Painting with Watercolours – A Beginner’s Guide to Starting Out

May 28, 2020
watercolours

watercolours

PAINTING WITH WATERCOLOURS – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO STARTING OUT – by a Beginner!

This post might not be of interest to those that aren’t into art but it might spark a little inspiration into someone that is thinking about trying some painting with watercolours or getting back into painting and it might just save them some research time too!  If you’re not into painting you can skip to the bottom and just have a peek at my first three attempts at painting with watercolours if you like!

Background

I recently decided to explore painting with watercolours. I’ve always admired the soft luminescent and transparent beauty of watercolour paintings.  Years ago, BC (before children), I used to be more into art.  I had more time of course.  I attended some evening painting classes.  I owned acrylic and oil paints and would often take them with me on holidays to paint scenes I’d see (lots of beach scenes).  I enjoyed drawing and sketching and would often do this for relaxation.

After children (AC) there were times I dabbled a little.  I was once gifted a whole day with an abstract artist to create an abstract artwork which was great fun.  When the kids were small, I got a little into mosaics (ok that’s not painting but it’s still art) and enjoyed that, but it was messy and I had nowhere where I could leave it all set up so it wasn’t very practical.  I’ve always wished for my own studio for my creative pursuits.  I’m a Gemini so I usually have lots of things on the go at once.  I get bored easy so go from one thing to another depending on what I’m in the mood for (um hello crochet – dropped like a hot potato as the mood for crochet has left me for now – but it will come back!).  

Having said all that – I am no great artist.  I just enjoy creating, learning, and improving my skills.  Which brings me to the present, where I would like to reignite my artistic side, and I thought I’d write a post now and then about what I learn along the way.  It may save someone some time and effort, you never know.  It will also be a bit of a ‘learn from my mistakes’ kind of thing.  So let’s get going and start at the very beginning.

The Benefits of Painting with Watercolours

I decided that painting with watercolours would be fun to explore and learn and more suitable to my needs because:

  1. Very easy set up and clean up.  There’s less drama about cleaning brushes.  It’s very easy and if you forget, just rinse and you’re right to go!  No big deal if you get paint on your skin, clothes, furniture etc.  
  2. Hard to waste paint with watercolour painting as you can leave your paint remnants in your palette and reactivate them when you might like to use them again – just by adding water.
  3. No harsh chemicals.  They are completely odour-free and they don’t involve the use of any harsh chemicals.  You don’t have to worry about filling your house with toxic solvents or chemicals.

What are watercolours?

Watercolour paint consists of fine pigment particles suspended in a water-soluble binder (adhesive substance).  Watercolours are sold as cakes of dry paint or as liquid in tubes, to which water is added. 

What you need to know about painting with watercolours

Some say that painting with watercolors can be difficult.  It’s said that it’s a hard medium to master, largely because it can be unforgiving and unpredictable. Mistakes are difficult to correct, and its fluid nature makes it hard to control. These qualities though are what make it so magical and it’s just a matter really of understanding how this medium works and mastering some techniques.  I’m up for the challenge!

What you need to get started

When I decided to start painting with watercolours, everything I read said it was relatively inexpensive.  I don’t really agree with this.  I guess it depends on what you call inexpensive and what your budget is.  To get set up to start has cost a little more then I thought it would and I’ve started with just a small pocket watercolour paint set – but a good quality one.  If you read on you’ll learn more.

Watercolour Paints

watercolour paints and brushThere are many different types [e.g. pan (hard dry little cakes), half pan (smaller hard dry little cakes), tube & more] and brands of watercolours.  There’s also a variety of costs and quality.  After my research I discovered that it’s best to pay a little more for quality pigment and luminosity of paint colour.  There’s loads of good brands so you can do your own research and choose what best suits you but I decided to go with Winsor & Newton and my family gave me this Winsor and Newton Cotman Watercolour Pocket Set – an assortmenet of 12 half pans for Mother’s Day to get me started.  It’s only tiny but enough variety of colours to get me started.  The one colour I think is lacking from this set though is black.  I will probably order some black soon.  The other thing is that the little brush that comes with the set is lovely but teeny tiny and not practical for your average painting needs so if you get this set, you will need to order some brushes in addition to it.

