Life-Changing Watercolor Advice

When I took my first painting lesson in 1995, YouTube didn’t exist. If I wanted to learn watercolor, I needed to either learn by myself, find a book on painting at the library, or take a local workshop as soon as one was offered. My art education became a combination of those three approaches, and let me tell you, I ruined more than one paintbrush before I read an article that happened to mention that a little soap on a paintbrush would prevent masking fluid from sticking permanently and destroying it! Mind blown.

Little tips that come at just the right time make a big difference for a struggling artist. I have found that an art education isn’t always found in the long, detailed lessons, but rather in the small flashes of insight; tiny nuggets of information that are accumulated and added to an artist’s store of knowledge. Personally, I learn best in snack-size, and a single sentence in a watercolor magazine can spark inspiration that is more than worth the cost of my subscription.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some of the one-liners that have impacted my art over the years. These insights fill my watercolor tool chest and have helped me find freedom to be the artist I’m meant to be. Maybe you’ll find some wisdom  here to chew on as well! Leave a comment below and let me know what I’ve missed, if there’s a gem of wisdom that has made a difference to you!

On Technique:

  1.  Every time you add paint to the paper you are subtracting light from the painting. (A warning to avoid overworking!)
  2. Focus on the major shapes, work large to small.
  3. Red is a dark value color.
  4. Yellow at full saturation is not brighter than yellow diluted. (For brightest sunlight, use the white of the paper or diluted washes of yellow).
  5. Complementary colors can be mixed to make interesting “blacks” and neutrals (brown or grey).
  6. Middle values will often make up the majority of your painting and provide a support for the contrasting lightest and darkest values.
  7. A strong foundation of shape and value is more important than refining details.
  8. Understanding how much water to use will be affected by how wet the paper, brush and paint mixture is (if you struggle with this, see #8.)
  9. Growth in skill can be measured in “brush miles” (that is, hours of experience implementing technique – your time is never wasted!)

On Personal Style & Mindset:

  1. Continue a painting in the same spirit in which it was begun. How you feel shows up in your work!
  2. Don’t worry about “finding” your personal style. Personal style is simply the decisions you make as you paint, consciously and subconsciously.
  3. Authenticity is more important than accuracy.
  4. You can’t choose how long it will take you to learn, but you can choose to make the learning process as enjoyable as possible.
  5. Look at lots of different kinds of art. Invite diversity to provide a wealth of ideas to feast on, and the reminder that art can be infinitely innovative.
  6. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. So is comparison.
  7. Pay attention to your body language; a tight grip on the brush, a tense body will result in tension in your paintings.
  8. Advice is nice, but listen to your inner artist.
  9. Don’t let your inner critic condemn you. Be a positive voice for growth in your art.
  10. “Because I felt like it” is a GREAT basis for creative decision making!

On Supplies:

  1.  Use the best paper you can afford (and try different brands to find what works for you). There is a reason almost every professional artist agrees on this point.
  2. Consistent use of a small range of colors will help you develop “instincts” for how they behave and mix with each other.
  3. Add new paint colors slowly so you can get to know them individually and when mixed with your usual palette.
  4. Use the side of your brush more than the point; you will cover a larger area faster and make more interesting strokes.
  5. Use a larger brush to avoid “fussy” or tightly controlled mark making. This will also help you avoid getting caught up in detail too early in the painting process.
  6. Use two water containers; one to clean a dirty brush and one for picking up clean water for mixing and washes. Change your water frequently to keep your colors clean.
  7. Many artists avoid using white or black paint in watercolor. The white of the paper is more luminous than white paint, and black paint can look flat in comparison to a black mixed using complementary colors. Experiment and compare for yourself!
  8. You can stretch your paper, but you don’t have to.
  9. Transparent colors tend to mix more cleanly than semi-transparent hues.
  10. For plein air painting, pack as light as possible. You don’t need all the gadgets, just the basics near at hand and easy to carry.

On Creativity:

  1.  Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows.
  2. If you are having trouble thinking of things to paint, just paint! Paint boring stuff if you have to; when you are actively painting is when the ideas will come.
  3. Slowing down a bit to observe the painting will help you develop a sense for what the painting needs and work more intuitively with the painting.
  4. If you want to paint a subject in a new way, try changing the angle. Get down low, up high or zoom in to create a new, more interesting perspective.
  5. Ideas are not born in a vacuum. Use a prompt – an image, a word, a color, a shape – to kickstart an abstract or intuitive painting.
  6. Everything might have already been painted before, but no one else can paint it in YOUR way.
  7. Don’t push creativity to perform on command. Show up and immerse yourself in the process without expectation of results.
  8. Artists get to show the world in new ways; it’s okay (even encouraged) to use your artistic license to edit, exaggerate and embellish reality.
  9. Creativity is most often awakened through play.
  10. YOU are the most important thing you bring to your art.

In this twenty-six year journey, I’ve learned that final item is true most of all. We would see more joyful, satisfied, fulfilled artists if we all embraced this truth and gave ourselves permission to get really personal with our creative practice. It applies to every aspect of the artistic journey; our supplies, our technique, our ideas, our process all combine to create a result that reflects the artist we are willing to allow ourselves to be. When I share a painting that has no reason to exist except it makes me very happy, I get to enjoy the reward of seeing it bring the same joy to others. Not everyone, but to those who see what I see, we are united in a way that transcends speech and touches hearts.

