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What, exactly does the term muddy color refer to when painting with watercolor? What are the common culprits for muddy colors and which actions should we take in order to avoid them?
So vibrant, so fresh, so... tricky!
Muddy colors are one of the most common struggles for people starting out with this painting medium and in today's blog post (and YouTube video!), I'm covering what they are exactly, so that you know what to keep an eye out for. I'll also be providing my best tips that'll help you keep your colors fresh and vibrant.
There's no doubt that watercolor is an amazing painting medium that can be a lot more practical to use when compared to mediums like acrylics or oils, which require a larger space to set up, a well-ventilated area, much more clean up and, most often than not, a larger investment in supplies.
This said, it doesn't take much time using watercolors to realize that they are truly a challenge.
Not only are there so many variables involved when it comes to painting with watercolor that affect both the painting experience, as well as the final outcome (such as the humidity and temperature of the room we're in, the quality of our paint, each specific pigment's characteristics, the type of paper that we're using, etc.), but there's also no way to simply cover up our mistakes or swipe them off like we can when we're painting with opaque mediums.
Learn more about different types of paint, paintbrushes and watercolor paper and what you truly need as a beginner just getting started in my blog post titled Watercolor Supplies for Beginners and Things You Must Know.
Not to mention, we're working on a substrate that's inherently fragile. Even when we're working with paper that's intended for water-soluble mediums, it can only take so much scrubbing, lifting and layering. It's paper!
It's essential to stay patient, work mindfully, practice our water control and allow the paper to dry/regain its strength whenever needed throughout the process.
As loose, expressive and even quick, more experienced artists make painting with watercolor seem, as I'll be talking about in the video, creating a successful piece requires not only mastering water control, but also knowledge of color, and going in with some sort of strategy.
We need to visualize the overall effects we're going for so that we know what techniques (wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, etc.) to use where and also, when.
It's also essential to have some sort of general plan when it comes to the colors we'll be using.
Then we can allow ourselves to let go and embrace the beautiful, organic effects that only watercolors allow.
So... what are muddy colors, exactly?
The term 'muddy color' refers to a color mixture or a section of our painting has turned dull, flat, matte and, overall, lifeless.
Muddy colors lack the vibrancy (and most of the time also the translucency) that watercolor allows and don't look like they belong within the context of the piece, when one takes into consideration the rest of the colors used around that area.
Watercolor allows for a light, interesting, vibrant use of color that's unique to this medium and flat, lifeless colors are often proof that something has gone wrong.
This said, it's important to note that a muddy color is very different from a desaturated or muted-out color.
Desaturated colors are grays, browns or neutralized colors and these are often used intentionally by artists who are looking to tone down highly-saturated colors straight out of the pan or tube to make them look more realistic/natural or simply to make use of a color scheme that suits their style best.
You'll notice that lots of colors (except for browns and neutrals) are very saturated and vibrant right out of the pan or tube, and these kinds of colors don't happen very much in real life when you look at the settings or living things around you.
Other watercolor artists simply like the look of more muted out colors and create they own color mixtures, adding a second or even third color to desaturate them or create the color they need.
This doesn't make these colors mud, as long as the artist knows what he/she is mixing together, has at least somewhat of a plan, is staying in control, is playing to the medium's translucent nature and interesting use of color, and the colors fit within the context of the piece.
Take this still life watercolor of mine below as an example. I've created my own gray and brown color mixtures using Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber and there's still a vibrancy/life to them.
There's a variety in values, translucencies and even color temperature throughout these areas, and these more desaturated color mixtures harmonize and look like they've been planned. They allow the bright, vivid colors in the apples to shine.
*Learn more about Art Fundamentals and what it takes to plan for successful, harmonious and balanced compositions with my classes over on Patreon!
Desaturated, muted out colors and even grays and browns can, indeed, have a life and vibrancy to them, as long as we plan for them intentionally and make sure not to overwork our paintings.
What's essential, in my opinion, is making use of this medium's translucency and dynamic nature to create light looking paintings with a vibrant use of color so that, whether the colors we're using are pure/highly-saturated or toned-down, our paintings still seem to glow from within.
Matte and opaque are opposite to translucent and vibrant.
And flatness/heaviness is basically where the problem is.
Not darkness, not level of saturation.
When we're just getting started with this medium and are still lacking water control, it's incredibly easy to overwork our paintings. Add to this the fact that most beginners don't invest time in learning about the Color Wheel/Color Theory and this is a recipe for lots of frustration and disappointment.
*Class #3 of my Watercolor Mini-Course for the Total Beginner is all about the Color Wheel and color mixing. It's free for my art email insiders, too! :)
If you enjoyed this video and found it helpful, make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. I share a brand new video every week with art tips, drawing and painting tutorials and mindset/productivity tips for artists. *Subscribe HERE*
Why do muddy colors happen?
Usually, they happen because of one (or a combination) of the following:
a) Because we lose control of our different colors on our paint mixing palette or on our paper (colors can intermix in both areas).
b) We don't know much about the Color Wheel/Color Theory and don't pre-select our colors before starting a new piece (testing out color mixtures is very important).
c) We don't clean out our paintbrush bristles well in-between colors and/or we're not changing our water throughout the painting process.
d) We're not staying patient and are getting anxious to finish, going over the same spot again and again, while our paper is still wet, in attempts to fix mistakes but damaging our paper in the process.
