How to Paint a Watercolor
All images copyright protected DavidWarrenDesigns, 2002- 2020©
All images used are the work of the author/artist, David W. Warren and are copyright protected.
This is a free educational webpage; however no part may be reproduced without permission of the
author/artist. David has over 35 years experience paintinng watercolor. He has taught for six years
with Bastrop's Community Education Program, The Bastrop Senior Center, private and small
group lessons in his studio.
Feel free to contact the artist with questions or comments.
A Brief History of Watercolor Painting
Where did it begin?
No one knows with certainty where or when man began painting. Prehistoric examples are found around the
world. Somehow the knowledge of grinding earth minerals and organic matter to make different colored pigments
arose independently worldwide. The first tools were the artist’s hands and fingers and mouth. By drinking a
pigment rich mixture of water and spitting it onto a wall they stenciled outlines of their hands. Prehistoric man
also used charcoal sticks and iron ore stones directly on the walls, but by using water to transfer the pigment to
the wall they created the art form (Discovery Channel). The first cave paintings were discovered in 1879 near
Santander in northern Spain, and in 1941 more were found by accident in Lascaux, France. Carbon dating
techniques show they date back 15,000 years (de la Croix and Tansey). Other examples are found on every
continent except Antarctica.
What was it used for?
Historic cultures also appear to have independently developed watercolor painting to sophisticated levels of
technical style. This was due to materials available, the local social conventions, and the advent of writing itself.
Of course watercolor was used to depict images, whether mythical, historic or documentary in nature. In China,
rice paper was used for elaborate scroll paintings. The Egyptians used papyrus paper for their hieroglyphics.
Before Europeans, the Mayans had used vellum, which is a paper thin leather hide. In Europe, monks used
watercolor to embellish their illustrated manuscripts, also on vellum. In Persia, watercolor was used in illustrating
books of poetry, and decorating copies of the Koran (Art of the Persian Courts). For architectural purposes, it
used was to color limestone structures in Mesoamerica (Art of Mesoamerica). Traces of pigment have been found
on Greek and Roman structures (Art and Myth of Ancient Greece).
The rise and fall and rise of watercolor painting
During the Renaissance, oil painting rose in popularity. Artists were commissioned by the wealthy and the clergy
to create portraits and visual biblical interpretations for their cathedrals and chapels. Studies were needed for the
final “product”. Drawings and watercolors were demoted, considered preparatory for the “newer and better” oil
Ironically, many examples of work by artists that survive today are their watercolors. Oil paintings were still
experimental and archival materials were not yet understood. Their lining or canvas would rot over time and
sometimes the primer layers and the painting surface would delaminate. Wood rot is also common on painting’s
stretchers (Mancusi-Ungaro). Albrecht Durer and Leonardo daVinci both worked in multiple mediums, including
watercolor during this era. DaVinci has only eight surviving oil and tempera paintings today (Werner).
It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that watercolor rose again in popularity. Paper was widely produced, and new
paints were being developed. Flat pads of paper, small tubes or cakes of paint, a few brushes and a palette were
quite compact. With only water needed, watercolor became portable. More people began traveling and used
watercolor to make memento images during their trip. Watercolor was an important skill for well educated women
of the middle and upper classes (Wikipedia). Cartographers, engineers, surveyors, military officers all used
watercolor in their work. Artists accompanied exploratory expeditions for their documentation records.
The artist J.M.W. Turner, who popularized the medium in England, is given credit for developing many watercolor
painting techniques used today (Innovated new inks and masking fluid with Wet in Wet techniques). In America,
Winslow Homer was employed by Harper’s Magazine to document the Civil War; due to its portability he made
field sketches with pencil and watercolor (Resource Library Magazine). Thomas Moran also used watercolor to
record the Yellowstone expedition (Burns). Photography had become a popular tool for documentation, but it was
still limited to black and white images. It was Moran’s colorful paintings presented to Congress in Washington
that helped convince legislators to establish the National Parks system, making Yellowstone our first national
Watercolor painting is popular today for many reasons. It is the least toxic of art mediums. It is non-flammable,
odor free, and it is easy to clean up.
