Tips to Create Your Own Watercolor Masterpiece

Watercolor is a perfect medium for a novice painter. Only a few supplies are needed, set up is easy, there is very little mess, and clean up is a breeze.

A Tent in the Rockies, 1916, by John Singer Sargent. Watercolor on paper, 15.4" × 20.9". [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Tent in the Rockies, 1916, by John Singer Sargent. Watercolor on paper, 15.4″ × 20.9″. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Watercolors are versatile and can be used to paint impressionistically or realistically. But, in addition to their appeal as an elementary painter’s medium, watercolors have been used for centuries to create masterpieces with unrivaled luminosity and exquisite details.

In the 15th century, German master painter Albrecht Durer rendered rich and elaborate paintings of nature and the human form using watercolors. Italian artist Giovanna Garzoni used watercolors to paint her still life and botanical subjects in the 1600s that look as fresh and modern as if they were painted today. Some of my other favorite watercolor masters are J.M.W. Turner (English, 1775-1851), Charles Demuth (American, 1883-1935), Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), and Ted Kautzky (Hungarian/American, 1896-1953).

To get started with you own watercolor masterpiece, clear off a space on your kitchen table and begin!

1. Prepare your paper. Use good paper. I like Arches Cold Press, 140 lb. It has a slightly rough surface and is sturdy enough to hold many layers of paint manipulations. It will need to be stretched so it does not buckle when wet. I use masking tape to secure the edges onto a board.

2. Sketch your composition lightly with graphite. I use a 2H pencil.

3. Grab some good sable brushes. Natural-hair brushes are the best to use as they hold more paint and will also hold a point. One small round brush and a medium round brush is what I use most.

4. I like to use watercolors that come in a tube, although the dry pans of paint can be convenient and more portable.

My favorite brand is Winsor Newton, and some of my “must have” colors are:

Wing of a Roller, 1512, by Albrecht Dürer. Painting - watercolor and gouache on vellum, 20 cm (7.87 in.), Width: 20 cm (7.87 in.). Public domain.

Wing of a Roller, 1512, by Albrecht Dürer. Painting – watercolor and gouache on vellum, 20 cm (7.87 in.), Width: 20 cm (7.87 in.). Public domain.

  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Permanent Rose
  • Cadmium Red
  • Cadmium Yellow Pale
  • Aureolin Yellow
  • New Gamboge Yellow
  • French Ultramarine Blue
  • Thalo Blue
  • Windsor Violet
  • Windsor Green Yellow Shade
  • Sap Green
  • Thalo Green
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber

For white, I let the white of the paper peek through, and for blacks I mix Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green, or Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Umber.

5. I use a Butchers Tray Palette. I like the smooth white surface — it’s easy to clean and does not stain. For a water container, I use a glass Pyrex eight-cup measuring cup. It’s large enough that the paint does not contaminate the water too soon.

Salt Kettle, Bermuda, 1899, by Winslow Homer. Painting - watercolor. Public domain.

Salt Kettle, Bermuda, 1899, by Winslow Homer. Painting – watercolor. Public domain.

6. Some different methods of painting to try with watercolors are:

Wet-in-wet: applying wet paint to a wet background

Wet on dry: for details and hard edges

Dry brushwork: for precision and shading, using very little wet paint on the tip of the brush

Paint patiently, layer by transparent layer, waiting for each layer to dry before applying new paint. This will keep the painting looking fresh and not overworked. Work from light colors to dark colors and back to front to keep the painting lively.

Despite its ease of use, watercolor is a medium that is not always simple to control. Once put on paper, the paint can find its own path and conjure its own surprising effects. Watercolor thus becomes a partner in your art rather than just a tool. It is this challenge that has made an appealing entry-level material intriguing to artists over the centuries as they create enduring paintings unmatched in luminescence and translucency.

Artist Ora Sorensen (orasorensen.com) was born in New York but grew up overseas. She has owned a gallery in Delray Beach, Florida, for 20 years, and has also been represented by other galleries across the country. Sorensen now lives and paints in North Carolina, and her paintings are collected worldwide and have been shown in numerous exhibitions.

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