12 Tips to Improve your Watercolors

1. Look before you paint. I’m so impatient I want to dive in and start painting. I need to remind myself to stop and observe before my brush hits the paper.

2. Paint the same subject over and over. Painting is seeing. The better you see your subject, the better your paintings will be.

3. Play in a sketchbook regularly. You’ll feel more free to experiment. A sketchbook takes away some of the pressure and the fear of “ruining” a painting. My favorite is the Canon Mixed Media XL.

4. Add more layers of detail for more realistic looking paintings. Don’t forget to allow for drying time between layers.

5. Invest in thin brushes for finer details. I use a 3/0 brush and 5/0 brush. These brushes have made a huge difference for me.

6. Create a color key of all your paints. Paint each color at the darkest (less water) and the lightest (more water). This color guide will help when selecting your colors. It will show you what your paints are capable of.

7. Mix your colors from the primary colors. Even though I have tubes of paint in many colors I often use Winsor & Newton cadmium red, cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue to mix almost all of the colors in a painting. I especially do this when painting seascapes, as it allows for more natural looking ocean colors and allows me to mix more variations on the blues, greens and browns.

8. Create shadow colors by mixing a color with its complement. Sometimes using black for shadows can be harsh and unnatural looking. Instead mix a color with its complement. Colors across the color wheel are complements – red and green, blue and orange, etc. If you need a color wheel – I have a printable one in my Etsy shop – click here.

9. Use painter’s tape to mask areas and to “draw.” I use painter’s tape to tape my watercolor paper to a piece of cardboard to keep the paper from buckling when it gets wet. I also use tape to help me paint a straight horizon line. Sometimes I use it to “draw” a shape and mask an area.

For example a couple of pieces of tape can create the shape of a lighthouse. Then you can freely paint the sky without having to paint around the lighthouse. You paint right over the tape and then peel it up (carefully), when the sky color dries.

10. Add white back in by using white gouache. Instead of leaving white areas blank (the color of the paper), I often add back the white at the end of a painting using white gouache. Gouache is thicker and more opaque than watercolor. I use this when I’m painting seascapes.

11. Try new things and experiment. It’s easy to get comfortable in the way you paint. But it can be beneficial to mix things up. I was “stuck” using 6” x 6” paper until I accidentally ordered bigger. I never went back!

12. Learn from others. Read a blog post, watch a YouTube video, do a painting tutorial. Getting other people’s perspectives and painting tips can be invaluable to your painting process!

I have variety of printable tutorials and video lessons that teach watercolor fundamentals and techniques while you create a beautiful final painting. Browse painting tutorials here.

Coneflower painting lesson

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Watercolor Wisdom – 12 tips from 12 years of painting

watercolor wisdom – 12 tips from 12 years of painting

Learn Watercolor

Learn the fundamentals with fun painting exercises and projects! Click here for more info.

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Watercolor Painting Tips

Watercolor Dog Portraits by Eileen McKenna
Watercolor Dog Portraits by Eileen McKenna

Recently I wrote about how you should take some time to observe a reference photo before painting. I have to constantly remind myself of my own advice because I want to jump in and start painting. I want to get to the fun part!

1. observe your subject

After painting a few dog portraits, the part 2 to this advice occurred to me:

2. Do a “study”

What is a “study”? Essentially a study is a practice painting, drawing, or sketch. You have most likely seen studies done by the Masters before they painted their final masterpieces.

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The masters did studies

Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884-1886
(Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago Public Domain)

George Seurat spent two years on site sketching, before painting A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte. He created approximately 60 sketches. “This approach enabled Seurat to capture the color, light, and movement of the scene before him.”

The benefit of doing a study

Sketching or painting helps you see the subject more closely. As I painted the dog portraits I noticed more about the dogs as I painted. When I paint or draw my eyes travel back and forth from my painting to the reference photo and back again.

This is something I try to instill in the kids at the art center where I teach:

Everything you need to know about the subject is in the photo. If you want to realistically draw or paint it, keep looking at the photo and your artwork.

