Stephen Coates explains watercolour materials, the nature of watercolours and the basic techniques of watercolour painting for beginners.

What do I need to get started in watercolour painting?

1. Watercolour paper

First, it is important to use a good-quality paper, even as a beginner.

It is possible to buy cheap paper from budget stores, but this is generally not recommended.

I recommend using Bockingford NOT paper with a weight of 140lb (300gsm). The NOT denotes that it is ‘not Hot-pressed’ or in other words, Cold-pressed. It has a light texture and helps to give the paint a desirable granulated finish. This is generally available in ring-bound pads or loose sheets. You can also buy gummed pads where the pages are fixed around the edges and don’t need to be taped to a board.

Read our complete guide to watercolour paper

2. Watercolour paints

As with paper, good-quality paint is also important. If you are a beginner, it is not necessary to buy expensive Artists’ quality paint.

I recommend using Winsor & Newton Cotman tubes, which are high-quality Student paints and perform well whilst being much kinder on the pocket.


3. Watercolour brushes

It is important to use dedicated watercolour brushes because the hair is softer and suits the gentle fluid properties of the paint better.

Decent quality brushes made with synthetic hair are widely available but you only need a few.

I recommend Nos. 2, 6 & 8 Round brushes for basic painting.


Read our full guide to watercolour brushes.

How do I get set up for watercolour painting?

Setting up to paint in watercolour is straight forward, but there are a few important things that I would like to recommend:

1. I suggest that you set up on a board, which gently slopes towards you. An angle between 10 and 15 degrees is ideal. Don’t make it too steep or the paint will run down the paper too quickly.

2. You will need a palette, preferably with large flat areas for mixing the colours.

3. Two water pots, a dry cloth, kitchen towel, a soft pencil and an eraser.

4. I use a strong masking tape to fix the paper to the board. I tape down all four sides completely otherwise the edges curl up as the paper becomes wet.  

How difficult is it to begin painting in watercolour?

It is often said that watercolour is the most difficult of all media, which is probably true, but why?

For me, it’s all about control. With other media, such as oils and acrylics, the pigments can be manipulated, blended and reshaped whilst they are still soft, but the end result is created with an action using whatever tool has been chosen to apply them. The paint is scraped, stroked, dabbed or stippled on but doesn’t move once it has been applied. The artist therefore feels in full control of the destiny of the paint.

Controlling watercolour

Control is achieved in a completely different way with watercolour. The pigment is laid out on the paper as the water flows out of a brush. A brush head full of paint will start to dispense as soon as the brush comes into contact with the paper. The touch is delicate with almost no pressure necessary at all.

As a beginner, seeing paint flow out of a brush in an uncontrolled manner is a little disconcerting so, to gain back control, there are a number of perfectly natural responses that can be detrimental and form bad habits right from the outset. These compensating actions include using thicker paint, smaller brushes or continually scraping water off the brush on the side of the palette or water pot before applying.

Understanding watercolour

The following exercises will help you to understand the fluidity, opacity and treatment of watercolour paint.

Exercise one

The principle of applying watercolour paint can be established by repeating this exercise and you should get a natural feel for the fluidity of the paint and how it behaves. The initial pictured exercises are done with ultramarine.

When I teach beginners on my watercolour fundamentals workshop, I always start by asking them to pick up a brush and fill in a square.

The natural human instinct is to go around the edge first then fill in the middle.

Furthermore, students often don’t pick up enough paint and it then tends to dry too quickly. The result is a rather patchy affair with the line around the edge quite visible.

No amount of smoothing out will help. In fact, it just gets worse as more and more brushmarks appear.

Draw several squares roughly 6x6cm. Don’t worry about using a ruler; they don’t need to be perfect.

What not to do!

Step one

Pick up a small amount of paint and go around the edge first.

Step two

Fill in the central area. You will see, as above, a mark appearing where the new paint meets the initial border, which has already nearly dried.

The finished square

The result, after it has dried, is patchy and ugly!

Try this instead!

Step one

1. By placing the paper on a gentle slope, you can take advantage of gravity.

2. Fill the brush with as much paint as possible and stroke it across the top of the square area.

Note that you can load as much liquid paint into this area as you like and it will surprisingly hold in place.

A bead of paint forms along the bottom edge, because the water molecules are attracted to both the paper and each other. This strange force actually defies gravity and the edge can only be broken with an action with the brush.

Step two

Once the top edge has been loaded, hold the brush at a low angle and gently sweep from side to side whilst gradually moving down the area to be filled.

Step three

Don’t worry about having too much paint. Once the area has been filled there may be an excess along the base.

You can easily remove this by squeezing the brush dry with a bit of kitchen towel and then gently touching it with the tip of the brush.

Like magic, the brush will quickly absorb the excess paint leaving a really smooth finish.

The finished square

This method results in a nice, evenly-filled square!

Exercise two

For a bit of fun, try painting longer vertical strips. Keep adding paint as you descend until you reach the base. It is important not to touch the settled area above the base, because it will leave a mark. In this example, I used burnt sienna.  

Step one

Make the initial brushstrokes.

Step two

Midway through the process, collect the bead of paint with the next brushstroke.

The finished column

The result is an evenly filled column.

Demonstration: Cottage

Using the methods you have tried above and with the same two colours of ultramarine and burnt sienna, follow a step-by-step demonstration to paint a simple cottage.

Begin by squeezing out a small blob of ultramrine and burnt sienna on to your palette and loosen off the ultramarine with a little water.