10 Tips to Avoid Muddy Colors When Painting with Watercolor
1. Learn about the Color Wheel and color temperature
The Color Wheel is an invaluable tool that helps us understand color relationships.
Not only does it allow us to create color mixtures effectively while working, but it also enables us to plan color schemes prior to starting with the painting process that work beautifully and help us communicate the message we're looking to communicate.
Experiment with creating your own color mixtures. See what happens first-hand when you combine cool colors, warm colors and a warm plus a cool. Learn about color and work on color mixing exercises outside of a painting process via color studies and explorations.
2. Pre-select the colors you'll be using for the painting on hand before getting started
Randomly picking colors throughout the painting process is a surefire way of arriving at muddy colors.
Keeping things limited to only a certain amount of necessary colors, especially in the beginning, is a great idea. This not only allows the beginner to keep colors more organized throughout the process, but will mostly likely lead to an outcome that is much more harmonious and cohesive.
In this video, I share my entire process for painting a still life with watercolor using only 4 colors and why I love working with a limited color palette.
Before getting started with a new piece, give thought to how you're going to be creating the different colors you'll be needing, how you're going to be creating shadows and darker values of different colors, etc.
Most often than not, working with a limited amount of colors is going to help you get comfortable with color mixing a lot faster!
3. Change your water throughout the painting process (or use 2 or 3 containers)
As soon as you notice your water becoming murky, change it! You can also consider using 2 or even 3 containers as you're painting.
This way, you're able to use one of them to rinse out your bristles and another to take clean water from as needed throughout the process whenever you need to pre-wet areas of your paper, add more water to paint mixtures, soften out edges, etc.
4. Make sure you're cleaning out your paintbrush bristles thoroughly in-between colors
If you just finished using one color and you're planning on going into a color that's very different from it, make extra sure that your bristles are well rinsed, especially if you're not looking to desaturate your colors.
As a rule of thumb, if I'm not going into an Analogous color (a color that is next to to the one I was just using the Color Wheel), or just finished using a brown/neutral color, or even a color that might be more opaque than the one I want to use next (watercolors can be opaque, semi-opaque, translucent and semi-translucent), I make extra sure that all of the previous color has been washed out.
Unless I actually want to desaturate or mute-out a color.
If you're using grays, browns or neutrals, or Complementary Colors (opposites in the Color Wheel) in your painting, make sure to stay mindful throughout the process, as it's very easy for colors to mix together on your paper (especially if you're using lots of wet-on-wet), in your paint-mixing palette, and even in the bristles of your paintbrush!
5. Be careful when using Complementary Colors
Complementary Colors are opposites in the Color Wheel and, when mixed together, they neutralize or mute each other out. You can use this to your advantage if this is what you want to do, but if your aim is to keep your colors super saturated, then you need to approach these color combos with some sort of strategy.
Ask yourself: Depending on the effects that I'm going for, what area should I paint first, next and last? What techniques should I be using (wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, etc.)? What areas should I stay extra mindful to allow to dry before adding more color on top or around it? Should I be placing these two colors next to each other at this point in the process?
Remember that watercolor is always going to expand and bleed into paper that is wet. So if you don't want colors to intermix, you must allow them to dry completely.
If it makes sense for the subject on hand and the style you're going for, consider darkening colors with an Analogous Color, if you want colors to remain very vivid. Remember, Analogous Colors are next to each other in the Color Wheel.
Check out my FREE Patreon-exclusive tutorial and class samples here!
6. Avoid using ready-made blacks
Though color ingredients vary from brand to brand, most ready-made blacks such as Lamp Black, Ivory Black, Mars Black, etc., tend to be very flat and usually dull-out colors. This is one of the reasons why so many traditionally trained watercolor artists don't use them and, instead, create their own dark color mixtures that have liveliness and a color temperature to them.
It's also important to have in mind that blacks can really lead to stark, heavy looking marks or shapes that can be very distracting, and that there's actually very little pure black in nature. Even shadows have color and a temperature to them.
There are tons of ways to create your own darks when using watercolor. I share many different dark color mixtures in this video over at my YouTube channel!
If you do use a ready-made black, consider adding another color into it.
You can also use Neutral Tint, Payne's Gray or Analogous Cours to darken a certain color.
7. Hold yourself back from overworking your paintings
This is a tough one and something I'm working on as I continue on my journey with watercolor. Especially because I started painting with oils and acrylics, which usually require layering and going over the same area many times.
When it comes to working with watercolor, I've realized that the less moving around of paint we do after its been placed and even the less amount of layers we have to develop, the better and the fresher the outcome tends to be.
I've realized that visualizing the outcome we're after and approaching a new watercolor painting process with at least some sort of general plan is essential. This helps us lay down our washes and brush strokes more confidently and leave things be.
Because, if we don't know what we're after or what we're doing, we're going to be hesitating and making lots of mistakes that we'll want to go in and fix.
