• Arlene's Artist Materials

4 Helpful Tips to Improve Your Watercolor Skills.

Updated: May 28, 2021


November 20, 2020, updated May 28, 2021


Watercolor painting by Carolyn DiFiori-Hopkin


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author's employer, Arlene’s Artist Materials. Please contact us with any questions.


Painting, like any craft, needs constant attention and tending. It is like something alive that will live or die with the attention afforded it. Watercolor is no different. Here are four tips to help you improve your watercolor skills.

1. Have a strategy for layering colors.

Watercolor painting is primarily the laying down of with transparent washes. Layering colors can be tricking and, before you know it, you’re left with a muddy, blurry mess. One tip is to limit the amount of layers you use. When I was in college my professor told me to limit my watercolor washes to 3 to 5 layers of colors. I try to stick to this rule but bend it from time to time. However, what I find to be as, if not more important, tip is patience. Patience to let one layer dry before applying another. This is something I struggle with and often inevitably ignore to my own frustration. However, when I do take the time and let things dry I find I have more control and can achieve the results I'm after. Of course a hair dryer can be a watercolorist best friend and should invest in one but that’s now substitute for patience. Patience slows things down allowing you to see, process what is happening and plan your attack on how to build, not only your color layers, our whole painting.

2. Know your paints.

Watercolors come in a seemingly endless variety of colors. Alluring options that would overwhelm any painter. However, the more you know about watercolor paint the better equipped you are in getting what you want. Beyond the standard attributes to consider, like color temperature and light fastness, watercolor paint has its own unique list of characteristics to keep in mind. These characteristics are Transparency or Opacity, Lift/Staining and Granulation. Pigment, the colorant of paints, is the culprit behind all of it. Pigments vary greatly in all these characteristics and effect how watercolor paintings are created.

Let me explain a little about each characteristic. Some pigments are inherently more transparent and others are opaque. Transparency is desired in watercolors. Some manufacturers try to achieve transparency by milling the pigments down to as fine as possible. However there are some colors, at the end of day when all is said and done, that are just opaque. The next characteristic lift or staining refers to how well a color can be removed from the paper. Paints with good lift or low staining can be removed almost completely. This is helpful if you decide to change your composition or make a mistake. The opposite is true though too. Some colors aren’t going anywhere no matter how hard you try. Lastly, granulation has to do with pigments that tend to cluster together creating uneven mottled washes. Granulating watercolors produce delicate textures that some find desirable and others find to be a pain in the neck. It is worth the time to experiment and research which colors work best for you and how you work. Also, as with everything it is a matter of person preference but better in general quality products will yield better results.

3. Paper is important.

Watercolor Paper, in my opinion, is the most important part of watercolor painting. It's what your painting is being built on and what is going to protect it after it's completed. Watercolor paper should be absorbent and durable. Absorption is important because watercolors are water-soluble and being able to absorb into the paper helps protect the paint if it comes in contact with water. And not to mention, it eliminates the problem of flaking and cracking that can happen in other painting mediums. Traditionally the most popular material used to make watercolor paper is cotton rag. That is because it is very absorbent, stable and durable. Cotton is still the most popular material used by manufacturers of professional grade watercolor papers. There are other materials used, like alpha cellulose, that are not as absorbent and are less expensive alternatives. However the benefits of using a better quality cotton rag paper far outweigh the lower cost in the long run.

How watercolor paper is made can matter too. Watercolor paper is either handmade, mold-made or machine-made. Handmade paper is long seen as better to all types but that is really a matter of preference. It depends on the manufacturer because some have irregular textures, weights and have no uniformity between sheets. Mold-made paper combines the consistent quality of machine made papers, but with the individual character of handmade papers. They are harder to tear because the fibers lay randomly across the sheet. Machine made paper tends to lie in one direction, making the sheet weak in this area. It is perceived to be the least popular because the process is less sensitive to the materials. However, it produces paper with consistent texture and weight, even between batches.

4. Never stop learning.

Learning is important to any craft and has to be continuous otherwise you will stagnate. There are always new techniques, approaches, tips, tricks to learn and make you own. Also, the communal aspect of learning that is often a great source of creativity and inspiration. Art making, especially painting, is often solo. Surrounding yourself with other creatives is rejuvenating. Critique is vital too. To get feedback from your peers and more experienced artists is immensely helpful to developing as an artist. Not only that but you also benefit from the critiques of others in the class. It's an all around win win situation. The Atelier at Arlene's has several great options for watercolor classes and workshops coming up this summer. Click below to check them out.


269 views0 comments