• Tia Brown

Watercolor Tips for Beginners

  1. Don't quit

  2. Have a shopping list

  3. Learn basic drawing skills

  4. Experience builds experience

  5. Have fun

This is for anyone who wants to get started with watercolor for the first time! Or maybe you've already tried it and are not sure where to go next. These are things that I've personally learned along the way or heard from professionals that have been invaluable to me. They kept me going when it was tough and got me to where I am. I hope these tips help you as well!


I cannot stress this enough! Do. Not. Quit.

You're not "becoming an artist" or even "learning to watercolor." You ARE an artist. Congratulations!

This is the single most important piece of advice you'll ever hear about developing a new skill. It could be art or music or woodworking. Doesn't matter. Bottom line is that success is not from inner "talent" or chance or knowledge or expensive classes. Those may play a part in getting someone started, but they're not enough to FINISH.

Anyone can start a race but what really matters is if they finish.

There have been SO many times I wanted to quit on a painting. Or give up altogether. But I had decided that no matter how many times I failed, I wouldn't quit. I'd keep going. And if for no other reason than to honor that decision, I picked the brush back up.

When you get stuck or frustrated, try something different. Grab a scrap paper and doodle random lines. Watch a different teacher explain it. Search for a different angle. Find something else to work on and come back to it later. Anything! Just don't give up.

Don't ever give up! That's all it takes. I promise.

2. Have a Shopping List

When I first started out, I found myself in the aisle of Hobby Lobby suddenly overwhelmed at how many choices there were and so little money I had to spend. I know almost nothing about watercolor and had no idea where to start. I don't want you to be as lost as I was, so here's the shopping list I wish I had when I first started:

  • Any cheap watercolor paper (140 lb cold press)

  • Arches 100% cotton cold press

  • Escoda or Black Velvet brushes--size 10, 6, and 4. Round synthetic.

  • Tube paints (cheap will do): cerulean blue, burnt umber, yellow ochre, Paynes grey

  • pan for mixing (largest one they have)

  • cup for water

  • painter's tape

  • sketching pencil and eraser

  • coffee mug with a lid (trust me)

You'll hear tons of different advice from artists about what makes the best "beginner set." It's totally up to you if you follow my advice or pick a different artist's shopping list. But at least have a shopping list that includes what type of brush, paper, and paint you want.

About the Paper

Arches is THE BEST paper ever! Nearly everyone I meet uses it. It's 100 % cotton cold-pressed, which keeps it stiff and able to soak in water without buckling so easily. You do NOT want to go cheap on paper! The cheaper paper will not produce those really awesome watercolor effects you want. It just won't. It can't blend, flash wash, gradient, nothing.

So why is the cheap paper on the list? It's actually really useful for just practicing "drawing" with the brushes. Since it's cheaper paper, I feel less intimidated using it to experiment.

I use my cheap paper for basic exercises or learning to draw leaves. You can even paint on it, just don't have your expectations too high. If it turns out poorly, blame the paper! LOL

About the Paints

The cheap paint works just fine. No one will notice the difference. I like using tubes, but some people prefer the dry pan. You can get both and try them out if you want.

I've found I can get much richer, deeper colors from a tube than from a pan (I really like rich colors!) and I think it's easier to mix with other colors. Plus, if you need to save as much money as possible, buying the individual colors you need gets you more for your dollar.

Cerulean blue, burnt umber, and yellow ochre are what's called "muted primaries." They're like more "earthy" versions of red and yellow. Primaries (plus Payne's Grey) are a perfect way to start out watercolor.

With this minimal palette, you won't get so overwhelmed right away, and you can really settle in and get to know the colors. They can make very beautiful greens, warm sunshine, and cool shadows. They're so much fun!

Having a limited pallet will keep you from getting too sucked into perfectionism and losing your focus. Instead of trying to be hyper-realistic, you'll be forced to think about warm or cool, light or dark, big shape or little shape. You'll also learn a ton about mixing colors.

Forced by a simple palette to focus simply on values, shapes, and tones takes so much stress out of beginning watercolors! It will establish solid foundational skills that will set you up for sure success later.

Once you feel like you've hit the "skill ceiling" of these colors and want to expand, you'll have a more clear idea of what colors you want to use next. The idea is to get good at one thing at a time.

I got this advice from Cafe Watercolor and I think it's brilliant! Definitely watch more of his videos as you learn!

