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8 Pointers to Painting with Watercolor

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


The Right Tools

The painting process is all about making the water your friend. Your paint must have the freedom to flow and be free to move if you are to achieve a spontaneous, loose look. My mantra has become, "fly, be free" because so many of my students are afraid of the water. Jump in. It won't hurt. So what if you create something that won't hang in the Louver, or even in your home museum. It's not about that. It's about the joy of painting. The freedom and happiness the combinations of color bring to you are far more important. Then if you end up with a masterpiece or even a happy accident, it is an added bonus.

Many of the pictures I do are planned to the last detail before I begin, but sometimes I like to just pour paint on the surface of the paper and see what it will do before I even know what I am going to paint. It is being spontaneous. This makes a number of "happy accidents" that I couldn't have by planning. That sort of uninhibited approach is something for you to work toward. To begin you may want more control than that. That's okay. We can explore several creative paths in this article.

1. Photo References

Why not copy a photo exactly?

It is always important to use good photo references if you want your paintings to have realism, however, try not to copy the photo exactly. Change it, at to it, delete things from it but keep the shadows and lighting accurately. In the painting above, I copied the photo exactly and didn't notice the distortion in my brother-in-law's arm and torso until I was finished with it. It could have won awards except for that mistake.

My desk


2. Have Painting Space

Set up a place for your art.

My suggestion is to find a place in your home where your work and paints can be left undisturbed. Set it up and leave it there. It will be inviting you to paint at a moments notice and when you must leave it for pressing matters of your life, it will wait there for your return. If you have to set up your paints and brushes, water and paper, every time you paint, you will be less likely to sit down and indulge yourself.

The Buck Stops Here

Oil painting

Oil painting

3. Paint for Yourself

Paint what you like best. You will find if you are passionate about what you are doing your audience will see the passion and be passionate about it too. Whatever you do, try not to compare yourself with others, myself included. This will discourage you to continue. Remember there will always be people who are better, more experienced and people who are just starting and know less than you. Be happy with yourself and your work where you are today, while striving to be better tomorrow. Above all, give yourself permission to paint a "failure" or a picture you don't intend to keep. I have many of those. I call them experiments that didn't work out. Some I keep just to remember what not to do next time. If I have some, I'm sure everyone has some.

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

— Alice Neel

Watercolor Set Up


4. Your Tools


I like Winsor and Newton Cotman brand because they are good true colors and at the same time affordable. Reeses is also a good brand and affordable. But prices fluctuate and very regularly, so you may find a brand that becomes more affordable.

I prefer a 10-well pallet for my watercolors, and arrange the colors like a rainbow starting with red and ending with violet, saving the last three wells for the earth tones. This arrangement makes the colors easier to find and creates a logical picture for my mind to follow.

Test your colors



Alizarin Crimson: a lovely deep blood red that is transparent and smooth.

Permanent Rose: a deep pink, perfect for flowers.

Cadmium Red Pale: a very orange color. All the cadmiums tend to be orangey.

Cadmium Orange: a yellow-orange.

Scroll to Continue

Lemon Yellow: a true yellow. Very lemony.

Hooker Green, light: a true tree green, great for nature.

Hooker Green, dark: a darker green than light but still true to nature.

Ultramarine Blue: a purply blue, sometimes called French Ultramarine.

Intense Blue: a bright American flag blue, sometimes called Thaylo blue.

Prussian Blue: a dark, midnight, navy blue, perfect for making shadows on trees.

Purple Lake: a burgundy wine color

Diozanine Violet: a true deep purple.

Yellow Ochre: a tan, sandy color, semi-opaque and perfect for many nature scenes.

Burnt Umber: a dark brown, good in nature and good mixing.

Indigo: a dark, dark blue, almost black. A good alternative to the flat black in paints.

Lamp Black: a sooty black, flat and lifeless, to be used sparingly as it doesn't mix well.

So Many Facts About Colors


5. Brushes

A 1/2-inch flat, #8 or #10 round, #4 or #5 round for details and 1-inch mop for larger washes are all the brushes you need. Make sure they are good watercolor brushes, synthetic or real hair.

Watercolor on wrinkled paper

Watercolor on wrinkled paper

“An artist must train not only his eye but his soul.”

