Canson Aquarelle watercolour paper

Discover watercolour techniques and the watercolour materials you'll need to start watercolour painting, with our easy guide to watercolour basics.

What is watercolour painting?

Watercolour, as the name implies, is a water-soluble type of paint, which means that the colours are mixed with water to create different strengths of colour and paint consistency. In one form or another, watercolour has been used since the Middle Ages.

Why use watercolour paint?

  • The colours are easy to mix and apply.
  • You can build up effects quickly – without too much delay while the paint dries.
  • Watercolour painting requires very little in the way of essential equipment.

Should I use Artist or Student quality watercolour paints?

Artists’ quality paints are made with a higher proportion of good quality pigments, resulting in stronger and more luminous colours. This makes them more expensive. 

In Student colours, the expensive pigments, such as the cadmiums, are often substituted by cheaper alternatives, denoted by the word ‘hue’ on the label. Nevertheless, Student colours are perfectly reliable and are a good choice to begin with.

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What watercolour supplies do I need?

  • Three 8ml tubes of Student quality colours: a red, blue and yellow. Look for cadmium red hue, cobalt blue hue and cadmium yellow pale hue.
  • A round synthetic-hair watercolour brush. Start with a No. 12 and look for a brush that has a good pointed tip to the hairs and this will give fine lines and marks as well as broad washes.
  • Watercolour Paper. Choose a watercolour pad, such as an A4 spiral-bound 140lb (300gsm) NOT (cold pressed) surface Bockingford pad. Alternatively, you could buy a large sheet of watercolour paper, 22x30in. (56x76cm) and cut this into small sheets. If you're not sure which type of watercolour paper to use, read our full guide to watercolour paper.

Canson watercolour paper

What other watercolour supplies do I need?

  • A water pot – a jam jar is ideal.
  • An old white china plate or saucer to use as a palette, on which to mix your colours.
  • Some kitchen roll to clean the brush and palette.

How to start watercolour painting?

Watercolour works best if the approach is kept simple. Basic watercolour technique relies on applying thin washes of colour, one over another, to build up variations of tone and colour.

For the light areas, whites and highlights, the paper is left untinted, something that is known as reserving the lights.

Some artists like to start with a faint pencil drawing to plot the main shapes of the composition. Others prefer to work directly in colour. But whichever approach you adopt, it does need some forethought and planning, because it is seldom easy to go back and change things in watercolour.

Watercolour suits most types of subject matter, especially landscapes (including buildings and townscapes) and flower studies. It's perfect for capturing mood and atmosphere, and because of this, and the fact that the necessary equipment is small and lightweight, it's often used for painting landscapes on the spot.

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The video by Will Lawrence, below, includes a clear description of the paints, brushes, paper and other materials used in watercolour painting.


These simple exercises will help you to get started in watercolour painting and learn some basic watercolour techniques - 


Watercolour basics exercise

You'll find that each of your colours (red, yellow, blue) has a relative strength (tone and intensity) depending on how much water is added to the mix. Start with a relatively strong colour (left), by mixing some colour with just a little water. Then, gradually add more water to create successively lighter tones (middle), and then less water again to make successively darker tones (right).


Basic watercolour painting exercise

The essence of watercolour painting is that you start with the lightest tones and, where appropriate, work over these with further washes of colour to build up the darker tones.

  1. Box 1 - First, mix a generous amount of weak colour (a colour wash). Lightly draw a simple box shape and paint it all over with a single weak wash of colour.
  2. Box 2 - Next, when the first wash has dried, apply a second layer over two sides of the box.
  3. Box 3 - Finally, apply a third layer over the end of the box. Now you can see how successive layers of wash, applied in this way, will give different effects of light and dark, and so create the impression of three-dimensional form.

Watercolour basics exercise

Make a colour wheel to help you understand colour relationships and what happens when you mix different colours together. Make your colour wheel about 6in. (15cm) in diameter and divide it into 12 equal segments.

  1. Begin with the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue), which should be positioned at intervals of one-third around the wheel.
  2. Place the three secondary colours – each of which is half way between two of the primaries and an equal mixture of those two.
  3. The remaining squares should be filled with colours that are a mixture of the adjacent primary and secondary colours – for example, yellow and green (giving a yellow/green colour), and yellow and orange (yellow/orange).

Now you know the basics to watercolour supplies and watercolour techniques, check out our other handy watercolour guides in our ultimate guide to watercolour painting.