Introduction to Traditional Media: Watercolour

Final product image
In this tutorial I will introduce you to watercolour paints. Watercolours are very transportable, and can be used in the comfort of your own home (and easily cleared away) or in front of your favourite view.
Watercolour paintings are instantly recognisable and have a glow and vividness that no other medium can match. You will end up with paintings that express dark and light as only watercolour can. The paints are very unpredictable as you are actually adding colour to water and working with the water. At times you can control it, and at others you can't. But if you learn to accept that unpredictability, and use it to your advantage, each painting will be unique and vibrant. 
Watercolour lends itself to landscapes, seascapes and light effects. You can be very detailed with buildings or loose with the sky and sea.
Wherever man has been, watercolour has followed. Cave paintings were created using pigments mixed with water, while Egyptians used watercolour to paint their murals.
The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have painted on silk and thin papers throughout history, and monks illuminated manuscripts, all with watercolour.
From the 15th to the 17th centuries, Western artists dabbled in watercolour, mainly as a means to sketch or develop ideas for oil paintings. It wasn't until the 18th century and the development of quality papers in Europe that the West began to take watercolour seriously as a medium. JMW Turner's watercolours are a perfect example of the quality of work being produced by the 19th century.
At this time, preparation of watercolour paints themselves was moving from the artists' hands into manufacturers' with the creation of small cakes of paint and eventually tubes, giving us all access to these wonderful paints.
Watercolour and gouache are easily confused. Watercolour is a pure pigment mixed with a binder (gum arabic) leaving the paints transparent. Gouache is mixed with white, resulting in an opaque paint. Gouache can be used in the same way as watercolour, but you won't achieve the same vibrancy and translucence of colour. You can mix them together on the same painting.
However, for the sake of simplicity, this article only deals with watercolour.
Most of these are obvious, but I always find lists very helpful. I will go into them in more detail further on:
  • watercolour paint in tubes or in a box
  • a selection of brushes
  • a work surface
  • painting support
  • palette
  • patience
  • a willingness to plan ahead
Tubes of watercolour paint
There are so many colours out there that, to start with, I would recommend you buy a limited palette. Watercolours can be found in either tubes or in boxes, but please avoid children's paintboxes as a cheap option. These boxes aren't watercolour. The paint will eventually crumble and because they are mixed with white, you won't get an understanding of the layering effect you can achieve with real watercolour.
Watercolour can be expensive, but the best materials, in this case, pay off.
As I said before, you don't need a large selection of paints to start with. Some watercolour teachers only recommend that you use four colours at the beginning:
  • cadmium yellow
  • cadmium red
  • french ultramarine
  • burnt sienna or umber
But if you have any absolute favourite (in my case purple), there is nothing wrong with getting a tube of that too. However, I would avoid black. Black out of a tube will detract from your painting and will immediately look very dense. Black is not a natural colour. If you look about you, in nature, black animals are actually dark brown. If you are painting nature, mix french ultramarine and a dark brown together.
I prefer using tubes to paintboxes as I like the way the paint is already wet, and I can squeeze out as little or as much as I want—and a little goes a long, long way. If the paint dries out on my palette, it doesn't matter either, as all I need to do is add a bit of water.
Tubes of paint are easy to carry about—just pop them in a plastic box with a lid and they will last for years.
Watercolour paintbox
Paintboxes are very handy as not only do they keep your paints in one place, but also the lids double as a palette, and there is a gully to hold your paintbrushes when you pack things away. I know an artist who uses them simply because they love how they look.
When you run out of a colour, all you need do is buy a replacement cake and pop it back in the place of the old one.
You can buy starter paintboxes that have a limited selection of colours in your nearest art store or online.
You can also buy an empty paintbox and fill it with as few or as many colours as you want (and your favourites).
I have covered this subject in my Introduction to Traditional Media: Oil Paints article, but I feel it's important enough to repeat here.
When you buy individual paints (tubes or cakes), you need to know that they are priced by Series. These Series range from 1 to 5, with 1 being the cheapest and 5 the most expensive. I have circled this information below.
The difference between these Series is the cost of the original pigment. Some are costly to obtain (natural ones), while others are expensive to manufacture. Cerulean blue is infamously pricy, as are a number of pinks and yellows. This has always been the case; even Titian (also known as Tiziano Vecellio or Tiziano Vecelli), who famously used a lot of blue in his 16th century paintings, did so to show off the wealth of the patrons who were paying him. It was well known that blue was very expensive.
So be aware of the colours you choose. Some are a lot more expensive than others, but can be very much worth the extra outlay too. If you are tempted to go for Series 5, buy a small tube.
You only need three brushes to start with:
  • A brush with a point for detail.
  • A flat, square brush for defining—you can use its edge for straight lines, and the flat of the brush is wonderful for blocking in colour. 
  • A mop head for laying down water and washes (a wash is water with colour added to it).
You don't need to start with expensive sable brushes, as Pro Arte do a great starter set of prolene synthetic brushes containing four—some successful artists swear by prolene brushes.
However, synthetic may not be to your taste and sable, if looked after and kept clean, lasts for a long time. It is down to personal preference. I would start with the man-made, and if you like watercolour, after a while, buy sable and then decide which you like.
Paper blocks
Watercolour paper used to need to be stretched before use. You had to wet the paper, lay it on a flat surface, and then tape down all of the sides without letting any of the tape buckle or have air bubbles (which was always inevitable when I did it), causing the paper to wrinkle. Then you had to leave it to dry thoroughly, and only then would you know if it had worked.