Mistakes and accidents always happen, but they're usually a lot smaller and can be made less noticeable more easily if we go in with a strategy and are staying mindful/patient.
If you feel you need to practice a specific technique or do isolated studies of something before getting started with a more complete piece, do it! It'll help you attack a new painting a lot more confidently and with much more success.
If you make a mistake, don't fret. Simply absorb excess water and paint with your absorbent towel or semi-dry paintbrush bristles and allow it to dry. Come back after the paper has regained its strength to see how you can make it less noticeable.
*A small amount of moving around of our paint is okay, but avoid going over the same spot again, and again, and again!*
8. Allow your layers of paint to dry completely before applying another wash on top
Like I said before, watercolor is always going to expand into paper that is wet. If the paper is very wet, the paint you place on top is going to expand more rapidly. If the paper is starting to dry, it'll expand more slowly.
But it'll always feather out at least a bit depending on the level of moisture.
There are varying degrees of wetness a paper can have when we're working with watercolor and, as we continue practicing, it'll become easier to tell when we should be dropping in our paint in order to achieve a certain level of gradating or blurring out.
If we want our marks or the edges of our shapes to be clean and sharp, or if we don't want the previous colors we've placed to intermix with the ones we want to place on top, it's important to be patient and allow our painting (or at least that specific area) to dry completely.
Always remember that, wet paper is fragile paper and we must allow it to regain its strength before attempting to add further detail or darken certain areas.
9. Avoid using opaque colors
Watercolor paint can be opaque, semi-opaque, transparent and semi-transparent. Each individual color's characteristics vary, even within the same paint set, and this is one of the reasons why swatching out a new paint set is important.
It's important to know that opaque colors tend to create color mixtures that get thicker and thicker, and murkier and murkier, which can lead to mud much more easily than using transparent colors.
This doesn't mean that we can't use them (I use them all the time!), but it does mean that we have to use them carefully or, in many cases, on their own.
Colors such as Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red, Cerulean Blue, Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre tend to have opaque qualities to them.
You can never go wrong with testing out the different color mixtures you're planning on using on a scrap piece of watercolor paper before actually using them in your painting.
10. Make sure that you're cleaning out your paint mixing palette thoroughly and keep colors organized throughout the process
This one's related to keeping your water and paintbrushes clean, and I just thought I'd add it in because it can be especially helpful for beginners.
When we're watching videos in which expert watercolor artists are using a huge watercolor palette with a bunch of different colors that seem to be intermixing and they are freely taking their colors as they're painting, it's important to realize that they:
a) Know the Color Wheel like the back of their hand
b) Have mastered water control and know what to do to fix mistakes
c) Most likely than not, they've pre-selected and organized the specific colors they know and love using to create their very own color palette
When we're just getting started it can seem like we should be approaching our painting process in that same way, with a large amount of colors and with a palette that *seems to be* out of control.
It can be very frustrating when a beginner sees that, tries to replicate that, continues ending up with paintings that don't seem right, and has no idea what he/she is doing wrong.
Learn about Color Theory, keep things practical and limited, and stay as organized as possible in the beginning so that you can continue practicing mindfully and, I promise, you'll get to that point a lot sooner!
Higher quality watercolor paint is going to lead to better results (better color payoff/more vibrancy/easier mixing of colors/etc.) and generally offers more information about each color such as its level of translucency, granulation, etc. Cheaper watercolors tend to be chalky and opaque, which lead to muddy colors.
*This post contains affiliate links. I receive small commissions for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. These commissions help me keep this site up and running, in order for me to keep providing helpful and inspiring art content. :)
How do artists choose the colors they'll be using for a new watercolor painting? What can I do to keep my color mixtures better organized on my mixing palette throughout the painting process and steer clear of accidentally creating mud? Why is it important to invest time in planning the colors we'll be using before starting a new painting?
In this blog post, I'll be sharing three reasons why I love using a limited amount of colors (usually 3-7) to create my watercolor paintings and how this practice has helped me make deeper, faster progress as a painter.
Color is an Element of Art that plays a huge role in making a visual composition look harmonious and cohesive. As with all other Art Fundamentals, use of color is something that most skilled artists continue learning about and improving upon throughout their journeys.
It's absolutely essential for the beginner starting with any kind of painting medium, to learn about Color Theory and the Color Wheel, as this knowledge enables us to not only create successful color mixtures throughout the painting process, but also to plan great color schemes that work for the piece on hand.
Because skilled artists know how important color and value are, they take time to prepare for a new piece via the creation of thumbnails, swatching colors, and thinking of how they'll be creating the color mixtures needed for a new painting prior to actually starting.
Either this, or they've already prepared a custom color palette to work from that has all of the colors they love and know they're going to need. They know exactly what's going to happen when two or three of those colors get mixed together.
Artists know that making time to think about color before starting to paint will enable them to move forward more smoothly and will lead to an outcome that is impactful, harmonious, and also communicates their message more clearly.
And how each artist goes about selecting his/her colors is completely dependent on the artist's personal creative process.
Artists who are looking for very high-levels of realism often go by specific colors they see in their reference pictures or in the subjects they have in front of them when working from direct observation. They make time to observe and put in the work to ensure their colors/color mixtures match what they actually see.
