A Beginner’s Guide to Painting with Watercolors

Eli Hill
Feb 13, 2019 10:38PM
Laurent de Brunhoff
"Babar in his Studio," published cover illustration of Babar's Book of Color, 1984
Mary Ryan Gallery, Inc

Artist Michael Boyd’s painting studio is remarkably clean. There are no residual paint drips coating the wall, no haphazard buckets filled with dirty brushes, and no scraps of paper or canvas in sight. Instead, there’s simply a table with a block of cold press paper, a set of watercolor paints, and a neat row of brushes.

For Boyd, one of the biggest perks of using watercolor is the minimal amount of material needed to practice the art form. “I essentially have a portable studio,” he recently explained. “And I have taken it everywhere: Scotland, Berlin…I also like to use it on trains. Sometimes, I’ll even sneak in some painting while I’m at work.” (He runs the downtown New York gallery La Mama.)

While many artists have taken advantage of watercolor’s mobile potential during periods of travel––such as Georgia O’Keeffe, who used the medium to document travels in Texas––many others have used watercolor paint as a key part of their practice. Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Albrecht Dürer, and Louise Bourgeois have all worked in the medium at one point or another.

For those who are looking to brush up on their watercolor techniques or learn the basics for the first time, we spoke to three artists who frequently use the medium: Boyd; Michiyo Fukushima, an instructor of watercolor at the New York Academy of Art; and Ben Blatt, a contemporary artist. Below, they share their best tips and strategies for working with watercolors.

Choose the right paper

Courtesy of Michael Boyd.

Courtesy of Michael Boyd.


One of the first tips that all of the artists shared is that the type of paper you choose is incredibly important. “A lot of problems beginners encounter can be avoided by switching their paper––that’s how much a difference paper makes,” Fukushima says. When selecting your paper, pay close attention to three factors: surface, weight, and format.

When selecting your paper, you’ll have to choose between three different types of surfaces: hot press, cold press, and rough. Hot press paper has the smoothest surface and tightest weave; cold press paper has slightly more of a tooth (or texture) to it; and rough paper is the softest and most loosely woven. Many watercolor artists (including Boyd and Fukushima) prefer cold press for the way it absorbs the water and pigment, yet offers the painter control. Others (such as Blatt) prefer hot press paper, as it lends itself well to sharp details.

When it comes to the weight of the paper, the term “pound” is used to reference the thickness of the page. For example, a business card is typically printed on 100-pound paper. Artists using watercolors will typically want a heavier paper, such as 140-pound or even as high as 300-pound, so that when you apply water to the surface, the paper will be less likely to buckle or warp.

Lastly, you will want to consider the format that the paper comes in. Paper made for watercolor will either come as an individual sheet of paper or in a block—essentially, a pile of paper that is glued together on the edge, so that when you paint onto the paper, its edges are tightly secured and will not warp. If you use a block of watercolor paper, you’ll remove the work by cutting an incision into the binding glue on the edge.

If you use an individual sheet of paper, you’ll want to take some steps to prevent your artwork from warping. The most basic strategy is to simply use masking tape or staples to adhere the edges of your paper onto a table or board. If you’re looking to get more serious, you can soak your paper in cold water for about 7–10 minutes, then let it dry before taping or stapling it down. This way, the paper will never be wetter than it was when you soaked it, and the fibers will be more taut and prepared for the water.

Familiarize yourself with the types of paint and a range of different brushes

Courtesy of Michiyo Fukushima.

Courtesy of Michiyo Fukushima.

While Boyd uses paint cakes––solid, dry portions of paint––Fukushima and Blatt prefer using the liquid watercolors that come in paint tubes; however, the latter two artists note that they will pour the tube of paint into a container and wait for the paint to dry into a cake. Fukushima and Blatt take this extra step because it can be challenging to pick up the right amount of pigment with a brush if you are working with liquid paint. They also prefer working with watercolor tubes because they allow you to use larger containers of paint (over the small squares or circles that cakes typically come in), and they offer more freedom and flexibility in terms of mixing colors and developing palettes. Liquid paints make it easier to return to the colors you have mixed, rather than having to remix your colors from dry cakes.

All three artists recommend having a range of brushes, from rigid to soft and large to small. “I have a few hundred brushes at this point, but somehow, I can never throw them away,” Blatt says. “In the beginning, I’ll be using large flats and anglers, and by the end, I’m down to liners, #000 spotters, and calligraphy pens.” Similarly, Boyd and Fukushima also start with larger brushes to wet the page, create atmosphere, and cover more surface. Then, they gradually shift to softer and smaller brushes as they continue to layer color.

“Towards the end, I have a lot of pigment on the surface of the paper, and I don’t want to disturb what I already put on,” Fukushima explains. “So I switch to the soft brush, the squirrel, so you layer the color really lightly, just glaze over it, and then not really disturb that color that is already on the paper.” Fukushima and Boyd both recommend using sable hair, or other natural brushes as you continue to layer.

Map out the lightest and darkest parts of your composition

Courtesy of Ben Blatt.

Courtesy of Ben Blatt.

In other media, such as acrylic, the paint is held together with a binder, and you can layer opaque planes of color on top of one another. “But with watercolor, you’re dealing with pigment suspended in water, so its binder is relatively nonexistent,” Boyd explains. This material circumstance makes watercolors transparent––meaning that the white of the page will be visible through layers of color. “If you use a black watercolor pigment and it’s thinned with a lot of water, it will end up being gray because the white of the page will show through it,” Boyd says.

Watercolors can also be challenging because marks you make aren’t easy to erase or “fix.” For artists who wish to render a specific image, it’s helpful to spend a decent amount of time mapping out a plan with pencil before beginning, particularly because any whites in your piece should be the unpainted white of the paper you’re working on (not a white pigment).

The process of planning an image will be different for every artist, but for many, it will involve identifying the lightest and deepest areas of an image, so that layers can be built up without error. “It’s like grabbing ingredients for a meal. A lot of questions are answered in prep,” Blatt says.

For example, Boyd will softly trace out the deepest shades of a picture with a pencil, where he knows the marks will be covered up with pigment, whereas for the lightest areas, he’ll apply masking fluid to the page. Though it’s not necessary, masking fluid (which is essentially liquid latex) can help you block out areas of the page that you want to keep paint off of and stay white. Paint will glide over the latex instead of sinking into the page, and once you’re finished, you can peel it off to reveal the vibrant white of the paper.

To capture the darker shades of your image, the artists advise that it’s best to use more pigment, instead of more layers of paint or a deeper color. “If you’re rendering a shadow, or darkness, you won’t necessarily use a darker pigment, but more material, more matter, more pigment,” Boyd explains.

Eli Hill
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019