You can still do that, but buying ready-stretched blocks of watercolour paper (above) is so much easier, and they come in a variety of sizes from A5 to A3. Make sure you buy the gummed pad (the gum is the black bit around the edge of the pad), as this will lessen the chance of wrinkling when your painting is finished.
Use the thickest paper you can find, as there will be less chance of wrinkling—300gsm is good. Acid free is the best choice as it will help prevent the deterioration of the colours. Texture is up to you, but I would recommend you start with a NOT (also known as cold pressed) paper. The surface is not too rough and not too smooth (that’s not why it’s called NOT; this refers to the way the paper has been made—not hot pressed).
Thin paper is a complete waste of time as it will buckle, and may even tear as you work.
To start with, I would look for a smoother paper, weighing no less than 300 gsm. Langton by Daler Rowney is very good. Arches is also good, but it is very expensive.
You can easily buy plastic watercolour palettes. They tend to have reservoirs for your washes and dimples for squeezing tubed paints into. However, a plastic disposable plate would be as good as anything, as would the lid of a plastic box.
Porcelain palettes are also easy to obtain, as is an old plate, but they are heavier to carry about.
If you are using a paintbox, the lid has a built-in palette too.
In other words, if it holds your paint, you can use it.
two water containers
I know having a water container is very obvious, but if you are going to be working outside, use something plastic as they are light to carry. Also, use two containers. One is for washing your brushes, and the other is for keeping clean and using for creating washes.
  1. Watercolour is one of the most difficult media to work in, if not the most difficult. Every mark you make will show. If you make a mistake, you can’t rub it out or paint over it. Mistakes are permanent, so you need to plan ahead.
  2. Watercolour is a medium that benefits from precision, takes co-ordination, and can be challenging. As a result, it is extremely rewarding and is worth it if you plan ahead.
  3. Your white paper is also a colour, and once your white paper is covered, the white is gone. 
  4. With all other media, you lay down dark first and then work towards white. As the white is already there in your paper, you need to work from light to dark. 
  5. I am sure I have mentioned this already, but I can't stress it enough: you need to plan ahead. You need to work out your approach before and during your painting.
Here are some pointers for starting your first painting:
  • Lay your paper block on a slope, on your knee, or on a table propped up with a book or even a laptop slope. Put newspaper, kitchen towel or a cloth underneath at the bottom to catch runs. Don’t work on a surface that has been laid flat, as the water will pool.
  • Tape masking tape around the edges in a frame. When you finish, and your painting is dry, peel it off (carefully) and it will leave you with a clean edge to your work (below).
A sketch from Morar beach
  • Draw your subject out, lightly, with pencil. It is easy to rub out once you don’t need the lines, or if your paint is heavy enough, the paint will cover the pencil. Make sure your eraser is clean and that you use an HB or B pencil, otherwise you could leave dirty marks on your work. Never rub out while the paper is wet, because you’ll ruin your painting and the paper—wait until your work is completely dry.
  • You can tell whether the paint is dry by touching it. If it feels warm, it is dry; if it feels cool or cold, it is wet.
  • Work from the top down.
  • Get familiar with your colours and brushes. Practice washes, wet on wet, wet on dry. Try graded washes, starting off dark at the top, and fading to nothing at the bottom. Use a dry brush to press into your wet paint and then lift it off. Once you have colour on your surface, you can move your pad around to encourage the paint in different directions too.
Watercolour washes
  • Start by laying down a water wash. Use a clean brush and perfectly clean water. With the water, outline anything you don't want painted—the paint won't spread into bits that are left to dry.
  • Watercolour is about laying down layers (below). Lay down a layer and walk away, and when it is dry, add another, and another. I have to admit to something here. I don't always have the patience to wait for each layer to dry, so I have been known to pop my painting in the oven at the dough proving setting (only just warm). Just a suggestion, but the oven must be very, very low.
Layers of leaves
  • Once you have created all the layers you want, use a pointed or flat brush to add in detail and finishing touches.
  • Finally, play and experiment. Sprinkle salt into your washes to see what happens, scrape into the dried paint with a knife, or press scrunched-up cling-film into it to see what effects you can achieve. Some artists even use bleach or detergents to see what will happen—just be careful if you want to try.
Masking fluid, or resist medium, should be used before you place any paint on the paper. This is where planning ahead really comes to the fore—you need to already know where you want the white of the paper to shine through your painting. 
Masking fluid protects the white paper from any paint—it just won't be revealed until you have completely finished. 
Use an old brush to apply the slightly water-diluted fluid where you want white on your paper (then wash it well in soapy water), and when your painting is finished and absolutely dry, gently rub the fluid off.
Below you can see an example. 1 is where the masking fluid has been placed, and 2 is where it has been removed.
Masking fluid on painting
  • You'll need tissues or kitchen towel close at hand to help in the cleaning and drying of your brushes as you work.
  • Masking tape can be used to form a border as I mentioned earlier, and it can also be used to create straight lines, for example on a horizon. Only take the masking tape off when your paint is completely dry.
  • An old toothbrush is wonderful for creating splatter effects. Dip it into the paint, and run your finger over the brush to splash paint on your work. Two things to watch out for here, though. First, there is no way you can predict where the paint is going to go, so start gently and sparingly, building up the effect as you go. Second, be careful of the direction you are pointing your brush in, as it's very easy to get more paint on your face, your hands and your walls if you aren't concentrating.
  • Sponges are great for stippling and lifting colour and water off your paper—only use natural ones. 
Watercolour can be both very rewarding and unpredictable. Enjoy and love what you achieve, as you are going to have many, many happy accidents. 
Have fun.


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