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Watercolor Techniques for Everyone

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.


Watercolor on paper.

Watercolor on paper.

Too Hard?

Yes, watercolor is different than oils, but not harder. If you started painting with oils and acrylics you know that the basic rule of thumb is to start with the dark colors and finish by adding the highlights. Well, watercolor has to be treated the opposite. Because watercolor has no real “white”, you must consider the paper to be the white and plan ahead of time where you will NOT PAINT to leave the highlights or white of the paper. So then you are laying down progressively darker and darker colors until the darkest shadows are added last. This isn’t harder, but it is the opposite of the way oil painters are taught to think. The following are a few tips that may help.


“Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together”

— --John Ruskin


Watercolor on wrinkled paper

Watercolor on wrinkled paper

“A man throws himself out of the fourth-floor window; if you can’t make a sketch of him before he gets to the ground, you will never do anything big.”

— --Eugene Delacroix


Facts about paints


Watercolor art

Color Facts:

  • Burnt Umber is iron oxide fired at a high temperature or “burnt”. Basically a burnt orange.
  • Burnt Sienna is also calcined earth or earth fired at a high temperature.
  • Cadmium is an artificial mineral color.
  • Carmine red is made from female cochineal beetles from Peru and the Canary Islands, dried and crushed.
  • Greens are made from ground malachite mixed with gum Arabic.
  • Indigo (blue) is from a plant that yields a dark grayish blue.
  • Lakes signify colors made from synthetic dyes.
  • Lamp Black is made of burnt carbon or soot from lamps.
  • Madder Red is a transparent ruby-red color from the root of the madder plant; mostly replaced today by Alizarin Crimson.
  • Purple is usually made of ground mollusk shells.
  • Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone) mainly from Persia and China; today it is made artificially.
  • Yellow is made from saffron (a type of crocus).
  • Zinc Oxide (Chinese White) is a by-product of brass production and is used to replace lead white

More On Colors


“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is00unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

— --Alice Neel




All these colors come in tubes of varying sizes depending upon the manufacturer and the brand. My advice is to squeeze out only a little at a time onto your pallet. I had a man in my class once who did not want to be bothered with tubes, so he bought a large pallet and immediately squeezed the entire tube of each color into the wells. This seems like a great idea except for one important factor. Several of the colors do not age well outside of the tube. Burnt Umber, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue and Purple Lake all tend to crumble after a month or so. Once this starts the only thing you can do is throw the dry lump away and replace it with fresh paint from the tube. These tubes last a long time and I doubt that my student painted enough pictures in one month to have used up the entire tube worth of paint on his pallet before having to replace it. I paint every day and it takes me many months to use up a full tube of paint.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

— --Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso



Special Effects

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A Word On Brushes

  • I have several favorite brushes listed here. Of course, the best are sable brushes but even I can't afford to have all sable brushes, and I have been painting for decades. The rule of thumb with buying brushes for watercolor is to see if they are Natural Hairbrushes or Nylon. The cheaper synthetic brushes, usually nylon bristle, don't hold enough water and leave streaky brush strokes with watercolor. These brushes are good for acrylic but not watercolors. While this is not a bad thing for things like tree trunks, you will hate it on flowers and faces. Natural hair such as squirrel hair, goat, mongoose, badger, hog, ox, pony, sable (not necessarily from sable, but from any member of the weasel family), or camel hair, hold the water better, spread the paint smoother and longer. There are a few synthetic labels today that is almost as soft as the real hair and are worth the extra price.
  • Camel hair labels, interestingly enough, have no hair from camels at all. This is the label for any and all other leftover hair blended together. This is why camel hair brushes are usually cheaper than any others. Even so, I find them to be very useful and I have many in my set. The cheaper ones sometimes shed, which is annoying, so it is worth paying for good brushes.
  • Bamboo brushes are usually made of hog hair bristles with a bamboo handle and used for calligraphy, oriental-style painting, and watercolor. They are different to use but usually affordable and versatile. I have many bamboo brushes on hand for painting and I keep small ones in my travel kit. When traveling you only want one or two brushes and the bamboo is best because you can use them for large washes and small details too.
  • These days they make a high-priced synthetic hair brush that has the same soft smooth texture and characteristics of sable without the same high cost. Taklon brushes are made of man-made filaments dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent. These are higher priced than the camel hair brushes but are well worth the money. Winsor and Newton Cotman make a set of synthetic hair brushes that are reasonable and versatile. If you can't afford a lot of brushes I suggest you get a #10 or #12 round. It will do almost everything you will need to do for one price.

