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How I conquered my fear of watercolours in six steps

When I was 25, if you had told me that I would start painting watercolours, that I would come to paint them relatively well and even start a business selling them one day, I would have snorted and thought that you were bonkers.

I stayed away from watercolours for most of my life. As someone who grew up drawing with pencil, oil pastels and acrylics -- media that allowed for multiple layers of colour, detailed precision and complete predictability in behaviour -- I was very much frightened by the lack of control of a brush dipped in water.

Fast forward six years, and here I am, painting exclusively in watercolours. Although I have by no means mastered this medium, I am no longer afraid of picking up the brush and letting the water paint itself. 

So, what happened? How did I get over my fear?

As a classically trained pianist, I felt like I had to learn everything all over again when I started studying jazz piano. Learning how to paint with watercolours felt the exact same way.

If I dissect my learning over the past years, I can pinpoint six steps that helped me build confidence in watercolours:

    1. I experimented with watercolour pencils.
    2. I used water brushes.
    3. I limited my colours.
    4. I drew with ink.
    5. I thought in tones, not colour.
    6. I looked at mistakes differently.

These were not tips that I picked up from books or teachers, but rather formed out of years of experiments, failures, and many hours spent drawing and painting in my sketchbooks. 

I want to share them here, not to preach that this is how it's done, but rather in the hopes that it might help others out there who, like me, draw cautiously and don't know how to ease into this world of spontaneity.


1. I experimented with watercolour pencils. 

Five years ago, while looking for a quick way to colour in my sketchbooks on the go, I started carrying around watercolour pencils with me. I soon realized that they were incredibly useful for learning the preservation of transparency, which did not come naturally to me.

Before using watercolour pencils, I drew with ink and markers for several years. You can see in the sketch above that even when I began to use the coloured pencils, I did so monochromatically.

Watercolour pencils provide the perfect transition into "real" watercolours; you lay down the colours with pencils before you add water, which makes it easy to concentrate on each element separately. When it was time to wet the colours, I could focus entirely on experimenting with the amount of water or the different kinds of brushstrokes. If enough pigment remains on your brush after you finish an area, you can even start painting other areas where you had not laid down colour with the pencils; this was how I painted the highlights on Jolee's hair and neck. I did many one-colour emphasis sketches like this in my first year using watercolour pencils.


2. I used water brushes.

Once again, this was an accidental discovery. I came across water brushes when I was looking for a brush that I could bring with me while travel-sketching, and fell in love with them immediately. Why? Two words: water control.

When you are painting with a normal brush, you dip it in water, dip it in the palette, blot it on a towel if it is too wet, then apply it to the paper. For a beginner, it is extremely difficult to predict just how much water you will need to finish your stroke, or to estimate how much water your brush can actually hold before you need to re-dip.

Conversely, when you are using a water brush, you control the amount of water as you are painting. When you squeeze the body (reservoir) of a water brush, you release water. The more pressure you apply, the wetter your brush becomes. Once I started using water brushes, the way I painted changed forever. 

To this day, I use water brushes even when working on a studio piece, alternating them with traditional brushes as needed. You can find them sold in most art supply stores; I use Pentel brushes in three sizes.


3. I limited my colours.

When I decided to make the jump from watercolour pencils to "real" watercolours, I bought a travel pack of watercolour pans. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made, as it automatically limited my palette to 12 colours -- or 10, if you don't count black and white (I don't).

When you limit your colours to 10, six or even just to the three primary colours (red, blue and yellow), you are forced to mix your own range of purples and browns to create shadows and other darker values. This has a direct influence on the overall tone your painting takes. After painting with my watercolour pan for a few months, my friends began to tell me that they can recognize my work by my palette. I was doing this so subconsciously that I was surprised to discover I did, indeed, had developed a personal palette.

