A start on learning how to use watercolors

Corey Watson WatercolorI grew up a self-taught painter and began taking “real lessons” about 18 years ago. From there I decided to go to college and graduated from California College of the Arts in 2005. I have been selling my work professionally in galleries and out of my own studio since then. My life has been spent around creative people from my grandparents, parents, friends and teachers… It has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.

I primarily paint mixed media on canvas (acrylic, ink, collage with paper and fabric, pastel and spray paint). However, I love watercolor. I paint small watercolors and sell them at the galleries alongside my larger canvas pieces. I love painting with watercolor for how relaxing it is. Even though I paint professionally I believe it is a great relaxation tool that can be enjoyed by everyone and you don’t have to be great at it to enjoy it. I want to share a little about how to use watercolors to you too can enjoy painting and who knows? maybe you have a talent you never knew about!

Watercolor is not scary like some think… It is actually really fun. I would like to share with you some techniques that you can practice with that will help take the scary out of painting with watercolor.

ORIGINAL WATERCOLOR PAINTINGS. BUY? PAINT YOUR OWN? YES TO BOTH – is an article I wrote in which I listed the items you need to paint with watercolor. Once you have those materials it is time to begin experimenting and learning…


This is scary…watercolor painting

In my years of painting I have heard many people express intimidation to downright fear of ruining watercolor paper. I get it. Fear of unknown is understandable and until you have experience with watercolor and know what it is going to do when you put it on the paper it can be very intimidating. Learning how to paint with watercolors is not that hard though. I recommend that first you know your color wheel because with learning how to watercolor (or any paint) you need to know the basic color wheel to understand how colors react when mixed or painted next to each other. Watercolor is a transparent medium so the first layer will make a huge difference to the other colors placed over it. One of the reasons a person gets frustrated with painting watercolor is that they do not understand this and end up with a muddy mess on their paper – that is an easily solved problem. Another reason people get frustrated is cheap paint and paper. Get the professional quality stuff, as I mentioned in my article on purchasing materials. Another reason for frustration in watercolor and why people give up on painting is they do not understand how the paint reacts when wet or dry and how to get the look they want. They forget that sometimes painting wet on wet is great and sometimes not, depending on the look you want. I want to explain some of this to you to help clear up the confusion so you can move on to understand how to watercolor and enjoy it at the same time!

watercolor birdsTerms/colors and other things to understand…

Some of these terms are from classes and some are just terms I used to describe what is going on with the paint and paper…. just because some helped me remember better when I was learning… so here they are:

The basic color wheel is the 6 basic colors – 3 primary and 3 secondary. Primary colors are red, yellow and blue – the three colors you start with and cannot make. 3 secondary colors are orange, green and purple. They are made using combinations of the primary colors.

This is basic and most know this so forgive me if you are that person, but I had a student 30 years older than me that had no idea what a primary or secondary color was… and I felt bad when she was so frustrated and I had no idea why. I had only been teaching for … well, she was one of the first people I taught, so literally weeks of teaching… and I did not know that not everyone knew this… (also, my mom as a creative/designer taught me this so young I truly do not remember not knowing it) so I am not leaving any basic information out just in case. I want everyone to have some understanding of what colors are and what they do so that full enjoyment of painting can belong to anyone! I could learn for years and teach for as long on color alone, but for now basic information is enough to enjoy painting!

complimentary colorscomplimentary colors – these are opposite on the color wheel and when mixed will create a brownish or grayish mud – (sometimes a good thing, but not good if not intentional). When complimentary colors are painted next to each other they create almost a vibration – they are the highest contrast besides black and white next to each other that you can create… This also can be a good or bad thing. In a focal area, or where you want people to look first this is where you want the highest contrast so placing complimentary colors next to each other here is a good idea – but make sure your painting is not full of this contrast or it will look too busy.

Analogous colors – these are colors that are similar and will be quieter when painted next to each other.

how to paint watercolorWet on wet painting – this is when you paint with wet paint (paint and a little water together) on wet paper. It creates a fuzzy look or soft line so that you can create a look of fur, grass or other soft edged objects – or can make whatever you are painting look far away.

Wet on dry – paint and a little water (to make paint wet and more fluid) on dry paper. This will create a smooth line and a hard edge – as when painting a building or rocks etc. The hard edge line will make objects appear to be closer.how to paint with watercolors

Dry on dry – dryer paint, or without adding much, if any, water and painted on dry paper. This will create a rough edged line and makes scratchy or uneven texture. I use this to layer over the top when painting something like rocks to indicate the rough texture of the rock surface.

Different degrees of wet/dry paper:1. Shiny = dripping wet 2. Sheeny = wet that has not lost all of its shine but if water or wet paint added will create a “bloom” on the paper. There is some shine but not dripping wet. 3. Cool = its not dry, not really wet. Its lost its shine but is still cool to the touch meaning if you add paint it will not “layer” but may mix and muddy up an area you don’t want muddied up, losing the luminescent quality of the transparent layers and you may not get a crisp line but may bleed a little. 4. Bone dry = paper is no longer cool to the touch and if you are layering on top of it you may now do so and keep crisp lines and minimal “mixing” of previous layers.

I recommend experimenting with all of these to see what they do when you add paint and/or water. Have a large sheet of paper that you can just play with adding wet paint to wet paper or dry paper, dry paint to wet or dry paper. Then try layering. What happens when you add paint to a painted area that is not dry yet? what happens when you drop a little water onto a painted area that is “cool” or “sheeny” – try dropping or spattering rubbing alcohol on the same cool or sheeny and see what happens. What colors can you layer over other colors? it is important to know what happens when you layer red over yellow or if you layer purple over the same yellow? what happens? which gives you orange? which gives you mud? knowing these things can help you create a masterpiece where not knowing is why some end up with a muddy mess. If I was in a room teaching you I would first have you experiment with this because I can tell you all day long what will happen but it is when you take paint to paper that you will really learn it. I want to see you create paintings not give up in frustration.

