5 Watercolor Tips For When You're Getting SOOOO Frustrated
Okay. So. You've been painting. With watercolor. And if you're being honest, it's not going all that great. Your paintings feel messy and out of control—a misty blur that's nothing like what you were picturing when you first set brush to paper. Or they feel wooden and scripted in a clumsy sort of way—your strokes ring false and you keep over-rendering your subject in attempts to get those paintings back on track. Let me reassure you: as a mostly self-taught artist, I've been there too, and I want to share with you some tips that took me many years to learn.
1. It’s all about the paper!
When I was getting started with watercolor, I was told all I really needed to worry about in the way of paper was to make sure it was cold-pressed and at least 140 lb or 300 gsm. And so I spent several years creating every single one of my *many* watercolor paintings on Canson's cheap student-grade watercolor paper.
But you guys, let me tell you what I learned wayyyy later than I should have: watercolor paper is NOT created equal. It's priced differently to reflect the fact that it's made with very different materials. Student-grade watercolor paper is typically made with a hefty percentage of wood-pulp (cellulose), whereas proper artist-grade watercolor paper is made with 100% cotton. (Not 25%, and not 50%. I'm talking 100% cotton or bust, baby.)
Is there a significant price difference between these two kinds of paper? You bet! But if you’re in any way serious about your development as a watercolor artist—heck, even if you just want to squeeze out all the joy the medium can provide—I promise you the higher price tag is worth it. Why? Because watercolor is a transparent medium, and so the way the paint interacts with the paper is an essential component of all traditional watercolor paintings. If you use cheap paper made from wood pulp, you'll find that the paint won't sit as beautifully on top of the paper or create the mesmerizing textures we've come to associate with watercolor. You may even find that your paper "pills" (scrubs up in little wet blobs that are SO annoying) or becomes unevenly discolored if you apply too much water. The long and short of it is, poor-quality materials = poor-quality results, and disappointing results tend to leave you feeling frustrated and doubting your ability to bring your creative aspirations to life. It may even lead you to abandon the pursuit of painting altogether. We can't have that!
So what kind of paper should you be using? Well, brace yourselves, because I'm about to out and say it: Arches. You should be using Arches. Now, before you start chucking rotten vegetables in my general direction and yelling choice phrases about no matter what Some People do, not all of us can afford to live like literal monarchs, hear me out. My husband and I have had a tight financial year. I've cut back on expenses from groceries to cell phone service. But let me tell you what I have not done: I have not painted a single thing on watercolor paper that wasn't absolutely top of line (for me, that's almost exclusively Arches). Why? Because my time is valuable to me, and trying to wring good work out of poor materials is never a good use of it.
Take my advice: bite the bullet and get yourself a single pad of premium watercolor paper made with 100% cotton. (I personally use a 9x12 pad of Arches 300 gsm cold-pressed watercolor paper, although I do also enjoy this paper from Arteza.) Snip it into tiny pieces if you need to. Work small and spread it out. But for goodness sake, just give it a chance. It might change everything.
2. It's all about the paint!
Okay. I know, I know. Art supplies can be so darn expensive, and what everyone really wants to hear is that there are ways they can get away with just...NOT spending much money on them—but of course still making fab artwork that wows everyone they know. Can you make astonishing art with cheap supplies? Of course you can! You can make art out of mud, dead trees, ballpoint pens, or friggin' finger paint. But you're presumably reading this because you want to make art out of watercolors, and so far the medium is giving you some trouble.
It's been my personal experience that when watercolor isn't working out, there's usually a good chance sub-par supplies are part of the problem. I, for example, spent years painting with student-grade Koi watercolors, and while I liked them a lot, I never felt that my paintings manifested the same luminosity and vibrance I so enjoyed in the work of other watercolor painters I admired. I took it for granted that the problem was with me, that dedicated practice would eventually get me where I wanted to be. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to painting, all the practice in the world can't make up for low-end supplies.
