Color me pretty. Help me learn watercolors!
February 12, 2014 8:18 PM   Subscribe

I'd love to do more urban/travel sketching with watercolors and ink, and I'm pretty new to art. How do I learn to do it better? More inside!

I'm smitten with this kind of travel sketching:

And I recently bought the supplies needed to make it happen (pocket W&N watercolor set, a Niji waterbrush, cheap Crayola watercolor pencils, micron pens and watercolor paper). I got Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (thanks to ask mefi recommendations!) and can now do basic pencil sketches pretty decently. Is there an equivalent for learning watercolors?

Most of the watercolor books I see seem very comprehensive and complicated--I'm interested in quick tips and techniques I can start incorporating right away, not necessarily an art school education on mastering the medium. I know that lots of practice will help (and I'll be getting out and sketching as often as I can!), but in the meantime, what are some of your favorite resources for learning (watercolors or watercolor pencils)? Favorite youtube videos, tutorials, blog posts, books, personal tips--anything helps.

And aside from high-quality paper, is there anything else I should consider spending more money on? I'd like my supplies to be ultra portable, so I'm trying to keep it minimal, but I'm happy to upgrade on something if it'll really make a difference.
posted by lightgray to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The best books on this topic are from Japan
Kinokuniya in midtown should have some of the books.

This guy has a good list, but I saw a bunch at Kinokuniya in LA not on his list that also seemed great.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 8:35 PM on February 12, 2014

Spend some time practicing and playing on wet paper! You don't have to keep working that way, but it's an important part of understanding what can be done with watercolors and what makes them so special. There are lots of online tutorials if you haven't done 'wet-on-wet' before.
posted by jardinier at 8:43 PM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Take a watercolor workshop from someone like Keiko Tanabe. She'll be running one in New York in April. My mother attends her workshops and learns a lot not only from the teacher but also from other students. It looks like all the workshops before the New York one are already all booked up, so if you are interested, you should probably hurry to register.
posted by Dansaman at 9:01 PM on February 12, 2014

I am a great fan of Hannah Hinchman's two books on the subject, although I think "A Trail Through Leaves" more closely fits what you are looking for-- and it is still in print, and her first book is not, except in Kindle format (not ideal for these types of books). Her work speaks to my desires for a more reflective life, to keep a useful journal, to learn about the natural and urban environment around me, and to learn how to draw all at the same time. It is satisfying in a way that few other things are for me.
posted by seasparrow at 9:10 PM on February 12, 2014

Best answer: One of the drawbacks to on-the-spot watercolor painting is that it's just a whole thing to get set up, and once you're set up, it all feels like a very fragile setup where one thing going wrong (like slopping water) can wreck what you're doing. First tip, then, is to try setting up in the window of a coffee shop with a decent view where you won't be disturbed.

Second thing is to simplify your kit for a day's sketching. Taking everything you have with you will be heavy, and offer too many choices. It's a good exercise to pick just a few tools that support a particular way of working, and work with them. More portable and simplified choices means easier sketching and painting.

Moleskine Watercolor sketchbooks are very good for offering a medium sized sketchpad with decent watercolor paper that's nice and portable. You can also buy small, cheap blocks like Canson 4"x6"--they're light and you can have a few on you, and it's much easier painting on a block, especially outside, than on anything with pages.

With your waterbrush, experiment with putting light washes in it--the easiest way to do so is with tube paint. Pick a decent color for value studies like lamp black or payne's gray (any pigment considered staining) and paint in washes, building up tones and shapes. A block and a waterbrush or two (one light wash and one dark) and you've got a complete watercolor sketching kit right there.

Lastly, rather than launch right into trying to paint a whole full color scene, try value studies for a while with your kit. There's a lot of aspects to learning watercolor, and a big part of it is learning how it handles. Only worrying about values simplifies it while you develop some facility with the paint. You can also look at's palettes section to see how some of the greats used very simplified palettes, especially while plein air painting, to good effect, while keeping the cognitive load low.

Personally, what I've been doing lately is taking a Zequenz sketchbook out with a Kuretake brush pen with converter, filled with Private Reserve Flannel Grey ink. The brush pen is amazing, the ink is a nice medium grey allowing for fine drawing in pencil-like tones, or building up washes, and the Zequenz sketchbook is almost indestructible. With those two items, I'm as set up as I need to be, and I can be sketching in 10 seconds, where I used to take 10 minutes to get everything out and useful.

( is worth exploring over time--it's huge, but it's the best technical reference for watercolor painting around)
posted by fatbird at 9:18 PM on February 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

My first watercolor sketching kit consisted of a strip of watercolor paper with a heavy lay-down of high quality watercolor pencils in various primaries/secondaries that I would then "pick up" using water brushes. Even complex mixes were possible using that little strip of paper. I tucked that strip of paper and a white paper towel into my sketchbook and used a binder clip to hold a micron pen to the side of the book. The waterbrush was attached via rubber band. Super portable and not at all messy. I usually kept a squeeze bottle full of clean water in my bag for refills.

