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How to Paint with Watercolors


If you have never painted with other mediums, then painting with watercolors will be easier for you to learn than for people who have always worked in other mediums.

I tell you this because I have personally experienced the reversal of thinking that you must go through when switching to watercolors.


In most other mediums, you start with the darker or medium colors and then paint lighter or darker colors on top of them. If you make a mistake, you can always paint over it.

In water colors, you use the white of the paper as the means for achieving a white space. You also use the white of the paper as the means for making the lighter values of your colors.

In other mediums, you use white paint to make something white. You mix white with other colors to produce the lighter values of that color.

Planning Ahead

The first thing you have to learn when painting with watercolors, is that you have to sketch out most of the details of the painting before you begin. This is important because the first color you put down in an area, will always show through what ever color you put over it.

In this preliminary sketch, I identify where white of the mailbox is to be. As I start shaping the box, I will add color into very specific areas to give it shape and shadow.

In the leaves and post, I will gradually combine several layers of color for shaping and shadowing.

By layering the colors, it tends to give the space more depth and a natural variation in color. The transition from one color to the next can be very soft.

loonloon canvas prints

The problem comes in when you want to keep a space completely white.

Here the chest and wing markings of the Loon are vibrantly white.

The clarity of the white is because I have used the paper as the white space.

You can never achieve that same whiteness with a white paint. Once you have put the slightest bit of color in that white space, you can never regain the same whiteness.

Using Frisket to Preserve White Areas

One thing you can do to maintain the white space while painting over a larger space is to apply a frisket. The frisket sticks to the paper and blocks the paper from taking up the paint wherever it is applied. If you are on a limited budget, you can use rubber cement and it will do the same thing.

When you have finished applying all the colors to the area around the frisket, make sure the paint is dry. Then you can rub the frisket off with your finger or a kneaded eraser. Now you have the clean white space you planned for, remaining.

You can actually pull the frisket off once you have loosened a corner enough to get a hold of it with your fingers.

Use this techniques wherever you have specific areas that you do not want the background color to get into. An example would be a sailboat.

You want to be able to paint the sky and water with continuous strokes so they go right up to the edge of the boat, but you probably do not want these colors to blend into the boat space. The frisket would accomplish this

Special Effects with Watercolors

I love the special effects you can accomplish with watercolors, especially for backgrounds. They make such unique patterns that can only be achieved with watercolors, or acrylics that are being used as washes simulating watercolors.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

This is a card of a Hummingbird that I made with watercolors. The background was a result of adding salt to a wet green wash I had applied.

What resulted was a series of what I call florets. The white spaces developed where the paint moved away from the salt leaving these very unique patterns.

Once the paint was completely dry, I dabbed in reds, blues and yellows into some of the spaces giving it the feeling of flowers in the background.

I did the same thing with the cardinal picture at the top of this page, but I used two separate washes, red and green, and did not add any additional colors into the white spaces

Storing Your Watercolor Paints Between Uses

There are convenient watercolor pallets that have deep wells for keeping paints separated from each other. There is also varying sizes of pallets with workspace in the center of the wells for mixing colors. Many come with tight fitting covers for storage of the paints and transport in between use. These are great, but there are some some things you should do before closing the cover.

Closing the cover while the paints are still wet can result in mold forming on your paints if not used within a day or two. Always let your paints dry before covering. You can speed up this process by using a hair dryer on a low setting. If you are out painting on location, dry the paints after you return to the studio. If the paints do get moldy, throw them out, thoroughly clean the pallet and refill with fresh paints the next time you are ready to use them.

Clean up the pallet area once you have dried the paints. You could leave it as is, but it is always good to start with clean, fresh colors.

Some paints become grainy if over dried so avoid prolonged dry periods with those colors you find have a problem. Adding small amounts of fresh paint for those colors is the best choice.

Here's a sample of how I have put my watercolors to work for me.


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--Work in Progress--

Additional Topics

  • Watercolor with Pastels
  • Watercolor with Pen and Ink
  • More Special Effects
  • And More







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