Unlocking Watercolour Techniques: A Beginners Guide

Hilary Rosen
Published: 18 June 2024
Hilary Rosen. Alexandra Park Watercolour 2020

I have been teaching watercolour at the City Lit for many years and have won prizes for my work. I exhibit widely in England, Europe, India, and Australia. In this article I will be showing you the diverse ways of using watercolour techniques in conjunction with my own work in this medium. Let’s begin!

If you would like to discover more about watercolour techniques and painting but were always thinking “it’s too hard” then read on and be empowered! If you feel ready to explore watercolour painting, use watercolour paper for trying out the techniques as you will achieve better results. I’ll briefly talk about paper a bit later.

Watercolour Paints

A set of watercolour paint tubesA set of watercolour paint tubes
A set of watercolour paint tubes
A watercolour paint pan setA watercolour paint pan set
A watercolour paint pan set

This is my watercolour box which I use when I go travelling or painting outdoors. 

Watercolour paint is made from pigment and the other main ingredient is Gum Arabic. The paint comes in tubes or pans.

Watercolour paint tubes have more glycerine and gum arabic added to it so you can squeeze the paint out of the tube more easily. The pans are dryer, yet as good as quality paint.

To use pans you need put a drop of clean water on each pan to moisten them up. Pans are handier for painting outdoors.

You can buy different makes of paint: the ‘artist’s quality’ watercolour paint is better but more expensive. It usually states on the tubes or wrappers if it is artist’s quality.

Basic colour mixing

Mixing colours is a fundamental skill when it comes to watercolour painting as it allows you get the right hue. This is really good fun because each time you do it, you get a slightly different result due to the amount of water and paint you use.

Let’s try mixing to create colours based on the colour chart.

Primary, secondary & tertiary colour mixing

For the primary colour chart, you will need red, blue, and yellow paint. I suggest Crimson Alizarin for red, Ultramarine Blue for blue, a yellow like Lemon Yellow. 

You will also need two or more receptacles of clean water and a mixing palette. It is best to have a white surface for mixing, but anything will do. I use an old white plate or something from the Pound shop.

First, squidge out a bit of the blue, red, yellow in a line at the top of your palette

Add a bit of water, the paint should be a strong colour but transparent. See the top line of the painting below from left to right.

Primary, secondary & tertiary colour mixingPrimary, secondary & tertiary colour mixing
Primary, secondary & tertiary colour mixing

On the second row, under the red square, paint another red square then while it is still wet, add a bit of blue…and hey-ho, you get purple!

Under the blue square, paint another blue square, add red… and you get another shade of purple.

Put both the colours i.e. red and blue on your palette   mix with water and yet another purple.

Do this with each combination red/yellow, (orange) then blue, yellow (green) These are called Secondary Colours.

The three colours mixed are called Tertiary colours. Which are those on the right of the chart.

Which colours should I buy to get started? 

I suggest a good range of colours to get you started on watercolour painting are as follows. 

I would get a Crimson Alizarin, Ultramarine Blue, Lemon Yellow. 

A Burnt Umber is good too, as you can make some of the tones of the three primaries a bit darker without making the paint mixture too muddy in colour.

This can happen if you mix too many colours together, you lose the transparency. 

Also, a favourite of mine is Sap Green, make it more of an olive colour with brown, or another shade of green with the Ultramarine. 

You can purchase boxes of watercolours from good art shops which will have more colours in it than I have suggested. 

Or you can buy empty boxes in specialised shops like Cornellissen in Great Russel Street, London. But these can be more expensive.

I would suggest getting the tubes if you can.

Brushes

You should always use a soft hair brush for watercolour. Not a bristle brush.

I suggest you only really need one brush. A size 10 made of soft synthetic hair, not sable. Sable in size 10 will cost a fortune.

Most good art shops should have a selection of brushes for watercolour only.

