Watercolor for beginners: An in-depth guide for watercolor newbies

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Maybe the last time you tried watercoloring was in elementary school. Or perhaps your most recent attempt was just last weekend or a few months ago.

Either way, if you’re here, I’m assuming you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started with watercolors. So, welcome!

There’s no question that watercolors can be challenging at first; I get it. To be honest, I’m always learning something new. The silver lining is that it’s so much fun — soggy messes and all.

Ready to get your paint on? I’ve put together this watercolor for beginners guide to get you watercoloring like nobody’s business in no time!

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What is watercolor?

Watercolor materials_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor is a painting technique that uses water-based paint on absorbent paper.

Watercolor paint consists of pigments suspended in an organic, water-soluble binder, making it easy to thin and dilute with just a tiny amount of water.

This formula enables light to pass through painted surfaces and produce vivid, luminous results.

Watercolor is perfect for soft, delicate artwork where blending and bleeding are to your advantage. In addition, this paint’s versatility allows for many techniques and effects for all skill levels.

Watercolor for beginners: Is watercoloring hard?

Watercolor-tree-painting_watercolor-for-beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Truth be told, learning how to watercolor can be a little difficult at first — at least if your goal is to really lean into technique and acquire skill.

Watercoloring requires understanding color theory, mastering paintbrushes, and getting the gist of water management. On the bright side, these are all things you can learn regardless of your artistic background!

Fortunately, there are tons of online resources (like this article!), including watercolor classes and tutorials, that cover everything from materials to technique.

In the meantime, have fun! If you don’t enjoy the process, there’s really no point in putting in all the hard work, right?

Here are a few watercolor for beginner guides we’ve put together to help you explore this medium from scratch:

Are watercolor supplies expensive?

Watercolor sets_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Like almost everything in the arts & crafts world, the cost of watercolor supplies will depend on brand and quality.

For example, you can find very affordable, student-grade paints and low-budget sets for children. But prices will go up if you’re dipping your toes into professional-grade watercolors.

The same scenario applies to watercolor paper and paintbrushes — the higher the quality, the pricier things get. That said, when starting out, I advise taking the pressure off and keeping it simple.

There’s no need to purchase super-expensive, brand-name products: lots of beginner-friendly supplies offer excellent value for money.

If I have to leave you with one thought, it’s this: Always prioritize quality no matter how basic your materials are.

Materials for watercolor

How to get started with watercolors_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

So how do you get started with watercolors? Well, with lots of enthusiasm and a small toolset!

One of the great things about watercoloring is that you don’t need a bunch of supplies to get started. There are add-ons you can eventually invest in as you evolve in the craft, but as a beginner, all you need are a few essentials.

Below, I’ve listed what you need to start setting up your craft area!

Watercolor paint (and water!)

Watercolor set_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

As a beginner, choosing the right watercolor paint can be overwhelming due to the range of options, brands, and prices on offer. 

That’s why it’s helpful to consider a few guidelines when looking for your first watercolor paints. 

Firstly, start simple. As mentioned above, getting into pro-grade watercolor sets is unnecessary if you’re a complete newbie. Stick to student-grade options until you’re ready for something more complex.

These are also generally cheaper. However, don’t go too cheap. I encourage you to always focus on quality first. Using a lousy watercolor set can be enough to make you feel like you’re getting nowhere!

Another aspect to keep in mind is color variety. Opt for smaller sets with primary colors: you don’t need the entire rainbow to get started! Managing fewer hues will also help you grasp color theory, which plays a big role in this creative hobby.     

Watercolor pan_watercolor vs acrylic
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Also, consider paint consistency. Do you want transparent pigments? Or semi-opaque/opaque paint? Note that different paint properties suit specific techniques better.

To get started, I advise a transparent color palette. Mixing opaque paint can be trickier, especially if you’re brand new to the craft, and can result in lots of strange (meaning terrible) color blends.

Next, remember that watercolors come in several forms: 

For novices, I recommend pans. Pans contain small dried cakes of paint in compact containers, which can be conveniently used on the go or at your craft desk. 

Tubes are also great but best for large-scale creations. They also tend to be thicker, so it’s a good idea to know how to manage opacity before getting into this form of watercolor.

Remember, watercolor paint is at the heart of it all, so take your time and choose wisely! Want to start looking right away? We have an entire guide devoted to the best watercolor sets!

Watercolor paintbrushes

Different watercolor paintbrushes_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Using crappy paintbrushes for watercoloring can get pretty frustrating, and I can honestly tell you they’re not worth the purchase: they won’t last long or achieve what you’re after.