Others work from references loosely and manipulate color to bring a certain level of expression, contrast, etc. into the picture. Sometimes they change specific colors altogether or alter some of them to bring their style in.
And others, such as abstract artists, at times start their paintings based on a specific color scheme they found inspiring, designing an entire visual composition around it. Or they create their own color schemes that are meant to transmit a specific message or emotion (putting Color Psychology to use).
Of course, there are tried-and-true color schemes that have been used by artists throughout history that will always lead to very visually pleasing results.
In lots of Van Gogh's work, you'll see use of Complementary Colors, in Monet's you'll see use of Analogous Colors, etc.
Some artists take hours preparing the colors they'll be using for a new painting and others take minutes, but they always bring in their knowledge of the Color Wheel and Color Theory.
It doesn't really matter how you do it. The more you paint, the more your own personal style and creative process will become clearer.
The point here is to make it a habit to start thinking about color before starting to paint.
Color is a huge, complex topic and I believe it's important for beginners to build upon a solid base of knowledge and take their learning a step-at-a-time, as this helps avoid overwhelm and keeps their art journey enjoyable.
This will help them stay consistent, which is key in making significant artistic progress.
By the way, of you haven't checked out my free Drawing and Watercolor for the Total Beginner Mini-Courses , make sure to become an art email insider to get access to them ASAP.
These courses are absolutely jam-packed with all of the information I wish I knew when I was first getting started.
3 Reasons Why Limited Color Schemes Are Awesome
Even as a more experienced painter, I absolutely love using limited color schemes because of the points I'm going to be sharing next.
This said, keeping things simple can do wonders for beginners and can help them make much faster progress than being drowned and overwhelmed with a wide array of different colors, and even paper and paintbrushes.
*We're not getting into paper and paintbrushes today, but I highly recommend checking out my blog post titled Watercolor Supplies for Beginners and Things You Must Know if you'd like more in-depth information on watercolor painting supplies.
1. They help us get comfortable with color mixing
By taking time to plan and prepare a limited amount of colors, we'll be putting our knowledge of color to the test, as this forces us to give thought to how we'll be creating our different color mixtures with the least amount of colors possible.
A couple of quick examples of how to work with a less amount of colors:
-If you've already selected a yellow and a red for a new painting, and all of the sudden realize you're going to need an orange color, why not use a mixture of your yellow and red instead of reaching for an orange?
-If you've already selected your Ultramarine Blue and your Burnt Umber for certain areas of your painting, why not use a mixture of these two to create your dark gray, instead of reaching for another gray?
In my many years teaching art, I've found lots of beginners are afraid to mix their own colors and are looking for instructors to provide very specific "recipes" and even color-to-color ratios for their mixtures.
Also, lots of beginners feel they need the specific color that the artist in the tutorial they are following is using.
By learning about the Color Wheel, Color Temperature, etc., and making time to play with color (intentionally of course), they'd be able to create any needed color without much guidance at all.
Make time to learn the basics. Don't skip over them because they'll improve everything you choose to do in the future.
Make time to explore and get comfortable with your medium, before attempting to create a polished masterpiece.
As beginners, it's important to keep things simple.
Most often than not, keeping things intentionally limited will help us make faster progress than jumping between a bunch of different things and overwhelming ourselves with lots of supplies.
2. They lead to harmonious paintings
When we're just getting started, most of us are anxious to begin with the painting process. We tend to skip over any sort of preparation and move forward randomly picking colors.
I did this when I was first getting started in my painting journey and was so confused as to why my paintings always ended up looking amateurish and incohesive.
Unless we have a very colorful art style or are going for this look intentionally, randomly picking colors throughout the painting process is a surefire way of ending up with a painting that is very overwhelming to look at or that is "all-over-the-place" in terms of the message it's transmitting to the viewer.
By limiting our colors and repeating colors as we're creating our different paint mixtures, we'll end up with much more harmonious results. Our color mixtures look like they belong together and are working in unison to transmit one same message.
It's similar to the "Mother Color" method that some artists working with oils and acrylics use to unify and provide color harmony in their paintings. What they do is choose one color to be the "Mother", which is going to be added (in a small degree) to every color mixture. This makes the different colors look like they belong together.
All part of one same "whole".
And this is what we want when we're designing a visual composition. We want the different parts to work together as one "whole".
The "Mother Color" method doesn't quite apply the same way when we're working with watercolor, as the color mixing process when using this medium is a lot more organic and free-flowing.
We're constantly shifting color ratios, paint to water ratios, etc. as we move along, but the principle of re-using the same colors in our different color mixtures in order to unify the overall outcome still applies.
Give thought to how you can use this idea in your own work to both make your paintings more cohesive and also to transmit your message/emotion/idea in a more powerful way.
3. They help us stay organized throughout the painting process
When working with watercolor, it can be very easy for our colors to start mixing together due to the amount of water we're using throughout the process, which can certainly be frustrating! *This paint mixing palette has certainly helped me in this department.
Loosing control of our color mixtures on our paint mixing palettes can lead to creating mud (brownish/grayish/desaturated colors that we weren't actually going for).