Watercolor can be super messy, especially when you're just learning how to mix colors and lay down washes and such. I find a simplified kit like the one I described to be best for on-the-spot sketching when you're first getting started. You can get going on that right away while you practice with your more involved setup. Once you learn how to balance your sketchbook and W&N kit without dripping your mixes everywhere, you'll be golden. (Can you tell I had to practice this?)

In addition, I highly recommend Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green. That single book solved every single problem I had with dull/muddy color mixes.
posted by xyzzy at 10:06 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

For travel sketching, I recommend blogs like Danny Gregory's
Be free and fluid in what you do, it really doesn't matter where the paint goes.
But keep your palette tiny - decide on whether you're looking for warm, cool, sepia colours - stick to it until you know enough to break rules. When I'm back at my pc, I'll include other links that I can't access now.
posted by b33j at 1:56 AM on February 13, 2014

Best answer: (pocket W&N watercolor set, a Niji waterbrush, cheap Crayola watercolor pencils, micron pens and watercolor paper)

Include a rag or a roll of paper towels to dry brushes and to use on your painting.

Check that the W&N set is artist quality. If it's student quality, pick up a few tubes of artist quality paint to do exercises in and to paint with.

Waterbrushes are ok, but you'll have more control with a normal brush. Pick up two decent quality synthetic brushes; a round and a 3/4" flat. The round should come to a fine point when wet. If it doesn't, return it. (Ask to test it in the store.) You'll want a couple plastic jars for your water. (Not glass, which can get fighty when you drop it and it breaks.)

Watercolor pencils are fun, but they'll frustrate you if you try to use them to do larger areas or are trying to do a patch of clean color with control. Gurney's great with them added to other media.

Learn to draw shadow shapes. Use tracing paper and map out the shadow shapes of photos.

Do Tea, milk, honey.

Spend some time practicing and playing on wet paper!
Keep practicing until you can do chunks of color, 2"x3", wet-on-dry and wet-on-wet. First rectangles, then, for example, the shadow shapes you just traced. Or these. Remember that the paint won't go where the paper is dry. (Memorize this phrase.) This may mean that you won't want to soak the entire sheet of paper. Do these exercises on good paper, like Arches or the Moleskine book, with good brushes, and good paint. If you cheap out, it will drive you nuts. Keep doing it until you have those little rectangles down perfect.


... Remember, perfect.

Not ruled edges or anything, but the little field of color in them should speak to something deep in your soul.


Gurney's posts on watercolor painting are pretty good. But also pick up one solid book at the library on the subject (from the site), and something like this.

I'd like my supplies to be ultra portable, so I'm trying to keep it minimal, but I'm happy to upgrade on something if it'll really make a difference.
Gurney's setup will work for you.

Most of the watercolor books I see seem very comprehensive and complicated
Eh. You'll need to slog through a good one sometime, or pick it up from videos. Then you'll have moments like "Ah! That's what sizing is!"

Coming to color: the handprint site is good. Learn to explicitly think of color in terms of hue, saturation, and value, as per the handprint site and the Munsell Student Book of Exercises.

I generally like Jack Hamm's Landscape book. It's cheap, it's really good at teaching serviceable drawings of landscape. I strongly recommend you grind through it. Use other resources to attune your eye to beauty, I think Hamm's brain got stuck on "must do serviceable but not strikingly beautiful editorial cartoon". Stapleton Kearns is great as well. And sometimes beautiful.

Favorite youtube videos, tutorials, blog posts, books, personal tips--anything helps.
When evaluating resources, skim for beautiful paintings and drawing. If there aren't any, be very very skeptical of that resource: flag it and move on.

When you get stuck on stuff or need crit, the concept art fok are great.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:12 AM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a small tip, but I recently learned that plain old Bic ballpoint pens (white barrel, black cap) are waterproof. You can sketch with them with a decent variety of darknesses based on pressure, and watercolor directly over them instantly. They don't smudge. This was a game-changer for me because I find pencil gets muddy, grainy or smeary when combined with watercolor.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:19 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are a few general pieces of watercolour advice that have really helped me.

Firstly, spend money on paper. This is hard to do, because paper seems like the least important part of the set-up. You want something absorbent that will soak up the water from your brush, rather than just lie on the surface. Experiment with lots of different paper! Find what you like.

Secondly, you'll just have to practice a lot, and get used to making imprecise paintings that you don't like. Watercolours are really hard because they are a translucent paint (so you can't paint over mistakes) and that they are very fragile (meaning you can't re-paint sections). It takes a few months to get comfortable with them, so just keep pressing on!

Lots of good advice and books linked upthread. Fingers crossed for you!
posted by The River Ivel at 5:22 AM on February 15, 2014

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