Monday, July 13

Five More Tips for Watercolor Painting

Today’s Image
Santa Barbara Patio
Watercolor on Paper (22 x 30 in/56 x 76 cm)
Copyright 2009

If you follow me on Twitter, you may recall that I go to “Watercolor School” most every week. It’s not really a school in the usual sense, but critiques of several artists’ watercolor paintings by two recognized watercolorists. Whatever, I call it school.

A few months ago, I blogged about Five Tips for Watercolor Painting. These were not from any lesson or the “first five things you must know about watercolor” or anything like that. They were in no order, other than how they popped into and/or out of my head. As I said then, there are many more than five tips about watercolor.

Anyway, five more popped into/out of my head over the weekend. Here they are, again in no particular strength or order:

Only paint something you really want to paint

This tip is true about any painting medium, really, be it oil, acrylic, pastel, or watercolor. It’s not a rule, but it should be. You’re much more likely to do your best (or better) work if it’s on something you can really get into. If you’re painting as a favor or because Aunt Susan wants a portrait of her poodle, that’s fine, but only if you really want to paint that.

Paint from light to dark, generally (Today’s Image is my painting mentioned in this tip)

Every medium has its do’s, don’t’s, and must’s (fat-over-lean in oil, etc). In watercolor, one of the do’s is to paint starting with the lightest color first and progressively add darker washes or colors. You must carefully plan out in what order you’re going to proceed, which is not always easy for us artists, now is it? Every rule, or tip in this case, has an exception. I painted a watercolor that had a very dark area in the shadows under an overhang, and I painted that darkest area when I was about halfway through the painting. Well, I was scolded for doing so. I explained I was having trouble judging what value to paint the area surrounding the darkest area, and that once I painted the dark, then I would know. Finally, they agreed that sometimes it’s OK to paint the dark first, and I was vindicated.

Don’t be afraid to add a color to a limited palette

One of the things I’m learning about in watercolor is color palettes. There are numerous ones with names, such as Standard, Delicate, Old Masters, and several others whose names I don’t recall. I haven’t learned them by heart and must still use a “cheat sheet” that lists the palette’s name and which colors comprise it. Anyway, it’s not recommended, but you may occasionally add a color that’s not officially part of the palette as long as it’s really needed, and you have painted a swath of it on a strip to compare to the colors in the rest of your painting to make sure it “goes.”

Use frisket

If you don’t know what this is, please see my previous blog, What Is Frisket? You should put frisket on everything you want to remain white in your painting before you even put on any color at all. It’s the only way to mask an area so that it doesn’t absorb paint. You may have to add frisket to areas as you paint progressively darker parts. You may also have to remove and re-apply frisket to areas you’ve already painted--maddening, but sometimes the only way to correct mistakes (yes, I make mistakes).

Tracing is OK

Some artists will gasp!, but it’s perfectly OK to trace your image onto your paper rather than free-hand it. This assumes you’re painting from a reference photo and not en plein air, of course. Purists would disagree, but who cares, they would also say the only “real” way to paint is with oil? The object is, unless you’re painting in the abstract, to paint a realistic and artistic motif. This is especially true if there’s perspective or architecture in your painting.

So, try out some of these tips on your next painting. I’ll give you five more, when and if they pop into/out of my head.



  1. Thanks very much for these tips. So generous of you to share your techniques. Normally, I know artists learn to do their works by letting their talent lead them on, meaning they are the ones to discover their own techniques and styles in the process. Using the frisket is something I've never tried before. But one technique I have discovered for myself is using an underpainting, which is a wash of one color I cover the entire painting with, and then work my way to defining each element from here onwards. It gives the whole piece a sense of unity. Again thanks for your tips.

  2. Thanks for your comment! You're right--applying a wash or washes especially if you use a limited palatte creates harmony. I use frisket mainly for highlights or to keep paint from mixing. Thanks again.

  3. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  4. Thanks! i hope you visit often. I try to "keep it real" when it comes to blogging about creating art in your daily life.