By practising some of the following exercises, not only will you create lovely paintings, you will learn invaluable lessons.

Become your own tutor and analyse everything you do. If you are happy with the outcome, ask yourself why and how could you make it even better. If something went wrong, identify at what stage, what you can do to avoid doing it again and focus on the positive – what went right and why? Your learning will accelerate.

If you hold your brush like a pen, it will be very controlled. If you hold it at the end, you will need to use your whole arm to move it and it will give less control with more expression. If you hold it at the end and stand up, you will achieve even more expression and use your whole body. Try to paint with a larger brush for as long as possible, on a piece of paper larger than your intended finished size.

Top tip

Use the back of your hand to feel if the paper is dry. If it is cool to the touch, there is residual moisture.

Time to Reflect, watercolour, (45x35cm).

My avocet needed somewhere to wade so I used Clingfilm to create a few ripples.

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1 - Experiment with your brushes

Use your largest Round brush and see what variety of marks you can make. Use the tip or the belly, and make sweeping marks that break up across the paper, straight lines and wiggles. Avoid dabbing and try to touch the paper only once to achieve your desired result. Now do the same with your smaller Round and your Rigger. If you have a flat brush, experiment with the tip, the edge and flat. Keep this as a crib sheet and aim to make the same exciting marks in your paintings.

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2 - Tone

Achieving good tonal variation is key to producing a great painting. Tone is the lightness and darkness of the colour, while hue is the actual colour. Tone describes the physical shapes, while hue captures the emotion. You can paint a landscape in purple and, if you make the tones right, it will be lively and recognisable. Your painting may have wonderful colours, but if they are all similar tones it will be lifeless. For me tone matters far more than hue.

Try painting your favourite subject in one colour. If you find it hard to see tone, use your phone to take a black and white photo.

3 - Make the water work for you

How you handle the water is more important that how you handle the paint. You may never be fully in control, but it will make a difference.

Top Tip

If your colours are insipid, you may be going straight from cleaning off your brush into your wash and therefore adding lots of water each time. Blot your brush on a sponge or paper towel so you know exactly how much water is in it.

4 - Wet in wet

You may be heartily bored with your monochrome by now so choose three harmonious colours (close together on the colour wheel) or a triad of primaries. Now wet a quarter sheet of watercolour paper and, using a big brush, paint broad strokes of colour. Tilt the paper to help the colours merge. Spray with water if you want to wash a path through the paint. Try dropping in more pigment. Use lots of water and paint!

When you have a pleasing result with no hard edges, lay it flat to dry completely. Mop off any puddles at the edges with a thirsty brush or back-runs will result. Thirsty brush is a clean damp brush that will suck up surplus water and wash or can be used to soften a hard edge. I bet you have some really exciting passages – does it bring a subject to mind? Could this make a fantastic background?

Top tip

Don’t forget watercolour will dry up to 30 per cent lighter.

5 - Wet up to wet

Working wet up to wet allows you to have the soft colour merges in a more controlled way. First mix your colours to a semi-skimmed milk consistency – you don’t want to have to mix more halfway through. Place the first colour then place the second alongside it. Even a tiny gap of dry paper will keep them apart, but if they touch the magic will happen. The colours will merge in exciting and unexpected ways.

6 - Combine wet into wet and wet up to wet

Remember making that lovely wet-in-wet mix in No. 4? Let’s use a more intense mix of the same colours to paint a subject on top. Select a subject with a strong outline and paint it wet up to wet, just as we did the feather. This shows the importance of tone and shape. You might drop in some clean water to create back-runs if it is appropriate to your subject.


1. Find a feather and decide if you want to paint it in real or fantasy colours. Sketch a light outline. Note the central quill and the way the barbs come out of it. Look at the downy after-feather too.

2. Now on dry paper using your largest round, begin at the top and work down,

leaving flecks of white to suggest the shaft and barbs. Change colours as you go to allow them to merge.

3. When you are at the hollow shaft at the end, use the wrong end of your brush to paint it.

4. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some soft edges? Use a clean brush to paint up to the edge with water then let a little of the colour bleed away. If you have a fine spray, try gently spritzing the edge (use your hand to shield parts of the painting you do not want to spray). If you want to lighten any area to give a glossy appearance, while wet lift some of the pigment using a thirsty brush. You can make gentle marks and patterns in this way too.

5. Now repeat the painting, but dampen the paper first.

6. Let it dry and analyse. Which area do you like? Can you see how the white suggests the form? Do you like the soft and hard edges? Can you see how the variety helps your eye move round the subject?

Top tip

A variety of edges – hard, soft, lost and found – will give your painting interest.

7 - Texture

Watercolour is a flat medium with the only real texture coming from the paper, but you can create the illusion of texture. When we are painting animals these textures are wonderful for creating fur and feather, but a note of caution – only use a technique if it brings something to the party. If you use lots of texturing, your painting may become very busy and clichéd.

It’s a great idea to make a reference sheet. You will find that different pigments make a big difference to the end effect.

Table Salt

For salt, some colours work beautifully (say the pinks and purples) and some don’t (the earth pigments). You will find this out by trial and error. Often the results of texturing are better if you let the wash start to dry – putting salt into a very wet wash simply ends up with a salty puddle.

Paint a fairly intense wash and sprinkle a small amount of ordinary table salt into it as the sheen is starting to go. Wait for the magic, as snowflakes appear. Could this be used for the down on a bird? When absolutely dry, scrape off the crystals with your nail.

Epsom Salts

Repeat with Epsom salts – the larger crystals make different marks.


Now paint two colours up to each other. Stretch the Clingfilm to make wrinkles in the direction you want and put it on the wash. You can move it around until you get a pattern you like. Leave it in place to dry, which will take longer than usual, as there is no evaporation. Don’t use a hairdryer for obvious reasons! I have used it for wet fur or ripples on water.

Two’s Company, watercolour, (40x40cm).

I used salt textures extensively to paint these Indian Runner ducks, both in their downy breasts and in the background to echo it.

Now try putting these techniques into practice as you follow Liz to paint this brilliant donkey portrait, or a colourful cat.

Slipper, watercolour on canvas, (40x40cm)

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Liz Chaderton

Liz is a professional artist based in Berkshire. She runs classes and workshops and exhibits across the country. Visit her website for details or her blog for more tips and ideas.

Liz writes regularly for Leisure Painter. See what you could be learning every month with a money-saving subscription.

You can also enjoy a series of video demonstrations by Liz on Studio TV - discover Studio here.