Watercolor: Revisiting the Fundamentals

I’ve had my watercolor supplies for over a week now, but I was terrified to get started after the disaster that was my first effort (more on that later). Not only is this a new medium for me, but it is painting instead of drawing, so I’m totally out of my element. But I have to remind myself that just because painting doesn’t work exactly like drawing doesn’t mean I can’t do it.

I’ll begin with a rundown of the materials I purchased. I am sad to say that I got very cheap brushes in a packaged set, because I didn’t want to spend too much on something I don’t even know if I will continue with, but assuming that I do like it and want to keep going, I know I can gradually build up a collection of good quality brushes if I so desire. I actually happened to already have two different sizes of relatively good oval wash brushes, though I’m not quite sure why…

Here’s what I got:

  • A Fusion brand leakproof airtight palette
  • 8 colors plus white/ black. This includes 2 reds, 2 yellows, 2 blues and 2 earth tones; I can learn to mix other colors for now.
  • A Strathmore Watercolor sketchbook, 140lb (9×12)
  • A set of ten assorted brushes (Artist’s Loft brand)
  • A couple of mason jars for holding the brushes and water

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to share that disastrous first project. For some reason, my initial instinct was to try and paint a super elaborate cluster of roses. I guess my intention was to “learn by doing,” which has actually worked out well for me before. Wouldn’t I be able to see/ feel how the paint worked? But since I had SERIOUSLY NO CLUE, that didn’t go very well. After sketching out a very intricate and detailed drawing, I ended up with a muddy, sloppy painting. (Naturally, I was aiming for photo-realism here. So much for that. The roses were pink, by the way.)


So, after sitting in my room crying for a week (just kidding—sort of), I finally sat down to try painting again.

I did two super basic exercises to start getting comfortable with the watercolors. One was to make a series of value swatches from dark to light, which I did with my 3/8” oval wash brush. I put down as much color as possible in the first swatch and then added more and more water to lighten the value for each following swatch.

The second exercise was a still life of 3-D shapes: a cone, sphere, cube, and cylinder (as recommended by The Postman’s Knock—the reference photo can be found here). For this I used a size 4 round brush from my new set. The brushes are incredibly stiff, but seem to soften with repeated dunking in water. My other complaint about these brushes is that they sometimes leave behind stray hairs on the page, which can be quite frustrating.

Here is the result of the exercises:


All in all, I’m pleased with how these little experiments turned out. I think that I successfully produced changing values in both exercises, and while my shapes are imperfect, it was a relief to return to this fundamental project, which I inevitably completed in the early days of art class as a drawing exercise. I thought I know this, I know how to do this! What I didn’t know, of course, was how to go about the actual painting. But I think I came around in the end.

I enjoyed the slightly looser, less exact results. I don’t know if this is recommended or not, but I worked from dark to light for both exercises, adding more and more water to the brush and trying to blend outward toward lighter areas. I did go back in and add a little extra paint for the darkest darks at the end, which I think reinforces my tendency toward working “tight” and controlled instead of leaving things loose (more on that in another post). I stuck with primary colors so I wouldn’t have to worry about mixing at this stage.

For future reference, the problems I encountered included:

  • Not having enough water on the brush
  • Having too much water on the brush
  • Paint bleeding into areas where I didn’t want it because I forgot to let it dry
  • Gritty paper from overworking the paint/ trying to lift off excess color


Final thoughts:

After letting my wet brushes dry standing up in a jar, I read that you shouldn’t do that because it will ruin them, so now I’m drying them horizontally on an old washcloth

I’m not sure yet how I want to set up my palette. I’ve seen various videos about how to do this, but I don’t know where to place the different colors if I might get additional colors eventually. Also, I know it’s common to leave the paint in the palette and keep using it/ rewetting or just adding new paint in, but I’m inclined to clean off the palette every single time, which is a big pain. So once I get it set up, I will hopefully be able to stop doing that so often.


  1. Good job sticking to it! Great job on those 3D shapes. Watercolors certainly are tricky to handle at first, but once you get it I don’t think you can forget.
    As far as your materials go, I saw a really good suggestion online. Spend the amount of money you would normally spend on a bunch of cheap brushes (or paints) on a few medium to high quality ones. Really, you only need red, blue, yellow, and black watercolors, and I only ever use two paintbrushes.


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