Learn How to Art: What is Watercolor?
I LOVE watercolor. It’s a type of paint that I’ve always been drawn to: light, delicate, and detailed, with the painting origin’s – water – clearly visible. It’s fascinating that watercolorists can achieve such a wide variety of effects by manipulating pigments with water.
Like my other favorite medium, scratchboard, watercolor can be unforgiving and doesn’t look kindly upon mistakes. It has a reputation as the hardest type of painting to master, but in a way, it’s also the most accessible paint. All you need to do is add water.
What is Watercolor Paint?
Watercolors might be the oldest form of paint in existence. Some scholars suggest that Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe may have been done with a medium similar to watercolor.
Watercolor is a water-soluble paint that has pigments held together by gum, which then dissolves in water, leaving only the pigments when dried.
It’s a light paint that leaves transparent colors. One benefit, or skill of watercolor, depending on how you look at it, is the ability to work with the white of the paper you use. Unlike other paints, there’s no need to completely cover your painting surface, especially if you want to preserve bright whites in your work.
The Many Forms of Watercolor
Watercolor is a versatile paint, both in the way you can use it and the forms it takes.
You can find watercolors in tubes, liquid, or pan sets. However, water-soluble crayons and watercolor pencils are two unique forms of this paint. You can’t use crayons or pencils in the same ways regular paints, but they contain the same water-soluble pigments and can closely imitate the appearance of watercolor paint.
There are a few interesting sets out there too, like this watercolor wheel set that I really want to try. It looks perfect for painting outdoors.
Or this brush pen + watercolor combination travel kit that makes paint feel a little more like calligraphy or inking.
Watercolor pans or cakes refer to the rectangular watercolor sets you probably tried as a kid. Once paint cakes were revolutionary, but today most professionals use highly condensed watercolors that come in metal tubes. They look very similar to small tubes of acrylic or oil paint.
You only need to mix a little paint with water to get rich colors. But you aren’t quite finished after you’ve purchased the paint. Some other components you need or might want are:
- Watercolor paper
- Painter’s tape or a weak masking tape
- Gum tape
- Masking fluid
Of course, don’t forget a palette of some form and paper towels or rags – unless you have many, many brushes, you’ll need to clean and dry brushes in between colors.
Fortunately, brushes are usually labeled “watercolor” if they’re suitable for this paint.
You can choose either natural or synthetic brushes for watercolor. The cheapest brushes you’ll see are probably synthetic, created to imitate the texture and durability of natural hair brushes.
The best quality you can go for are Kolinsky sable brushes. They’re actually made from the hair of a weasel native to Russia. They’re also the most expensive.
Other sable brushes really do use the hairs of a sable. These brushes are still excellent quality. Be aware that some brushes use a synthetic sable mix.
Squirrel, ox, goat, and pony hair brushes are also good quality, but don’t retain their shape as well as sable. They’re well-suited for flat, wide brushes, not fine points.
Don’t Underestimate the Paper
The paper you choose for a watercolor painting is very important. Not only because you’ll mostly be seeing the white of the paper in your finished artwork, but because your paper needs the ability to hold water without wrinkling.
Regular drawing paper will become wrinkled and warped when you apply water. Watercolor paper is thick and “pressed” which helps it withstand moisture. You can also “stretch” your paper before painting on it to prevent warping. I’ll go into stretching a bit later.
When shopping for watercolor paper, you might see paper labeled with something like “300 lb cold-press.”
What? I was super confused when I first started shopping for watercolor paper.
There are three types of watercolor paper, but the first two are the most common.
These features refer to the paper’s texture.
Hot press paper has the smoothest texture. It dries the quickest and makes it easier to paint wide, even layers of color.
Cold press paper has some tooth or texture to it. When you think of watercolor paper, cold press is mostly likely what comes to mind since it’s the most commonly used.
Rough watercolor paper is exactly what it sounds like, and has even more texture than cold-pressed paper. The finished painting might have a grainy look to it.
Each paper is also labeled with a weight, which refers to how much one ream of paper (usually 500 sheets) would weigh. The higher the pounds, the better quality the paper.
Standard watercolor paper weights are 90 lb, 140 lb, and 300 lb, but there are other weights between and beyond this range. Papers below 300 lb should be stretched to avoid warping.
Stretching Your Paper
To keep your paper smooth while you’re painting, it’s a good idea to stretch your paper beforehand. You stretch watercolor paper by first soaking it. There are two ways to soak your paper.
A. Completely submerge your paper in a pan, sink or bathtub for 5 to 10 minutes.
Lift your paper out of the water, letting the water drip off. Then place it on a flat surface, like a drawing board or panel, and smooth it out using a sponge. Blot out any excess water.
B. Place your paper on a flat surface, then use a large brush or sponge to evenly wet the paper. Then flip the paper over and repeat on the back side.
Then secure the edges of your paper to your flat surface and let it dry. Tape is the most common method, especially gummed tape, but some artists use staples.
The next time you apply water, your paper will have already been stretched out so it shouldn’t warp.
For my classes, I’d always use Strathmore’s student grade paper (140lb cold-press), but they have a nicer professional-grade papers too. Stonehenge and Arches were the paper brands spoken the most highly of by my professors.
Keep the whites
With how unpredictable water can be, it gets difficult to preserve white space in watercolor works. You can’t always create the crisp lines you can with acrylic or tempera.
Masking Fluid solves this problem. You apply masking fluid before you begin painting, so any areas you want to keep white are preserved. You can either do this for areas you want to be white or other colors that you want to keep distinct from the rest of your work.
Once you’re done painting, you can simply pull the masking fluid off.
If you’re not sure you really need masking fluid, you can try a household substitute first: rubber cement. Rubber cement might not come off the page as neatly as masking fluid, but it’ll give you a feel for what this technique is like.
It’s a good idea to make a color chart when you get a new set of watercolors, so you know what the colors will look like. You can’t see exactly what the colors are like from the printed color on the tube, like you might with acrylic or oil. A light wash will look different than wet on wet techniques or drops?
You should also experiment with different techniques.
A color grid is another way to test your colors and learn how you can create new colors by layering them.
There are several techniques watercolor techniques out there, and this is only the most basic list. If you’re just getting started with watercolor, you should definitely try these techniques to learn the extent of what you can achieve with watercolor.
- Wet on dry – just regular painting
- Wet on wet – wet paper causes the paint to “feather” out
- Dry on wet – creates a lighter type of feathering
- Dry brush – rough, textured look that shows off the brush bristles
- Salt – creates snowflake-like designs when sprinkled onto wet paint
Try experimenting with other types of material to use with watercolor. One fun idea that’s gained recent popularity is using instant coffee to paint like watercolor. Since coffee will only give you brown tones, you could experiment by adding colors with paint.
Well-Known Watercolor Works
- Albrechdt Dürer – Young Hare, 1502
- Wassily Kandinsky – Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1910
- Andrew Wyeth – Alvaro on Front Doorstep, 1942
- Artist has full control over opacity
- Transparent paints create interesting layers
- Works with the white of the paper
- Wide variety of techniques
- Few materials needed
- Dries quickly
- Easy clean-up
- Known as the most difficult to master
- Water can be hard to control
- Hard to cover up mistakes
- Quick painting sessions
- Sable, squirrel hair, or synthetic brushes
- Combining with other media, such as pencil, pen, gouache