How to use watercolor paint (guide for beginners)

You’re completely new to watercolor painting and you’ve just purchased a new set but you’re not sure how to use them. Or perhaps you’re considering purchasing a new set and you’re not sure how they work… 

No worries!

In this post, you’ll learn all about the basics of how to use watercolor paint!

Let’s get started…

How to use watercolor paint

How to use watercolor paint video tutorial:

I also made a video demonstration on how to use watercolor paint. You can check it out below:

Materials you need:

  1. Watercolor Paint
  2. Paper- You’ll need paper that is made specifically for the use of watercolor painting. Watercolor paper is much thicker than other types, making it withstand many washes.
  3. Brushes- watercolor brushes are softer, allowing them to easily hold and distribute the paint.
  4.  2 Jars of water- One for cleaning out your brush and one for clean water to load your brush
  5. Paper towel or cloth- To remove excess water from your brush
  6. Palette or mixing area- Most pan sets come with a container that has a mixing area, this is where you can adjust the amount of water and pigment 

I won’t go into too much depth about watercolor supplies in this article, however, you can check out the following posts to learn more:

How to use watercolors?

Make sure you have your jars of water, and paper towel beside you before you begin:

  1. To use watercolors you’ll need to activate the paints by adding clean water. You can use a spray bottle or a dropper.
  2. Load your brush with the pigment then spread it on your mixing palette. Here you can clean your brush and add more water to dilute the pigment or add another color.
  3. Load the brush with the mixture on the palette and apply it to the paper.

That’s it! That’s the step-by-step process of how to use watercolor paint. You just need to add water to activate them and they are ready to use. The image below shows each step:
How to use watercolor paint

Preparing your workstation

Before you begin your painting, you first have to prepare your workstation. 

You’ll need a flat surface to put your watercolor paper, you can use an easel with a board or any flat table. 

  1.  Start by taking your watercolor paper, laying it flat on your table, and taping the four sides with masking tape. This will prevent the paper from buckling and warping as you paint. You can also add tape down the middle if you wish to have 2 sections.
  2. Have 2 jars of water ready, one for dirty water and one to load your brush with clean water.
  3. Make sure to lay a paper towel or cloth. I prefer to place it next to the jars of water, but it depends on you.
  4. Open your watercolor palette and spray clean water to activate the watercolors (you can also use a dropper or a brush). 

How to use watercolor paint tubes

Watercolors are available in two different forms: tubes and pans. There are two ways to use watercolor tubes, first by using them straight from the tube, and second by squeezing the paint into a palette. If the paint dries, it can always be reactivated with water.

  1. First you’ll need a palette. Not all tube sets will come with a palette so you’ll need to purchase one separately. It’s always best to get one with at least 12 slots, a mixing area, and a cover.
  2. Squeeze a small amount of each tube into the wells of your watercolor palette. You can arrange the colors according to the color wheel to ease color mixing.
  3. Use a toothpick or paper clip to help it set.
  4. Give the paints a day or two to dry before putting them away. When you want to use them all you need to do is spray some clean water to reactivate them. And that’s how you use watercolor tubes!

 If you’re confused about what palette to get be sure to read the guide on choosing palettes here.
How to use watercolor tubes

How to store watercolors

Watercolors are very low maintenance when it comes to storage. I would advise getting a palette that has a cover to avoid the buildup of dirt. When you’ve finished your painting session it’s always best to give your paints some time to dry before closing and putting them away to be stored. 

When traveling with watercolors, it’s best to let them dry so that the colors don’t mix in the wells. Caked pans require a special tin where they can be secured and don’t fly around. 

Basic watercolor techniques to get started

Now that we’ve discussed how to use watercolors, and store them let’s talk about the different techniques to get you started. There are two main techniques you need to know: wet on wet and wet on dry. 

Wet on wet

Wet on wet refers to taking a loaded brush and painting onto a paper that is also wet. This technique is suitable for creating backgrounds, painting over large areas and results in soft feathery edges.

How to paint wet on wet

  1. Start by tapping down your watercolor paper on a flat surface. 
  2. Load your brush with clean water and paint over the whole paper to wet it.
  3. While the paper is still wet, load your brush with any color of your choosing and paint a few patterns onto the wet paper.
  4. Once the paper starts to dry, it’s best not to add more paint as this could disorient the patterns you put down. 
how to paint wet on wet technique using watercolors

Wet on dry

The wet-on-dry technique involves painting on a blank, dry piece of paper or an already-dried layer of paint. This technique is used for painting details and creating sharper edges. Let’s get into it:

How to paint wet on dry

Here’s a demonstration of how to use the wet-on-dry technique:

  1. Prepare your workstation and activate your watercolors
  2. Mix any color you want on the mixing palette
  3. Load your brush with the pigment and start painting, if you feel your brush has too much water you can dab it on the paper towel/cloth to remove some of the excess water.
  4. You can paint any pattern, then let it dry
How to paint wet on dry with watercolors

Characteristics of watercolor painting

Water-to-paint ratio: The more water you add to a color, the lighter in value it will be. With practice, it’ll be easier to tell how much water you should use. You can try this practice exercise where you choose any color, and gradually mix in water to lighten the tone. The image below shows an example:

Water to ratio exercise

2. Watercolors are transparent- Unlike other mediums, watercolors are transparent. This means that when you add a new layer of paint, the previous layers can still be seen. This won’t work if you paint a lighter color over a darker one. Because of this, you should always paint starting with the lightest values and ending with the darkest values.

The image below shows an example of how to build layers. This technique is also referred to as glazing:

how to build layers with watercolor
Glazing with watercolors

3. Different stages of wetness- As you saw with the wet-on-wet technique when you drop pigment onto wet paper, the paint will bleed and create a feathery shape. However, depending on how wet the paper is and how much water your brush is the outcome will be slightly different. 

For example, if the paper is damp and the brush is soaked wet it will create a bloom. If both the paper and the brush are damp, the paint will spread less. If you want to learn more about the different stages of wetness then sign up for my email newsletter and receive my free watercolor beginner principles e-book below.

Mixing different colors

Can you mix different colors together?

Yes, you can mix different watercolors together in the mixing area of your palette. It’s always best to clean your brush before picking up the second color. For example, if you want to mix blue and yellow, take some blue paint and release it into the mixing area with your brush. Next, clean your brush and then load it with yellow. This way you can freely mix your colors without the risk of making them muddy. 

With a warm and cool version of each primary color, you can mix almost any other color. I also wrote another post on how to master watercolor mixing if you’re interested in learning more. 

How to mix two colors with watercolor paint step 1
How to mix 2 colors with watercolor paint step 2

Beginner resources

I hope you have enjoyed learning how to use watercolors and found this post helpful! If so I would love to hear any questions or thoughts in the comments below. 

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