ARC 381: Watercolor Tutorials


This is a collection of resources intended to assist students enrolled in ARC 381 get up to speed with basic watercolor technique prior to the trip. This is a self-directed tutorial so you can work at your own pace and whenever you have a few minutes to spare in your busy schedule.

A few basic things that I'll encourage you to think about anytime you sit down for a painting session:

  • Remember that you're not painting with paint; you're painting with water that has been tinted with pigment. Watercolor is its own thing and doesn't behave like gouache and oils.
  • Because of its slippery nature, watercolor allows/imposes its own rules, especially in regard to evaporation and gravity, that you'd do well to anticipate and work with, rather than fight. For example, you can kind of move paint around when there's a lot of water on the page; when you keep your paper at a slight angle you'll see that the natural deposits want to run to the bottom of the hill. (Use this to your advantage--one good trick is to remember that the sky typically looks lighter at the horizon, so painting skies upside down kind of makes sense.)
  • Watercolor is open to a huge range of personal vision. Since your paintings are about what you see and what you think is important about a place, experiment with different ways to use the paint to fulfill that vision: precise, dramatic, dreamy, subtle ... the possibilities are virtually endless. Although I don't advise that you try to turn yourself into another person, it does not hurt to open yourself to a lot of different kinds of painters. Spending time on Instagram looking at #watercolor will open you to variety and maybe help you find a person you want to emulate on your own artistic journey!

As you work through these tutorials, do take the time for the exercises--ideally more than just once. If you're willing, send JPEGs of your work to to share in the watercolor pinup board to share your progress!

let’s talk paper

Probably the second most important thing to buying professional-grade paint is your choice of paper. Brush quality matters, but a person can figure out how to deal with wonky colors and a skanky brush. But there's nothing you can do about crummy, thin, wobbly paper. Avoid! To the left is my (current) stash of paper. Some good, some less-so.

The main things to think about when getting paper for watercolor is that it has to stand up to, well, water! To what extent depends on your painting. If you do real sketchy bits of color on your drawings or light washes for shadows, that's one thing; but if you end up drenching your pages with multiple washes, that's another. You'll want to think about relative weight/thickness of the paper, and also it's "toothiness." Hot press paper is smooth and can take more detail in pencil or pen; cold press has more bite and can stand up to more water and brushiness.

The black Moleskine sketchbook is the one purchased for everyone in ARC 381 for the 2019 trip. A lot of people swear by them, but it's new to me. Because I tend to paint on the soppier side, I will take butterfly clips to hold the pages taut as I work. Maybe you want to do the same. Also, some of the exercises that I recommend below would be good to do in the back of this book. I will want to preserve the front for travel, but the back will have color and glazing swatches, and also be a good way to get used to what that paper does.

For the rest of the tour--and I am mostly doing this since if you want to get into this, you'll probably want to supplement your supplies--the big green pad is a watercolor "block", which means that the glue that binds pads like that together is on all four edges, so the paper stays nice and tight as you paint (when it gets wet it expands/ripples; then it dries/contracts). It's by Arches, which is fancy stuff. Awesome for studio work; not necessarily necessary or helpful for travel. The Blick Watercolor pad with the spiral top was cheap, but is very smooth and not very sturdy. Not recommended. The little postcard pad is super quality paper, as you will find in the super-adorable little books by Stonehenge. I like having these little guys around for testing colors and also to have something to doodle on while I'm waiting for the big thing I"m doing to dry. Finally, the black spiral-topped notebook on top of the Moleskine is very nice stuff, and not too expensive, so a good pad to have for practice and fooling around.

getting to know your paints

To If you're starting from the very, very start, with brand-new tubes, here's a good video of the basics, from the right way to open your tube (yes, you can make a mistake there!) to basic mixing on a flat plate. She runs through different intensities of pigment, some basic blending, and variations in paper, which makes a huge difference in your work. (And while I am often tempted to do a lot of practice on cheap paper, it's worth noting that there's then a learning curve to adapting to good paper. So, while you probably don't want to use your best 400# paper for blending exercises, you also don't want to work with something really trashy since it will just fight you and then the water will react differently when you get to the good stuff.)

Try this!

Use her technique to fill in 1" squares with your paints, trying to make the upper-lefthand corner very light and the lower-righthand corner very dense with color.

color charts

After following Elise's exercise with a few paints, expand to your whole kit to do a full color chart like the one to the left. A chart like this helps you study how the colors all interact with each other. You'll see the quality of each paint well, and also what happens when they blend with others Sometimes you'll get some interesting results you didn't anticipate. (Some reds and greens make warm grays that are prettier than anything you'd get out of a tube; likewise, I have found that violet + Payne's Gray is one of my favorite colors for all kinds of things.)

Try this!

Click the picture for a guide through this exercise. Make your own chart with pure and mixed paints. Don't forget to label them!

This exercise is all about the pure colors out the tubes and what happens when they're mixed. In other words, what kind of orange do you get when you mix your red and yellow? But watercolor allows you to do another kind of mixing that other media don't permit, and it's due to their transparency. When you layer different colors you are doing something called glazing, and it is very fun and cool

Try this!

