top of page

Watercolor Tips for Beginners​

To learn to paint watercolor may at first seem strange and difficult, especially if you are use to opaque mediums such as oil or acrylic. These watercolor tips for beginners examine all the basic watercolor techniques to set you off on the right path.


Tip 1. Saving White Paper

The first and most obvious difference is the fact that watercolor is transparent. It relies on untouched paper for the clean, crisp whites. This means you must decide from the very beginning where the areas of white will be in your painting and plan ahead to preserve these areas.

watercolor tips for beginners - saving white paper

Clean, white paper contrasting with strong dark tones give impact to the cabins on these trawlers.


The process for successful watercolor painting, is to avoid the areas to be left white and apply the lightest washes first, gradually working your way towards darker washes. Try to cover large areas fairly loosely in the early stages of the painting, applying tighter detail towards the end. Here are a few points to keep in mind...

Tip 2. Thumbnail Sketches​

Small thumbnail sketches allow you to shuffle your subject around and adjust the composition before you start to paint. Having a plan to work to makes it much easier to avoid problems, particularly when it comes to arranging tonal (light dark) contrast. Break your thumbnail sketches into about four different tonal areas and shade them in. This lets you manipulate the lights and darks so the maximum contrast occurs at the centre of interest.

Watercolor tips for beginners - thumbnail sketches

These sketches show different options and contain only four different tones (black, dark grey, light grey, white)

More about Thumbnail Sketches



Tip 3. Color Harmony

Of all the watercolor tips for beginners, maintaining color harmony is one of the most important. There are a few simple things to remember to maintain color harmony throughout your painting. 

Limit your palette
Dipping into twenty different colors spread around your palette is tempting but usually results in a discordant, muddy work. Limit your colors to just two or three, particularly in the early stages of a painting. Your subject will dictate which ones to choose. I find for buildings, landscape etc. starting with washes of earth colours - Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna plus a little Ultramarine or Indigo, depending on what sort of atmosphere you’re after, gives a tight harmonious foundation to work on. More intense colours can be carefully introduced later if necessary.


More about Limited Palette

The River Landscape Project  uses just five colors (four of which are blues) to create a simple, tight color harmony

The painting below shows how a limited palette can have more impact than a full spectrum of colors. Apart from grey, white and black charcoal, Phthalo and Ultramarine Blue make up most of this painting. A small splash of Permanent Rose puts a shot of warm into the centre of interest.

Tip 4. Foreign colors

How often do you look at a painting and see an area of colour that doesn’t seem to fit? A group of trees in an out of place green, a discordant blue river or a purple flower that seems to jump out of the bunch. The remedy to this problem is simple, introduce more of the discordant colour to the rest of the painting.
Allowing the Permanent Rose, in the painting above, to spill out across the surface ties the color into the work. Had it been restricted just to the focal area it would have looked out of place.

Tip 5. Tie up color

A few fine calligraphic lines in a harmonious color will usually tighten up a disjointed color arrangement. 
Use a #1 or 2 liner brush or pen and ink. It is important to use just one color for these lines or you run the risk of adding to the confusion. If you use ink, a fine spray of water quickly after the ink is applied, will soften the lines and create some interesting feathering effects.

This painting shows the effect of sprayed, Burnt Sienna Ink tie up lines threaded through to unify the work.

Tip 6. Dark Tones

Avoid neutral darks - a painting will have more life and character if the darks tend to either warm or cool. To mix a rich strong dark don’t use an opaque Yellow. Windsor & Newton Quinacridone Gold or Rowney Indian Yellow work best. Most other yellows make muddy darks. As well as a transparent yellow, you will need lots of pigment and very little water. It's a good idea to dip straight from one color to the next without rinsing the brush in between. Rinsing only dilutes the mix and moves it away from a strong dark.

For more information on darks see "Black Watercolor"



Tip 7. Center of Interest or Focal Point

A focal point or Center of Interest is an area of your painting that captures and holds a viewers attention before letting it wander off to other regions of the painting. As well as an interesting part of the subject, the center of interest should contain the maximum tonal contrast and strongest region of color.
For a painting to be successful the centre of interest should be obvious and well positioned. Avoid placing the centre of interest in the middle of a painting (either horizontally or vertically) unless you are after a static, formal composition.
Keeping the centre of interest an unequal distance from each side helps position it correctly. Breaking the horizontal and vertical axis roughly in the ratio of 1:2 will also help to place the centre of interest

Watercolor tips for beginners - placing the focal point

More about Focal Points



Tip 8. Don't Overwork Your Painting

A painting filled with carefully laboured detail from one edge to the other can be difficult to look at. If you like to work with fine detail, consider including some areas of relief.

