• Bondgate Gallery 51 Fore Bondgate
  • 01388 665919
  • lynn@bondgategallery.co.uk
February 14, 2019

So you want to paint great watercolours.

by Eric Thompson in Watercolours

Watercolours scare some people, they feel it should be easy, but soon realise it can be a difficult medium to master. They give up without realising how a finished watercolour can transform a blank sheet of paper into a beautiful painting. I want to help you by adding more articles on this subject as well as other mediums.

How I gave up oil painting and learned to love watercolors

When I first began I used oils, I felt watercolours were like those powdered paints you used to have in school, and that they seemed a bit ‘wishy washy’. At a Christmas exhibition, I had 2 or 3 oil paintings up for sale. A gentleman bought them and asked if I could do a painting of his house. It turned out that this was the millionaire owner of Whitworth Hall, the ancestral home of Bonnie Bobby Shafto. But he wanted a watercolour painting, so I had to delve more into the medium. I took my oil painting techniques into the watercolours as I ended up with a strong, vibrant painting. He loved it and commissioned more and suggested I had a one-man exhibition in the Hall. Since then my passion has been to paint great watercolours.

Examples of my watercolours

These are examples of many watercolours from my gallery website Bondgate Gallery

When trying to paint great watercolours nothing beats the feeling of applying a stroke of pure watercolour onto a clean white surface of watercolour paper. If left alone, it blooms on the surface. I find my students create these marks when they test out a colour on a piece of scrap paper. It’s a confidence thing, they put a throwaway stroke down without thinking but try too hard to work the same brush stroke into a painting. Some bits of scrap paper turn out really well.

Watercolour Preferences

Before you look at different manufacturers you need to look at how you want to buy your watercolours. In pans or tubes, both are fine but don’t buy cheap watercolour pans as you will struggle to get plenty of paint onto your brush. Artist quality pans are worth the money. I personally bought pans for a long time but now use tubes and just squeeze out paint into the empty pans. Allow the colour to dry in the pan or you will pick up too much thick paint on your brush. This is fine if you are doing a large painting and want plenty of coverage,

There are lots of manufacturers of watercolour paints and I have listed them, with links, in a brochure which you can download from my resources page. Most of them make artist quality and student quality so you can compare prices. I started watercolours using Winsor and Newton Artist pans but have since used lots of other makes such as Sennelier and Holbein. Daniel Smith has a great range, a bit pricier but they are really creamy. They use genuine real pigments and you may find the colours vary from other makes. I have found that Winsor and Newton’s Burnt Sienna is now a different formula than I first used and is more orangy so I end up adding a bit of Burnt Umber to it sometimes. All makes vary slightly in the same named colours so experiment until you find the ones you are happy with.

Watercolour Paper

As for watercolour paper I use Arches 300lb rough, I have found this suits my style of painting as I can drag paint across the surface quickly and leave areas behind that just sparkle. In the art class we use Arches 140 Rough, Neither of these papers need taping down. Other manufactures are Winsor and Newton, Fabriano, Saunders, and Daler Rowney. You can also get a cheaper paper by Bockingford but I find the colour soaks into the surface and loses it’s vibrancy, but I suggest you do as I did and try many surfaces until you find the one which suits your style. Watercolour paper comes in sheets, pads or even rolls, all in different surfaces. I use Arches Rough but other finishes are cold pressed, hot pressed ( very smooth ) and ‘not’ which is similar, but not quite, to the rough paper.

My personal set of colours

  1. French Ultramarine. Mix with Burnt Sienna for great grays.
  2. Burnt Sienna
  3. Yellow Ochre
  4. Paynes Gray Allow this to mix loosely on the paper with Yellow Ochre for stonework or paths.
  5. Lamp Black
  6. New Gamboge Cadmium Yellow Either of these yellows make wonderful greens when mixed with Lamp Black
  7. Cadmium Red Mainly used in Mediterrenean scenes or accents in other paintings.
  8. Alizarin Crimson Makes great darks when mixed with French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna.

To paint great watercolours you need good brushes

If you are just starting out with watercolours then student colours are ok but when you can, start adding artist quality paints as they are more lightfast. You need a few brushes ranging from 00 up to a 10, try to buy a really good No. 8 in a Kolinsky sable and this will serve you well for many years. You can find out more about brushes in the downloadable PDF file.

Watercolor palette

My Palette

As you can see my palette is definitely a working one. I tend to pick up one or two colours at the same time letting them blend on the paper. As long as you don’t pick up too many colours you will be fine. Don’t get into the way of being too clean with your colours and just dabbing a little here and a little there. Be freer with your brush and your paintings will improve in depth and quality instantly. See my paintings on my website. www.ukwatercolours.com


When I am ready to start on a watercolour painting I tidy up my desk first and layout my paper and palette. I paint with the paper flat. You do not need to stretch and tape good watercolour paper, but new students seem to want to do this. If you really must tape down the paper then it must be done properly to prevent buckling. First, soak the paper and leave it to expand a little, then tape it down. As it dries it will tighten like a drum skin.

I have two pots of water, one for cleaning the brush in then a second for wetting the brush ready to pick up the paint. Make sure you have a palette with large mixing wells so that you can have enough wet paint to cover the area you are about to paint. If you paint on a hard surface make sure there are no pools of water at the edges of your painting that can run back into the wash.

Presentation of your finished watercolour

When you have finished your painting it needs to be protected from other surfaces and spillages. We always mount and frame our watercolours as soon as possible, apart from protecting them, a good mount and frame presents your painting at it’s best. When my art class students finish a painting I show them it in my ‘magic frame’ and they are so surprised to see the finished result.

When fixing the painting to the back of the mount only tape it down along the top edge, this allows the paper to breathe and not buckle which it would eventually do if it was fastened down along every edge.
The best thing to have is a couple of old mounts and frames that you can lay over your picture as you work. This will help you get a feeling of how the painting is progressing. Also, don’t be discouraged if the painting doesn’t come out the way  you hoped, it happens regularly with watercolours. Just try a smaller mount round the picture and lose the part you are not happy with. I can’t tell you how many times a painting has hung in our gallery and not sold, until putting it in a smaller frame changed the feel of it and it sold very soon after.

Paint great watercolours

Lynn, with a new framed painting waiting to be picked up by the customer.