By having made the time to actually test out our color mixtures on scrap pieces of watercolor paper prior to starting with the painting process, we'll be avoiding undesired colors.
Also, by limiting the amount of colors we're using and knowing exactly which colors we're using throughout our painting (at least in loose terms), we'll be making things a lot easier for ourselves along the way.
It takes out all of the guesswork as we'll know exactly which color to reach for whenever we need to create more of any specific mixture.
I don't know about you, but it's very easy for me to start accidentally dipping my paintbrush into a paint pan I wasn't intending to use during the painting process (especially when I'm using a larger paint set that includes several different blues, reds, browns, etc.).
To make things easier for myself, I often love removing the paint pans I have selected from my watercolor set and only have those with me as I'm working.
Over on Patreon, I share step-by-step watercolor painting tutorials in which I explain everything, starting from how I select my paint colors and create my color mixtures, to how I develop my color, values and details in layers.
Watercolor supplies used in video:
I hope you found this post helpful, and wish you tons of progress and enjoyment in your artistic journey!
Is there a specific process to follow when using watercolor pencils? What things should I do to ensure a better outcome when using this medium? What are some good watercolor pencil options for beginners just getting started?
In this blog post, I'll be providing five key tips that will help make the learning process less frustrating and enable you to create amazing artwork as soon as possible. In the video included here, I'll also be sharing how I personally use watercolor pencils by painting a yellow rose.
Watercolor pencils are not only an extremely versatile art medium, as they are simultaneously a drawing and a painting tool, but their practicality makes them ideal for many beginners that are short on time and space.
They also allow for much more control when compared to regular watercolor paint and can help us start getting a feel for what it's like to work with watercolors without having to master water control.
Watercolor pencils are basically watercolor pigment that has been encased in wood, in the form of a pencil.
They can and can be used either with or without water to create different effects, which can range from a heavily-textured colored pencil look, to a smooth and painterly watercolor paint look.
To create marks and colored pencil textures, we simply use them right on our paper, which can be completely bone dry or pre-wetted with clean water.
Of course, the type of paper used has a great impact on the amount of texture created. Smoother paper will lead to smoother effects, while rougher paper will create more texturized effects, as the pigment isn't evenly distributed throughout the tooth of the paper.
On the other hand, to create painterly effects, we lay down our color on our paper just as if we were using regular colored pencils and then smooth it out by going in with a dampened paintbrush. There's no need to use heaps of water for this. *You can also use the impromptu paint mixing palette method I demonstrate in the video included below.
When using quality watercolor pencils, water really activates the pigment and makes the color look a lot brighter and bolder.
These techniques can be used alone or in combination. For example, if you were painting a landscape, you could use more painterly techniques for your background, and more textured/detailing techniques for layers in your foreground.
There is no specific process to follow when using this medium. It's use is going to depend on the specific style and effects you are personally going for with the piece on hand, which is why it's important to give thought to the overall look you want to create before starting.
All this said, many of the regular watercolor "rules" (if they can even be called rules) apply.
In the following video you'll see how, even though my general method is different to what I would do when I paint with regular watercolor paint, I still protect my highlights throughout the process, work from light and translucent to dark and saturated, and allow my paper to dry in between layers.
In this past blog post/YouTube video, I do a comparison between regular watercolor paint and watercolor pencils, and share a complete demo in which I paint the same apple using both mediums. They are very similar, but very different at the same time!
Watercolor Pencil Tips for Beginners
Using regular printer paper for watercolor or watercolor pencil work will most likely lead to frustration during the process, as well as undesired results. Not to mention, the learning phase will last longer, as the beginner artist isn't actually able to get a sense for what the medium is like.
This said, I don't believe in necessarily going for the highest quality watercolor paper right-off-the-bat (if you have the budget- then by all means go for it).
I'd much rather you practice consistently on decent quality (and accessibly priced) student-grade paper, as opposed to not creating art because you're afraid of wasting your supplies.
Check out my blog post/YouTube video titled Watercolor Supplies for Beginners and Things You Must Know to learn more about my opinions and suggestions on specific watercolor painting supplies.
I always recommend working with watercolor paper that is at least 140 lbs. or thicker/heavier in weight, so that it's able to take a bit of a beating. Thinner paper not only warps a lot more easily, but it doesn't allow for layering and scrubbing techniques and is very easy to damage.
And when we're just getting started (with any medium), most of us tend to overwork things, often damaging our substrate and/or tools.
Stay mindful throughout your painting process in order to ensure that you're not scratching your paper with your sharp watercolor pencils and that you're allowing layers of paint to dry in between if you're using a dampened paintbrush to smooth out your color.
Lay down your colors gently and patiently, without pressing down to hard (this will create scratches and burnish the paper-creating an uneven sheen/finish).
2. Create your preliminary sketch lightly
One of the main characteristics that sets watercolors apart from other painting mediums such as acrylics, oils and gouache, is its translucency.
Because of this, if we create a preliminary sketch prior to starting with our painting process that's not very light, it will likely show through our paint.
There are lots of watercolor artists out there who like their line work to show through their paint, but if you don't want this to happen, it's important to make sure that you're outline sketch is created lightly. I usually use an HB pencil for this phase of the process and make sure I'm not exerting much pressure at all.