Blooms – this is created when a color or drop of water is added to a painted area that is not yet dry. Adding it when the paper is dripping wet only causes a mess. Wait until the paper is sheeny or just cool to the touch and you will get beautiful blooms! These can add beautiful texture to a painting and when you learn when they happen you can put them there on purpose. Many beginners do not know how these happen and it can be a source of frustration when you get them in areas you don’t want them…. Like when you want a large, even blue sky and you get a bloom, not good… but when you want a cloudy sky you can begin the clouds with blooms and then they become a great thing! So, it is good to know how to get them so you also know how to avoid them.

Perspective – there are two kinds of perspective. My mom is an architectural designer so she taught me linear perspective when I was very small. You don’t have to get it exact, but when you are creating a watercolor painting if you want something to appear far away, paint it small. If you want an object to appear closer you paint it larger – if you paint everything the same size you will lose depth in your painting. Look at a row of buildings in your down town area or neighborhood – look at how the homes or businesses that are far away look small. It seems strange to paint them smaller when you know they are the same size, but if you paint what you see instead of what you know then you will get a more realistic painting. Atmospheric perspective is why you see a mountain in the distance that is painted blue and or with soft lines. When looking through the atmosphere you will see that things look cooler in color and softer lines. If you repeat this in your paintings they will look more realistic.

Warm vs. Cool colors – want to make a flower that is in the sun? warmer layers will indicate the warmth of the sun and cooler colors indicate the shadow where the sun is absent. Once you know the rules you will know how to break them and make a shadow that is red and look fantastic, but to start try painting objects in the sun warmer (using warm browns, reds, yellows, warm greens and orange or combinations of them) and blues, purples, cool green, gray or cool browns (cooler colors) and see how it looks? like sun and shadow… making it a bit more realistic.

Getting started….

don’t be afraid to start. That is why I want you to have a large practice sheet and spend an hour or maybe two playing. Make notes of what you did so you can remember what you mixed and how you did it so you can get that look again or know how to avoid it. I did what I am asking you to do, many….. Many times before I started getting paintings that I liked on a consistent basis. Below you will see a series of photos from doing that today for demonstration……

how to paint watercolor
To get started, make a color wheel. It does not have to be perfect (mine is not) but should give you an idea of where the colors are so you can learn how to mix them and learn which are complimentary. You will see that the complimentary colors are red/green – orange/blue – yellow/purple. Keep your color wheel as a reference until you know them without looking.how to use watercolors




how to mix watercolor paint




I used three colors for this demonstration – permanent red, lemon yellow and ultramarine deep from Shinhan Watercolors – those are the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. I used them to make the three secondary colors: orange, green and purple – placing each secondary between the two primary colors I mixed to get them….. The color at the center of the wheel is lighter because it has more water mixed with it than the paint at the outside of wheel. The less water you use the more concentrated and rich the color – the more water the more transparent the color and the more opportunity to layer and add depth.

The following are examples of pattern and texture experiments………… please spend some time playing and getting comfortable with the paint. The purpose of this is not just to help you learn what the paint does when painted in different ways, it is also to get you comfortable with the process so you can have fun and find what patterns and textures you enjoy making.
how to paint with watercolorsThis is three stripes of paint then gone over in a wavy line with the last color I used to see how they mixed and with one drier than another how the line looked…..



how to watercolor
Yellow layer – let it dry then painted with wet and dry layers with pattern just to see what they would do…






how to watercolorDry on dry

wet on dry how to paint with watercolor paint






how to watercolor
wet on wet


watercolor wet on wet (blue and red)


how to paint watercolorthis is an example of a single and double layer of red – and a blossom. I did not let the red dry before I added some drops of water… This can also be done with plain water on the paper and drops of paint and drops of paint into a wet layer of color. The photo below is an example of both – yellow into water and in blue.watercolor



watercolorThis is red and green, compliments that were mixed in the middle. You can see that it is a combination of the two but made muddy – not necessarily a great color…. except in a few small places where you want or need to have color that is not “pure” and muddied some…. The green at the bottom of the photo is simply an example of layered color over all of it once the first layer had dried – green over the green, the mud and the red….. play with your colors to see what you end up with.



Transparent layer of red, dried then a layer of color over it – a patch of green and another of yellow. Very different look when analogous colors are layered rather than the complimentary. Knowing this and what each will do eliminates a lot of frustration! Try layering three or four layers to see what happens!


watercolorthis is just a tiny bit of what you can do. use your imagination and play around. Try rubbing alcohol spattered into sheeny or cool paint – in the same paint try crinkling plastic wrap and placing it on top of the paint and then remove when dry. What does the texture look like? what can you turn it into in a painting and how would you do that?





Next article will have a how to on a simple subject that you can follow along. We are also considering YouTube video lessons. I would love your input and comments. If you are interested in specific lessons let us know and we will get to painting and taking video of it so you too can enjoy painting with watercolor!

watercolor painting

1 thought on “A start on learning how to use watercolors

  1. Thanks for such a clear explanation of the basics of watercolor painting … guess this means I don’t have an excuse any more not to dive in. I LOVE the watercolor of the three sheep at the bottom of your page. They come alive and I’m waiting for them to just start talking to me!

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