Prerequisite Skills Needed
Basic drawing skills are needed for painting a watercolor. But, lack of skills should not negate painting a
watercolor. The lame excuse, “I can’t draw a straight line”, doesn’t hold water. That’s what rulers are for!
A beginner should not hold themselves to a professional standard. They should not compare their work to their
model either, as the painting will take on a life of its own. The perfection is in the imperfection, so don’t sweat it.
Everyone has to start with the basics. Play with watercolor. It is fun to watch the paint suspended in water race
across a sheet of paper. Once you understand the behavior of water you will see how easy it is. Watercolors can
be very simple and sketchy, to elaborate and detailed. It just takes a little guidance and practice.
Watercolor paper is made from many different natural fibers. Cotton, linen, hemp, and wood pulp are a few
examples, but quality paper is always acid free or Ph neutral. If the paper is acidic it will yellow and turn brittle
When paper gets wet the fibers in the paper absorb water and the sheet will buckle. Watercolor paper has sizing
in it to help the paper resist water absorption. It comes in various thicknesses that are stiff enough to resist
buckling; however, the thinner papers need to be stretched onto a stiff board before painting can begin.
The thickness is measured by weight in reams. A ream of paper is 500 sheets of paper. For example, 500 sheets of
a “300#” paper would weigh 300 pounds. This weight paper does not need to be stretched before painting, but
since it will buckle with larger washes, paper weights placed along the edge of the paper will keep it flat while it
dries. Stretching thinner papers will be discussed later.
Paper comes in different surface finishes: Rough, Cold Press, and Hot Press. Hot pressed paper will be the
smoothest surface finish. Cold pressed paper will have a lightly textured surface, and lightly pressed papers will
have a “rough” textured surface.
Paper is sold in different forms as: Blocks, Pads or Sheets. Pads are often made with metal binding and are easily
torn out for stretching onto your board. Blocks of paper are glued along the edge and are designed for Plein Air
or outdoors painting. They do not need stretching and can be removed from the block after the painting is
finished with a knife. Underneath is another fresh sheet ready to be painted. Sheets are sold individually, in small
packages or in large rolls.
Figure 1: A package of large sheets, a block, and spiral pad of Arches watercolor papers.
The best archival papers to use are: Arches, Fabriano and Whatman. Beginners will probably want to try
Strathmore brand as it’s less expensive; however, its mechanical finish is distracting.
There are many brands of paper on the market; imported papers’ cost can vary. Some have been in business
for centuries. Arches was founded in 1492 CE (Arches).
Watercolor paints come in tubes or in dried cake form. Some artists grind their own pigment and mix with a
binder when adding water. Binder is the “glue” need to adhere the pigment to the surface. Gum Arabic is
commonly used as the binder in watercolor paint sold today.
I prefer paint from tubes for many reasons. It is immediately soluble with water. Cake paints need to be
moistened and “scrubbed” to mix with the water before they can be used. That scrubbing prematurely wears
out the brushes.
Windsor & Newton brand is the best paint available. It behaves consistently and mixes well on the palette or
on the paper. The colors listed are Windsor & Newton, but other brands offer similar colors.
Colors to start with:
• Windsor Red
• Yellow Ochre
• Transparent Yellow
• Hooker’s Green
• Cobalt Blue
• Burnt Umber
With these six colors, a large color spectrum can be produced. When mixing colors the rules don’t always
apply to watercolor paints; yellow and blue don’t away make green. Some combinations of paint make mud.
As you develop your skills you will want to add more colors to your collection.
The second tier of colors to acquire is:
• Alizarin Crimson
• Cadmium Yellow Pale
• Ultramarine Blue
• Prussian Blue
• Burnt Sienna
The third tier of colors to add to your palette is:
• Cadmium Orange
• Permanent Sap Green
• Cerulean Blue
• Davy’s Grey
• Payne’s Grey
• Oxide of Chromium
Finally, the deluxe tier of colors to add is:
• Opera Rose
• Cadmium Lemon
• Windsor Emerald
• Manganese Blue Hue
• Cobalt Violet
• Thioindigo Violet
There are many more color choices, beyond the 24 listed. You will notice the lack of Black and White from this
color list. Taking the “purist” approach to watercolor painting, white is the highlight already provided by the
paper itself. Black is derived from a combination of several colors; either mixed on the palette and then applied
to the paper, or by layering the different colors, one at a time.