— Wassily Kandinsky

Hay Harvest



6. Paper

Wood pulp vs 100% Cotton Rag

When you are shopping for your own paper, you will find that most of the paper available at art stores is archival quality and 140# weight or better. Archival quality paper is made from 100% rag and has no wood pulp or tannic acid to cause yellowing with age. These papers will last the next 500 years and stay true white. They are also much more expensive than wood pulp papers. The weight of the paper is measured by how much 1000 sheets will weigh… the higher number means a thicker paper. Thicker paper is less likely to buckle and warp as you paint with lots of water. However, even warped paper can be flattened again with a few books (telephone book) and a little time. The 80# paper I use works for classroom projects but if you wish, try some of the more expensive 140# to get a feel for it.

Civil War Youth


7. Water cups

Water cups are an important tool for your painting process. You should pick short cups for your tabletop to lessen the likelihood of tipping and spilling. For home, I use a large pickle jar with lots of water so I don't have to replace the water with clean so often.

“If it (painting) weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.”

— Edgar Degas


Watercolor on paper

Watercolor on paper

8. Towels

Absorbent towels are handy for cleaning your brushes between colors and for mopping up spills or making clouds in the sky, etc. The towels can be cloth or paper, your choice.


Watercolor comments. - Do you love to paint as much as I do? Or are you anxious to start?

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


Yes, painting along with everything else, demands a little patience. It is a good life lesson. I think painting brings with it a little calm and stress relief also, so it's worthwhile. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Mary Norton,

Surprises can be so much fun or such disappointments. It takes flexibility and the realization that not every painting will be a masterpiece. Thanks for commenting and being a friend.



Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 08, 2019:

I love your suggestion of making friends with water and what you call the uninhibited approach. Ever since I hate copying so I do this all the time and allow for surprises.

Connie on January 11, 2018:

Thank you for sharing. I am learning but in a bit of a hurry.So when I checked your site, I realized the many mistakes one can make with no patience.

God bless.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on December 10, 2016:


I hope you do. Painting is so therapeutic and fun. Thanks for commenting.



Nicole K on November 28, 2016:

You're so talented! Thanks for the inspiration and the tips. It makes me want to do some painting today!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 09, 2016:


Yes, I love the quotes from artists too. I collect them. I'm so glad you like this hub. Thanks for commenting.



Claudia Smaletz from East Coast on December 24, 2015:

loved the intro to the article, I agree, paint what you love! also love the quotes from the artists.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on March 10, 2014:

@burntchestnut: Isn't that a shame? So many people fell in love with art in high school or grammar school and then wait till retirement to fall in love with it again. It's just not right!

burntchestnut on March 10, 2014:

I might try watercolors soon. When I was in high school (many years ago), I loved to oil paint, but didn't continue after I graduated.

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

@favored: Yes. She was wonderful. I love that she altered my future forever. Teachers are awesome people. Thanks for visiting my lens.

Fay Favored from USA on January 27, 2014:

What beautiful artwork. Mrs. Tedrow was like many teachers who want art in their classes. Many times I supplied the materials for my students. Thank you for all the suggestions and tips. Making sure to share this.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 23, 2013:

@John Dyhouse: I love pastels too. Mixing is the best way to get original color. Thanks for liking my lens.

John Dyhouse from UK on October 23, 2013:

For a long time watercolour was my main medium, I tend to use pastels now but this is a good rundown for any beginning (or even experienced) artist. I have one reservation though, So many beginners buy boxes of paints with 2 or 3 dozen colours. THis is a bad idea since it hinders their ability to mix colours properly. I believe most artists should be happy with three or perhaps six colours (two of each primary colour, one warm and one cool). THese should allow any colour needed to be mixed.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 21, 2013:

@Kalafina: I agree. I have painted the same picture as many as 10 times (when I was teaching doing the demonstration) and it didn't come out the same twice, even though it was the same drawing. There is something very unique about the flow of the water and colors. I love it. Thanks for liking my lens.

Kalafina on October 20, 2013:

I love painting with watercolor. I'm definitely not an artist but there is just something so relaxing about it. And I always feel like every time I paint I learn something new. It's never the same experience which is part of what makes watercolor so fun.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 16, 2013:

@delia-delia: I paint or draw every day. It's a good exercise whether I'm in the mood or not. I think it really hones my skills.

Delia on October 16, 2013:

Lovely and educational and inspirational lens...Great artwork! I also love to paint, but have to be in the mood...

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