Brushes

There are different kinds of brushes and different sizes of brushes.  Here’s what my research has taught me.

ROUND BRUSHES are the most versatile and widely used brush for watercolor painting. Their shape makes them suitable for small details and delicate lines, but also for broader strokes and washes.

There are also MOP BRUSHES for paintings that require big washes of paint. They hold a lot of water!

The FLAT BRUSH isn’t as versatile as round brushes, but they’re useful for both washes and strong linear strokes. They’re also great for big even washes.

There are also ANGULAR BRUSHES and SWORD BRUSHES and FILBERT BRUSHES and CAT TONGUE BRUSHES and SCRIPT BRUSHES and FAN BRUSHES and RAKE BRUSHES and more but we don’t need to worry about these just yet.  You can see a video here that explains all the different types of watercolour brushes if you’re interested.

Synthetic vs Natural Hair Brushes

Whilst Natural Hair can be a dream to use, hold water beautifully and have a longer life, they are expensive, need a lot of care and can be difficult for a beginner to manage as they can be quite soft (so I have read). 

Synthetic brushes are a better choice when first starting out.  Firstly, because they’re more affordable and as a beginner you’d want to be sure that this is an activity you’ll be sticking with for the longer term before investing more on your equipment.  Secondly, because they can be a little easier to control which is ideal when first learning.  Keep in mind though that there are good synthetic brushes and there are bad synthetic brushes.  Bad brushes could be those that:  are constantly losing bristles, bristles not shaped correctly, bristles in round brushes not going into a pointy tip shape, the structure of the brush is compromised – eg the head (bristles and/or ferrule) not firmly connected to the handle.

I bought a Reeves Water Colour Brush Set (set of 7) and then realised the largest round brush wasn’t big enough and so have since ordered a larger brush – an ArtBasics Nylon Watercolour Size 8 Brush (yet to arrive).  I’ve learned more since then though and, correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve read it seems that these Princeton Brushes are the pinnacle of synthetic brushes for painting with watercolours.  Of course, you’d look for suitable Australian outlets (or whatever country you are from) to purchase from (and compare prices etc).  I plan to gradually add some of these to my collection.

What brushes are recommended for a beginner to start with

Really you only need a few round brushes to start with.  All advice I’ve seen says that you really only need to start with a SMALL (size 1, 2 or 3), MEDIUM (size 6, 7 or 8) and LARGE (size 10, 11 or 12).  Size choice depends on what you’re planning on painting.  Will it be paintings requiring fine detail and/or large washes etc?  As you progress you can add to your paintbrush collection depending on your needs.  I also read that brush size can alter from brand to brand – so that’s something to be mindful of.

Watercolour Paper

You can’t use general printer type paper for painting with watercolours (except I would for an economical way to practice brush strokes etc – you don’t want to be using the good stuff for this).  Obviously this is because with watercolour painting you’re using a lot of water and the paper would get too wet and buckle and tear.

WEIGHT:  You need to use good quality cotton paper.  Heavy paper can absorb more water and rarely needs stretching. Light paper is anything less than 140 lb/300 gsm and heavy is 300-400 lb/600-850 gsm.  Beginners can save some money by using 140lb paper which is still good to work on but might need stretching beforehand. With 140lb paper you can avoid stretching by simply taping the paper to a board while painting.

