Working With Watercolor for Beginners: My Process and Tips


Watercolor is a fascinating medium and is often considered difficult. It blends when you don’t want it to, you have to be very patient for layers to dry and sometimes things just can’t be reversed or fixed at all… This post is about my watercolor process but don’t mistake it for a how-to tutorial from a know-it-all artist. I taught myself watercolor two years ago because I wanted to take a break from the computer. As I continued to learn watercolor (and build Chic+Nawdie mainly based on my watercolor illustrations), more and more people seemed to enjoy my work. So I write this post just to share my experience. There are many books, videos, classes that can give you detailed professional instructions. However, I hope that experience from someone who is self-taught like me would encourage people who are both in love with and afraid of this medium to give it a try! (I will include my list of materials at the end of this post.)

1 – Loose sketches on paper then quick drawing in ink: Cheap paper makes ideas come out easier as you are not afraid of getting it “wrong” and ruining a nice sheet. I wish I’m one of those with neatly drawn sketches filling up every pages nicely but sadly no… When I think about keeping a nice sketchbook, I fear and thus ideas disappear. Therefore, my sketchbook is a messy biggie pad with pages falling off everywhere because I often tear them off to trace and scan. After I have the right sketch, I go over it quickly in ink (nothing fancy, even Sharpie works for this step) to nail down the composition and main features, getting ready for the next step.

Initial sketch


2 – Trace the drawing onto watercolor paper: I actually don’t own any light box because I have been using our peekaboo coffee table as a huge surface to trace my drawings (!) I put my sketch underneath my watercolor paper and shine some light from underneath the table and bam! I can start tracing. I’m very careful not to ruin the watercolor paper surface because it can affect the quality of the paint so I trace minimally and super gently with an aquarelle pencil. This pencil helps because when you paint over it, the lines dissolve and leave no trace behind. I avoid using an eraser at all cost because as I said, I want to preserve the surface texture. Good watercolor paper gives you amazing ability to control water and its texture makes your painting gorgeous! I use Arches Cold Press for most of my illustrations and they’re excellent. They have some texture (vs. the Hot Press is smooth) but not as much as the Rough. Too much texture can get in the way when I scan my paintings to prepare my files digitally.

Watercolor paper texture


3 – Painting with watercolor:  There are many watercolor mediums you can use to extend drying time, increase brilliance and transparency, or alter the absorption of the surface. However, my “philosophy” of painting (with any medium, not just watercolor) is to respect the nature of the medium so I try not to change its working characteristics. Since watercolor is transparent, I work from lightness to darkness. I have a big flat brush to add big washes of color quickly (like for background), a medium brush for basic filling and a few small to very small brushes for details. For big areas like background, I often use wash on wet technique which basically means to wet your paper with water before adding washes of color so that the color can spread quickly and more evenly throughout the wet surface. A hair dryer comes in handy sometimes if I need to dry a big wet surface fast to continue painting. Sometimes I add colored pencils, ink or gouache details on top of my watercolor (since these mediums are opaque.) Other than that, my illustrations are very straight-forward so I don’t really do any fancy techniques. I realize the most important thing to me when I work on my watercolor illustrations is patience. The more patient I am with my process, the more satisfying the results will come out. About color palette, my illustrations in general are colorful but recently I like to limit this color palette to 3-5 colors maximum. Sometimes I test the colors right onto my sketch (like in the above sketch of the cats) before I move on to my real painting.

Brushes I use for my watercolor

Schminke is my favorite and Holbein is also amazing!


3 – Scan the paintings to retouch and create layout digitally:  I have been using my Epson V600 Photo for a few years and it works fantastic! I always scan at least 300 dpi for printing purpose. If my painting is bigger than the scanner surface, I scan them in pieces and use Photoshop’s PhotoMerge tool to put them together. Then I retouch my illustrations in Photoshop to remove background/unwanted marks and adjust the colors a little bit. After I have the psd file I want, I layout my cards in Indesign to add text and create print-ready PDFs for my print shop. Since this post is mainly about watercolor painting, I won’t go in details about my computer work. If you want to know more, leave a comment and I’d love to write a separate post about working with Photoshop and InDesign for illustrations.

My beloved Epson scanner

My beloved Epson scanner


My simple list of materials to start your watercolor:

  1. Pencil & eraser to sketch: Any kind of pencil is okay since a sketch is just to get your rough idea down.
  2. Sketching paper: Again, go cheap. I use Biggie pad but you can use any paper.
  3. Watercolor paper: This is something to invest in because high-quality watercolor paper can make your practice go easier since it holds water better. I love Arches Aquarelle Cold Press.
  4. For small quick paintings I have a Maruman watercolor sketchbook I picked up in Itoya, Japan. There are many brands available so a little practice might be able to tell you which one is your favorite.
  5. Brushes: I choose synthetic brushes because of the lower price point, decent performance and animal-friendly 🙂 However, sable and squirrel hair brushes have excellent quality if you want to invest in some nice brushes. Just make sure you have variety: big for background, medium for most area work and small for details.
  6. Watercolor: I’m a huge fan of Schmincke – their watercolor is vibrant! While it seems expensive at almost $200 for a set of 24 half-pan, it lasts for a loooong time. I bought 2 years ago and it’s still going strong. I also picked up a few tubes and pans of Holbein in Japan and they are also excellent. Again, there are many brands so do some research to find one that fits your needs and budget. My watercolor set already have some mixing tray spaces but I also have a few of these cheap plastic trays in case everything is filled up. If you want a really good tray to keep, get the Butcher tray, it’s wonderful and will last a life time!
  7. Some paper towel or cloth: You need to wipe your brushes when painting so keep this handy.
  8. Water: Of course you need water! Tip: Do not leave your brushes in the water jar – it will damage your brushes very quickly. Change the water when you see the color becomes dark.

That’s about it! I hope this post is somewhat helpful to some of you. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions. Here are a few of my work-in-process watercolor shots to wrap up this long post!  – Nhung





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