The power of limiting your colour palette really hit home for me last year, when I splurged and bought a much larger watercolour pan -- 40 colours, to be exact. I was like a kid at the candy store, stoked that I had so many new colours to play with. However, the first paintings I made with this new colour set failed horribly. There were suddenly too many colours everywhere; there was no tonal harmony! I lost the palette that I had worked so hard to develop. Since then, I've stashed away my 40-colour pan for special occasions, and faithfully returned to my 10 colours. When in doubt, less is more.


4. I drew with ink.

About two-thirds of the work in my paintings is in setting down the composition. Many watercolour instruction books out there will teach you to lightly draw with pencil, and then start painting. Under my clumsy palm, this usually led to disastrous compositions full of dirty lead smudges and eraser marks.

Using ink directly on paper, without first using pencil, solved this problem and freed my mentality of making a "perfect" composition. As ink doesn't smudge like pencil, the drawing is kept clean; as ink is non-negotiable, I gradually trained myself to commit to each line drawn. Since I can't use an eraser, most of my concentration is spent on getting the line-work and proportion right. 

The painting process, in comparison, is the reward after all the lines are set. Roughly speaking, if I have an hour to do a drawing, I will spend 40 minutes with ink and 20 minutes with colours.


5. I thought in tones, not colour.

You don't have to paint all the colours you see.

Out of all six steps, this was my biggest breakthrough.

In watercolour, the most important quality to preserve is light and transparency. The mistake I see most beginners do is to fill in all the space inside the lines with one colour, like a colouring book. This creates a static object, which can be quite graphic, but might not be what the watercolourist hopes to achieve.

When I painted the sketch above, sitting in a little cafe in Beijing, the afternoon sun was throwing dramatic shadows onto the wall directly across from me, and I rushed to capture the moment. You can see that even though the entire wall is brown in reality, I left the parts awash in light unpainted, and emphasized the values of the shadows. The wall, in turn, came to life.

Don't fill in all the space. Plan your white space before you start painting. Watercolour is about what you don’t paint as much as what you do paint.


6. I looked at mistakes differently.

I clearly remember painting these beautiful Guild Houses while sitting in Grote Markt in Antwerp. It was a late October afternoon, and I was drinking a local beer, listening to locals chatter around me while painting in my sketchbook. It was getting chilly, and my fingers were cold. I made a few strokes with my brush that didn't turn out the way I expected them to.

"Damn! I ruined the piece!" I thought. "Ah well. Let's finish up and get some dinner."

The pressures of making a good painting suddenly gone, my strokes became carefree. The alcohol did its thing and I felt bold and confident. I stopped painting before I thought it was done, looked at the result, and thought to myself that this was the worst painting I've made on this trip. Amused, I closed my sketchbook and left the cafe.

When I looked at the sketch again the next morning, I gasped. There was a spontaneity and freedom in the painting that I have not seen before in my work, and I realized it was the best watercolour painting I've done up to that point in my life.

To this day, I see this piece as the one that elevated me to the next level in my art. What I thought was a mistake became a masterpiece with different eyes.

* * * 

These are the six steps I can pinpoint that lead me to paint better. If you have any thoughts or additional tips on painting with watercolours, I'd love to hear them!

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May 18, 2016

Hi there. I’ve stumbled across your blog on my search for a beginners watercolour palette. In particular from M. Graham as I have heard good things about their paints and because they have better environmental practices and policies than other brands that I can tell. I can’t quite get my head around cool and warm colours 100%, although I think that it is slightly subjective. But how can you tell if a colour is primary “enough” to mix. Do you know what I mean? Help!


March 18, 2016



February 16, 2015

Thank you for reading, Gabrielle! I’m so glad it was helpful. Best of luck with your current project, and looking forward to hearing about your re-entry into watercolours :)

Gabrielle Peralta
Gabrielle Peralta

February 15, 2015

Thank you for the well written (and illustrated) post. It’s very encouraging and informative for someone like me, that has dipped their toe into watercolors but is too afraid to take the plunge. _ I will, as soon I finish my current project, though. Thanks again, for the inspiration.

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