One of the frustrations many watercolor beginners face is not knowing what to paint! That is why I have put together 9 basic watercolor practice exercises designed to help you practice the basics of watercolor painting.
Let’s get into it…
More posts on watercolor exercises:
Watercolor Practice Exercises:
How do you practice watercolor? By practicing these 9 basic watercolor exercises, you’ll begin to grasp the foundations of watercolor painting:
1. Different stages of wetness
This practice exercise encourages you to know how the paint will react on wet paper. It all comes down to two factors; the amount of moisture on the paper and how much moisture is in your brush.
In watercolor painting, timing is everything. You need to consider how wet the paper is and how much moisture your brush holds.
How to Practice Watercolor Timing
Your paper goes through five stages during the drying process, they are:
- Soaking Wet– In this stage the paper has soaked enough water that it won’t absorb more. Because of this, you may find water puddles forming on the surface, if you tilt the board there will be a bead of water on the edge. At this stage, you have the most time to paint.
- Shiny– When the paper is wet enough to have a nice even sheen to it. However, there are no puddles. The pigment will bleed resulting in large feathery shapes.
- Moist– At this stage bleeding still occurs however the pigment doesn’t spread too far.
- Damp– You can still add brushstrokes at this point. However, using a higher water concentration than paint will result in a backrun. Unless this is the desired effect, use more paint and less water. This will make more defined details with slightly fuzzy edges.
- Dry– Any paint you add at this stage will be part of the next layer.
The brushstrokes will look different depending on which stage you choose to paint.
This exercise is simple. Start by dividing the paper into five sections for each stage: Wet, Shiny, Moist, Damp, and dry. Practice painting brushstrokes and observe the effects of each stage.
The image below shows the results:
2. Light and Shadow (Values)
What makes an excellent watercolor painting?
Lots of watercolor artists agree that learning how to express values through light and shadow is crucial.
This is what can make the difference between a mediocre piece and a well-designed piece that keeps pulling the viewer’s attention.
Basic Value Exercise
One way to control the values in your painting is by adjusting the ratio of paint to water on your palette.
The more you dilute the mixture with water, the lighter the color will be.
Using very little water and more paint will create darker values. It also depends on which color you use, some are naturally darker than others.
For this watercolor practice exercise, choose any color and using very little water swatch it on your paper. Add a touch more water to the mixture and paint a second swatch next to the first.
Keep adjusting the mixture by gradually adding more water and swatching each time. You’ll notice how the value of the color changes from dark to light.
Keep experimenting with different colors!!
There are more exercises you could try that will help you practice painting values, I discuss them in the following article:
3. Watercolor Washes
One of the basic watercolor exercises you should practice is painting the different types of watercolor washes. They are:
- Flat Wash– A flat wash is created when there is an even layer of paint covering the surface of the paper.
- Graded Wash– A graded wash is created when there is a transition of value from dark to light.
- Variegated Wash– A variegated wash involves two or more colors that meet somewhere along the paper and blend smoothly. The aim is to have one color softly transition into the other, meanwhile avoiding harsh edges.
Washes (Watercolor Practice Exercise)
You can paint each type of wash using either wet on wet or wet on dry. I find that using the wet-on-wet technique is easier, however, it depends on your personal preferences.
To paint a flat wash, wet the paper with clean water. Load your brush using any color and evenly spread the paint until the whole area is covered (image below).
For a Graded wash wet the paper then tilt your board. Start painting from left to right at the top of the paper. As you move down reduce the amount of pigment so that it’s lighter in value.
To paint a variegated wash, wet the paper then start with the first color. Once you reach the middle of the page, rinse the brush and load it with the second color. Paint the rest of the paper with the second color.
The image below shows what each wash looks like:
Make sure to sign up for my email list so that you can gain access to my 3-day watercolor beginner exercises. It includes the detailed process of painting watercolor washes using both the wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques.
The form is at the bottom of the page.
4. Color Circles
Painting color circles is a fun watercolor exercise that can help you become more comfortable with color mixing. With this exercise, you don’t have to worry about creating backruns or mixing the right color.
You can mix colors on your palette and also let them mix on the paper. This is also a great watercolor warm-up exercise you can try!
Practice Exercise- Making Color Circles
This exercise is simple. Start by choosing any color then paint a circle. Next, clean your brush and paint a new circle with a different color next to the first.
Let the colors mix between the edges of the circles without disturbing them. It’s okay if there are backruns. Repeat this process with different colors.
You can paint the circles wet into wet or wait for them to dry then layer the new circle wet onto dry.
