Getting Creative

Getting started with watercolour

Looking to get started with watercolours? That’s great! Watercolour is a fairly cheap and easy way to learn to paint. In this guide I will go over the basics of what you need to get started with watercolour painting. Skip to instructions

What is watercolour?

Watercolour (or watercolor in American English) is a painting method which uses pigments that are turned into useable paint by adding water. Makes sense right?

There are a few different types of water colour paint, but don’t be intimidated! You only need one to get started with this versatile medium. Here are a few of common paint types you can find:

  • Pan watercolour paint
  • Tube watercolour paint
  • Peerless watercolour sheets
  • Watercolour pencils
  • Watercolour markers
  • Liquid watercolours (they look like little ink pots)
  • Gouache

I use a pan set which is very similar to these Winsor & Newton pans, I’ve had my set for so long they no longer make it! But that set has all the same colours and still has a palette for mixing built-in. My mum always used a field set like these which has a built-in water bottle and a few other bits to make painting on the go easier.

I think pans are the easiest type of watercolour paints for beginners to use, they’re simple to use and store, and you only use what you need. They can also last for years, but if you do run out of a colour you can replace the individual pan without having to buy a whole new set.

It’s definitely worth investing in a decent set of watercolours, even if you’re just getting started. Some of the really cheap set out there might be suitable for young children but you will probably be disappointed with the lack of pigmentation and your unlikely to get the results you desire.

A set like the one I have is around £20.00 ($25).

So what do you need?

  • Paper
  • Paints
  • Brushes
  • Heatgun (optional)
  • Water container.
  • Tissue/ kitchen roll

I’ve created a handy list on Amazon of all the watercolour products I would recommend.

Watercolour Paper. This paper is heavier than your average paper (measured in gsm) the general rule is that the heavier the paper is, the more water it can hold. This is super important for watercolours as if your paper is too light. For example, printer paper – the water from the paints will just make the paper bubble and the paint will not adhere to the paper properly.

Watercolour paper also comes in hot/cold pressed and different textures. If you’re just getting started don’t worry about that for now, and pick up a basic pad of 300gsm paper like the one below.

Paints. As I mentioned above you’re going to need to choose some paint. I personally think a set of pans are the easiest form to get to grips with and they’re easy to transport around with you if you wish to do so.

Brushes. For watercolour, you want some soft brushes. These brushes are made with natural, synthetic or mixed bristles and come in all different shapes and sizes. Check out this post for a more detailed overview of brushes.

Natural brushes are often made of sable, these can be expensive but they can hold more water and more pigment than your standard synthetic brush. However, synthetic brushes tend hold their shape a bit better, so the smaller ones are great for fine detail work.

You can also buy a waterbrush, these are synthetic brushes that are fillable with water and you gentle squeeze the body of the brush to wet the bristles. These are fantastic for travel, or just for convenience.

Watercolour brushes come in a variety of sizes and each is used for a specific purpose but there is a lot you can achieve with a simple round brush, see the image below for an overview of brush shapes.

Each shape of brush also comes in different sizes. The number on the brush indicates the size; they range from below 0 (e.g 0000 or 3/0 at the smaller end) and get bigger as the number gets larger see the image below for an example.

A heat gun. This is an optional tool. Watercolour paintings are usually made in layers, and you must wait for each layer to dry before adding the next or the colours will blend into each other when you don’t want them too. You can leave the layer to air dry and this doesn’t take too long but to speed things up you can invest in a heat gun which will blow a gentle flow of warm air at your work.

A water container. You can buy a container like this one specifically for the job or use any old jar or glass you already have. It’s a good idea to have two glasses of water – one to wet your paints and clean your brushes in between colours, and other that stays clean for applying ‘washes’.

Some tissue/ kitchen roll/ sponge. If you make a mistake you can ‘lift’ the paint off the page whilst it is still wet using some tissue, this is also useful for making clouds and other effects. You can also use a tissue to mop up some of the water/paint on the page if you apply too much.

Getting Started

In a future post I will explain in more detail some of the common water colour techniques for you to practice. For now, here is an overview of how to get started:

The best way to get a feel for how much paint and water you need to use is to experiment. Take a piece of your watercolour paper and pick up your brush, a round brush is a good place to start. See my short video tutorial below:

Wet your brush with water and apply it directly to the paint, once you have picked up some paint on your brush you can apply it directly to your paper. This is likely to create quite a strong colour.

To make a more transparent colour you need to add more water. You’ll need a palette for this, many sets have a palette built-in. Start by adding some water to your palette using a clean brush.

Then use the brush to pick up some paint and mix it into your water. The more paint you add the stronger the colour will get. You can wash off any extra paint from your brush and dry the brush slightly on some clean tissue.

Then place the brush into the water & paint mixture you just made and apply this to the paper. This technique is good for when you need to do large sections of the same colour such as a sky, you can also add small amounts of other colours into this mixture to vary the shade – great for adding depth to your work!

Experiment using different strengths of paint and different brush shapes. Practice blending colours using the palette to get various shades or whole new colours.

You can also try wetting the paper with clean water before adding your pain, this method is known as wet-on-wet, whereas painting onto dry paper is known as wet-on-dry.

Step-by-step instructions on Skillshare

Skillshare is an amazing resource full of tutorials, and step-by-step instructions for many creative pursuits. The watercolour course I would recommend for beginners is this one.

If you don’t have a skillshare account yet, you can sign up for a free trial by clicking the banner below.

Books I would recommend:

Here are a few books I would recommend to get started with Watercolour, (click the images to check them out on Amazon). In particular, the second book by Matthew Palmer goes over all of the techniques and explains most of the terminology you’ll see in the watercolour space.

Really simple step-by-step.
Great for explaining techniques.
Contains pull out tracing paper!

Can’t draw? Use pre-drawn pads

If you would love to get started with watercolour but you are feeling held back by your drawing ability, you could try pre-drawn watercolour sheets. These designs are printed onto watercolour paper and all you have to do is paint them. Great for beginners and fairly cheap too! However, the quality does vary so watch out; some do not use great paper so they can buckle a little.

I hope you have enjoyed this beginners guide to watercolour. This is the first in my series on watercolour so look out for more posts coming soon. If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below!

*Disclaimer – any links in this article to Amazon are affiliate links. I may earn a small commission if you choose to purchase at no extra cost to you.


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