Guides, Painting, Watercolor

The Watercolor Primer: A Guide for Beginners

October 5, 2014

By Alina Bradford

Watercolor is known as one of the most versatile painting mediums. It can give you wild, loose, free-style paintings, or detailed, realistic paintings, depending on how you use it. This article will clue you into everything you need to know about watercolor terms, brushwork, paints, and papers.

Paper for Watercolor Painting

The watercolor paper you use depends on your needs. Here is an overview of papers:

Lbs. = pounds. Lbs. defines how thick and durable a paper is. A 300 lb. paper is much more durable than a 100 lb. paper. The higher the number, the more absorbent the paper, for example, papers usually come levels of weight: 90, 140, 200, 300, and 400 pounds. 300 lb. paper is usually a good choice for water mediums such as watercolor. It is very durable and is very absorbent.
Hot Pressed= This is just like it sounds. The paper is pressed with heat to make it very smooth. Hot pressed paper lends itself to watercolor paintings where detail is needed.
Cold Pressed= Cold pressed paper, on the other hand, is quite rough. This paper is good for mediums that require “tooth” or roughness to grab the pigment, such as pastel. Watercolorists also use cold pressed sheets when they want a more uneven, grainy look to their paintings.

Stretching Watercolor Paper

Lighter lb. papers need to be “stretched” to keep them from buckling. You can do this by wetting your paper, then tacking it to a board until it is dry. For more information, read this article on stretching watercolor paper.


Watercolor samplesThere are several brushwork terms that you need to learn when starting in watercolor. Please see an example of brushwork here.

    • Wet on Wet: Wet on wet is achieved by wetting your paper, then painting on it. This causes the paint to bleed in an almost tie-dye look. The technique can also achieve a glaze or layering technique when the paper is less wet. Glazes or layering is the build up of layers of paint to achieve a certain look. Many watercolorists start their paintings with an initial glaze, which is covering the entire paper with water, then going over the entire paper with a layer of paint.
    • Graduated Washes: Graduated washes are achieved by starting with a wide brush loaded with undiluted paint. Start to make horizontal strokes across the paper, starting at the top, slowly moving down the paper, adding more water to the paint as you go. Many artists use graduated washes for skies.
    • Wet on Dry: This is just painting on dry paper or paint.
    • Dry Brush: Dry brush is putting paint on your brush, then wiping most of it off until it is almost dry, then painting on a dry surface. This is traditionally used when painting woodgrain, grass, or other scratchy effects.

Paint Types

Watercolor, as the name implies, can be mixed with water to get the consistency you need. It comes in tubes and cakes. The one you use depends on which you prefer, so try both.

There are four types of paint types you will come across when choosing your paints:

  • Saturated and Unsaturated: Exactly what it sounds like. If you want brighter, zippy colors, use unsaturated watercolors.
  • Transparent and Opaque: Another couple of terms that are what they seem, but there are a few things to consider. Opaque colors are best when glazed over transparent colors because it can be easily lifted if a mistake is made. Opaque colors do not mix as well as transparent colors. Opaque colors will tend to get muddy when over mixed.
  • Organic or Homemade: These paints can be better for the environment because they don’t contain chemicals. 

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