Ten Super Watercolor Painting Tips for Illustrators

“We would like to see examples of your color work,” said the hand-written message on the postcard from an art director at a children’s book publishing house.

Uh-Oh. She had liked the black and white art samples I’d sent her, but she zeroed in on my weakness: The painting instruction I’d never quite gotten in college.

Now I had to work up some full color illustrations that demonstrated my painting bravura, or lack thereof. It was a long time ago and I’ll spare you the details about how I spent the weekend whipping up watercolors, doing the best I could with the little I knew. I could draw figures and scenes decently. But in my color and washes, there was always as many misses as hits. My painting efforts were all guesswork. Did it show?

I guess it did, because I didn’t hear from her again after I submitted my hastily assembled watercolors, or rather, photocopies of them.

I’ve learned a lot since then from painters, art directors and fellow illustrators, who were also, thank goodness, teachers at heart and generous.

The result is that I’ve learned that what I’d thought of as the scary part of illustration was not so scary or all that complicated. In fact, it’s tons of fun.

Turns out that art doesn’t have as many rules as a lot of other subjects. A handful of design principles apply to illustration as to almost all kinds of visual art. And those, in combination with a little common sense, professional courtesy (to your viewers) and some practice can go along way toward your painting looking like you’ve been doing it forever. And on  top of that metaphorical cake, I’ll add some frosting — my top ten favorite watercolor painting tips I’ve learned or have discovered on my own path.

1.)Before you paint, jot off (in pencil) a small, loose value sketch of your scene to determine where your picture’s midtones, lights and dark should be, so you’ll have a strategy and some patterns to follow in your painting.

2.)Use good materials for painting – a few quality sable or sable/synthetic blend round brushes will make a big difference. Though not even nearly as big a difference as the right paper, which must be 100 percent cotton rag watercolor paper (It has to say that: 100 percent rag, so that you know it’s not made from woodpulp – but instead real cotton fibers. Arches paper is a good brand to look for Either type – cold press (toothy texture) or hot press (smooth surface) either type will do fine for your illustrations. And either paper weight: 140 lb. or 90 lb. will serve you well.

3.)If your illustration is going to be a little complicated, make a full-sized outline drawing of it on regular drawing paper. This is not to be confused with your value sketch, which will be quite small and should be done after you’ve worked out your careful larger drawing. Lightly tranfer your pencil sketch, or a photocopy of it on to your watercolor paper with the aid of a light box. Or trace your sketch on to your paper using a window and the natural light of the outside.

4.)Think in terms of a dominant color for your painting. You’ll add a few, though not many other colors to your palette – most importantly a color that’s opposite the dominant color, which you can use to darken or neutralize the other colors a bit where needed.

5.)Start in on your painting with a mid-tone wash of your dominant color. Mix plenty of it up ahead of time so you don’t run out. (It’s OK if it’s a slightly “broken” or somewhat neutralized version of the color. Colors will depend on your scene’s mood and subject.) When you’re painting, don’t forget to reserve areas of blank paper in the composition — for the whites and lighter colors that will go in those spaces. In the final painting, you’ll want to place the darkest darks against the lightest light places where you want your viewers to look most. That will be the center of interest for your painting.

6.)Make sure when painting, that your brush is good and wet (though not sloppy out-of -control wet) with the paint solution. Your wash solution should be well-saturated with the pigment so that the color goes down rich and strong – though not opaque and heavy. Tilt your painting board just a bit, so that washes run slightly with gravity down the sheet in just the one direction – down toward you. If you see a slight liquid bead forming at the bottom edge of your brush strokes, that you’re working with a brush that’s wet enough and that you have your board tilted just right.

7.) A good watercolor tip is one you might hear from any professional house painter: Work with the largest brush you can get away with – for the economy of means, the brevity of technique. This means, cover the surface you need to, but don’t overwork a passage. Less is usually more. If you can complete a whole section with just one juicy swipe of the brush, great! You can always come back later (after it’s dry), if that first pass wash didn’t cover enough.

8.) You’ll enjoy learning lots and lots of good watercolor painting techniques but if you’ll remember the big idea: to keep your brush wet, your paint stirred and yet rich and strong with color, that’s a good professional start for a painter.

9.) Know that your brushstrokes will always dry a step or two (on the value scale) lighter than they’ll look when they’re glistening wet. So don’t be afraid to go darker with your paint mixtures. Push those darks in your picture – for better clarity and contrast and a stronger design.

10.) Don’t forget to put down your brush and step away from your painting occasionally. But don’t stop for a big rest until you’ve filled up all four corners of the painting with some kind of color. (But remember to leave some white spaces where you’ll think you might need them.) Only when your initial covering of the painting’s surface dries, can you can assess how much further you need to go. And that may not be as far as you think. Wait until you’ve had a good rest before you try to judge your painting.