Here’s a quick overview of the main types of watercolor paintbrushes so you know what to choose and expect.

Synthetic paintbrushes

These are the best for first-time watercolorists on a budget. Synthetic brushes are the most affordable and feature flexible, easy-to-control bristles, which are very convenient for newbies.

The downside is that they’re not the highest in quality and, after some time, will begin to fall apart. However, buying a couple of synthetic brushes to start testing techniques and basic projects will do the trick at first.

Animal hair paintbrushes

These are the cream of the crop of watercolor paintbrushes due to their fine tips, soft bristles, and capacity to retain lots of water and pigment. They also tend to last for a really long time — I’m talking decades!

Bristles stay intact, and fine tips don’t lose shape quickly. These soft brushes make painting smooth and seamless, whether for detail or covering larger areas.

These paintbrushes are pricier but worth the investment if you want long-term watercolor materials. And if you’re wondering which type of animal hair you’ll find, it can range from goat to squirrel!

Mixed paintbrushes

These paintbrushes mix synthetic and animal hair, which is the sweet spot if you’re looking for value for money.

Being synthetic ensures a lower price, while the animal hair guarantees solid performance.

These are the perfect segue paintbrushes into something fully pro-grade.

Note: You can find all the brush types listed above in different shapes and styles, the most popular being round, flat, angled, and detail paintbrushes.

Water brush pens are also a lot of fun and worth trying out if you’re up for experimenting with something easy and new!

Watercolor paper

Watercolor Sketchbook and block_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Mark my words: watercolor paper is everything.

Sure, watercoloring on copy and poster paper is great for kids and school projects. But if you’ve decided to explore this craft more seriously, watercolor paper is a must — and, preferentially, good watercolor paper.

Essentially, the quality of your paper will impact not only the process but the end results. And trust me, working on a surface that doesn’t accommodate what you envision can be an-noy-ing.

Here are some basic notions every beginner should know before purchasing watercolor paper.

Composition

Always aim for 100% cotton watercolor paper.

Paper pulp sheets are OK-ish but can’t compare to the ease and pleasure of painting on cotton-based surfaces.

Not to mention, there’s a significant difference in the finished work.

Paperweight

Opting for a higher paperweight will ensure your paper doesn’t warp.

For example, this is essential when looking for watercolor sketchbooks since pages aren’t bound (as is the case of watercolor blocks) and tend to flip upward. 

The paperweights to look for are 400lb, 300lb, 140lb, and 90lb. Remember that the lighter the paperweight, the less resistant it will be to layering and moisture.

Although you can get away with 90lb watercolor paper, I prefer 140lb and above. Anything lighter is only really practical for simple projects or color swatches.

Texture

Paper texture is key when working with watercolors. It will define how you apply paint and which techniques you can explore effectively.

Below are the two main types of watercolor paper for beginners:

Hot press watercolor paper: Very smooth surface, best suited for detail and finer brushwork. It isn’t the best type of paper if your work requires lots of layering.

Cold press watercolor paper: This paper is somewhat textured and offers a slight roughness, making it a good pick for blending large areas and denser washes. It also retains pigment very well.

Note: All of the characteristics and paper types mentioned above are available in different sizes in the form of watercolor sketchbooks, journals, pads, and watercolor blocks.

Mixing palette

Watercolor mixing palette_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Mixing palettes are one of the most helpful tools for watercoloring.

Using a palette allows you to create new hues and shades and, more importantly, control the consistency of your paint. It helps you save up on paint, too! 

This tool is also helpful for testing colors before laying them down on final projects, meaning there will be fewer unwanted paint splotches and shrieks of regret!

You can purchase or DIY a palette. Here are my go-to’s : 

  • A wood acrylic paint palette wrapped in cellophane (see the image above)
  • Folded plastic sandwich bag 
  • A glass surface (I like using old glass coasters!)
  • Wrapping cellophane on a hard surface like an old notebook, woodblock, etc.
  • Plastic mixing palette

Other materials

Other watercolor materials_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Now that the star watercolor supplies have been listed, I want to mention a few other materials you’ll need. I’ve also included optional add-ons!

  • Water: Of course! Tap water is fine, but if you’re feeling fancy, distilled water helps maintain pigments’ original color and texture.
  • Glass jar or container: To hold water for dipping and cleaning brushes.
  • Water brush pens: Plastic “paintbrushes” that allow you to use watercolor without the need for a separate water container.
  • Paper towels: To clean brushes and dab off excess water.
  • Washi tape: To hold the paper down to prevent it from shifting while painting. This tape is also commonly used to create precise lines and geometric shapes on your paper to paint in or around.
  • Micron pens and pencils: Used for sketching outlines and/or adding details and depth to your works.

