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

Read Next

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 Rules

Orange Sunset by Eileen McKenna

This past week I was teaching watercolor to the kids at the art studio. I’ve noticed that the kids are often impatient. They paint a background color and then they rush to paint the details. Since the background is still wet, the details bleed creating a blob.

I told the kids that painting in watercolor is like getting dressed in the winter. Just like you add layers of clothes to keep warm, paint layer after layer, letting each layer dry before adding another. With each layer add more and more detail. 

When you start a painting, start with a wet, bigger brush, painting the lighter colors. As you progress to the final layers, paint with a drier, thinner brush to allow for the finer details.

Watercolor “Rules”

PAINT LAYERS – LET THE PAINT DRY BETWEEN LAYERS.

PAINT LIGHT TO DARK, BIGGER BRUSH TO SMALLER BRUSH, WET TO DRIER BRUSH.

Following these “rules” helps you to turn beginning blobs into a detailed illustration or painting.

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Learn the fundamentals

from beginner brushstrokes to a final seascape painting and four other painting projects in between!

Check out my “Watercolor Exploration Guide” – which walks you through the fundamentals of watercolor with exercises and five painting projects. Discover a love of watercolor!

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!

Watercolor Journals

I am having so much fun filling my watercolor journal by painting every day – or almost everyday – no one is perfect right? My pages are of the moments of joy I experience each day. I call my watercolor journal project “Finding Joy” and it’s been a great source of positivity in my life these last two months. And it’s great to paint almost every day.

Thinking of doing your own watercolor journaling? Here are my reviews on several watercolor journals.

Strathmore Mixed Media Art journal

The journal I’ve worked in for the past two months is a Strathmore Mixed Media Art Journal. I loved working in this book!

  • The size: 5.5″ x 8″. I liked the small size of this book
  • The paper: 90 lb. mixed media paper. The paper can withstand some “working” at it – meaning you can apply the paint, lift the paint, add more paint without the paper starting to crumble.
  • The binding: The book doesn’t lay flat but I used binder clips to keep the pages secure while I was painting.
  • Cover: The cover is a bit flimsy and rubbery.
  • Pages: 64 pages. The pages are white which is good as I’m not a fan of off white paper.

Overall I really liked working in this book. If I wasn’t gifted a different journal I probably would have ordered another one of these.

Hand•book journal co. watercolor square

For Mother’s Day my daughter gave me a hand•book journal co. Watercolor Square journal.

  • The size: 8.25″ x 8.25″ square. I always liked working with square paper!
  • The paper: 95 lb. watercolor paper.
  • The binding: The book lays completely flat.
  • Cover: Linen hardcover.
  • Pages: 60 pages. The pages are white which is good as I’m not a fan of off white paper.
  • Extras: A ribbon bookmark and clear pocket on back inside cover.

So far so good! I just started working in this journal. The cover is beautiful, the pages are spacious. The book feels special. Laying flat is a nice bonus.

CANSON Artist Series Montval Watercolor Pad

The Canson Montval Watercolor Pad is my go to travel watercolor book. The paper is nice and thick and I take it every time I go away.

  • The size: 6″ x 9″
  • The paper: 95 lb. watercolor paper
  • The binding: The book is spiral bound and lays completely flat.
  • Cover: Linen hardcover.
  • Pages: 60 pages. The pages are white which is good as I’m not a fan of off white paper.

To me, the spiral binding makes it feel less like a journal and more like a “sketchbook.” The size makes it great for traveling.

moleskine watercolour notebook

I bought this Moleskine Watercolour Notebook to share with a friend. I painted in it and then mailed it to her.

  • The size: 5″ x 8.25″
  • The paper: 135 lb. watercolor paper
  • The binding: The book does not lay flat.
  • Cover: Hardcover
  • Pages: 72 pages.
  • Extras: Expandable inner pocket.

I’m looking forward to getting it back so I can paint in it again!

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looking for a comprehensive introduction to watercolor? This guide is for you!

This Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide is the perfect introduction to watercolor. Each fundamental is explained and then you practice it with exercises and painting projects.

The 5 tutorials build upon one another as you progress through the guide. You go from beginner brushstrokes to a watercolor seascape!

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

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

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

This posts 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!

How to Learn Watercolor Painting

Interested in watercolor?

Watercolor is a fun, convenient medium. It’s easy to set up and clean up. If you are just getting started with watercolor you may be wondering…

What supplies do i need to paint in watercolor?

There are several things you need to paint in watercolor – some of which you have around your home! Here is what you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paint (see below for specifics)
  • Watercolor brushes (see below for specifics)
  • Watercolor paper (see below for specifics)
  • Cardboard larger than your paper
  • Painter’s tape to tape down your paper to the cardboard
  • Container of water
  • Paper towel
  • Scrap paper
  • Palette to mix paint with water or mix colors – try the top of a plastic egg carton

You are probably wonder – Ok, but what kind of paint, brushes and paper? I’ve created a FREE downloadable pdf – “Watercolor Basics” – that covers what kind of paint, brushes, and paper you should use.

sign up here to receive the “Watercolor Basics” free pdf:

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How should I set up my supplies?

