My writings about the Constancy of Change in Life and beyond. From my view spot above the city in southern Costa Rica, I write.

Friday, December 30, 2016

So You Want to Learn Watercolor in 2017

After receiving three separate emails asking for some advice on learning to paint with watercolor, I am doing what I always do when something happens as a part of three. I pay attention.

So here's how I suggest you begin to learn to paint with watercolor.  Beginners are my favorite people! You are full of good questions and are excited and terrified. We should all be – throughout our lives. With watercolor and with life.

Some suggestions

Get a few good supplies.   On my website ( is a material list for those coming to a workshop and also a color wheel that I use constantly. The color wheel can be downloaded and printed from a pdf format.  ( I recommend printing it onto glossy paper, 8 1/2 " x 11") It has names and important chemical numbers of paints I prefer – which helps with color/paint selection.


         Material List and Color Wheel

Keep the supplies to a minimum – especially the paints.

To start with:

·      Paper.  My preferred paper now is Arches, cold pressed 150# watercolor sheets – 22” x 30”.  I’d start by cutting or tearing them into 4 pieces and you can use both front and back.   Don’t skimp with bad paper, especially with watercolor.

·      1 -2 brushes.  I do all my painting with a ½” wash brush, preferably a mix of real hair and synthetic. I also like a small pointed brush for details (but I suggest keeping details to a minimum at the beginning. Try to get the hang of using the very edge of your wash brush for details. It’ll pay off eventually.)  And make sure you get watercolor brushes, not oil painting brushes.

·      Palette:  A small-medium plastic palette with a cover and a place to mix your paints. I prefer about 12 – 18 wells into which you will squeeze your new paint, individually.  Be generous with the amount and also be sure to label each so you’ll start getting to know the names of your paints. (There are all kinds, prices and sizes available online through Cheap Joe’s and Dick Blick. I avoid Hobby Lobby and Michaels because they don’t carry good brands)

·      Paints:  Start with 3. Paints each have a personality and need to be understood fully before you add more.  The trouble with buying a whole kit is that you get a lot of paints that often include those that are composed of several pigments. The manufacturers love to make these because they make more money by creating new paints to sell. The trouble is that if you mix paints made of 2 – 4 pigments with each other, you often get into ‘mud’. Just too many pigments mixed together and losing their individuality. This is likely the greatest disappointment to beginners – who don’t know how it happened. It is NOT your fault!

Wild Leaves at Papas, JH
Here are the paints I would start with.  These are Primaries (on the color wheel) and mixed together they will make a gray or black (if you don’t use much water). They are pure colors which means that they are not mixes of pigments (and on each tube in tiny tiny writing you can see what the pigment is.  If it is a single pigment, it is pure.

  • Quinacridone Magenta – PR 122 or PV 19  (scientific chemical number – means Pigment Red – 122 or Pigment Violet - 19)

  • Cobalt Blue  (PB 28)

  • Aureolin or Lemon Yellow  (PY 151 or PY 175)


And – if you look at where each is on the color wheel – these three are Primary colors meaning they cannot be mixed from other colors. That is lesson #1 on color theory.

There are several good watercolor brands – like Daniel Smith, Graham, Winsor & Newton, some Holbeins, Shminke, and others.  Important:  If the paint tube does not have a chemical pigment number on it, don’t buy it even if it is cheap and looks good.  It will disappoint and discourage.  Look carefully – the type is very very small.

A good online source for all information about watercolor pigments, paints and manufacturers is  The author, Bruce MacEvoy has created this huge website and provides much more information than most want to know.  A great resource.   I find that if I want to know about the best magenta watercolor paints  I'll just Google Handprint Magenta   and up pops the page I need in his website.

A recent watercolor sketch done during an Intensive here in Costa Rica

photo at Villa Leonor
wc sketch: Not Seeing the Forest For the Leaves, JH

 If possible, join a group.  Many of my students began with watercolor sketching and there are many Urban Sketcher groups out and about.  I am personally a bit unfamiliar with Urban Sketching as an art group format but certainly have had several students here who belong to an urban sketching group.  If you have no group to join, you can do it alone – and watch some YouTubes.

The most important thing is to start PAINTING.

Croton Leaves in a Vase, JH 2016
Start using just these three paints, mixed together or alone or just two mixed together and see all the colors you can get from those. The biggest problem you will likely encounter is how much water to use – and believe me, that is a problem that will only work itself out through experience and time. There is no way to teach it.

How to start?   I’d try to get hold of a watercolor tablet of some sort – or you can use the cut up sheets of Arches watercolor paper.


Begin by choosing what you want to paint. Here I put some croton leaves in a blue vase in my studio and loved the back lighted bright colors. 

Then do a fairly quick pencil sketch on the paper of whatever you are looking at. If you are painting something directly from seeing it outside – you are painting en plein aire.  If it is from a photo – you are painting in studio. I painted using a 7" x 10" sketchbook.  I guess I'm doing both since my studio is outside.

After your sketch, add paint from the concocted puddle in your palette that is mix of a bit of pigment(s) with some water. And try as hard as you can to turn off your self critical left brain that will begin screaming things like ‘this is horrible’, ‘what a joke’, ‘this looks like….’,  Just know that the left brain hates being out of control – but it is your right brain that is being awakened and knows best. Sadly the right brain, your artist self is not verbal and can easily be overwhelmed with the most verbal left!  A good book on this is a classic Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, Betty Edwards. 

After you have put some paint on all the parts of the paper except those you intentionally left white and blank, look at it and let it dry. Some at this point like to add ink line, which is just so much fun.  Urban sketchers love ink line (and so do I)….

So give it a try!  

If you are still reading this and you want to, you can send me a jpeg via email and I can take a quick look and then get back to you with a quick critique/suggestion…..   Something like “I think you may be using too much water. Try…..”   I offer this sincerely and promise that I will treat you and your work with deep respect.

After all – I can still clearly remember when my New Year’s resolution was to paint in watercolor….

Resources:   My book, The Watercolor Artist's Guide to Exceptional Color, 2007 is out of print and will not be re-printed. You can occasionally find copies on Amazon for as low as $45 though usually much higher. Keep watching. OR you can order an online version through my website for $29.95.

And consider coming to paint with me in Costa Rica as part of a 5-Day Intensive!

Claudia painting the crotons in the vase in my open air studio.

No comments:

Post a Comment