Watercolor Painting: Where to Start
Q&A with Cindy Briggs
Should background washes be painted before or after the subject?
It all depends on the subject. Sometimes the colors in my background go with my subject and I may work those out as I’m painting. Otherwise, you lose color harmony. There is no absolute order to every painting process, so it’s best to think through a painting before jumping in by creating a small practice color study.
Does watercolor paper need to be prepped?
If you use quality watercolors such as Fabriano, Arches, or Dick Black 140# Cold Press watercolor paper you don’t have to do anything to it before painting on it. It does help to clip or tape it down with Artists tape to a board to keep it flat. If I’m just doing a quick sketch I just paint directly in my watercolor sketchbook or on a piece of 140# cold press paper. For larger paintings, I prefer to tape it down or use a watercolor block which keeps the paper flat. For really large paintings I use 300# Soft Press Fabriano Paper.
Does any paper work for watercolor painting?
No. You need watercolor paper for the watercolor to sit and mingle on the surface. Watercolor paper has a coating “sizing” on the surface that works well for painting with watercolors. Other papers, Lightweight paper, or sketch paper just soaks in the paint and makes it nearly impossible to get the effects you desire.
Do watercolor canvases need to be washed before use?
A watercolor canvas has been treated for watercolors – it is not like a canvas that you use for oils or acrylics. I prefer 140# watercolor paper to watercolor canvas because it’s easier to work with. With the canvas, the brush tends to pick up the paint every time you make a stroke over some color so it takes more practice. The benefit of a Watercolor Canvas is that you can wash off the painting when you are finished and start all over again. Be sure to spray it with archival varnish for watercolor when you finish if you plan to display it without glass.
How do you avoid damaging the paper when painting with watercolors?
A good quality watercolor brush and watercolors will not damage the paper. What damages the watercolor paper is scrubbing too harshly with a scrubber or bristle brush, mishandling it or storing it with other surfaces that may damage it. I do use Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to gently lift watercolor off the surface when it dries, but even that can be used too stringently to damage the paper. Watercolor paper is pretty durable, just treat it with care and you won’t have any problems.
What type of paper do you recommend using?
Fabriano 140# Cold Press Paper or 300# Soft Press Paper. In my workshops I often suggest Fabriano Studio 140# Watercolor Paper that comes in a pad – it works pretty well and is cost-effective.
How long does watercolor paint take to dry?
That depends on the climate where you are. It dries faster in Utah and Colorado than it does in Seattle or humid North Carolina. Usually watercolor will dry in just a few minutes. If you are doing a large wet-in-wet wash, possibly 15 minutes. When painting outdoors you can put it in the sunshine to speed the drying process. Inside, you can gently use a blow dryer. I tend to work around the painting to allow for drying as I paint.
What is the main thing to know before painting with watercolors?
Don’t use the kid stuff – To make the most of the magical intrinsic qualities of Watercolor you deserve to paint with quality supplies. See my supply list for suggestions