Pick up a brush and try your hand at one of these techniques.
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watercolor painted pattern of brush strokes
Credit: Courtesy of Kristy Rice

For impressionistic impact, let watercolor washes of blue, pink, and mellow yellow color your canvas. The poetic combination calls to mind a stroll in a garden—one so romantic that it would move Van Gogh or Georgia O'Keefe to paint. They aren't just for experienced artists, though. Beginners can enjoy experimenting with the wide range of color options and blending effects. For a lesson, we tapped watercolor artist and acclaimed stationery designer Kristy Rice and offer her advice on how to begin putting brush to paper.

Tools and Materials

When purchasing your first set of supplies, invest in three items of quality—watercolor paper, a brush, and paint palette. "I'm a big believer in keeping things simple," says Rice. "A lot of expensive supplies don't guarantee of joyful watercolor experience." You'll get the most out of your watercolor paints by choosing a palette of colors that blend well together; this allows you to mix and match to produce other hues. Ideally, your base set should include the primary colors, and neutrals like black and white. Look for high-grade paints with a large amount of pigment that will produce more colorful effects, such as the Kuretake Gansai Tambi Watercolor Paint Pan Set ($40, amazon.com). "This is my favorite beginner's watercolor palette," says Rice. "The colors are rich and bright without a scary price tag."

Brushes come in all shapes and sizes—choose ones that have soft, springy bristles and keep their shape well. Round brushes are the most used; their shape is suitable for small details and delicate lines, but also for broader strokes and washes. Flat brushes are suitable for both washes and strong linear strokes. Spotter brushes and rigger brushes are best for finer detail work. As a beginner, opt for a one-in-all brush like Rice's The Art for Joy Sake Watercolor Brush ($5, kristyrice.com) that's designed in a versatile dagger shape. "Imagine one brush that could make an endless variety of marks," she says, "this is it."

Watercolor paper is specifically designed to hold water without too much buckling and stays wet for extended amounts of time. For artist quality, opt for Arches Cold-Press Watercolor Blocks ($53, amazon.com). Or, as Rice suggests, "you could buy one large sheet of the same brand paper and cut it down to smaller sizes if you don't want to commit to a bigger price point."

How to Paint with Watercolors

First, prep the paper. Stretching paper ensures a better surface for watercolor painting. It involves brushing both sides of the paper with water and blotting it to remove any puddles, then attaching it to a rigid surface and allowing it to dry until it shrinks and becomes taut. To prevent paper from warping and buckling when it gets wet, Rice suggests taping the edges of your paper to a board. "After your painting has completely dried, place it under a heavy stack of books" she continues, "and you'll see the page flatten nicely."

When painting, work from large to small (in strokes) and light to dark (in color) in order to avoid obscuring carefully rendered details and produce a layered look. And how do you choose colors? It's about ease. "I don't often spend time mixing colors on the palette. Instead, I let color and water mingle on the page and do the mixing for me," says Rice. "When you wet your page first and then add colors, magic happens." When first experimenting with watercolor, she suggests simply using whatever colors you love the most. "When you surround yourself with colors you love, you're so much more likely to have a joy filled painting experience."

The Basic Techniques

There are a variety of techniques to try that, with washes of color, blur the line between saturation and subtlety. Start with straight lines: "Your paintbrush can create a wide variety of marks depending on how hard you press," Rice explains. "To make very thin, straight lines use the tip of your brush and extremely light pressure to make a mark. These marks can be used to add detail anywhere on your painting." Also try graceful lines, says Rice: Using just the tip of the brush loaded with color and water, make thin lines. "Don't press too hard," she advises, "or your lines will be too thick."

Glazing is a useful technique to add depth to a painting, as Rice explains. "Start by making a strike in one color. Use a lot of water mixed with the pigment," she says. "Let dry completely and then add another color brushstroke overtop the first. See how the two marks layer and imagine the possibilities when you glaze several colors on top of one another." To flood in watercolor, paint a saturated stroke of color on the dry page; clean brush and add water next to your stroke of color; push water into the color with your brush. To bleed in watercolor, paint a saturated blotch of color on the dry page; add other blotches of color around your first; watch the colors bleed together. In the dry brush technique, use only a bit of pigment and water on the brush to add marks to the dry page.

For an ombré effect, paint a saturated stroke of color on the dry page; clean your brush and add a stroke of clean water under your last stroke; repeat. Spatter is a great technique to add a finishing touch to your painting; just tap a loaded paintbrush against your finger while hovering above the paper. For reference, download our free lesson card that depicts each of these techniques.

As for answering that timeless question that nags every artist—what to paint?—Rice suggests starting simple. Choosing a first subject doesn't have to be a subject at all. Instead, paint a simple pattern. "Create a few brushstrokes repeated in a line, add a few dots or dashes, repeat," says Rice. "The idea is to repeat brushstrokes. Some can be wide and light in color or narrow and bright. Experiment with how many different marks your brush can make. Create a small pattern on a smaller pierce of paper and go big once you feel a bit more confident."

Comments (1)

Martha Stewart Member
August 19, 2020
Thank you, Martha Stewart. I have taken watercolor painting lessons and it was good therapy for me years ago while working full time. I did not perfect anything back then. Now I may have the time to take this up again as a hobby. I appreciate your issues with everything. When I can I will subscribe to the magazines again. Phyllis Bailey