Just as with watercolor paper, there's a simple but significant difference between student-grade paints and artist-grade paints: pigment load. Paint is made by combining pigments (that's the color!) with a binder (the "glue," so to speak, that holds it all together). The thing is, pigments are expensive, and when paint manufacturers offer more affordable student-grade options, they tend to do it by reducing the amount of pigment in the paint and replacing it with "fillers." This means that student-grade paints and artist-grade paints often interact very differently with water and with the paper. Student-grade paints tend to yield less-saturated colors and can even be a bit chalky or muddy in appearance.
So. If you're having trouble getting watercolor to do what you want it to do, consider trying some proper artist-grade paints (on some proper artist-grade paper wink wink) and see if that makes a difference for you. (Read on for my personal paint recommendations.)
Still daunted by the expense? Well, that brings me right to my next point.
3. Learn to mix your own colors!
Painting with expensive watercolor paints doesn't have to be that expensive. The trick? Start with a limited palette and mix your own colors!
While there's admittedly something tempting about those big paint sets that seem to contain every hue and shade the most sophisticated painter could possibly want, I can't stress enough how unnecessary these assortments are—especially for a transparent, water-based medium like watercolor, which is best used in layered applications and reactivates easily to allow tweaks and modifications to color. I promise you: eight half-pans of a really good watercolor brand like Sennelier or Schminke Horadam will serve you much better than 24 or 48 full-pans of student-grade watercolors that yield dull, flat colors and don't reactivate properly when you want to practice blending or layering techniques.
My personal favorite watercolor palette is Sennelier's Extra-Fine 12-Pan Watercolor Travel Set. (Click the link to see all of Sennelier's watercolor sets and then search for "01755-3129" to find the specific product I use.) This little gem may seem tiny when you first hold it in your hands, but that's the beauty of artist-grade paint: a little goes a looooooong way. This palette easily lasts me two years, even with very regular painting sessions, and I can't recommend it highly enough. (If it's too expensive for you, you'll find that there's also a much cheaper 8 half-pan set listed on that page as well.)
Although Sennelier is my favorite watercolor brand at present, I almost-equally enjoy painting with Schminke Horadam's pan sets. This is another quite pricey brand, but you can buy individual half-pans from them and mix-and-match them in the wonderful metal cases and pocket-boxes Sennelier makes.
And finally, there's Daniel Smith and Winsor & Newton. While I haven't personally tried their professional grade pan sets, I know these are two of the most respected professional watercolor brands, so you really can't go wrong choosing them for your first foray into artist-grade watercolors.
4. Don't forget the water!
One of the things that's so special about watercolor is that it directly incorporates the flow, transparency, and spontaneity of water into the painting process. Unfortunately, this quality that sets watercolor apart from other art forms can also make it particularly challenging to master. A common issue for new watercolor artists—including me, for longer than I care to admit—is that we so often just don't know what to do with the water. We may have been making art for many years before we took up watercolor, but graphite, charcoal, pastels, colored pencils, ink pens, and even acrylic and oil paint never taught us how to handle a medium that relies so heavily on water at every stage of its application, and this unfamiliarity tends to lead to specific problems.
What are these problems? Some I've personally encountered and see a lot among new watercolor artists are these:
A) Not using enough water. I was guilty of this one for ages, so I definitely get it: water is unpredictable and scary! It feels so much safer to keep our brushes relatively dry and apply the paint as though it were a marker or a pencil. But watercolor is at its best when it's allowed to run just a little bit wild. You can definitely do heavily rendered details with watercolor, but don't forget to start with loose washes and let your painting give you a few surprises. If you're not excited about this, why are you using watercolor in the first place?
