mistake #6), you can’t undo it. I tried to salvage the painting but nothing I did worked.

This all could have been prevented had I tested the colors first (I make my own colors rather than use stock colors). Had I gone easy with the paint (mistake #6), I could have possibly salvaged the painting. But the colors were on too thick.

Testing your colors is easy. Simply have a sheet of copy paper by you every time you paint. Before you put a new color on your expensive watercolor paper, test it out first on your cheap copy paper. Remember that there is no undo button.

8. Put the appropriate background music on

Background is key. You don’t really want foreground music, but rather music that sets the tone for the piece you’re working on.

I’m a Metalhead, but for watercolor painting, I’m rarely listening to Metal. Usually, I got either Classical, Fantasy gaming, or New Age music going on. However when I’m painting something like a mermaid, I got Celtic music on. It just seems more fitting to me.

So you determine what kind of music you should listen to depending on what you are painting.

9. Don’t use cheap watercolor paper

I didn’t expect to make anything decent for my first ten attempts. So I bought the cheap ass stuff.

Well, six paintings in, I did something pretty nice; nice enough to be quite proud of. And guess what? The paper shredded because it couldn’t handle all that water.

It was my Greek Statue one. I’ll have to do it over, despite everything else looking pretty good. I had an excellent pencil sketch under it and the theme looked pretty good. Allie looked just like a Greek statue, and the moon looked perfect.

But if you look closely, you’ll see the paper shredded in one important part. It looks really bad.

10. Take care of your brushes

We eat a lot of Kimchi in order to increase our gut flora. Plus, we like it.

What does this have to do with watercolor painting? Well, a pleasant side effect. These jars are the perfect size for watercolors.

You of course don’t want to dump grease down the sink. So we use the used jars for grease jars. But, we no longer cook with oils that often so we have a lot of extra Kimchi jars.

For watercolors, I use two Kimchi jars. One for the initial rinse and one for the last rinse before going to the next color.

Then after painting, I do a final rinse under the tap water. Then I store them with the brushes up in yet another Kimchi jar. They’re absolutely the perfect size to rinse your brushes and also to store them.

Take good care of your brushes because they take care of you.

The most important tip with watercolors

And of course, the most important tip with watercolors. You already know this as it’s common sense. Simply, you need to paint.

You learn everything by doing and you can read all the books and watch all the videos on the planet. There is no substitute for doing.

I’ve known plenty of people in real life who think they’re the experts in a field because they’ve studied their asses off. But when it comes to actually doing something, well, that’s another story.

I’ve watched a lot of videos and read a lot of watercolor blogs. Both are great! I’ve learned some really good tips.

But if you want to improve fast, you need to paint. That’s where the magic happens. That’s when you’ll actually see real, measurable improvement.

And keep painting

It’s good to experiment. It’s also good to make your mistakes. You’ll make a lot of them, but you have to keep painting.

Since that previous one was ruined, I decided to do exactly the same painting all over again. Except this time with my mistakes noted so I don’t do the same mistakes again.


Roman is an artist, composer, writer, and travel junkie.

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