“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.”

— --Paul Gardner

Watercolor Comments

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 23, 2021:

There is something beautiful and calming about painting. It brings stress relief, lowers blood pressure, and even takes you to a magical place if you let it. Try it. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 18, 2016:


Oh no! Don't think of yourself as a failure. Paintings that didn't work out as well as you wanted are only exercises to help you get better next time. I admit it's hard to do faces in watercolor because you have to start light and work up the darker colors and shadows. The problem is that those layers make little lines on the face, which most people don't like. I like the lines, it makes it look hand painted and artsy. Keep trying. You'll get there. I know you are immensely talented. Thanks for commenting.



Korneliya Yonkova from Cork, Ireland on April 18, 2016:

Thank you very much for these useful tips, Denise. I love watercolor and my passion is to experiment with different brushes, but it is a nightmare for me to paint people. I am good with creating plants and animals on the paper but when it comes to humans- I am simply a failure. Should try to work more. :)

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 18, 2015:


I'm so glad you got something out of this. It's true, there is a big difference between watercolor and acrylic. Many art shows are now dividing the category of acrylic into two: acrylic handled like oil, and acrylic handled like watercolor. Many acrylic users water it down so it flows like watercolor but is more "predictable" than watercolor and mistakes can be painted over where watercolor won't allow for that. I still like watercolor better although it takes more planning for white spaces and build up of colors.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 29, 2015:


I'm so glad you found the tips here helpful. I hope you do try it. Don't worry if it isn't perfect the first time... it drys fast so you can afford to make mistakes and try again.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 07, 2015:

I love painting in any medium. Lately I have been taking watercolors and scanning them into my computer to continue tweaking and painting using Adobe Photoshop. There are some very interesting tools out there.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 09, 2014:

Ann1Az2, thank you for that. I know so few people realize that watercolors come in other than the typical Crayola set. The thing with the tray sets for kids is that the paint is made cheeper (naturally) and is not as color-fast. After a couple years the colors fade. The professional watercolors in tubes is color-fast and fade resistant as long as you keep paintings out of direct sunlight, which fades even oil paintings eventually. That's another thing people don't realize. Sunlight has a bleaching quality to it. If you put some dingy, or even colored socks on the clothes line for a couple days, the sunlight will bleach out the color and make them white. It does that with paint of any kind.

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on October 09, 2014:

Wow, I found this to be so interesting. My mother painted but mostly with oils. Watercoloring to me always brings kids to mind, like you said in your poll. I had no idea that it even came in tubes. I've only seen it in trays, of course, for children. This puts a whole new light on it. Yours paintings are beautiful. Voted up!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 28, 2014:

Thanks, I'm glad you like it. I did it to mine and I have some very old, uniquely handled brushes now. :)

Dbro from Texas, USA on September 27, 2014:

What a great idea! I never thought of repainting my brush handles. Nail polish is the perfect idea since it is waterproof when dry. This just may extend the already long life of my brushes.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 27, 2014:

Dbro, I have a few brushes like that myself. Since it is just enamel that is on the brush handles, I found I can replace it with fingernail polish and practically make an old brush new again... plus colorful. :) Thanks for visiting.

Toni Boucher on September 26, 2014:

I learned with oils and never had much success with water, but based on the tips in this article I feel confident I have enough tips and inspiration that I could pull it off now with water colors. The images are the perfect compliment too. Thanks!

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on September 26, 2014:

It is good to know that with watercolors, you have to start with the darker ones! I tried watercolors in the past, but became frustrated because I was doing just the opposite. I ended up using acrylics instead for my project, as I could predict more what they would do. Maybe I will try watercolors again, now that I've learned this. I've bookmarked the page to get the information again. Great video, I bookmarked the video site as well.

Dbro from Texas, USA on September 26, 2014:

Great article, Paintdrips! As a watercolorist myself, I have used most of the techniques you describe here. Watercolor is a wonderful medium, and I appreciate your clear descriptions of not only the methodology but also the characteristics of the paint itself.

As for brushes, I have a few favorites that I have been using for years. In fact the paint has worn off the handles of a few of them, but they are tried and true!

Thank you for writing this informative article. Hopefully people will try this great medium and find out for themselves what a joy it is!

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