There are brushes for every medium. Acquire brushes designed for watercolors. Natural hair brushes are more
expensive, but synthetic brushes perform very well and are more affordable (Watercolor Magazine).
• #0 round
• #2 round
• #4 round
• #12 round
• #18 round
• ½” flat
• 1” flat
• 2” flat
There are other types of brushes available, but the ones listed above are the basics to start with.
This is an inclusive list. You may have many of these items already available. Some, like the paints, papers and
brushes are only available in fine Art Supply stores. Some of the following are self explanatory. The other’s
purposes will be discussed later.
• Organizer tool box / fishing tackle box, etc.
• Paint palette
• Mechanical pencils and tradition #2 pencil, graphite sticks
• White and kneaded erasers
• Rulers & Templates
• Plastic cups / pitcher for water
• Spray bottle
• Paper towels
• Masonite or plywood board – it should be porous
• Multi-tool pliers w/ knife
• Acid free/ black masking tape
Tool for special techniques:
• Masking fluid –Windsor & Newton again is the best brand.
• Clear wax – use as a permanent masking agent.
• “Rubber cement pickup”
• Salt- plain table salt only
• Natural sea sponges - also used to protect brushes in the tool box.
• Chopstick holder for brushes
• Paper weights
• Rubbing alcohol
High Tech extras:
• Hair dryer – or a Heat Gun / Paint Stripper for fast drying
• Digital camera / computer / printer
• Opaque projector
Figure 17: Finishing details included a wash of Payne’s Grey over the background to add contrast. Final petals are
defined in the far right.
I prefer to work in my studio. Any climate controlled, well lit room will work for a studio. Watercolor does not emit fumes
like oil paints and the other chemicals used for that medium, so anywhere at home can work.
Figure 19: The studio setup.
You will need a table that is well lit. It should be indoors in climate controlled conditions. I use a folding tray table
on the side of my desk to hold my paint palette, water, and other tools.
The Plan and Subject
There are many possible subjects to paint. Whatever you wish to paint is possible with watercolor, but you need
to have a plan of action. It can be a simple “still life”, a landscape, portrait, anything, but you need to know where
you are going to put the paint.
I always use my own photography for painting models. Using or reproducing another’s image is plagiarism. It is
important to use your own model for artwork, especially if it is for sale.
If you use a light weight paper, stretch the paper before painting on it. Soak the paper in water, front and back. Lay
the wet paper on your board. Using black masking tape (acid free) secure the top edge of the paper. Tape the left
and right sides. Finish by taping the bottom edge. Use a brush handle to press the tape firmly into the paper.
Some artists staple their paper to a thick board, like plywood. Once the paper dries it will have tension, helping
prevent buckling under really large washes. If you use 300# or more weight paper, you can forget about stretching
the paper and start drawing out your plan.
Figure 2: Tool organizer box and supplies. The sponges are useful for protecting the
brushes by placing them in the same pigeonhole during transit.
Figure 4b: Wet on Wet washes can be manipulated by tipping your board and let gravity pull the pigment across
Wet on Dry washes create hard lined edges. The paint is applied on a dry surface. The area or field that you are
painting will have distinct edges.
Dry Brush washes are really not “dry”, but they do not use as much water to carry the pigment onto the paper
surface. This technique is used for making fine details in the painting. It is the most controlled watercolor
Figure 5: Wet on Dry wash.
Figure 6: Dry Brush wash (detail work).
One trick that is a favorite is to sprinkle salt onto a wash of wet pigment. The salt will dissolve and force the
pigment away in crystallized patterns. Use only table salt. Rock salt is too large and will not produce the desired
effect. Bath salts will contain oils that will ruin the paper. Dead Sea bath salts are hydrophilic and will draw water
to the paper and not dry for days in humid conditions.