Eileen McKenna

Another way of seeing

I find it useful to occasionally flip both the reference photo and my paper to see things differently. Looking at things this way is supposed to trigger the other side of your brain. This theory was written about in the popular book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I notice that when I look at things upside down it is easier to see the individual elements of something. For example a face upside down allows me to focus on the elements more than the whole face.

painting Stella

Stella Dog portrait by Eileen McKenna
Stella by Eileen McKenna

When I painted Stella, I looked through many photos and selected a few photos to practice with. I wanted to “see” what characteristics were unique to her. As I painted I felt I was getting to know her. These practice paintings helped me get a more realistic final painting.

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Read “PAINTING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS”

READ “PAINTING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS”

Ready to get started in watercolor?

Try my “Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide” where I walk you through the fundamentals of watercolor with exercises and projects. Learn by doing. Discover a love of watercolor today –> Learn more here!

Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide

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Watercolor Tip

Stop and “look at” the roses

Several years ago I dedicated myself to painting seascapes. I painted one after another. I studied my photos as I painted and as time went on I noticed more things about the ocean and waves. These little details are what made my paintings better. 

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By nature I am an impatient person. I’ve heard it said that the Aries motto is “Ready, Fire, Aim.” It is certainly true about me. When I’m painting, I rarely draw anything beforehand. I immediately want to get to the fun part of splashing paint onto the page. But I am often reminded that if I took some time to look at and study my reference photo I would get better results.

I took a close up of a Gerbera Daisy, so I could see the details. A great start! But I dove in too quickly and ended up struggling. My painting had twice as many petals as it should have and looked off. I’m sharing the lesson I learned with you:

Take time to look at and study your reference before painting.

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Read “PAINTING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS”

READ “PAINTING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS”

Ready to get started in watercolor?

Try my “Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide” where I walk you through the fundamentals of watercolor with exercises and projects. Learn by doing. Discover a love of watercolor today –> Learn more here!

Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide

This post contains affiliate links to products/brands I use and recommend. I earn a small commission whenever you buy using these links, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting my blog!

6 Tips for Watercolor Success

Watercolor Seascape by Eileen McKenna

Watercolor is such a magical medium! I love it. As I sit and paint I often think that no matter what the subject – a landscape or illustration – the painting process is similar. There are basic concepts that apply to almost every painting.

If you are new to watercolor – welcome! Think about these concepts as you paint:

Basic Watercolor Concepts

  1. Work light to dark.
  2. Work wet to dry.
  3. Work bigger brush to thinner brush.
  4. Build up the layers of paint, remembering tips 1-3. Allow time for paint to dry between layers.
  5. Unless you want colors to bleed into one another, do not paint next to wet paint.
  6. Find opportunities in your subject for the bleeding and blending of colors – that is the magical quality of watercolor! 

Basic Watercolor Concepts explained

1-3. Work light to dark. Work wet to dry. Work bigger brush to thinner brush.

When you begin a painting your brush should be fairly wet (with paint and water). The paint should glide onto the paper. You can even wet the page or an area of the page with water before you touch the brush to the wet surface.

These beginning blobs are the first layer of your painting. Usually they are the lighter colors. After they dry you can add more paint on top of them. With each layer your brush should be less drippy, so you can paint finer and finer details. With a drier brush the paint spreads less when it touches the paper.

4. Build up the layers of paint

The stages of a watercolor painting are like a camera coming into focus. The first layer is blurry. Each layer gets more and more crisp and detailed. Let the paint dry before adding another layer, so it doesn’t bleed into the last layer. As you paint the later layers, work with a thinner brush. It makes it easier to paint fine lines.

5-6. Watercolor bleeding and blending

When you want it to happen, the bleeding and blending of colors is beautiful. It creates such interesting effects. The watercolor paint is doing the work for you! Think reds and greens bleeding into one another to create fall foliage. When you don’t want this happen, let paint dry before adding wet paint near it.

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Ready to start in watercolor?

Try my “Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide” where I walk you through the fundamentals of watercolor with exercises and projects. Learn by doing. Discover a love of watercolor today –> Learn more here!

Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide
Six tips for Watercolor Success