An Introduction to Watercolours, Part 1

Based on the panel I put together for AVCon. I had kinda wanted to make the presentation come from the point of view of a beginner learning about the medium but I didn’t have quite enough time to lock down the tone and focus of the presentation. Still went pretty well and I had an interested, engaged audience. Let’s get straight into things.

Advantages of Watercolour:

Watercolours are a surprisingly versatile medium and produce a range of beautiful results. The transparency of the paint means that watercolour paintings often have a light, bright or effortless feeling to them.

There’s also a charming unpredictability about floating pigment in water. While in an acrylic, oil or even digital image you can get a lot of expressiveness into the painting through brush strokes, expressiveness in watercolour paintings is often about walking the line between controlling the medium and letting the unexpected happen.

I enjoy watercolours because they are a tidy medium. All I need is my box of colours, a brush and some water and I can dive straight into a painting. Watercolours are also teaching me discipline and are encouraging me to make careful choices about colour and what I commit to paper. Often there’s no taking back something once it’s put down, which leads to the next section…


Watercolour can be quite unforgiving. One of the great skills required by watercolour artists is being able to leave the whites of an image untouched. This way, the white of the paper serves to provide the highlights. Although there is often white paint included in watercolour sets, you will never achieve the same effect as leaving the paper clean. I think of a painting as one that is drawn without white available at all. In short, with watercolours you cannot paint white over your picture like you might do with acrylics, oils, pastels or in a digital image.

Layering colours can also be tricky as the transparency of the paint usually means that the colour beneath is evident. Again, if you have painted over a section in the wrong colour you will have difficulty restoring it and painting over it likely won’t work well. On the other hand, if you’re glazing an area to give it a hint of a new colour, you must be careful to use a thin wash. Although the colour below may be evident even with a thicker wash, details can be lost. A painter also has to be careful to not disturb the pigment that is sitting on the paper on layers of paint they’ve previously applied.

Finally, working with a wet medium of course means dealing with different behaviours as the paper or paint have different wetness. Painting onto a wet sheet of paper will give a vastly different result to painting on a dry sheet. This means that the watercolour painter must learn to gain familiarity with the way that the paint acts. They must also learn patience!

Some art links demonstrating what is possible with watercolour:

  • Reuben Negron – Realism in Watercolours!. Beware most of his gallery is NSFW, but the linked image is fine
  • Stephanie Pui-Mun Law – I love the fantasy art of this artist. An inspiration. She readily shares works in progress and shares her knowledge on her blog
  • Levi Dansam – A recent discovery. The art feels thoughtful, perhaps because of the blend of finely controlled forms and areas where the paint just flows.
  • Cari Corene – Another recent finding. I wonder if her art gets much digital enhancement… but does it matter? The colours here, even if do they appear duller in real life, are superb

Next up: materials.


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