Use only table salt. Salt is a preservative, it will not harm the painting. Excess salt can be brushed off the paper
once the wash has dried.
I was once asked if sugar would work for this technique. NO! It will not. Sugar will grow bacteria, mold, and
attract insects that will ruin the painting.
Figure 7: Salt in Wet and Wet wash. This technique is good for organic forms, like
foliage. I store restaurant salt packets in a zip lock bag for my tool organizer. If you pack
wet brushes into your tool box, this keeps the salt from caking.
Arches Paper Company Ltd. France. n.d.
Bacharach, Joan. “Thomas Moran”. National Parks Service. 2005
http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/moran/vision.htm. Web 22 Nov. 2010.
Burns, Ken. Our National Parks, America’s Best Idea, P.B.S. 2010.
Carpenter, Thomas. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. Thames and Hudson, Ltd. 1991.
da Vinci, Leonardo. The Art of Painting. Philosophical Library, Inc. New York 1957: 143.
de la Croix and Tansey. Gardner’s Art through the Ages, Ancient, Medieval, and Non-
European Art. Seventh Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1980: 24-29.
Johnson, Cathy. Watercolor Essentials, Brush up on Brushes. Watercolor magazine. Oct.
Mancusi-Ungaro, Carol. Head of Conservation, The Menil Collection. Personal interview.
Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. Thames and Hudson,
Moore, Bryn. Artist/ Gallery owner. Personal interview. 2010.
Origins of Man program, Discovery Channel. n.d.
Resource Library Magazine, Traditional Fine Art Online, Inc. 1996-2000. n.a. Inc.http:
//www.tfaoi.com/aa/2aa/2aa379.htm Web 27 Nov.2010
Soudavar, Abolala. Art of the Persian Courts. Rizzoli, New York. 1992.
Werner, Alfred. Introduction for: Ways of Painting, by Leonardo da Vinci. 1957 :8.
Wikipedia. Watercolor Painting, History. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercolor_painting.
Web 22 Nov. 2010.
The Treatment of Watercolor Paintings
Watercolor painting is a very durable art medium. It does need to be cared for not only during its production,
but more important to the artist, afterward. Framing is expensive, but worth the investment for your work’s
sake. A portfolio is another good way to care for your work if it cannot be framed immediately. The key to
caring for watercolor paintings starts from the beginning. Use the best materials available, meaning use acid
free papers and durable UV resistant paints.
Store your paintings in a cool dark place. Invest in a quality portfolio or even better flat storage files. Your
portfolio should be rigid enough that the contents cannot be bent. Buffer papers should be used in-between
each painting whether stored in a flat files or a portfolio. Some artists use mat frames in their portfolio.
Acid free materials are the key in preserving your painting. Because it is on paper, all watercolors should be in
glazed frames, or frames with glass. A mat frame should also be in place to prevent contact between the glass
and the painting and acid free backing should be used to create an envelope around the artwork.
Avoid sunlight where presenting your work for long periods of time. Some framers will offer UV filtering
Plexiglas, which costs more than unfiltered glass. Avoid humid places to show your work like frequently used
Conclusion: Keeping It Alive
The public at large is unaware of how extensive and influential watercolor has been used in the past and how it
is used today. As an artist practicing watercolor for over 35 years I would hate to see this art form pass into
history, but that is not likely.
Tools like digital photography and computer printers have helped artists bring this medium into the 21st
century. Adobe Corporation has a popular software program called Photoshop, which has a “special” filter that
will transform a digital image into what appears to be a watercolor painting.
New magazines are published monthly for enthusiasts of the medium. Architecture companies still use
watercolor presentations for publicity purposes. And despite the cloying sentiment among some art collectors
that oil is superior, art dealers have seen an overall increase in popularity for watercolor paintings (Moore).
Figure 18: The completed painting shows off the darker thorns as well as a darker background for extra contrast
that did not exist in the original photograph.