Watercolor techniques for beginners

Watercolor techniques for beginners_Watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

From creating washes to layering and lifting colors, watercolor provides a wide range of techniques you can play with.

I recommend mastering the basics before diving into more complex effects. Doing this will help you build a solid foundation and make transitioning into advanced techniques more organic and manageable.

How to get started with watercolors and techniques? These are my top suggestions for beginners!

Wet on wet

Wet on wet example_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

As the name implies, the wet-on-wet technique involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface.

The purpose of this technique is to have colors expand naturally on your paper. This creates a soft, diffused effect and blends colors in a more freeform fashion.

Start by wetting your surface with clean water. Then, prime your paintbrush with watercolor paint and gently apply it to the moist surface. You’ll see colors spread throughout the wet areas in just a few seconds!

This easy method is a fun way to incorporate flowy, expressive washes into your work.

Wet on dry

Wet on dry_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

The wet-on-dry technique is a popular watercolor method where wet paint is applied on dry paper.

This technique is great for creating bold, sharp lines for detailing and outlining, as well as for achieving opaque finishes.

Ensure your surface is completely dry before applying the wet paint for best results.

In addition, I advise using a standard paintbrush vs. a water brush pen. The latter is more likely to carry humidity in its bristles due to its built-in water reservoir.

Blending

Watercolor blending_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Blending is a watercolor favorite and is the process of connecting two or more colors to create a gradual transition between hues.

There are several approaches to blending, but the simplest is to apply wet paint directly onto paper and bring pigments together with gentle brush strokes.

Note that watercolor paint tends to dry quickly, so plan your color blending ventures beforehand until this skill becomes second nature!

Gradient wash

One color wash_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Gradient washes create a striking effect in watercolor art. The technique involves gradually diluting an opaque color until it becomes transparent.

The goal is to achieve a gradual change in the color intensity, resulting in dynamic, textured outcomes.

This technique is great for creating beautiful backgrounds, especially for watercolor skies and landscapes.

Bonus technique: Glazing

Glazing example watercolor_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Glazing is already entering the arena of more advanced watercolor techniques, but mostly because it requires time and a little patience!

This method involves applying thin washes of water-diluted paint over each other. In other words, layering. What’s the catch? You have to let each layer fully dry before applying more paint.

You can do this with multiple colors, but initially, try it out with just two. While this technique requires taking things slow, it’s easy to do.

It’s also a great way to learn more about color theory and mixing!

How to get started with watercolors: Tips and advice for beginners

Watercolor painting_watercolor for beginners
Photo via Stephanie Bento (Tiny Workshops)

Watercolor painting can be difficult to master on your own. So, having a few handy tips to guide you along the way can’t hurt!

Below are some watercolor for beginners tips I wish someone had shared with me when I first started!

  1. When buying your watercolor set, focus on the fundamentals. Primary colors (red, yellow, blue) are all you need at first.
  2. Play with colors, blending, and do a lot of swatching; this is a great way to learn color theory to indulge in effects and techniques.
  3. Start with easy projects and simple shapes vs. going into highly intricate compositions packed with a zillion hues. Remember, baby steps!
  4. Invest in quality paintbrushes. You don’t have to break the bank, but buying good-quality student-grade materials from the get-go will save you a lot of frustration.
  5. Use actual watercolor paper. Don’t even bother with other types of paper — all you’ll be left with is a soggy mess and a funny-looking painting.
  6. Clean your materials after every project — this is so important! Keep your resources in good condition to have them last and work efficiently for every project you take on.
  7. Use a pencil to sketch out your design beforehand. This has proven to be very helpful for me! This is particularly helpful if you’re not an intuitive illustrator or are still sharpening your drawing skills.
  8. Micron pens are waterproof and great for creating outlines, designs, and adding details to watercolor art. They look amazing against delicate washes and can even help salvage mistakes subtly!
  9. If your watercolors bleed into each other unexpectedly, let them dry before trying to fix them. Be patient (breathe). Adding more water or dragging the paint will only make things messier. Watercoloring is all about the bleed!
  10. Finally, remember to enjoy the process! The fun of watercolor painting is its unpredictability. Test out new materials from time to time, and keep experimenting and practicing!

That’s it for this guide on watercolor for beginners! Feel free to drop questions or suggestions in the comments below.

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