About the Brushes

You'll need to order your brushes online. Hobby Lobby doesn't carry very high-quality brushes (as far as I've seen). Yes, there's that fancy-looking section for like $15 each. Don't be fooled!

Trust me, you'll regret learning this the hard way.

I started out with cheap brushes and thought my paintings weren't working because of my skill. It wasn't my skill, it was the brushes! Going cheap actually cost me tons more money because I had to quickly replace them. I wish I had just bought the right brushes from the beginning.

Escoda and Black Velvet are the two most mentioned brands I've seen. Personally, I use Escoda, but I hear amazing things about Black Velvet as well. I LOVE my Escodas!

Firstly, they actually hold water. Cheap brushes dry up way too quickly. Without water, it's very difficult to... you know... watercolor.

Secondly, they don't fall apart right away. Cheap brushes will start to deposit strands of hair in your paintings pretty quickly. It's annoying and ruins the painting.

Thirdly, they keep their shape and are easier to use. It feels so amazing! Once you hold one you'll know what I mean!

What size? I'd go by Mind of Watercolor's recommendation: 10, 6, and 4 rounds. My very first Escoda was a size 6. It could do SO MUCH! Like Cafe Watercolor points out, it's less intimidating if you paint on a smaller scale starting out. Sizes 10, 6, and 4 are perfect for small-scale. And since Arches paper is not exactly cheap, I can make it go farther by cutting it into fourths and practice on card-sized paintings.

But if you can only afford one brush right now, I'd go with #10.

3. Learn Basic Drawing Skills

Painting is 90% drawing. -Why DRAWING is SO DIFFICULT to Learn

This statement made by Volten CK hit me hard when I first heard it. But it's so true! It's a theme that kept coming up as I studied watercolor. I just couldn't ignore it anymore. I wish I had learned this earlier on, it would have saved me so much time and heartache.

If you can squeeze in a basic drawing course alongside your watercolor, that would help you improve your skills so much faster! Drawing is a very basic tool anyone can learn. Taking this extra step will give you an edge that not many other people have.

I recommend taking the Drawabox course. It's completely free! Start by watching their introduction videos to learn more about it. Here's their website as well.

This is the best fundamentals course I've ever seen! You'll walk away with not only the basics of drawing but a greater understanding of how to succeed as an artist. They don't just teach you how to draw, they go to the very very basics and teach you how to learn and grow.

If nothing else, I highly recommend at least watching their introduction videos. The advice given there is so SO good!

4. Experience builds Experience

No one can teach you how the brush feels in your hand. That's something you'll have to experience for yourself. Literally.

Experience watercolor--feel it, observe it, play with it. No one can teach you how it feels. You are completely unique. And that's a good thing!

So don't forget to relax and really experience the watercolor.

For a while, all I could do was make random marks, boxes, and circles on scrap paper. It was just too difficult for me to relax and pay attention to what was happening. If I wasn't paying attention, my brain wouldn't retain any information and learn from it. I had to pick an activity within my brain's attention capability--which was very VERY little.

Find some way to keep your head in the game. Don't let your brain slip into "automatic." Think about the movement--your arm, the brush, the water, the pigment. All of it. To learn something from every session, you have to be able to remember something about it. When you're brain is just in "automatic," it won't retain anything.

It's okay if you're brain can't keep up with a lot at first. It's a little embarrassing to admit, but I get it! I've been there. Expanding your brain's capacity will take time. For now, work on accepting where you're at and work at your own pace.

5. Last But Not Least: Have FUN!

Drawabox has what they call the 50/50 rule: 50% of your time should be learning and the other 50% just free fun. Don't grind lessons for hours on end or spend all of your time obsessing about improving. You HAVE to have fun just being an artist.

Why? Because if you're not an active artist, there won't be anything to improve. That's like buying renovation supplies without owning a house. Get the house--THEN think about improvements you want to make to it. Your "house" is that time you spend creating anything you want and having fun.

Having fun is so crucial! I have to tell myself this all the time. I get way too obsessed with checking things off my to-do list. The result is art that I hate and honestly didn't enjoy making. It looks rushed and sloppy. When I take the time to loosen up and be free, it really shows in my art.

So try to balance drawing lessons, watercolor tutorials, and fun time. Be patient with yourself and work with where you're at.

Check out my list of YouTube channels and videos! I suggest starting out with the basic lessons from Mind of Watercolor or Cafe Watercolor.

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