If you choose to paint in the fashion of the French Impressionists you will want to paint outdoors live with your
subject. This is referred to as Plein Air painting. Watercolor is portable and lends itself to this perfectly. A
cardboard folder is enough to protect the paper and subsequently the painting. An easel or portable table will be
needed, as well as a canteen or other watertight portable vessel. I tend to stand while painting, but some may
want a portable chair, too.
Weather is a large factor in painting outdoors. Subfreezing conditions are not suitable to paint anything, but high
humidity will slow the drying time and the pigments will behave unexpectedly.
I paint subjects of west Texas and Big Bend National Park. When the desert reaches 11o degrees; it causes the
paint to dry too quickly. Winds come unexpectedly with enough force to blow a plywood board, painting and all
into the cactus and thorny plants; where snakes and who knows what are hiding. This is why I photograph my
subject and paint it later in my studio.
The Completed Painting
Figure 3: Stretching the paper.
Drawing, drafting and annotations
As I stated before, you should have some drawing skills to paint a watercolor, but a plan for where to place the
paint is a little different from drawing. Here the graphite is used to show edges, borders, light and shadow
transitions. A number 2 pencil is best. Do not use a dark lead or a heavy hand on your paper. The marks should
be light, but visible enough to determine color placement.
Rulers and templates can be used for accuracy. Always use a white or kneaded eraser for your work. The
kneaded eraser is malleable and good for rough press papers that have a deep tooth or rough surface. It can be
pressed into the crevices to remove the graphite. It is good to use annotations and innocuous markings to note
shadows, gradations in color, where there is no “hard edge” line to define your subject.
Transfer rubbings and Opaque projectors
In the Renaissance, the “camera” was used to copy images. I am not referring to the film/digital devices we use
today. The word “camera” is Italian for room. Many artists employed a “camera” to sketch their subject. The
camera was a darkened room where the artist would see a projection of the subject on the opposite wall from a
small opening that allowed light in. The subject would be placed in a well lit area in front of the opening. The
image would appear upside down to the artist, but once the sketch was finished the canvas was turned right side
up. Then the artist would later fill in the rest with the sitter or subject in the studio.
Today, we can do the same thing with an opaque projector. A small photograph print can be placed in its tray and
it will be projected onto a wall, where you can place your watercolor paper to sketch the subject in the
photograph. Keep the projector 90 degrees to your wall to avoid distortion. Trace the edges and avoid making
pencil marks on light or white areas of the image. Keep the sketch marks light. Heavy pencil lines will distract from
the painting. This drafting technique is useful for larger paintings.
For smaller paintings, use a computer printer to enlarge a photograph and print it at 8 ½ x 11” for example. Use
regular copy paper instead of photographic paper, because you will use that printed paper to make a “graphite
rubbing” or tracing. Use a graphite stick and rub it across the entire back side of the page. Then place this page,
image side up, onto your watercolor paper. Use your Black masking tape to stabilize the picture to the watercolor
paper. This way you can keep the image correctly positioned for tracing. Use a mechanical pencil to do the
tracing. With a conventional lead pencil, the point needs to be continually sharpened. The lead width remains
consistent with a mechanical pencil and will keep your sketch lines the same width. Do not use carbon paper!
Many details are overlooked. Double check your photograph model and compare it to your sketched lines on
your watercolor paper and make corrections. Most plans for a watercolor painting look like a faded version of a
child’s coloring book. The lines will show you where to place the paint washes. Once you are satisfied with your
plan, you are ready to add color. And, like a coloring book, STAY BETWEEN THE LINES.
Once your plan is complete, you are ready to add color to the paper. There are three basic painting techniques in
controlled paint applications: Wet on Wet washes, Wet on Dry Washes, and Dry Brush washes.
Wet on Wet washes create soft gradations of color. Using clear water, with no pigment, brush the area of your
paper you are working on. Once the entire area is wet with water, add your pigment that has been diluted in water.
Never apply paint in the constancy of toothpaste. The paint should flow as freely as water, so thin it by carefully
adding a few drops of water until it flows like water. The less pigment saturation in the water, the more faded the
color will be on the page. For deeper color saturation on the page, add more pigment.
