On art
Some tips from a longtime watercolour student: Start by looking, and Tips on kit.

How to learn watercolour, Part I

Some tips from a longtime watercolour student.

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

To be good at painting you need to look at paintings.
To be good at watercolour painting, you need to also look at watercolour paintings.

It’s a funny but obvious truism you find in many creative fields.
To be a good writer, read a lot.
To be a good musician, listen to music.
To be a good jazz musician, you need to listen to a lot of jazz.

And loosely-painted watercolour is the jazz of painting. Both require you to be on top of your game, to be able to free-flow in response to what is happening as it happens, something you can only do well if you have put in the hours of work - with serious pieces, more relaxed practice, playtime and listening or looking.

You will find good watercolour paintings online at some of the competitions listed in my Resources section. Competitions often post the paintings they have selected; you can then look up the websites of any artists whose work appeals to you.

Also, the magazines listed give you an up-to-the-minute supply of inspiration and new ideas, as well as reminders of how you could go about painting something.

A favourite resource of mine is the Splash series of watercolour book by North Light Books, for example, Splash 14. They've been published for years so some of the older ones may be available cheaply. They’re A4 size, high quality full page or half-page reproductions of good paintings, with a paragraph or two by the artist. Great for just curling up on a sofa and flipping through. Interestingly, different paintings appeal to me on different viewings. There is always something more to learn in art.
- December 2015

You learn watercolour painting by spending a lot of time playing with your kit, either messing around or doing paintings - clocking up ‘brush mileage’.

Every artist has their own preferred setup. What I’ve tried to provide here is an overview of the range of opinion you’ll find in books and DVDs or from a teacher. That way you can understand how you are being taught, and what the alternatives are.

You may already be learning from a teacher. If not, or additionally, start by finding a watercolour instruction book by someone whose style you like. (DVDs are helpful too, but it’s good to have a reference book.) Probably the biggest publisher of these is US’s North Light Books. If you’re stuck, I recommend Charles Reid’s Painting Flowers in Watercolour (2001, even if you’re not a flower painter) or his Watercolour Solutions (2008), because both books cover the basics of how to put the brush into the paint and then onto the paper - and a lot of other basics of painting that you can come back to any time you’re stuck. (UPDATE 2017: As a refresher I've recently watched Charles Reid's 10-lesson Course DVD set - available through Paintflix; you may have seen it advertised in Watercolour Artist magazine. The set is a good example of what you need from a painting instructor, whether in person or through a book or via technology - a good grounding in the basics of painting that forms a solid foundation for whatever direction you move to from there.)

Standard kit supplies are: brushes, paint, paper and accessories. But for each of these you’ll get different suggestions depending on the artist’s style.

There are two camps - those who paint mainly with round brushes and those who paint mainly with flats. Either sort work, they just give different effects. There are also big soft ‘mop’ brushes for artists who do large initial washes. Start by following the brush suggestions from the painter you like.

TIP: You can clean your brushes by splaying them gently under a barely running tap until they run clear, and if you’ve used a really staining colour, swoosh the brush across a simple bar of soap as well (a method I learnt from Charles Reid). Advice will vary but you can store your brushes in an old mug with the brush end upward. At the end of every painting session, blot the side of the clean brush gently against a kitchen towel to remove excess water. Then flick down towards the floor to make the point again if it’s a round brush; if needed, shape the side of the brush against your hand or the kitchen towel.

Your artist will suggest the colours they like, for reasons such as personal taste or performance. Here’s something interesting: if you use that artist’s colour palette, your work will have bits where it looks like their style, amazing. Over time you can try colours a different artist suggests, and that way you’ll learn basic properties of different but similar colours, for example Alizarin Crimson and Permanent Rose, and you will develop your own preferences.

TIP: Most artists squeeze tube paint into wells in a lidded palette - some keep the wells full, others top up as needed. The paint can be kept moist by putting a damp kitchen towel or sponge in the palette as you put it away. You really need your paint to be soft - ’like toothpaste’ says Joyce Hicks.

Your artist will suggest the paper that meets the needs of their particular style, or is their personal preference. The most widely used paper is 300gsm weight, cold-pressed surface, Arches brand (quite a tough surface finish). An alternative painting experience is a softer paper such as Fabriano brand, which gives brilliant, immediate results for single-pass paintings but doesn’t stand up well to being corrected. Painters who work more slowly with careful design and many layers usually opt for a paper like Arches; both sorts of paper are good to work with, depending on your purpose.

TIP: To tear watercolour paper to a smaller size, fold it gently but not completely creased and use a letter opener, which keeps a nice ragged-edge look.

The paper is usually attached to a board to hold it while you work. Some artists work flat, some slightly tilted, some almost vertical although that is often for demonstrating to a class. There are some effects you can only get when working flat (such as lovely merges in all directions not just flowing down a tilted page), and some that are easier done on a slight angle (such as the darker bottom edge of clouds) - so you can always settle on one way of working but vary it if needed.

There are different ways of attaching the paper to the board. Some people go to the effort of ‘stretching’ their paper, which involves wetting it thoroughly so it starts to expand, then attaching to the board with special tape or staples and letting it dry like a drum skin over several hours. Most artists opt for the quicker option of simply attaching new paper to the board with masking tape or drawing board / ‘bulldog’ clips; this suits most styles of painting but not all.

For watercolour you usually start from a pencil drawing. This can be done directly on the watercolour paper, lightly in case you need to change the line. Or for a stronger design option, some artists plan their painting in various sketches first, and may then transfer their finished design onto the paper using various techniques. It’s a good idea not to do lots of searching pencil lines all over the paper before you paint as the surface will get a bit grubby and some lines will not erase completely (or maybe you like that look).

TIP: Artists traditionally use a putty eraser on watercolour paper, though modern erasers seem not to damage the paper or repel the paint. The putty eraser is good for rubbing lightly over any smudgy areas to clean them up before painting.

Aim to be ‘a good basic painter’ (a Charles Reid expression: ‘Every good painter is a good basic painter.’). Less is more. Put together a basic kit, then get it know it inside out. Explore the limits of what the basic items are capable of producing.

Your painting kit will end up being very personalised - and it will change regularly over time as you try different things and continue to grow as an artist. Have fun.

- February 2016, updated March 2017

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.