B) Not blending washes properly. When you're trying to cover a relatively large area of paper with a more or less evenly-colored wash, do you find that your paint quickly develops sharp edges and won't blend smoothly? This was one of the thing I found MOST frustrating in my early days of watercolor, but fortunately, as long as you're using high-quality paint and 100% cotton watercolor paper, it should be an easy problem to fix. The trouble is caused by the fact that watercolor paint dries very quickly, and the simplest trick for solving this issue is to first brush a small amount of clear water over the entire area you want to cover with your wash, and then apply your paint in even brush strokes and without going back to "fix" mistakes. You may have to mess around with this technique a little bit in order to master it, but when you do, it's bound to make a really big difference.
C) Not understanding how paint interacts with the wet page. It's crucial to understand that there are two *types* of watercolor application: wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry. This sounds simple enough, but getting careless about this difference (or not really understanding it in the first place) can give you a lot of grief and quickly sap your confidence. Put simply, when you apply watercolor to an already-wet page, your colors will be "alive" when they hit the page. Depending on the amount of water on the page, your paint may feather, run, marble, blend, or just generally launch a whole party! (This is part of the joy of watercolor, and practice will help you learn how to exercise a *little* control over this process.) By contrast, when you apply watercolor to a dry page, the paint will tend to stay more or less where you put it. It will, however, dry into place much faster, and sharp edges will tend to pop up around the borders of the areas where you've applied the paint. If you're trying to paint ambitious watercolor projects without spending a lot of time learning through trial and error what to expect from these different methods of application, chances are you're going to get quickly overwhelmed, disappointed, and heavy-handed with the trashcan. I've been there too. I know what it's like. And while chucking paintings you spent tons of time on and then sitting sadly at your desk feeling like you've wasted a whole afternoon or evening is perhaps an unavoidable rite of passage for every painter, it still sucks, and I want less of that for you.
5. Learn from other artists!
Certainly the best way to minimize bad moods next to the trashcan is to recognize that, as artist Marco Bucci says, "the only failed painting is one where I didn't learn anything." But maybe the second-best way is to surround yourself with instruction and inspiration from not just one but many watercolor artists you admire. Learning from the mistakes of other artists can mean you don't have to make quite so many mistakes yourself. And fortunately, in the 2020s, it's easier than ever to find high-quality instruction from makers we respect.
I personally enjoy putting on art tutorial videos from my favorite artists and playing them in the background even when I'm painting something completely different from the subject in their demo. Hearing artists "talk shop" helps me learn about my materials and fills my head with ideas for new techniques I can try, and knowledge about common mistakes to avoid. Some of my favorite Youtubing artists are Marco Bucci, Florent Farges, James Gurney (he's the illustrator of Dinotopia!), Malcolm Dewey, Shelby Dillon, Matthew White, Andrea England (I mainly follow her fascinating sailboat studio on Instagram, but she does have a Youtube channel), and Following the White Rabbit. Additionally, although she isn't on Youtube, I'm absolutely fascinated by the incredible watercolor paintings of Lily Seika Jones. Your list of favorite artists might be completely different from mine, but if you don't have a list yet, I encourage you to start making one. And please: don't see it as a professional development task to mark off your checklist, but more as a gift you give yourself because you believe in your art and are willing to lavish time and attention towards a goal of making it the best it can be. You got this!
And finally, I'm a big believer that artists benefit a whole bunch from devotedly supporting the work of other artists. I buy paintings and prints from my favorite artists whenever I can manage it financially, and regularly looking at very different styles and takes that have all wowed me in one way or another helps me keep my own work fresh, lively, and evolving. While it's easy for makers and painters to get wrapped up in our own work, art is essentially a form of communication, and in order for our oh-so precious work to communicate anything, it helps a LOT to be plugged in to a network of people who believe art actually has something to say. Not to mention: no one knows better than we do that the creation of art is an intimate labor of immense love, and that being the caretaker of another person's art enriches us both.
Happy shopping, practicing, painting, video-watching, art-buying, and just living in general! Here's to fewer feelings of despair in the company of the trash-can, and brighter days ahead!