TEXTURE:  First, you have hot-pressed paper, which has a smooth, hard surface. Some artists like hot-pressed paper for detailed work, but others find it too slippery, making it difficult to control the paint. One step up is cold-pressed paper, sometimes confusingly referred to as “Not paper,” meaning not hot-pressed. It is apparently the most versatile and popular texture, suitable for beginners and experienced painters alike, because it’s semi-rough surface is suitable for both detailed work and smooth washes. Finally we have what is called rough paper, which features pronounced tooth that’s good for washes because it gives them a kind of luminosity.

For Mother’s Day my gift include a 15 sheet pad of Art Spectrum Hot Pressed A4 – 300 GSM, and a 15 sheet pad of Art Spectrum ROUGH A4 – 300 GSM.  These pads were $23.75 each so not exactly cheap.  With my limited experience all I can say is they have both been great to use.  I haven’t taped them to a board when I paint and I know nothing about stretching paper as yet.  I haven’t yet used cold-pressed paper  so can’t comment on those or compare.  When I know more about taping paper to a board, stretching paper and cold-pressed paper, I will share!

Palette

You’ll need a palette to mix up your paint colours on. Your paint set might have a palette incorporated as part of it or you could purchase one but you could always just use an icecream container lid!  Palettes come in various sizes, shapes and materials (eg plastic, metal, porcelain).

My first watercolour paintings 

Here are some snaps of my first painting with watercolour attempts that I posted to my Instagram stories.  They’re all done with a size 6 acrylic round brush.  A flat brush was used for the stripes on the paddlepops.

My first ‘play’ and I learnt a bit from this. I wasn’t happy with the stem as it’s thicker then I wanted so I had a play with the brush to try and sort out how to make it thinner. I also used too much paint so lost the transparent aspect of watercolours that are so beautiful. But it’s not too bad for a first go! (photo includes my new pocket paint set)

Paddlepops! My second play. I used a round brush for the majority of this but a flat brush for the stripes across the paddlepops. I made a few mistakes but again learned from this process. The speckles are made from loading the brush and then tapping on it.

I wanted to try overlapping the petals. You need to wait until the first petals painted are dry before you paint the overlapping petals. I used a hairdryer to speed up the process. The lines on the leaves were done with a fine ink pen. I’m interested in combining watercolours with some ink work as well. I’m at the beginning stages of experimenting. Mistakes again here but always learning!

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post.  Next time I’ll tell you about some basic watercolour techniques I’ve learned and where you can find some inspiration to help get your creative juices flowing! 

Do you paint with watercolours? Are you interested in painting with watercolours? Please do comment below if you have anything to add to what I’ve shared here and if not I’d still love to hear from you. I hope this post has helped provide you with some inspiration to get started!

Ciao for now,

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18 Comments

  • Reply Lydia C. Lee May 28, 2020 at 8:19 am

    Those first flowers are great – I don’t know why you don’t like the stem. They’re my favourite of the 3! A friend just took this up in ISO too. I’ve told her she needs to have an exhibition. That’s your mission now too. Add that to your ‘to do’ list….because why not??

    • Reply Min May 28, 2020 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks Lydia – I quite like the first flowers but was disappointed with the stem as I’d wanted it to be finer. I am still getting used to how to use the brushes to get the effects I want. I think an exhibition is a looooonggg way off for me! LOL

  • Reply Joanne Tracey May 28, 2020 at 8:50 am

    Min, this post makes me happy – as do your lovely paintings. I did watercolour painting at evening college many many years ago – soon after I had Sarah. I loved then (and still do) the delicacy of it.

    • Reply Min May 28, 2020 at 12:37 pm

      Well that’s made my day – I mean if I can make one person happy that’s just fabulous, so thank you Jo. I bet you’re very good at painting with watercolours too. You should get back into it!

  • Reply Natalie May 28, 2020 at 9:55 am

    Hi Min, Your paintings are very nice and cheerful. I like your approach i.e. enjoy creating, learning and improving your skills. I have watercolour painting on my long list of things to explore. Keep up your good work and have fun! #lovin’lifelinky

    • Reply Min May 28, 2020 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks so much Natalie. With your determination, dedication and appreciation for nature, I think you’d be fabulous at painting with watercolours!

