Top tips for watercolour beginners

Watercolour painting can seem complicated and difficult to learn, but don’t believe it! Here’s everything beginners need to know about getting started.

1. Anyone can learn to paint!

I’ll start with this important message – you can paint. Some people think that they’re not artistic, that they can’t draw or they’re not really creative. But the truth is that any skill is learned – you’re not born with talent! Think about babies, they can’t do anything – they can’t even hold their heads up.

Painting is a skill, and it always gets better with practice. This means that anyone can learn to paint watercolours.

pears painted in watercolour

2. Water is a key part of watercolour

The amount of water you use in watercolour painting can have a huge impact on how your painting turns out. The water dilutes the colour, helping you create a range of values (lightness and darkness). Use clean water and plenty of it in your paint mixtures – here’s my guide on how much water to use.

3. But puddles need tidying up

Watercolour has the best finish when it dries evenly. Any puddles of water sitting on your paper will create a hard edge around them. This is not necessarily a bad thing – some artists love their texture. But if you don’t like the effect, you can use a dry brush or the tip of a paper towel to lift the puddle. To spot puddles, try tilting your paper – if the paint seems to move, it’s probably too wet!

4. Contrast is vital

Many watercolour beginners end up creating work that looks flat and dull when it dries, and the biggest culprit is a lack of contrast. Your painting should have areas of really light and really dark paint. If you struggle to see contrast with a lot of colours, try taking a photo on your phone and change it to black and white – this will show you the contrast easily.

5. Adds loads of water for light tones

Use a really watery mix for light paint colours, to help with contrast. You can use 90% or more water and still have a really nice paint mixture. 

white space in watercolour

6. You need to leave gaps

Because watercolour paints don’t have a white, you’ll need to leave unpainted space on the paper for highlights. In some paintings, I like to block it out first by outlining the white space, then fill in the rest of the area. If you accidentally paint over your white space, you can add it back in with a Posca paint pen or some white gouache.

7. Sketch in light pencil

If you want to do a preparatory sketch before your watercolour painting, pencil is perfect. But once you paint over pencil lines, you can’t erase them! Try using a light pencil stroke or use an eraser to make the lines faint before you start painting.

8. Work light to dark

This can seem a mind-bending technique for watercolour painting if you’re used to creating with acrylics or oils. You can’t add lighter colours at the end, so you start by painting the lightest parts, then add darker layers as you go. It can seem like working backwards but it does start to make sense the more you practice it.

9. Upgrade your supplies when you’re frustrated

Watercolour supplies can put many beginners off because they seem so expensive. But cheaper supplies are less vibrant and can give patchy results, leading to frustration. I always recommend that beginners buy whatever supplies they can at the start, and then upgrade slowly as they get better. When you feel like your supplies are holding you back, it’s time to upgrade!

Read my full guide to watercolour supplies for beginners for more details.

best watercolour supplies for beginners full list

10. But don’t hoard your supplies

There’s no point buying beautiful art materials and then not making art with them. Even if you hate your painting, you’ve learned something from making it. The only waste is unused supplies, so don’t put off painting by worrying that it won’t look good – the process of making is the important thing, not the results.

11. Paint on the back of your watercolour paper

Paper brands will tell you that the paper has a ‘right’ side, but ignore them – it works just as well on both sides and it doubles the amount of practice you can get from your paper. I still paint on the back of my watercolour paper.

12. Use a paper towel to lift mistakes

It can be tricky to remove mistakes in watercolour painting because the paints quickly mark the paper. The best results come from tackling it immediately. Add plenty of clean water to dilute the paint, then lift up by patting (not rubbing) with a paper towel. It may not lift really dark spots or large areas.

13. Tape your paper down

Adding water onto your paper can cause it to warp, which is both annoying to paint on, and risks creating puddles that have hard edges. I find taping the paper down with masking tape all around the edges keeps it fairly flat. I love to tape my paper to some old wooden chopping boards rather than the desk, so I can turn them around for better angles. And to remove, wait until it’s fully dry, peel slowly by pulling back diagonally to avoid ripping the paper.

wet on wet effect hearts painting in watercolour

14. Let the paint bleed and touch

The best watercolour effect is wet-on-wet, where two areas of paint connect and bleed together. It creates beautiful results, and I love causing deliberate connections as I paint. You can use your brush to connect areas, or drop more paint into areas that are still wet. Mastering this technique will improve your paintings so much! Read my guide to wet-on-wet watercolour for ideas and examples.

15. Add details when it’s dry

Sometimes a few little line details and extras on a finished piece can really elevate it. If you find yourself a bit underwhelmed by the results when it’s dry, try adding a few details and layers over the top.

16. Speed up drying times with a hairdryer

Great if you’re in a hurry or just impatient! The trick is a medium heat and low flow, to avoid pushing or splattering the water. Keep the nozzle moving so it dries evenly.

17. Use two cups of water

Because the water is so important for mixing your colours, any jars of dirty water can make your colours muddy and dull. Most artists use two water cups. Some prefer the dirty/clean method, where you rinse your brush in one, and then pick up clean water from the other for mixing.

I like to have a cool/warm system, where I rinse and mix warm colours (reds, yellows, browns) from one cup, and cool colours (blues, greens, purples) from the other. If you prefer, you can stick to one cup and just change the water regularly to keep it clean.

simple paintings to stop art block

18. Practice in monochrome

If colour mixing and colour theory has you frustrated, I always recommend doing monochrome paintings to take out the overwhelm. It was a big part of my creative practice (and still is sometimes!). Just using blues and focusing on contrast and dark/light areas can teach you a lot.

19. Flatten warped paper

If your watercolour painting does warp or curl as it dries, you can simply press it between two heavy books overnight to straighten it out again. Make sure it’s fully dry before trying this.

20. Fill space with spatter

If you finish your painting and find you have an annoying space in one area, you can easily fill it with a little artistic paint splatter! Add some medium-wet paint to your brush and gently flick or tap it to spatter droplets of paint.

21. Keep all your work at first

One of the best tips I got when I started painting watercolour was to keep all my early paintings. It’s easy to feel like you’re not good at something when it’s new, but looking back at older work after a few weeks made me realise how much better I’d got! It’s far more motivating to measure your progress against yourself rather than others.

These are all my favourite tips for watercolour beginners, but there’s so much joy to be found in creating something beautiful with your hands. I hope you pick up a brush and come and paint with me!

Download my free watercolour supply guide

Feeling overwhelmed and confused by watercolour paints, papers and brushes? Download my free guide filled with insider info, including a list of good supplies for every budget, and my complete supply list!