Join Us All Month Long In July For World Watercolor Month

Did you learn anything as you read these lists? Is there a piece of advice that has impacted your own journey? Do you have a differing viewpoint on some of the suggestions here? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below:

Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in World Watercolor Month

45 thoughts on “Life-Changing Watercolor Advice

    1. Wonderful tips. I copied and will read regularly. Some I’ve underlined as I certainly needed that suggestion.
      Thank you for sharing .

  1. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Ray Bradbury said something to the effect that you need to learn as much as you can about writing. Then when you write, sit back and let the muse use what you’ve learned without interfering. I always thought that applied to painting as well. I try to be serious about every aspect of painting, except when I’m actually painting. Then I play. Thank you for all the excellent advice, Angela! You are always an inspiration.

  2. Angela has been my favorite artist cheerleader for a number of years now. She gave me permission to call myself and artist. Mind blown!

  3. I never tire of reading and rereading the tips shared by a variety of artists, especially Angela. I absorb, select and practice many new ideas but when I feel overwhelmed by so many options, I return to a basic simple palette, play and enjoy the practice.

  4. Oh yeah, I totally remember trying to learn things pre-YouTube. You had to put in so much more effort indeed. Which is why it’s amazing that you’re sharing your wisdom here for free. Thanks so much for your effort!

  5. Thank you for your inspiration. I’m 73 teaching myself watercolor. Every morning I wake up I am thrilled to be able to play with Colors again.

  6. I am 71, have never taken an Art class and began watercolor as something to do when CO-Vid hit.
    You have been inspirational and my cheerleader.
    I can’t believe the progress I’ve made and how much pleasure I get from my painting.
    Thank you for all the encouragement not to quit!

  7. As always I love the way you inspire people to make art. I began with a local teacher to learn watercolour techniques but I got stuck in all details after 3 years. I had never had drawing lessons and got frustrated how that limited me. I was ready to give up. Watching youtube I saw a new watercolour world and found the loose style I was searching for. Many artists inspired me and I learned to love painting watercolour again, playful and with freedom. Thank you all. 🌻

  8. This makes me feel so much more comfortable at painting for myself, free from worries as to what other people might think. So what if my skies are crimson, my trees blue?

  9. As always, so grateful for you! I’m relatively new to the Heartled and Doodlewash communities but all the effort to encourage us, your own personal art journeys, and the joy you and Charlie invest in us, MATTER! My life is richer because Im an artist, I make art and that has changed my life.

  10. Oh PS-Big brushes, I’m letting the paint and water work together more and I broke up with my pencil(we only see each other once in awhile 😉😆l)

  11. No. 8 in the Creativity section [it’s okay (even encouraged) to use your artistic license to edit, exaggerate and embellish reality] reminded me of reading a 1947 edition of Hand Tinting Photographs For Fun And Profit back in the early ’80s. One line was: If you don’t know the color of an object in a black and white photograph, or disagree with it for the purpose of achieving a pleasing image, choose a color that will because you are not bound by circumstance.

    That changed more than just my painting life!

  12. I love your web site and e mail you send me. You keep me very encouraged. I love all the many things you share. I just got out of the hospital yesterday from a kidney stone procedure and could hardl wait to read your e-mal. Thank you both for all the encouragement and what you do.

  13. Thank you for this interesting compilation of advice. Working down through the Technique segment, the points addressed all made perfect sense… until I got to point 8. I tried to go on to get the full dose of wisdom, but I cannot find the reference. This is an area that I frequentlly have trouble with. Can you please direct me to the #8 that is referenced. Thank you.


  14. Your write up, tips , step by step simple reasonings, and information including the encouragements are INCREDIBLE.In your busy schedule of being an artist you have given your precious time to help all stature of artists , those starting their hobby, to those almost perfect artists.
    Thank you.I have not dabbled in watercolors, only acrylics, yet I have learnt a lot from your write up.

  15. Thank you! I agree, no time is wasted when you’re painting. I have learned to step back more often and look at the values. Also recently learned when you bring a painting inside after plain-air…everything looked much darker ! Hope you have a great summer, Angela!

  16. “””8. Understanding how much water to use will be affected by how wet the paper, brush and paint mixture is (if you struggle with this, see #8.)”””
    IDK what #8 you mean.

    1. I have a feeling #9 in that section used to be the #8 she is referencing, and then she added something further up the list and all the numbers changed. Because #9 would help if you were having trouble with #8.

  17. Outstanding advice, Angela, for any artist and also for any art teacher. Thanks for a well thought out list. The notes on technique are especially useful as so many art classes and YouTube videos “focus on technique” but are really focusing on easy ways to achieve limited effects that the teaching artist employs, without any intelligent overview about why.

  18. I quote you often to myself: Find something to love in every painting you create, even if it is a single brush stroke or a splash of color. Thank you for your tips and inspiration, Angela. Always a pleasure.

  19. I discovered number 4 on Techniques (sunlight) yesterday, and I loved seeing it in your list. I also must be mindful about number 6 on Personal Style (I am my own worst critic. I need to avoid comparison and to look at a “mistake” as a learning tool and an opportunity to try again).

    Thank you, Angela. I will print your thoughts and read them often!

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