Being light-handed when creating your preliminary sketch will also help ensure that the graphite left behind on your watercolor paper won't dirty up the colors you start placing on top. You want your colors vibrant and fresh.
Something you can also do, is use a light colored watercolor pencil to create your preliminary sketch. This way, once you start using water, your line work will disappear completely as you go!
3. Plan the colors you'll be using before starting to paint
It's incredibly important for people starting on their painting journeys, to look into the color wheel and Color Theory.
Color is an Element of Art that not only plays a huge role in making an artwork look harmonious and cohesive, but knowledge about the color wheel enables us to create color mixtures effectively throughout the art-making process.
Over at my Patreon site, I offer sequential classes that cover all must-know Art Fundamentals. You can also get immediate access to my Drawing and Watercolor for the Total Beginner Mini-Courses by becoming an art email insider here (the third class in the watercolor course is all about color).
Instead of randomly picking colors throughout the painting process, take five minutes to observe your reference picture and pick out the specific watercolor pencil colors you'll be using. Take them out of your package and place them beside you as you prepare for your new piece.
Don't only think about the colors of the subject in and of itself (ex. if I'm painting a gray cat I'm not only looking for different grays), but also think about what colors you'll be adding in to create your darkest values, cast shadows and background colors.
Take time to swatch your colors on a scrap piece of watercolor paper, as they really tend to look different once they are applied vs. the color shown on the pencil. Test any color mixtures you're planning on using.
Keep things limited and as simple as possible.
I promise, it'll make a huge difference in terms of both your organization during the process, as well as the outcome.
4. Use a good reference photo
If you're looking to create higher levels of realism, make sure you're stemming from a good reference photo (or have your subject in front of you in good lighting).
Not only will a good reference photo enable you to see details and the tiny nuances that will make your drawing or painting more realistic, but it will also provide you much needed information in terms of light behavior and locations of highlights, midtones and darks.
Remember, it's these different values (highlights, midtones and darks), that make drawings and paintings look three-dimensional. If you're unable to locate them in a photo reference, you'll have lots of trouble trying to recreate them.
Always make sure your reference photos have a great resolution that will enable you to see details and zoom in (if necessary), and that they show good lighting.
You'll know a photo has good lighting if it shows a good play between lights and darks. *Photos taken with flash are usually washed out and make everything look very flat, which makes the drawing and painting process a lot harder.
If you don't have a good reference to work from, you're basically guessing at what things look like and have to make your own conclusions in regards to where highlights, midtones and darks are located.
Unless you've been drawing or painting a specific subject for years, you're drawing or painting it the way you think that subject looks like, and not what it actually looks like in real life.
Learning to observe and learn all we can about the subjects we're interested in improving at by actually taking in all sorts of references (photos, life subjects, videos, etc.), is so important, as artists!
And, remember, just because you're using a reference, it doesn't mean you can't bring in your own creativity into your work.
5. Give thought to what kinds of effects you want to use in each area of your painting
Because watercolor pencils allow for so many different types of techniques, it can be very easy to get lost during the process and end up with effects we weren't intending to create.
Give thought to the specific techniques you'll be using, as well as when and where you'll be using each, throughout the painting process. This will make it much more likely that you'll end up with an outcome you'll love.
Think of how you can combine different techniques to create impactful and contrasting effects in your different layers (foreground, middleground, background), as well as how you can use them to bring more attention to your focal point.
There are so many ways you can go with watercolor pencils!
Explore, have fun and don't forget to bring in a bit of yourself into everything that you create. :)
Great watercolor pencil options for beginners:
Why is it that abstract art looks so easy to do and when I try my hand at it, I always end up disappointed with my results? How can I become looser and more expressive when painting with watercolor? Does one have to prepare before starting a painting that's more on the abstract side of the art spectrum?
When I first saw abstract artists at work, back when I was very young, I remember thinking just how easy it must be to create that kind of painting (or drawing). I saw how intuitively and spontaneously they moved along the process, and concluded there was no prep work involved or specific process to follow.
I wasn't entirely wrong.
However, the thing I failed to realize back then is, those artists that seemed to be creating magic on canvas in a matter of minutes and without any struggle at all, had a ton of knowledge about art and Art Fundamentals, and had full control over their preferred mediums.
They had already devoted lots of time to learning, exploring, messing up and finding their voice to the point that they could now easily express emotions and ideas via marks, colors, shapes and textures.
They had full knowledge of Elements and Principles of Art, and were masters at choosing color schemes, creating interesting and balanced compositions, harmony, contrast, and everything that makes an artwork look impactful, cohesive and have the ability to effectively communicate an idea or emotion.
Because they had already gained a certain level of mastery through their first-hand experience, they were able to move through the creative process with confidence and ease.
And confidence, in my opinion, is key to abstracts as it's what truly allows us to let go and be able to work more intuitively.
Not to mention, these artists had already gone through the long process of finding themselves artistically and preparing their specific tools (and colors) of choice. They know the message they want to transmit and how they want to transmit it.
So yes, they may be going along the creation of an abstract painting intuitively now, and they may or may not have prepared or practiced before starting a specific piece (this depends on each artist's creative process), but they have years of practice under their belts.
