Watercolor Wisdom

I started painting in watercolor about twelve years ago when I enrolled in a class. A few years later – during the early days of my blog – I gave myself the freedom to explore everything and anything. I came back to watercolor to make working in my sketchbook more fun, and remembered how much I loved it. Watercolor has been a focus of mine ever since. Here are the most impactful things I’ve learned.

Tips for Painting in Watercolor

Embrace the magic. When I showed my teacher my first watercolor painting she said, “No, no, no, you’re drawing.” I was quite proud of my painting and didn’t understand what she meant. But as my familiarity with watercolor grew, I began to understand. Allow watercolor to do its thing. Colors bleed into one another creating interesting effects. It’s magical!

Watercolor Sunset Painting by Eileen McKenna

Go with the flow. Give up control. Some people say they don’t like watercolor. I think it’s because you don’t have as much control as with other mediums. Colors will bleed into one another whether you want them to or not. But over time you will better be able to predict what will happen – how the paint will react. You have more control then you think. Embracing the fluidity creates beautiful effects.

It’s not (quite) permanent. A damp brush can “erase” watercolor. This is more effective when the paint is still wet. A wet brush can also soften edges. You can “work” at a painting to turn it into your desired outcome.

Paper matters. Always use watercolor or  multimedia paper. Other papers are not made for watercolor and will wrinkle and tear, especially the more you “work” your painting. Tape your paper to cardboard if you are painting to the edges, to prevent buckling.

It’s all about the layers. Add more and more detail with each “layer” using a finer and drier brush as you go. Allow drying time between each layer. A watercolor painting is like a camera coming into focus. It’s starts out blurry – the first layer. With each layer the painting comes more and more into “focus.”

Use super thin brushes for fine lines. Years ago I began using a black gel pen for thin lines. I really liked this illustrative effect and used it for years, but unfortunately unlike watercolor every pen line is permanent. You can’t erase and adjust. Just this year, I saw on Instagram an artist using super thin brushes. I’ve been using them ever since.

A simple paper towel is one of your most important tools. How wet your brush is (with water and/or paint) is an important factor in how your brush stroke will react to the paint on your page. To control how wet your brush is, blot it on a paper towel to absorb excess water. I do this constantly as I paint.

Test what’s on your brush before painting. Use scrap paper to test color mixes and saturations. I test what is on my brush often to see how watery or dark a color is, before I touch my painting.

Painting a poppy in watercolor | my watercolor setup

Mix your shadows instead of using black. Mix a color with its complement to desaturate it – make it less bright – or to create darker values. Complementary colors are those across the color wheel from each other. I keep a color wheel with my paints. There’s a printable color wheel in my Etsy shop – click here.

Preserve your brushes. Don’t leave your brushes sitting in water. Lay them flat to dry. Use an old beat up brush to mix colors or to mix water to dried up paint.

Repurpose. The top of a plastic egg carton makes a great mixing tray.

Try white gouache. White gouache (more opaque than watercolor) was a game changer for me. Instead of using frisket to keep areas white, I use white gouache at the end of a painting to “add the white back in.” (Frisket is like a glue that keeps paint off the areas you apply it to. You peel it up when you are finished painting.)

Want to learn more?

Visit my website at www.eileenmckenna.com/shop. You’ll find:

  • Printable painting tutorials
  • Video lessons
  • Live Zoom lessons!

For a steady stream of watercolor tips and tricks…

Sign up for my weekly newsletter here. You’ll get the “Watercolor Basics” download for free!

Ready to get started in watercolor?

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Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide

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watercolor wisdom - 12 tips from 12 years of painting
watercolor wisdom – 12 tips from 12 years of painting

8 thoughts on “Watercolor Wisdom

  1. I Look forward to being inspired by your creativity in watercolor painting
    God gives us good gifts to share with others.

  2. Thank you for the tips on watercolor painting. I actually started watercolors last year after years of hesitating to try this art medium. I began my journey with watercolors as an exercise in letting go…… of control and of perfection. I began by drawing out my pictures and just recently with flowers just using my paints/brushes. Am thoroughly enjoying this medium. Have a beautiful day.

    1. I have every brush, tool, paper and types of watercolor needed. Now I need the courage to begin. Today is Easter 2020 so I’m in quarantine due to Corona virus so am sitting out back surrounded by spring flowers, birds, my cat and husband’s tending his garden, his canvas. Oh and I can’t leave out Michael Tomlinson serenading me!! Time to stop reading about watercolor and create. Go with the flow!!

      1. My biggest advice would be to just play with the paint and experiment. Enjoy the process. Don’t be focused on the final product as much as learning and enjoying the creative time. No matter where your starting point is, with time and practice you will improve. Enjoy!

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