A range of brushes for watercolourA range of brushes for watercolour
A range of brushes for watercolour are available

Paper

There are many different types of paper used for watercolour.

Watercolour paper comes in a huge variation in price and sizes of paper, but I suggest a pad 21 x 29cm with 225gsm as being your minimum weight.

If you are a beginner, I would suggest try a “Not“ surface. Which means not too rough or too smooth. 

An inexpensive watercolour book from an art shop is a good place to start. 

Cartridge paper is also an option. The trouble with cartridge paper, is that it buckles (goes wavy) and that can be very off putting.

Watercolour paperWatercolour paper
Watercolour paper

Below is a smooth surface paper, for illustrations of flowers or a smoother look to the painting. You can achieve more detailed effect with this surface. But a “not“ surface is good for these effects too.

Smooth surface paperSmooth surface paper
Smooth surface paper
Rough surface paperRough surface paper
Rough surface paper

A “Not” surface is in-between these two. 

I like to use this if I am painting watercolours in the studio as it gives a more expressive look to the painting. 

Wet on Wet Techniques

This means that the wettish watercolour paint is put on a wet paper surface as opposed to wet-on-dry, where the wettish paint is put on dry paper!

There are a few wet-on-wet techniques. 

Below we see the red, purple, and yellow paint having been put on wet paper and the paint being allowed to run.

The student with the brush is making a wet-on-dry technique and to the left of that, the “blob effect” is a marbling technique on wet paper.

A student practising watercolour techniques in a classA student practising watercolour techniques in a class
A student practising watercolour techniques in a class
Wetting the paperWetting the paper
Wetting the paper
Wet on wet watercoulour techniqueWet on wet watercoulour technique
Wet on wet technique

This is a graded wash, where the surface of the paper is wet, then add one wet colour at the top, another at the bottom and then they will flow into each other

A graded wash produced using the wet-on-wet techniqueA graded wash produced using the wet-on-wet technique
A graded wash produced using the wet-on-wet technique
Hilary Rosen. Proteus. Wet on wet technique
Cityscape. Wet on Wet.Cityscape. Wet on Wet.
Cityscape. Wet on Wet.

Wax Resist/Stopping Out

This is a lovely method of keeping white in the watercolour paintings.

So, all you need is a white wax candle, cotton bud and toilet paper!

I used my well-worn grubby candle for the demonstration!

Candle demonstration for watercolourCandle demonstration for watercolour
Purple watercolour paintPurple watercolour paint

Here I made the white marks with the candle, then painted over. 

The wax resists the watery colour and then you get this lovely texture.

The final step is to dab with a tissue or cotton bud. This is dabbing with a tissue, you achieve a different white mark, dabbing wet paint with a cotton bud or tissue. This can be used for making cloud

Dabbing paint with a tissueDabbing paint with a tissue
This is dabbing with a tissue, you achieve a different white mark, dabbing wet paint with a cotton bud or tissue. This can be used for making cloud

Spattering

Splattering technique using a toothbrushSplattering technique using a toothbrush
Hold the brush face down in your fingers toward the paper surface and rub your thumb across the bristles.
Spattering through a stencil Spattering through a stencil
This is spattering through a stencil
Hilary Rosen. Detail. SpatteringHilary Rosen. Detail. Spattering
Hilary Rosen. Detail. Spattering

Here the spattering is used to suggest leaves and texture.

I used slightly different greens plus some of the paint was a bit waterier.

You can also use this technique for textures of pears, pomegranates, brick walls or textures for suggestion of foliage in a landscade.

So, this is a basic unlocking of watercolour techniques and I’ve thrown in a few extras like an introduction to paper, an introduction to brushes and the technique of basic colour mixing with primary colours.

Study at City Lit

 

Experience the versatile, subtle yet radiant qualities of working with watercolours. We offer watercolour courses online, off-site and in our wonderful fully equipped watercolour studio.


Unlocking Watercolour Techniques: A Beginners Guide