In this painting the viewers eye can wander between the interesting textures and detail of the focal area and flat areas of relief provided by the expanse of foreground water.


Tip 9. Drawing 

To produce successful paintings it is important to practice drawing. 

No matter what you are drawing it is important to first consider how your subject will be placed on the page. Small thumbnail sketches before you start your drawing are a good way to work out the composition.
Start your drawing by mentally reducing the subject to a few simple shapes. Sketch these in lightly and accurately, then proceed to break these up into smaller more detailed shapes. Don't start at one corner of the subject and work your way across to the other.    

Your drawing will look better if the most interesting part ( called the centre of interest or focal point) is not placed along either of the pages centre lines. The strongest tonal ( light / dark ) contrast should be placed at the centre of interest. 

Have some areas of the drawing less detailed than others. Try and keep most of the detail in the area of the centre of interest.    
To gain confidence, practice drawing on large sheets of cheap paper with a soft (5B or 6B) pencil, charcoal, or pastel pencil. Stand up, work on a vertical surface (or surface at right angles to your line of vision) and move your arm from the shoulder. Work from large and bold to fine and detailed. Only the final finishing off needs to be done with small, tight hand movements.    

Practice - It doesn't matter what you draw - you have to train your eye to accurately judge proportion and your hand to accurately convert these judgements to marks on paper. There are no shortcuts here, lots and lots of pencil shavings are the only answer.

More Drawing Tips



Tip 10. Necessary Tools

A list of watercolor tips for beginners would be incomplete without a description of the most necessary tools and materials.


One great thing about watercolor painting, if you are just getting started, is the small amount of equipment you need.
A few colors, four or five brushes, some paper to paint on, and that's about it! An old white plate will do for a palette or you can buy a cheap plastic one. The best advice I can give though, is to buy artist quality paint and good paper.

Here is my shopping list to get started.

• Ultramarine Blue (French Ultra. is better but more expensive)
• Permanent Alizarin Crimson
• Indian Yellow or Quinacridone Gold 

1/4" Long Flat Taklon
1/2" Long Flat Taklon
#1or2 Taklon Liner
1/2" Bristle brush (Long Bristles)

Some student quality paper to experiment on and a sheet of Arches or Saunders 300gsm (140lb) Medium texture. Cut the sheet into 4 

A folding plastic palette

This is enough to get you started. Later you can add to this, but don't rush out and buy 20 different colors and a dozen brushes - it wont make you a better painter, just more confused.

Once you have done a few paintings with this equipment you may want to add a few more colors and brushes. I use very little equipment.

This color wheel uses just the above recommended colors. It produces a fairly saturated range of colors provided you limit the mixing to no more than two primaries.

Mixing with the three primaries will make compound colors (Browns, Khakis, Greys etc.) which is what we use most of the time when we are painting.

The transparent Quinacridone Gold here is what stops the colors becoming muddy.

More about Materials in

Painting On Location

watercolor tips for beginners - colorwheel

Finally and Importantly

Enjoy what you have done!

Put a matt around your work, sit down with a glass of wine or cup of coffee, and look at all the good things you have achieved. It is important to feel good about your work. Dwelling on mistakes or problems is disheartening and makes it difficult to move on. I have yet to see a painting without some good points. Concentrating on the positive aspects of your work gives you confidence and enthusiasm, and allows you to build on your successes.

Summing Up Watercolor Tips For Beginners

  • Preserve white paper right from the start.

  • Work out your composition with a thumbnail sketch before you begin.

  • Limit your palette to maintain color harmony.

  • Don't allow foreign colors to cause distraction - link them to the rest of the painting.

  • Consider using a tie up color to give the painting unity.

  • Make your dark colors either warm or cool to avoid neutral dead spots.

  • Make your center of interest or focal point dominant

  • Don't overwork - allow for some areas of simple understated relief.

  • Practise drawing - it is the fundamental skill all your painting will be based on.

  • Be conservative when accumulating painting gear - you really don't need much!

  • Enjoy your successes! 

See Also:

Watercolor Techniques

Author: John Lovett

bottom of page