It is most important to allow drying time between washes. Once you paint over an area that is still wet, the
subsequent wash will bleed following the water still in place. Wet in Wet washes are used to create blurred edges.
Keep your brushes and art work clean by using two cups of water, one to rinse the brush, the second for adding
clear water to your watercolor painting. Never use dirty water to paint your washes.
Figure 4a: Wet on Wet wash
Wet on Wet washes are what really makes your paper buckle, so be sure to have stretched your paper or use a
heavier weight paper for this technique. Skies are a good example of this. Any buckling will cause pooling in the
low areas of the paper and ruin any hopes of even paint distribution.
Masking fluid is a product that can be applied to the watercolor paper to prevent any pigment to stain the paper
surface. It is applied wet and once dry, you can quickly paint over “protected” areas without having to paint
My complaint about masking fluid is that even the best brands will yellow the paper. The longer it stays on the
paper the faster the yellowing occurs. The point of preserving the white of the paper is lost if it yellows later.
So, I patiently paint around my white areas of the painting. I recently sold a painting and the client did not want
the display frame. I was horrified to see "off-gassing" on the glass where I used Windsor & Newton's
Permanent Masking fluid. This surprises me that the chemistry is still unstable with some modern art suppliers.
My advice is to learn to paint around your white areas with patience.
Hair dryers are useful to speed up the drying process and in some cases to push the pigment around while it is
still wet. I use a Heat Gun by Black & Decker; it has a slower air speed and won’t displace the pigment.
Toothbrushes are a good tool to splatter paint to add texture and detail. It is a very good technique for rocks
and dirt in landscapes. Be sure to mask off area that you do not want splattered. Black masking tape and
regular typing paper will work; don’t use masking fluid.
Figure 9: Sea Sponge techniques.
The next section of this report will demonstrate what was just discussed, showing each step in the
development of a watercolor painting by the author. Masking fluid, sea sponge, and toothbrush techniques
were not used in the demonstration.
Figure 8: Toothbrush splatter and sponge techniques.
Natural Sea Sponges are good for “foliage” techniques. Sop up a lot of paint and use it as a stamp. Rotate it a
little after each pressing to avoid a repetitive mechanical appearance. Let that wash dry. Repeat the technique
with a darker color to add shadow details in the foliage.
The Demonstration – Big Bend Bouquet
Figure 10: The plan on Arches 300# paper with subject photograph.
Digital photography has aided greatly in capturing subjects and reproducing them at will in the studio. I use
both a small 4 x 6 inch print and a larger 8 ½ x 11 size print. The smaller print I place in my opaque projector and
transcribe the image onto the watercolor paper tacked on the wall. Later, the larger print helps me see lost
details in the projection and helps me fine tune the lines of the plan.
The first wash
Figure 11: The first wash is a combination of Wet in Wet and Wet in Dry washes. It also adds a good base color
for the background.
I do not use masking fluid because it will cause the area masked to turn yellow later. So, to keep my white areas
white, I paint around them. Prussian blue was used for these Wet in Wet washes. Always wait for the paint to dry
before continuing! The wash will bleed into adjacent areas if it is not dry.
I am right handed, so I try to paint from left to right. I also try to keep a piece of paper or paper towel under my
hand if I rest it on the page. Crossing the paper with water loaded brushes is risky due to drips in areas you do
not want painted yet. A paper towel is there to soak up the mistake. Oils in your skin will cause long term
damage to the painting, if not immediate damage because a wash will not settle onto the paper if oil is present.
Handle the paper by its edges.
Figure 12: Adding details. Transparent yellow was used for the base washes of the cactus blooms. The graphite
lines help act as a dam.
Figure 13a-b: Adding more details are created by introducing Cadmium Orange, Cobalt Violet, Alizarin Crimson,
and Sap Green.
Preserving highlights and shadows
Figure 14a-b: Preserving highlights and shadows by adding washes of Cadmium Red and Orange to
the petals around the protruding anther and stamens. Oxide of Chromium is added for the plant trunk.
Figure 15: The light source is from the right around 45 degrees.
Figure 16: Deepening shadows and adding washes toward the right.