Painting With Watercolor

The thought of painting with watercolor often sparks fear in the eye of new artists.

Too often they have been told by others, who probably have not been well taught themselves, that painting with watercolor is extremely difficult and should not be tackled by an inexperienced artist.  This just is not the case, anyone who really wants to know how to paint with watercolor can do so if they follow some simple guidelines. Obviously, just learning watercolor painting techniques will not necessarily mean you will create watercolor masterpieces, but it should at least give you to the tools to move in that direction.

Usually the biggest source of tension when one paints with watercolors is the feeling of the painting drying too fast and the feeling of not knowing what to do next.

To help alleviate some of this fear of painting with watercolor and to help move my students along with their work I give them the following advice which can be summarized into the following:  PLAN ->MIX->PAINT-> SPRAY. So what does this mean?

Planning your watercolor painting

Painting with watercolor is more subject to the influence of time than most other painting mediums.  The reason for this is that once you start painting, the medium begins to dry very quickly, especially in warm or air conditioned environments.

For this reason, you do not have much time or the ability, once your painting is started to change its overall design.  Consequently the more you can plan before you start painting the better.  I can usually see all the steps I have to take with a painting before I even touch the paper. This is a skill that developed over time as I practiced planning my painting before I actually started.

This planning can include, mentally stepping through each step you will take towards the finished watercolor painting. It can also involve doing thumbnail sketches and color swatches to help clarify items of design.  Sometimes, if I am really stuck or uncertain about how to create a particular effect I will practice it on a separate sheet of watercolor paper till I am happy I can recreate the effect with ease.

Mixing watercolor paints

Once you have your plan laid out and taped you watercolor paper to your board, the next step is to mix sufficient colors from your pigments to easily cover the areas you want to paint in your first wash.  A common problem is students having to mix additional paint after they have started a watercolor wash, this almost invariably leads to the creation of mud.

If I am painting a tree, I will almost always mix three different tones and colors of green before I start painting.  I will still vary these as I paint and keep changing their consistency, but these small changes to not take so much time so do and consequently don’t add a lot of stress to your painting.


Once you have mixed sufficient paint you can start your watercolor painting.

The general steps of painting in watercolor are covered in another post titled Watercolor Painting Steps so I will not repeat them here.


I find a spray bottle with a fine, soft mist is indispensable for my style of painting and I have found it to be of similar service to many other watercolor artists.

If while you are painting you feel you are about to run out of time i.e. the wash you are working on is likely to dry before you can complete it, then give it a light spray to keep the shine of your painting.  The word shine is critical here because the time to spray your painting, so you can continue to work on it, is while the shine is still there.  If the water on your paper has evaporated to the point that the shine has gone it is most likely too late to spray – unless you want to create a mottled texture on you painting.  I will talk more about how to use a spray bottle in a future article.

Obviously there is a lot more to watercolor painting but I am sure the above will be of benefit to many  beginner watercolor artists, and those who have been having some trouble.

How to Paint Watercolor Paintings

A watercolor painting usually progresses in the following manner:

  • Large shapes to small shapes
  • Wet on wet to wet on dry (could also be read as from soft edges to hard edges)
  • Light tones (more water in a mix) to dark tones (less water in a mix)
  • Cool colors (distance) to warm colours (closer to the viewer)

All four groups move along at a similar pace at about the same time.

Watercolor Painting Progression Chart
Watercolor Painting Progression Chart


The above is meant as a general guide only not as a rule.

Happy painting,

Joe Cartwright

Watercolor’s Most Important Ingredient

Water is the most important ingredient when painting with watercolor paints.

It is very important to know its characteristics or you will not be able to properly handle this medium.

Many of the wonderful effects achieved in a great watercolor painting are directly attributable to the amount of water on the paper, in your pallet mixes and on your brush. By keeping an eye on just how wet or otherwise all of the above are you can create magical wet on wet washes, dramatic dry brush edges or sharp wet on dry lines and surfaces – as well as an infinite range in between.

The Entrance Sand Bar watercolor painting. Lots of little sand islands with pelicans.
The Entrance Sand Bar watercolor painting

Painting skies

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Tone of the Sky

The sky is usually the lightest part of your painting – better too light than too dark.

If you paint your sky to strong a tone then you will have to paint other parts of your painting even stronger which will reduce the transparency of your painting i.e. if it your paint has to go on too thick to retain its correct tonal relationship amongst its various parts.

This is a simple and maybe obvious point but it is still very important.

Happy painting,

Joe Cartwright