  • Reply Vanessa May 28, 2020 at 10:37 am

    I think I have painted with them in past, but I usually get things too drippy haha. I’ve never quite found my “thing” on the painting side of the earth, and have been wanting to try again.

    • Reply Min May 28, 2020 at 12:40 pm

      It’s all practice, practice, practice. I still have much to learn but when things go right – it’s very satisfying!

  • Reply Christine May 28, 2020 at 11:30 am

    Oooh, I keep looking at watercolours and wonder if I should give them a try. I’m a little scared as I (really) can’t draw at all but I love the look. Your first flowers are very impressive.

    • Reply Min May 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks Christine! I’m glad you like the first flowers. I might do another painting with more of those kind. You don’t need to be good at drawing to paint with watercolours. It’s more about impressions than perfections if you know what I mean. I reckon you should give it a go!

  • Reply Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au May 28, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Min, I’ve always loved watercolour paintings and the watercolour backgrounds you see on quotes and blog headers. I’m not arty enough to tackle something like this – you did an amazing job and that last flower is particularly good. There’s so much inspiration online these days and I think you’ve made good use of your at-home time to fire up your creative juices again. I’m looking forward to seeing what else you come up with.

    • Reply Min June 8, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      Hi Leanne, thanks so much! I love watercolour paintings and all things watercolour too! I’m not overly arty either, and have a tendency to see only faults and stuff which can be quite off putting but I’m hoping that if I keep at it I’ll find my own kind of style and can be happy with that. I love learning too so enjoy watching tutorials to learn techniques. I’ve signed up for a small online course so hope to start that soon. xo

  • Reply Denyse Whelan May 29, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    You aced this! Our friend Tracy Fletcher King would be so proud to see this. You know what you are doing and picking the good quality (called Artist quality) in paints, brushes and paper is the best way to go. When I first got into art for me again in 2013 via Index Card a Day I used student type quality of materials and they ended up frustrating me. So, in the end , as I do now, I realise that I must use artist quality to get the results I hope. Your work is delicate and beautiful. How good is creativity for the soul?
    Denyse

    • Reply Min June 8, 2020 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you Denyse! That kind of praise means a lot coming from you, so thank you. I hope Tracey would be proud but I’ve got a lot to learn – it’s early days. It’s cost me more than I anticipated to get set up and I need a bit more yet but it’s been worth it. I’m doing a little online course with a watercolour artist soon and looking forward to that. Creativity certainly IS good for the soul! xo

  • Reply Leslie Susan Clingan June 4, 2020 at 6:41 am

    Oh, this is just the post I needed. In another lifetime BC, I was an art ed major. Toyed with oil, acrylic and water color. And the water color was my favorite. But haven’t touched it in years. You have inspired me, my friend. Thank you for the information about paper, brushes. And tips for painting. I need to get out my paint and paper and play.

    Your first paintings are lovely. That translucence of the petals of the flower in the last painting is so delicate. So airy. The bloom looks like the tulle of a ballerina’s skirt. Beautiful!! Hope you will keep this up and continue to share.

    • Reply Min June 4, 2020 at 11:56 am

      Oh what a lovely comment Leslie – thank you so much! I’m so glad I’ve inspired you to get back into your art. I bet you’re good at it too, especially with that background! Thank you so much for lovely comments on my first little attempts at painting with watercolours. The third flower is the one I’m most pleased with. I love that I learn each time and the mistakes are worth it to learn from. I’ve just signed up to do a little online beginners course so I’m looking forward to that very much! x

  • Reply Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit June 8, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Min!!! You are so clever!!! I am jealous. I LOVE the ice-blocks. Love love love.

    • Reply Min June 8, 2020 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks Leanne! I’m not that clever though LOL You’re the first one to like the ice-blocks … and I’m glad you call them ice-blocks too!

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