When we're just getting started (and we're serious about improving our skills), it's important to realize that there is a lot to learn and that we need to explore and practice first-handedly consistently and intentionally, in order to make the progress we're after.
As I shared in my past blog post, 5 Tips for the (Serious) Self-Taught Artist, learning about Art Fundamentals can make the biggest different in your artistic journey.
Not only in your ability to create original and impactful drawings or paintings, but also in your ability to analyze and talk about art. This knowledge helps you communicate your ideas about your work, and the work of others, which is so important when your goal is to become a professional artist.
By learning about Art Fundamentals and applying this knowledge consciously in the beginning, as well as taking a few minutes to do a bit of planning prior to starting a new piece (whether it's abstract or not), you'll develop your eye for composition and later be able to tell if something works or not, pretty darn fast.
Not to mention, knowledge of Art Fundamentals is what allows us to create original and visually pleasing artworks from scratch, all on our own, and without having to constantly rely on inspiration from other artists.
This means you won't have to spend hours scrolling Instagram or Pinterest until you arrive at something that you want to replicate, because you'll have the ability to take ideas you already have inside of you and turn them into an actual visual composition.
Join the Becoming Artists community on Patreon for live classes on Art Fundamentals, exclusive real-time drawing and watercolor tutorials that I don't share anywhere else (complete with downloadables), sketchbook prompts sent to you every week designed to help you stay consistent, feedback from me on your work and much more! *Click to learn more.
Next. I'll be sharing three key tips that will help ensure a much smoother process and a more effective outcome when creating looser watercolor paintings.
3 Tips for Beautiful Watercolor Abstracts
1. Plan your colors
Color is an essential part behind making a visual composition (whether simple or complex) look harmonious and cohesive. Because of this, giving thought to what specific colors you'll be using prior to starting with the painting process can be extremely helpful, especially when we're just getting started with painting.
When we're creating an artwork, we have to consider the whole, or the global picture. A composition is meant to be seen in its entirety, which is why artists have to become masters at making use of (and manipulating) the different Elements and Principles of Art so that everything included works together to transmit the message, emotion or mood that they are intending to transmit.
No element included in the piece is an island, as they all interact with each other to communicate the story, message or feeling to the viewer.
Therefore, it's smart to give thought to how the different parts we'll be including in our artwork will be working in conjunction, prior to starting with the painting process.
In relation to color, it's also helpful to remember that the way we see each hue is affected by the colors around it.
Randomly picking colors throughout the painting process is a huge no-no, especially when we're just starting on our painting journeys. This will often result in struggling with muddy colors throughout the process, as well as finished products that don't look cohesive.
Have in mind that, when we come across a video online where we're seeing a pro who knows color and has been painting for a long time, they've already most likely prepared specific colors on their palettes that they love and know will work well for the mixtures they'll be needing.
In other words, they've already prepared their colors and aren't working with a color set that has been pre-made for them.
They also know the color wheel like the back of their hand. This knowledge enables them to not only create color mixtures effectively, but also select color schemes that look integrated and impactful, and know exactly which colors to reach out for (or stay away from) when a new color mixture is needed.
Learn more about the Color Wheel and Color Theory by joining over 3,000 art e-mail insiders and getting immediate access to my *free* Watercolor for the Total Beginner Mini-Course! The third class is all about color. :)
Something I love doing when preparing for a new piece is to think about the overall mood I want it to transmit to the viewer and how I can play with color to enhance my focal points, as well as create a sense of contrast to really make my painting pop.
*Most of my viewers over on YouTube also know that I love keeping things simple and using a limited amount of colors when painting.
Keeping things as simple as possible, and limiting the amount of colors that I'll be using, allows me to stay better organized throughout the process, which keeps muddy colors at bay, and leads to my paintings looking a lot more unified at the end.
2. Give thought to your compositional arrangement
Though many abstract artists make this work seem easy, something important to understand as beginners is that an impactful, harmonious and balanced composition rarely happens by accident.
As an outsider looking in, it might look like what skilled abstract artists are doing is completely free-flowing and spontaneous.
However, as I mentioned before, they have the knowledge and skills they need to create impactful work almost unconsciously and have the confidence that allows them to trust in their tools and in their own decisions/movements.
It's incredibly helpful, for both beginners as well as more experienced artists, to sketch out a few quick thumbnails to roughly plan the location of focal point(s), as well as the balance that will be created between positive and negative spaces (areas which contain the subjects vs. empty areas), before getting started with the painting process.
If you're using a reference photo, give thought to cropping and manipulating the size of different elements included, as well as removing those which may be detracting from the focal point or the balance you're looking to create.
By learning about Art Fundamentals you'll become knowledgable on how to play with Elements of Art in order to manipulate their characteristics, as well as their placement within your space, to pull the viewers' attention towards your focal point(s) and keep their eyes moving throughout the piece.
Not to mention, you'll also be able to stay away from making your drawings or paintings too overwhelming, which can be a huge problem when creating abstract art.
Two "rules" or guides that I learned in art school which really helped me develop my eye for balanced yet interesting compositions, were the Rule of Thirds and the 60/40 (or 70/30) Rule (also referred to as the "Less is More" rule).
