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Art Masterclass   

                        February 2010

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter.     

Art masterclass        

from The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;  



This Month:

How to choose and use watercolours for beginners

Starting with watercolours
by Robin Capon

Starting with watercoloursFor beginners, it is often difficult to judge which painting medium to choose – which one will be the most straightforward to use and help you build up the necessary confidence and skills. Should you start with watercolour, oils, acrylics, or perhaps pastels?

Of course, every medium has its strengths and limitations. But in my view, for anyone interested in painting and wondering how to get started, there is no better medium than watercolour. True, it is not the most forgiving medium in some respects; you have to accept that mistakes aren’t easy to rectify. However, the advantages more than compensate for this:

  • The colours are easy to mix and apply.
  • You can build up effects quickly – without too much delay while the paint dries.
  • Watercolour painting requires very little in the way of essential equipment.

What is watercolour?

Watercolour, as the name implies, is a water-soluble type of paint, which means that the colours are mixed with water to create different strengths of colour and paint consistency. In one form or another, watercolour has been used since the Middle Ages. However, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that it became established as a method of painting in its own right and with its own techniques. The formulation and production methods used for watercolour have changed very little since then.

The paints are made from finely ground pigments dispersed evenly in a gum arabic solution or similar water-soluble gum binder. Originally, a small amount of honey or sugar was added to the paint to improve its solubility, but now glycerine is used instead. Some manufacturers also add ox gall or a similar wetting agent to enhance the paint flow.

Artists’ and Students’ colours
Two grades of paints are available:

Artists’ quality paints are the more expensive, because they are made with a higher proportion of good quality pigments, resulting in stronger and more luminous colours.

In Students’ colours, the expensive pigments, such as the cadmiums, are often substituted by cheaper alternatives, denoted by the word ‘hue’ on the label. Nevertheless, Students’ colours are perfectly reliable and are a good choice to begin with.

Windsor & Newton watercolours

The Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Sketchers' Pocket Box
includes 12 assorted half pan colours, a pocket brush and an integral
mixing palette.















Pans or tubes

Daler-Rowney watercolours

The Daler-Rowney Aquafine Water Colour Starter Set contains 6x8ml tubes of Aquafine colours.

Watercolours are sold in tubes of various sizes and in compressed blocks of colour called pans.

Generally, those artists who like to work with broad washes of colour prefer tube paints, while those, such as flower painters, who rely on a more controlled approach, choose pan colours.

You can buy both tubes and pans separately and fit them into your own watercolour box. Pans are available in small square-shaped blocks (half-pans) or oblong blocks (whole pans). Tubes are available in sizes from 5ml to 20ml or larger.


What to buy

There is no need to buy a lot of materials to begin. The essential materials are:

  • Three 8ml tubes of Students’ quality colours: a red, blue and yellow. Look for cadmium red hue, cobalt blue hue and cadmium yellow pale hue. These should cost about £1.50 each.
  • A round synthetic-hair watercolour brush. Start with a No. 12 and look for a brush that has a good pointed tip to the hairs and thus will give fine lines and marks as well as broad washes. Cost, about £5.
  • Paper. Choose a watercolour pad, such as an A4 spiral-bound 140lb (300gsm) Not surface Bockingford pad, about £10. Alternatively, buy a large sheet of watercolour paper, 22x30in. (56x76cm) and cut this into small sheets. Cost about £1.60.

Prices will vary from shop to shop, but you should be able to start painting your own watercolours for an outlay of about £10.


Other necessary equipment

  • A water pot – a jam jar is ideal.
  • An old white china plate or saucer to use as a palette, on which to mix your colours.
  • Some kitchen roll to clean the brush and palette.


Making a start

Watercolour works best if the approach is kept simple. The basic technique relies on applying thin washes of colour, one over another, to build up variations of tone and colour. For the light areas, whites and highlights, the paper is left untinted, something that is known as reserving the lights.

Some artists like to start with a faint pencil drawing to plot the main shapes of the composition. Others prefer to work directly in colour. But whichever approach you adopt, it does need some forethought and planning, because it is seldom easy to go back and change things in watercolour.

Watercolour suits most types of subject matter, especially landscapes (including buildings and townscapes) and flower studies. It is perfect for capturing mood and atmosphere, and because of this, and the fact that the necessary equipment is small and lightweight, it is often used for painting landscapes on the spot.

Start by…

1. Checking you have the essential materials.
2. Working with a single colour and testing out different tints and tones. (See Exercise1)
3. Making a colour wheel. (See Exercise 2)
4. Trying a simple line and wash sketch. (See Exercise 3)
5. Trying a simple landscape painting. (See Exercise 4)


Exercise 1

exercise 1You will find that each of your colours (red, yellow, blue) has a relative strength (tone and intensity) depending on how much water is added to the mix. Start with a relatively strong colour (left), by mixing some colour with just a little water. Then, gradually add more water to create successively lighter tones (middle), and then less water again to make successively darker tones (right).



exercise 2Exercise 2

The essence of watercolour painting is that you start with the lightest tones and, where appropriate, work over these with further washes of colour to build up the darker tones. First, mix a generous amount of weak colour (a colour wash). Lightly draw a simple box shape and paint it all over with a single weak wash of colour (a). Next, when the first wash has dried, apply a second layer over two sides of the box (b). Finally, apply a third layer over the end of the box (c). Now you can see how successive layers of wash, applied in this way, will give different effects of light and dark, and so create the impression of three-dimensional form


Exercise 3

colour wheelMake a colour wheel like this one, to help you understand colour relationships and what happens when you mix different colours together. Make your colour wheel about 6in. (15cm) in diameter and divide it into 12 equal segments. Start with the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue), which should be positioned at intervals of one-third around the wheel. Then put in the three secondary colours – each of which is half way between two of the primaries and an equal mixture of those two. The remaining squares should be filled with colours, which are a mixture of the adjacent primary and secondary colours – for example, yellow and green (giving a yellow/green colour) and yellow and orange (yellow/orange).


exercise 4Exercise 4

A good introduction to watercolour painting is to start with some line and wash sketches, like the one shown here. Make a pencil drawing, to give you the basic shapes and tones, and then add some watercolour washes.



exercise 5Exercise 5

Now try a simple landscape painting like this. You could copy this example or find a similar one in a book or photograph. Mix the blue and yellow together to give you different greens. For brown, start with orange (yellow + a little red) and then add a touch of blue.



First in a new series by Robin Capon exploring art materials for beginners

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