Now that you’ve collected all of your watercolor supplies, you may be wondering how to setup your workspace.

As a right handed person, I set up most of my supplies to the right of my paper or sketchbook. This is so I’m not reaching across my paper to get water or paint – I don’t want to accidentally drip on my paper! I usually place a reference photo (on my ipad) directly in front of my workspace. My mixing palette (top of an egg carton) can be moved around as needed. It’s always best if my coffee isn’t near my water. I’ve dipped my paintbrush in my coffee too many times!

Painting in watercolor with Monet's color palette

how do you paint with watercolor?

A key element to painting in watercolor is water.

  • If you use a dry brush, the paint will go on rough and paper will show through in spots.
  • If your brush is wet the paint will glide onto the page.
  • If the paper is wet the paint will bleed into the water on the page when you touch it with your brush.
  • To lighten watercolor add water, NOT white.

These different ways of painting work in different circumstances. To paint one subject you will likely use all of the above ways of painting in different areas.

what should i paint?

When you are starting out it’s sometimes hard to come up with ideas. You’d like to practice but don’t know what to paint. Choosing a challenging subject can be discouraging.

printable painting tutorials

To help with this and to introduce you to the fundamentals of watercolor, I’ve created printable painting tutorials. Each tutorial walks you through fundamentals as you paint the steps for a specific final painting, like the “WATERCOLOR CONEFLOWER PAINTING LESSON” below.

WATERCOLOR CONEFLOWER PAINTING LESSON

The tutorials might look intimidating – but I promise – I explain each step and provide photos to bring you to a successful final painting!

*tip ~ prep your paper before painting

When paper gets wet it wrinkles and buckles. To avoid this tape your paper to a piece of cardboard using painter’s tape. The tape also creates a nice border to your painting.

For weekly tips, sign up for my newsetter:

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looking for a comprehensive introduction to watercolor? This guide is for you!

This Beginner Watercolor Exploration Guide is the perfect introduction to watercolor. Each fundamental is explained and then you practice it with exercises and painting projects.

The 5 tutorials build upon one another as you progress through the guide. You go from beginner brushstrokes to a watercolor seascape!

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

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

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

This posts 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!

Beginner Watercolor Bird’s Nest Painting Video

A Watercolor Lesson for Beginners

I was really feeling the spring vibes the day I climbed up and peeked in the Robin’s nest and saw these three eggs. Of course I painted the nest in my “Finding Joy” journal later that day!

I realized the bird’s nest was the perfect subject to share my watercolor painting process. So, I painted it again and recorded it for you.

Here’s what you’ll need to paint your own nest:

  • Watercolor or multimedia paper
  • Watercolor paints. I used brown, black, turquoise, orange, hooker’s green, raw sienna (tan) 
  • Paintbrushes – round in medium to small (thin) sizes
  • Container of water, paper towel, scrap of paper

Click here if you’d like to see the brands I use.

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Watercolor Techniques you’ll learn:

  1. Painting layers
  2. Painting wet
  3. Painting dry
  4. Lightening colors with water
  5. Mixing complements to create the perfect shadow color.

I hope you’ll paint along to the video!

Please like the video and subscribe for more painting videos!

Here’s the reference photo I took:

Robin's Nest Photo

For more beginner watercolor tutorials click here.

I’ve designed several fun tutorials to help you learn watercolor – available in pdf and video form.

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!

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

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!

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!

A Fun Chance to Win a $25 Blick Gift Card

A St. Patrick’s Day Watercolor Challenge!

I’ve partnered with DuelGood to create a Watercolor St. Patrick’s Day Challenge! Enter for a chance to win a $25 Blick gift card.

DuelGood is a global social platform to inspire creativity, build connections and do good in the world by engaging people in fun, easy-to-execute challenges.

Download the DuelGood app and click Play to find the challenge.
St. Patrick's Day art painting challenge
Download the Free App
DuelGood App
Start creating, start competing, start connecting!

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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!

St. Patrick’s Day Art Project

St. Patrick’s Day Watercolor Painting Lesson for Beginners

St. Patrick's Day painting project - paint an Irish landscape with sheep in watercolor. Beginner friendly.

This Irish Landscape with Sheep is a fun and easy painting for beginners – perfect for St. Patrick’s Day!

Watercolor Techniques you’ll learn:

  1. Taping your paper
  2. Painting a fade
  3. Using crayon to mask areas
  4. Adding details with a dry brush

Supplies you’ll need:

Please like the video and subscribe for more painting videos!

Dive deeper into watercolor with the “Fields of Green” painting tutorial

This Fields of Green Tutorial is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day painting project for beginners! Learn more here.

St. Patrick's Day Art Project
Visit my Etsy shop to download this Watercolor Painting tutorial!

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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!