The Rule of Thirds is used by photographers and even cinematographers all the time, and it helps us create interesting, asymmetrically balanced artwork that transmits a story.
Using it is very simple. We basically divide our space into 9 equal squares or rectangles using horizontal and vertical lines and, using this grid, we decide the location of our focal point, as well as the placement of the secondary and tertiary elements.
The Rule of Thirds tells us to never place our focal point right in the center of our space, or within the center of any of the squares or rectangles. It tells us to pick one of the points where the horizontal or vertical lines intersect (see red dots in image below). We can also place our focal elements along one of the lines.
This guideline helps us create visual compositions that keep the viewer's eyes moving throughout the piece, instead of staying stagnant, which we definitely want to stay away from.
It's not completely black and white, and you'll be able to find many examples of masterpieces created throughout history in which the Rule of Thirds has been deliberately used, and other in which it's used a bit more loosely.
Check out this beautiful painting created by Renoir in 1873. The viewer's attention immediately gets called towards the lady in the white dress.
The artist not only placed the focal point along one of the lines in the Rule of Thirds grid, but also emphasized the main subject by creating contrast using color and value, as well as rendering higher levels of detail within her when compared to the elements around her. We get a sense of this lady being directly hit by sunlight, while everything else in her proximity is in shadows.
Now check out this painting created by Van Gogh in 1888. He's also made use of this same idea when he decided to place the group of boats off-center and closer to the left side.
The viewer's attention not only gets immediately pulled towards the red boat (which falls right in the intersection where one of the vertical and horizontal lines meet in the grid), but our eyes then keep traveling towards the boats behind it, and then to the boats that are heading out towards the horizon.
In this piece, though, the horizon line was placed almost halfway down the composition, which is what the Rule of Thirds tells us to stay away from. This nearly perfect central placement of the horizon line usually "cuts" landscapes right in half, when we're usually looking asymmetrical balance.
However, this piece has so much movement and depth created by the placement of elements in the foreground, middleground and background, and such an interesting overall use of Principles of Art, that the horizon line doesn't really take away from it.
The 60/40 or 70/30 Rule basically tells us that the areas of interest (or our focal points) should take up a much smaller amount of space than areas of lower interest. It also propels us to think about how we're going to be making use of different Principles of Art inside our areas of interest when compared to outside of them, in order to create contrast, bring attention to our focal point, and transmit our message more clearly.
I don't know about you, but when I'm creating an abstract piece, I find it really easy to go overboard and start adding more and more (paint, marks, etc.) to the point that the focal point is lost and I end up with a painting that is overwhelming for the viewer.
This is a big no-no, unless of course, this is intentionally the style your going for.
I suggest taking breaks and stepping back from your work every few minutes and, once again, observing the global picture.
Think about whether more is truly necessary.
These two "rules" are by no means the only way to go about creating an artwork or the only helpful guidelines that exist out there, but they really helped me develop my eye for composition, as well as my knowledge on what goes behind creating a successful artwork when I was first getting started.
For more on Composition pertaining to abstract art, check out this awesome video shared by artist David M. Kessler over at his YouTube channel.
3. Think about how you'll be doing your layering (especially if you're using mixed media)
What makes so many abstract pieces so appealing is the richness artists are able to achieve via their layering processes, which I suggest giving thought to whether you're only using one medium to create your piece (the way I did with watercolor in the video included above), or are combining a variety of mediums.
This will not only ensure a better outcome, but will also help your piece last a lot longer in good condition.
Depending on the mediums that you're using, you'll want to do research and even do quick explorations to see if your initial layers will directly affect both the look and durability of the layers you place on top, and vice versa.
You'll want to look into factors such as drying times between layers and final varnishing, as well.
As opposed to representational art, in which a large part of the story or message is told via instantly recognizable subjects, abstract artists make use of the Elements of Art in their purest form (color, shape, line, texture, etc.).
Playing around with how to layer these different elements, as well as defining what tools, mediums and/or techniques will be used throughout different parts of the process, we'll be able to create a much more impactful piece.
Not to mention, we'll be able to keep some level of organization in our chaos. :)
Keep in mind that an interesting and impactful composition usually has some sort of play between less and more, dark and light, etc. There are many ways in which we can create contrast, including making use of light vs. dark values, cool vs. warm colors, small vs. large sizes, heavy vs. light visual or tactile textures, highly detailed vs. less detailed, etc.
*Bonus Tip: Just keep moving!
Once you've started with the painting process, don't allow yourself to stay stuck in one place. Move past small mistakes and embrace imperfection!
Trust in the plan and prep work you've done and keep moving forward. This quicker pace of working will lead to much more expressive results.
If you don't feel ready to start on the actual piece that's meant to be finalized, warm up with smaller explorations! This never fails to help me, no matter what I'm doing.
A while back I shared a blog post titled 5 Tips to Loosen Up and Create More Expressive Art which contains helpful tips that I apply myself.
Watercolor painting supplies used in this video:
I hope this blog post was helpful! If you have any questions or tips to share, make sure to leave a comment below.
Thanks so much for reading!
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