Painting Tips for Beginners

watercolor paint SET

When I first started painting in watercolor I was gifted a set of watercolor tubes by Van Gogh. It was a great set with a variety of vibrant colors. Painting with that set and those colors helped solidify my love of watercolor!

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Paint palette

The first thing I did with my new paints was squeeze them into my new palette. When the paint in the palette ran out I added more until the tubes were empty. Then I threw the tubes away.

I didn’t give much thought to the specific colors – my Van Gogh watercolor set had the “standard” colors. I thought of them simply as orange, green, blue, red, yellow, etc. I didn’t realize at the time that there are many shades of each color. Imagine my surprise when I replaced my green and it was a totally different green. As I added more colors to my palette – I didn’t know which colors were which. Things got confusing.

Painting Tips for Beginners create a color key - watercolor painting

label your colors

This might seem unimportant when you first start painting, but it can become frustrating when you replace a color and it isn’t the same shade, especially if you are in the middle of a project. Keep track of the names of your paint colors. If you put the paint in a palette like I do – label the palette or create a color key.

Explore your colors ~ create a color key

Creating a color key is a great exercise to learn what each paint color looks like. My key coordinates with my palette. I painted each color at both full strength and lighter – with more water mixed in. With a glance I know what each paint color is capable of.

Mixing Watercolor paints

I love my palette for painting with pure colors. It’s quick and easy to add a little water and re-activate the paints, but it has some limits:

  • The color is watered down, since I add water to reactivate the paint. To paint with full saturation color I use paint from the tube (with only a tiny bit of water mixed in).
  • If I want to mix colors, which I often do, I don’t do it in my palette. I prefer to keep the colors in my palette pure.

I use the plastic top of an egg carton for mixing colors. We eat enough eggs that I always have extra carton tops to use when I want to create new mixes. I hold on to some of the mixes for future use.

When I first started painting I assumed that for every color you wanted in your painting, you needed a tube of that specific color. I quickly realized that it would be impossible! Several years ago I took an acrylic painting class, where the teacher talked a lot about mixing colors. The interesting thing he said was that the colors in your painting would go together better if they were mixed from similar colors instead of straight from the tube.

A few years later when I started focusing on painting watercolor seascapes I used this theory. I mix the colors for my seascapes from three colors, which results in more natural looking ocean colors. Learn more here.

Seascape Painting Lesson
Seascape Painting Tutorials are available in my Etsy shop.

Mixing complementary colors

I also mix colors regularly to avoid using black. If you are painting fabric – there will be folds and shadows in the fabric because of the way it drapes. Instead of mixing black with your fabric color, mix the color with its complement.

As I wrote in my Watercolor Wisdom post:

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.

Color wheel available for download in my Etsy shop.

sketchbook

Working in my sketchbook – a mix media sketchbook perfect for watercolor – is a big part of my art practice. It’s where I feel free to play and try things, explore ideas, experiment with color, etc. I think it’s important to feel free. Sometimes especially as a beginner, you can feel pressure while working on a painting. That is what happened to me. I became afraid of ruining a painting once it got to a certain point. That’s when I adopted the regular practice of working in a sketchbook.

My favorite sketchbook – the Canson Mix Media!

Aside from the freedom a sketchbook gives you, it’s also a great place to take notes. Let’s say you experiment with colors to create different skies. If you like one of your experiments it is helpful to jot down which colors you used. Otherwise down the road you may not remember.

reference photos

I always paint with a reference photo. I tell the kids at the art studio whenever they are drawing that everything they need to know is in the reference photo – you just have to look. Part of my progress in painting seascapes was that I studied the ocean in person and in the many photos I took. But because I took so many photos, I sometimes get mixed up as to which photo I am painting from, especially if a lot of time has past. This is why I write down, in my sketchbook or on the back of my painting board, what photo I am working from – where it’s saved and the date and time it was taken.

Painting ideas for beginners

I’ve developed several painting tutorials to teach watercolor technique while allowing you to paint a great final painting. Each lesson is available as an inexpensive printable PDF with step by step instructions and photos. Some lessons are also available in video format. Browse all the watercolor painting lessons here.

Beginner Watercolor Painting Lesson Starfish
One of several beginner painting tutorials available in my Etsy shop.

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Ready to get started in watercolor?

This Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide is for you!

  • Learn the fundamentals.
  • Practice with exercises & projects.
  • Discover a love of watercolor!

Watercolor is a fun and convenient medium that requires little setup. There are a few basic principles to understand and after that the sky’s the limit!

Start your watercolor journey today – visit https://eileenmckenna.com/guide/

Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide
Available on Amazon or as a pdf download.

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