5. Dry Brush Texture
Adding texture plays a huge role in bringing your subject to life, using the dry brush technique is one way. In this exercise, you’ll be practicing brush control while using the dry brush technique.
How to dry brush in watercolor (Practice Exercise)
To execute the dry brush technique, you’ll need to load the brush with pigment then make sure it’s damp by removing the excess water onto a paper towel or cloth.
Hold the brush on its side and gently graze the paper, this should create a rough-looking brushstroke. You can also experiment by glazing over the paint after it has dried.
Glazing over the dry brush strokes will cause them to soften and bleed.
6. Layering Watercolor Exercise
Watercolor paintings are almost always completed through layering, so it makes sense to have a practice exercise! Layering helps you increase values, create new colors, mute previous colors, and create depth.
Read more on the layering technique here:
- How to Layer Watercolors (Complete Guide)
How to Practice Layering
For this watercolor practice exercise, you’re going to layer rectangles on top of each other using either the same shade or different colors.
Start by painting a rectangle using a light shade of green, you can use cobalt blue and lemon yellow to make light green. Let the rectangle dry then paint another slightly smaller rectangle within the first one.
You can use the same shade or a darker shade. Repeat this step as many times as you wish until you feel the rectangle is dark enough (image below).
If you layer primary colors or complementary colors on top of each other you’ll get either gray, brown, or black. (Image below)
7. Creating Color Charts
If you want to create better paintings then you have to make sure you understand your colors very well. One of the best ways to do this is by creating color charts.
There are many different types of charts and each with its purpose. If you’ve recently begun watercolor painting, I would recommend starting with the traditional color mixing chart.
If you’re struggling with the basics of color mixing, I would recommend a color wheel.
Check out the links below for further reading on watercolor mixing and color mixing charts:
Traditional color charts for practice exercise
A watercolor mixing chart shows you the possible colors you can create by mixing each color with every other color on your palette at least once.
I won’t go into too much depth on this post, however, I have linked the fully detailed article below.
To learn more about traditional mixing charts including what they are, how to read one, and how to make one step by step check out the article below:
Start by drawing a grid and labeling the X and Y axis with the colors on your palette. Following the labels, mix each color on the X-axis with every color on the Y-axis and swatch each color.
If you divide the grid diagonally you’ll see there are two slots on the grid for each color mixture. Paint a saturated version and a diluted version.
The image above shows an example of a color mixing chart.
8. Lifting and Dropping Pigment
Charging and lifting paint are two basic watercolor techniques that you’ll be using a lot within your paintings. Although these techniques are straightforward in how they work, it can help to practice them!
Dropping practice exercise
The tricky part about dropping paint is figuring out how much water your brush is carrying vs. how wet the paper is. For example, if your brush is fully soaked and the paper is damp, you’ll cause a back run.
If your brush is damp and the paper is wet, you’ll end up lifting the pigment. However, if your paper and brush are both fully wet, you might end up getting puddles.
More water = More bleeding
It all depends on the effect you want to achieve.
To practice dropping, simply paint any shape with the color of your choice. Next, choose a different color and use your brush to drop in some pigment.
Pay attention to how the paint reacts with different levels of moisture in the brush and on the paper.
The image below shows three different results of dropping pigment:
Lifting practice exercise
There are two ways to lift paint, the first is by lifting the pigment before the layer dries. The other is by rewetting a section of dried paint and then lifting it from there.
In order to lift paint with your brush, you’ll have to dampen it by removing the excess moisture on a paper towel or cloth. When your brush touches the wet paint it should pull the pigment.
To practice lifting when wet start by painting a flat wash with the color of your choice. Rinse your brush then dampen it by removing the excess water. While the paint is still wet use your brush to lift the pigment.
To lift paint from a dried layer, rewet the area you want to lift with clean water. Rinse then dampen your brush and lift the paint.
You can also use a paper towel to lift pigment. The image below shows this step by step exercise:
The final watercolor practice exercise is sketching! One of the best ways to paint your subject is by first simplifying it. What better way to do this than to sketch?
Here are three main tips for sketching:
- Don’t worry too much about getting things “right”. You’re watercolor sketch should be like a first draft.
- Try and paint the subject loosely. The idea is to get an impression of your subject
- Simplify your scene. Allow yourself to be flexible so you can remove, or change things as you like. If you’re using a reference image, you don’t have to copy it exactly.
The main goal of a sketch is to roughly capture your ideas on paper. When you start sketching your subjects you’ll find more room for creativity! You can move elements around, and play with the composition and color scheme. The image below shows two examples of watercolor sketches. You can see how I painted them loosely: