Watercolor Painting 101 [Learn How to Paint in 9 Minutes]

Jan 11, 2023

Every endeavor worth taking is going to require hard work, practice and dedication. Watercolor painting is no exception. 

I want to fast track your learning. I want to honor the time and effort you dedicate to your painting so that, hopefully, you don't have to paint as many paintings as I did before you see major progress.

The Basics of Watercolor Painting

Learning watercolor basics can feel overwhelming. As you get your feet wet, you might:

  • Have trouble deciding which supplies to buy
  • Feel confused by new terms
  • Question which watercolor painting process is right for you

This week’s video is designed to answer your questions and help you focus on what is truly important when you’re starting out.

What kind of watercolor paints do professionals use?

When I first started showing my art in galleries, I would routinely have people who were surprised that my paintings were done in watercolor. More people are familiar with watercolor paints because they’ve had some experience with them as kids. 

They are surprised that my paintings are done with watercolor because the watercolor paints they used as kids result in watery, weak, and deluded paintings. My paintings are not what they associate with watercolor.  

This is because I use tube paints.

More specifically, I use Daniel Smith Watercolors for bold, strong washes. A lot of people get pretty hung up with the pigments that they have on their palette. A good rule of thumb is to keep it as simple as you can. 

I recommend starting off with your primary colors and building your palette from there. You don’t need a ton of pigments to create beautiful art. In fact, recently, I shared an experiment I did where I only used 4 colors and 3 brushes to paint this scene: 

The reason I had success with a limited number of supplies is because I prioritized value over color. I talk about this more in depth a little later, but the long and short of it is that when you get the values in your painting right, the colors matter much less. 

What type of paper is best for watercolor?

There are three types watercolor paper you can choose from: hot press, cold press, and rough/textured paper.

Hot press is a really smooth surface. Artists who paint portraits or subjects that require a lot of precision - like designers or illustrators - often prefer hot pressed paper because of its smooth surface. It allows them to achieve the detail they want without the texture of the paper getting in the way.  

Rough paper has a lot of texture on it. This is preferred by artists who have a looser style and like to use dry brush or other broken mark effects.The texture of the paper adds its own character to paintings and rough paper plays a more prominent role in the overall effect of your painting. 

I land right in the middle with cold pressed paper. Cold pressed paper is good for a wide variety of approaches, techniques, and applications. It still has a good amount of texture on it, so I can still get a nice broken edge if I want to. The texture still plays a role in my painting, but it's not as prominent as it would be if I choose rough paper.

It’s okay to buy a cheap watercolor pad for practice. But once you start completing full paintings, you're going to want to paint on 100% cotton paper. Paper with wood pulp and other things mixed in with it can become flimsy, and it can actually dissolve and start to come off in your washes. In my opinion, it is not enjoyable to paint on.

Which watercolor brushes do I need? 

Just like all watercolor supplies, you’ll find that there are a myriad of brushes to choose from. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Do I use natural or synthetic brushes? A natural brush is made from animal hair (squirrel, pony, ox, weasel, etc.) and a synthetic brush is made from nylon, polyester, or a mixture of both.  
  • What size of brushes should I get? Brushes come in a wide range of numbered sizes that are not uniform across manufacturers.
  • What brush shape is best for watercolor landscapes? Brush shapes include rounds, riggers, mops, flats, cat’s tongues, filberts, angled, and fan).

Like most things, there is not a single answer for everyone. These choices are going to vary from artist to artist, depending on their style and desired effect. 

If you’re not sure where to start, here is what I recommend starting out with:

  • A size six large mop brush
  • A size 14 medium round brush 
  • A size 12 or smaller synthetic brush with a point.

Almost everything you paint can be done with these three brushes.


What should I look for in a watercolor palette? 

If you’ve looked into buying a palette, you’ve noticed that there are metal, ceramic, and plastic palettes available. Often you'll see painters that insist on painting on a metal palette because they are durable, lightweight, and don’t stain. Unfortunately, they can be quite pricey. 

The truth is that you can paint just fine with a very cheap plastic palette. What you want to look for when you choose your palette is enough room for mixing. Sure, you can find palettes that hold a lot of colors, but they might have just a little square for mixing. So look for a palette with a good mixing area. I love my John Pike palette.

Questions that can help you choose your palette:


  • Do you paint with numerous pigments, or a more limited range of colors? This will determine the size of palette you choose, but also maybe the material, as it may bother you if a well is stained with a previously-used pigment.
  • Do you want to keep your paint wet between paintings? If so, you’ll want to choose an airtight, covered palette. 
  • Will you be traveling with this palette? If not, the heaviness and fragility of the material probably will not be as important to you. However, if you’re moving a lot with it or needing to hold it for prolonged periods of time, you’ll want to think about this.
  • How much room do you have for your palette to sit? You should be able to find a size that works for you in any of the available materials.
  • Do you live in a dry area? If so, you may want a palette with wells to keep your paints wet longer. 

What’s the difference between wet on dry, wet on wet, and dry on dry?

There are three ways to apply paint onto watercolor paper, and you’ll choose your application for the particular effect it provides. 

Here is an outline of each approach: 

  • Wet on dry. With this application, you're mixing up your paint and applying it onto dry paper.       

  • Wet on wet. This is where your paper is wet and you are applying paint onto either the wet paper or onto a previous wash that's still wet. This approach gives you lovely, soft edges as the paint mixes together on the paper.

  • Dry on dry. With dry on dry, you're using less water on your brush and you're painting onto dry paper. Dry brush creates interesting broken marks that are attractive when they’re placed over the top of a wet on wet wash with soft edges, providing a nice contrast. 

What surface should I use to paint watercolor?

You can work on whatever surface you have or that you prefer. When I first started learning watercolor, I painted on a clipboard that was propped up on a roll of tape. 

Now, I work on a drafting table and set it at about a 35 degree angle.

The benefit of a drafting table is that you can choose the angle you want, depending on how you want your wash to flow. If you have it more tilted, the paint you apply is going to float down. If it’s flatter, it'll sit still on your paper.

Should I tape my paper to the surface before I paint?

Many watercolor artists tape their paper down before they begin painting. There are a couple reasons for this. When you tape your paper down, it holds it to the surface and helps avoid buckling. Also, it’s satisfying to peel off the tape when you’re done and have a nice, clean border at the edge of your paper.

I choose not to tape my paper down, and here's why: I like to wet down both the front of my paper and the back of my paper after I finish my drawing. With both sides wet, I can work with a wet surface for longer because it takes the paper longer to dry. This way, I have more time to paint the lightest values on my paper, let those colors flow and merge together, and create soft edges all over the paper. 

What is the most common watercolor painting process? 

There are many approaches artists use when composing a watercolor painting. The one you're most likely to see when painting landscapes, city scenes, or even portraits, is painting light to dark. 

Often the lightest areas of our scene are made up of the white of the paper and the way to capture this and preserve this is to gradually paint darker and darker throughout the scene.

I paint most of my paintings in three washes, and during each wash, I’m thinking about the light that I need to leave behind. 

How can I accelerate my growth as a watercolor artist? 

Many people think that what will make the most difference in the overall quality of their work is to focus on details. We think the details matter the most, but actually that's not the case. Two skills that will have the highest impact on the outcome of your paintings are achieving correct values and finding the large shapes. These skills go a long way toward elevating your paintings.  

Let's talk about values first.

Values are how light or how dark something is, and they are the main tool we use to create the light of the scene. Without proper values, our paintings simply don't work. 

I like to think of values in three different groups: lights, mid tones, and darks.

When values are right, a painting can go from ordinary to extraordinary. In fact, you can take a fantastic painting or photograph, and if you take the color away, it will still read powerfully because the values do the heavy lifting.

The best way to start to see the values of your scene is to squint at it. This blurs out insignificant details and minimizes the color of the scene.

Squinting also allows you to see the large shapes more clearly, which helps with the second skill that will go a long way toward improving your paintings: finding the connecting shapes. 

My process of watercolor painting has three steps. In my first wash, I lay in the lightest values of my scene all around the painting in one wet on wet wash. After that, I let my painting dry, and I come back in and think about a large connected middle value shape. 

Why do I want it to be connected?

Because painting in large shapes makes your painting easier to read from a distance, and more pleasing to the eye. Additionally, we get to take advantage of one of the most beautiful parts of the medium - the transition from color to color on your paper as colors mix. The third step of my process is to paint the darks and the details of my scene. 

Watercolor Basics

This nine minute video is designed to be an introduction to watercolor painting. Whether you are a beginning watercolor artist, returning to the art form, or just looking for clarification or recommendations, I hope you have learned a thing or two! Let me know how this helps you progress in your watercolor practice! 

Related Videos:

Painting with 3 Watercolor Brushes and 4 Colors

My 3 Biggest Breakthroughs in Watercolor

3 Most Important Watercolor Supplies

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