Take another step in understanding colors by making a glazing chart like Danica (below) will show you.

When you've done both, compare: what do you think of the quality and depth of two colors when they are MIXED (as in the first exercise) or GLAZED (as in the second)?

(By the way, if you're working with thick/toothy paper, you'll have a better chance to see how some paints are very clear and consistent, and others have strong sediment that falls into the crevices of the paper. This can lead to neat effects if you plan for these layers and how the sediment will settle, but that's some next-level stuff.)


Getting comfortable? All of these exercises so far have been about dabbling abstractly and that's fine but there are going to be times that you want some control over setting up an expanse of color on a thing that you're painting--a wall, a sky, etc. So let's get started with washes. A flat wash is filling up an area with a single color, like you've been doing with the exercises above. A graded wash goes from light to dark. Here's Danica (again) to show you how she does it. (You'll also see that she uses tape to mask the area she's painting. This is a good tool to have if you want to have a nice white border around your painting without worrying about painting carefully at the edge. Just make sure you get tape designed for this purpose!)

Again the transparency of watercolor allows for washes to be worked up in layers or glazes, as you practiced above by using different colors. You'll see here just how rich the colors can get, especially if the glazes are going light-to-dark in different sequences. This is also a good technique to even out weird problems that sometimes show up in washes.

By the way, note that when she's painting on a flat surface it's easier to keep more pigment at the top of the page. If you're outside you'll probably have a slanty watercolor block or sketchbook, so remember that the heavier pigment will run downhill, so just work with it. Also she makes a really good point about making sure you are painting on really wet or really dry paper. If you want to see if your paint has dried, and it LOOKS dry, test it by resting the back of your hand lightly on the paint. If it's cold, it's still wet. Don't touch with your fingers--the oils will stick to the paper and the water (color) won't stick.

Try this!

Do some graded washes. Feel free to mess around with whatever hues look nice to you or, if you're up to it, find something to use as a guide--maybe the actual sky outside (which is mostly blue, but maybe a little green, or pink, depending on the weather and time of day), or a picture of an Italian wall, like many stuccoed Italian walls you'll see in just a few months, and which will look orange at first glance, and then you'll see all the other colors that can be brought out in a really good glazing exercise.

reviewing the basics & putting them together

Now here's this cheerful guy who will also take you through basics from paper, brushes, and a different kind of paint (pans, in this case, rather than tubes). He'll go through the basic techniques of wet on wet vs. wet on dry. I will also add to his good advice to keep your two water cups straight to never drink from a glass when you're watercoloring--always have something with a handle to reach for so you don't make a huge mistake that will ruin your day!

Try this!

Make a little painting that puts everything together: glazes, graded washes, wet on wet and wet on dry techniques. If you want to jump straight to buildings and the climate you're in is amenable, go for it! Alternately, find a picture in a book or online to follow. Or just look around for a nearby bit of inspiration: a bowl of fruit, a coffee mug, your sleeping dog.

take care of your brushes

Wet your brushes before you start to paint and rinse them thoroughly when you're done. Flick them hard to the ground to get rid of excess water then use a cloth or your fingers to squeeze out more and reform the tip before you let them dry thoroughly. Store them safely. Roll-up packs are nice since they keep everything cushioned and absorb moisture. Apparently you can also DIY something like that with a sushi mat. If your brush came with a plastic tube, you can replace it, just take care to not catch any bristles. In a pinch, your brushes can be wrapped in paper towels and tossed in a pencil case or a pocket of your daypack, but at least tape them together as you see in the picture to protect from mushing the bristles. When you're working, make sure to either have a brush in your hand or laying flat next to you. Nevereverevereverever leave them bristles-down in your rinse glass!

painting scenes and things

How you apply watercolor actual scenes and things will depend to some extent on how you draw: neat, precise and detailed, or broad and sketchy? Here are some videos that will show you diverse approaches.

First up, big swatches of color with a flat brush:

Look ma: no lines:

Here's one with very many lines and bricks:

For those of you seeking photorealism:


get inspired

As it's true in sketching, it's true in watercoloring: your job is not to recreate the precise scene in front of you; that's what you have a camera for. Your job is to record what is important to you, and render it in a way that you can communicate that importance to someone else. I find it really inspiring to look at other painters' work and think about why I admire the ones I really admire. I don't think it's just a pure aesthetic or taste thing, but rather appreciating the way people show a scene or building, which is a result of the way they see it.

Here are some watercolors by two people whose work I like a lot, Charles Sheeler (1883 –1965) and Sophia Kahn (@sophiakahnstudio):

Neat, right? Different, yes? Both require solid drawing to start, but differ so muchin the handling of the paint. Although Kahn's is more drippy and emotive, the Sheeler is not without its modulation in the washes.

There are, of course, a zillion images out there just waiting for your peepers to fall on them. Look around the internet (or maybe even in a real book ). The more you practice,the more you'll see interesting details hiding in the shadows and crevices--seek them for instruction and inspiration!



Finally, here is a short video from urban sketcher Danny Hawk, showing his favorite urban sketches/paintings from last year. It includes a great variety of subject matter and I like his approach to composition and using the two-page format of the sketchbook. Check it out!