The 10 Laws of Watercolor
As a child, I loved the idea of becoming an artist. I often looked at paintings from afar, mesmerized by their beauty and at the same time confounded by their complexity. It seemed so simple watching someone else reveal majestic landscapes and captivating subjects with just a few flicks of the wrist...
...but then as soon as I sat down with a brush in hand to test my own artistic prowess, all I churned out were muddy blobs.
Painting and making art in general were a complete mystery to me, and just the thought of attempting to learn felt so overwhelming that, eventually, I stopped trying.
That’s the short version of how I spent most of my life believing the lie that I was not an artist.
I’m going to tell more of my story later, but for now, I want to share the secret to how I not only learned how to do art but also decided to quit my job and pursue it full time.
Art, just like anything else, can and must be broken down into bite-sized parts in order to make sense. And once you figure out what those parts are and how they fit together, you can teach yourself anything.
When it comes to watercolor, those parts are basic rules and techniques (like the wet-on-wet technique and the wet-on-dry technique). Once you learn the basics and train your eye to recognize where they fit and how they’ll help you shape your subject, you can slowly piece together any painting you want.
Discovering that watercolor paintings are just a bunch of little strokes and layers formed together to make something beautiful made all the difference for me, and putting together a list of rules based on my observations has helped me paint my way out of a lot of confusing and frustrating moments in my journey as an artist.
I think they’ll be helpful for you, too.
The 10 Laws of Watercolor
1. Everything is made from either the wet-on-dry technique, the wet-on-wet technique, or both.
This one may seem simple, but it’s the first lesson that helped me understand how art can be broken up into pieces. When you strip away all the nitty-gritty details, every watercolor painting started with one or both of these basic techniques. You either paint on a dry surface, or you paint on a wet one.
2. Paint from back to front, light to dark.
Because of watercolor’s transparent quality, the order in which you paint things is important. I usually paint from back to front, identifying which parts of a scene belong in the back first, and then working my way up in multiple layers.
Similarly, I work from light to dark. If you need to, you can always make something darker -- but it is much harder to make something lighter if you’ve painted it too dark. This plays into the back to front rule because I’ve found that most often, the lighter subjects are in the back, and the darker subjects are in the front to help focus and bring depth to your scene.
A note: there are sometimes lighter subjects in the front, like when sunlight comes into play in a landscape scene -- that technique is more advanced, and it breaks this beginner rule.
3. Watercolor paint wants to move where there’s water.
If your paper is wet, the paint will move. If your paper is dry, your paint will stay put wherever your brush lands. If you touch your brush to a wet spot on your paper, the paint will move, but only to where it’s wet.
This rule was helpful for me when I learned the trick about creating boundaries with water. Since we know that watercolor will only move when it has a wet surface on which to move, you can use your brush to make a wet shape on your paper, and your paint will be confined to move only in that shape.
4. Defined, small, and concise lines and subjects mean using the wet-on-dry technique.
If you’re trying to recreate a painting or paint something from real life, if it has clearly defined edges, then you need to use the wet-on-dry technique. That means painting while your paper is dry.
Because watercolor will only move where there’s water, that means the wet-on-dry technique will contain your paint to only where your paint brush moves.
5. Blurry subjects or soft blends mean using the wet-on-wet technique.
Whenever you see soft or gradual color blends, or if your subject appears blurry or wispy, you likely need to use the wet-on-wet technique to mimic that effect.
Sunsets are a perfect example of this. To create a smooth, subtle shift from one color to the next, you’ll need the entire layer to be wet, allowing the colors to naturally blend together with no dried paint lines.
6. More water (on your paper, on your brush, or in your paint) means less control.
Not all wet-on-wet surfaces are created equal. The more water you use while painting, the less control you have over where the paint goes.
One a-ha! moment for me was realizing that water can be on your paper, on your brush, and in your paint. Especially when I first started watercolor painting, I couldn’t figure out where all the wet was coming from. If I barely got my paper wet, why was the paint still so hard to control? The culprit was my paint brush -- I had too much water on my paint brush, so it was difficult to get thin lines or precise movements.
Another one was recognizing that you can use just a little water to wet a surface to create blurry shapes that still hold most of their structure. A lot of time, when you paint on a wet surface, the paint kind of blooms outward, not holding its shape at all.
But if your paper is only slightly wet, you can get the blurry effect and still hold the shape. This is especially helpful for painting reflections.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you have too much water on your paper, you won’t be able to control your paint at all. In fact, it might not even move. If you have so much water on your paint that it forms a puddle, the paint will just swirl on top of the water rather than bloom outward onto the paper.
To get rid of a puddle, just use a paper towel or q-tip to mop it up, and continue painting.
7. A loose hand yields more control.
Especially when I first started painting, my instinct was to grip my paint brush tighter to gain better control over my movements. In reality, the opposite is true! You should have a loose grip around the center of your handle, rather than a tight grip close to the bristles, to have the best control over your paint brush and guide your watercolor in a more natural way.
8. Imperfection looks more realistic.
As much as it’s important to look where and how you can guide your paint, just remember that the magic of watercolor is in its innate chaos, its wandering spirit. If you lean too heavily into controlling where every spot of paint goes, you may loose some of the wonder and feel that makes watercolor so unique.
To that end, I’ve also interestingly found that when I stop trying to form my subjects perfectly, they come out even better. That’s because nature and people -- the universe and everything in it -- are imperfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect blade of grass, so the more you lean into imperfection, the better you’ll be able to catch the truth of what’s around you.
9. Paint what you see, not what you know.
One of the hardest barriers for me to topple was the idea that I should paint something for what it was rather than what it looks like.
Let me explain with an example. When I first looked at misty trees and wondered how to paint them, my thought was: “But how do you paint mist on top of trees? What does mist even look like?”
In my head, I knew what mist was (water vapor + some other stuff), so I was trying to form its makeup with paint. But when I stripped away all that knowledge and focused on what it looked like (blurry white spots crashing into trees and making them look lighter), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain.
Watercolor misty trees aren’t mist + trees. They’re different values (lightness or darkness) of color, blended together using the wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques.
It’s the same with mountains. You don’t have to paint every unique shadow and crag to exactness when painting a mountain; you need to paint light and dark spots of varying shape and size.
Forget about what you know about the thing, and just focus on what you can see -- shapes, colors, size, number -- and do your best to put them all together. You won’t be perfect at it, but the more you do it, the easier it’ll be!
10. Take a step back to put everything together.
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve painted with my nose nearly touching the paper to get the details just right and still felt defeated and confused as to how to finish a layer -- only to get up for a minute and come back to find that it magically looks amazing.
Over the years, I’ve learned the secret: everything looks better when you look at it from far away.
I first realized this a few years ago, while I was painting this waffle cone. I spent hours forming layers on top of each other, and I just didn’t like how it was turning out. It was really frustrating to think I could never get it exactly right. Then, I got up, ate dinner, and came back to the project, and I was stunned at how much I liked it.
When it comes to painting, this concept provides a generous buffer that, for me, took a lot of weight off my shoulders.
You don’t need to get everything exactly right.
*lemme say it again for my perfectionists in the back*
You don’t need to get everything exactly right.
As long as you do your best to put the basic shapes and colors where they go, your jumble of strokes will more than likely turn into a masterpiece.
...or, at least, something beautiful that resembles whatever it is you’re trying to paint.
When you’re trying to learn a skill, and you don’t understand how to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be, it can be really frustrating. Finding and making rules and bite-sized steps is what helps me figure stuff out, and hopefully this list will help you on your own watercolor journey.
If any of the lessons in this post helped spark an “a-ha!” moment for you, I’d love to hear! Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.