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Three Things You Can Do Now To Improve Your Watercolour Painting

1. Draw more.

Keep a #sketchbook, make #drawing fun, use #charcoal, use markers, #pencils, #crayons, whatever, just draw more! At this point, you might be admitting to yourself that you are no good at drawing. If I get paid every time I hear this in one of my #demonstrations or classes I’m on my way to being rich. My response to that kind of declaration is: ‘how much drawing do you usually do?’ I can always predict the answer, which is not much or even none. So if you are this person, first check in with your inner self and challenge that negative belief.

It all boils down to building the coordination between your eye and your hand, and the memory process that is involved.

I’m amazed at how many people say to me they were told in school to never draw or #paint again. I mean, just what? Ok, outdated and poor teaching practise aside, drawing is a skill that can be learned, like learning to drive or play a piano. But if you take up piano, and you aren’t able to play Chopin in lesson one, does that somehow mean you can't play and never will be able to? What I am saying is, if you think you cant draw, you can!

Start by purchasing a #sketchbook, some #pencils and an #eraser, get drawing and you'll soon begin to see your #painting improve. So why does drawing improve your painting? It all boils down to building the coordination between your eye and your hand and the memory processes that are involved between seeing something and recording it. The more you do, the greater these are strengthened, and it is that exact same skill that you employ when painting. We all know that working in #watercolour requires some pretty fast decisions right? So the skills go hand in hand.

Boats, Mersea Island.

A quick #sketch, starting with a few light pencil marks to achieve the proportion, then freely drawing with marker pen and grey Posca pens. Drawing doesn't necessarily mean pencil drawing. Be #creative and make it fun. Use anything that inspires you.

Drawing is more than putting marks on paper though. It teaches you to look, notice #angles, #spaces, and #shapes, all of which are fully present in a painting. If you are new to drawing, I would recommend you start with something simple like an apple or a mug. Don’t just give it a casual glance, and don't guess what you see either. You need to get into the habit of looking and looking frequently, for example you might look carefully at how the the mug curves, then from your working memory begin to draw the curve, pause, re look, draw a bit more, pause, re look, draw a bit more, pause, and so on.

Coffee mug

I used free #drawing with the brush using #acrylic to allow over layers to be used. Loose drawings like this are great to mix in with #graphic pencil studies and longer drawing times.

You should use short lines and keep stopping to check to make sure you are achieving the right shape and angles. Look also at the positive shapes and at the negative spaces around your subject and check these off with your drawing. Set aside time to make long careful studies as well as shorter rapid sketches and see it like an exercise #routine, keeping consistent practise, completing a little each day or every other day. Make sure you also have some rest days in-between.

By keeping a sketch book you not only have all your drawings in one place, but a record of your progress, which can be incredibly encouraging when you look back at your earlier efforts. And of course along with that, you will be achieving better, bolder and more confident #marks in your #watercolour #paintings.

You need to get into the habit of looking and looking frequently

2. Stand up to paint.

Well, only if you can or if it is comfortable for you. Standing to paint has many benefits, not least it is better for your posture than sitting. But standing to paint gives you an overall view of your work if you are #painting on a table. If you are working at an #easel, you can stand back or paint at arm’s length.

If you work at a table but you’ve never stood to paint before, be aware of your posture. We are drawn to painting what we see, and if you can’t quite see at standing distance, your brain will take your head to the painting. I’ve had this in some of my workshops, where an entire class has stood to paint, but one by one they have all bent to the painting like wilting flowers, and I’ve paraded round the room reminding individuals to stand up straight. If anyone had walked in by the way, it might have looked a touch like some strange cult. The issue is, nobody is aware they are bent over; however your back will eventually remind you to stand up when the aches begin.

We are drawn to painting what we see, and if you can’t quite see at standing distance, your brain will take your head to the painting

What you will find when you stand to paint is that you use a full flow of the arm with the movement coming from the weight of the shoulder. This makes for sweeping #lines, excellent control and the brush is pointing downhill all the time, unloading the paint. When you #paint sat down, your arm is usually in contact with the table and the movement comes from the wrist, making short marks and very tight control. This is fine for #detail but not for sweeping energy and broad #brushstrokes. The overall view you get when standing helps to balance values and read the painting better than if you were at table level. I’ve seen many paintings that are literally skewed because the artist’s low viewpoint has distorted the #perspective.

Standing to paint

Working at my plein air easel at an event. When working in my studio I simply replace the easel with a table.

3. Learn the terminology of colour.

I once saw a demonstrator mix about seven #colours to make a sand colour. Someone in the audience asked, why had he chosen all those to make that colour, to which he responded, ‘well I just happened to mix them together one day and I thought it looked a bit beachy’. You simply cannot paint effectively if you have no idea what you are doing with your colours, because you will spend more time agonising over the mixtures in your #palette and less time making beautiful #art. It all begins with recognising what you are looking at; is it #saturated or #toned, what are the #values and what is the #hue, and which colour choice is best to make a mix? Okay, now I’ve opened a can of worms, so here are the basic explanations of what a colour mix may consist of:


Hue refers to the identity of the #colour, for example green or yellow, blue, purple, and so on. You can easily gauge the hues in a colour by describing to yourself what you see. 'It looks like a greeny yellow', or 'it’s a blueish violet'.


Complimentary colours are opposites on the colour wheel, and they make beautiful tones when intermixed. To use complimentary colours effectively you have to know where your collection of colours are located on the colour wheel. This is valuable information for knowing how they interact with each other. You’ll find some useful information in my book, painting Landscapes in Watercolour by The Crowood Press, or if you can wait, I’m planning on writing and filming an in-depth colour course. That one is going to take some time though.

You simply cannot paint effectively if you have no idea what you are doing with your colours, because you will spend more time agonising over the mixtures in your palette and less time making beautiful art


This is the level of colour #intensity. Think of a daffodil in the sunlight, those petals will be highly saturated yellow. Stained glass windows involve #saturated colours too. In watercolour, high saturation involves bright pigments on white paper, so maybe Winsor lemon for those daffodils. Look at the saturated colours below and compare them to their toned counterparts underneath.


Tone describes how grey a colour is. Essentially areas out of the light are #toned. A simple description of tone is colour + black + white. In #watercolour terms that’s colour + black + water, although you can use white gouache too. Some black pigments can be heavy and grainy, so it’s better to use something like neutral tint with your colour, but better still, use a complementary colour. You can read more about tone here.


#Value describes how #dark or #light a colour is, with white being the lightest and black being the darkest. You can alter the value of any colour mix but it does depend heavily on the value of the colours you are using. Yellow for example is a light value, whereas violet is a dark value.

Mixing colour

When you want to mix a #colour ask yourself three questions in this order:

What hue is it?
Is it toned or saturated or a bit of both?
What value is it?

Answering these questions and labelling the component parts of your mix will help you to understand colour better and reach the results you want without trying seven colours. Oh, and have fun with it. Colour mixing is not linear, and there are many ways to reach the same results, so never second guess your process. If you mix the colour you require in a methodical way that is logical to you, that is all that matters.

Great views over the valley, watercolour 56 x 38cm

Complimentary colours, hues, tones, saturation and values, all working harmoniously together in the painting.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Paul, your blogs are amazing.


Gabriele Craig
Gabriele Craig
Mar 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I have been teaching for many years too and have said and emphasized the same three points over and over as well; it’s very reassuring to hear it said by someone else…don’t know if I ever said it as well as you put it here. Thank you!

Mar 18, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Gabriele. Really appreciate that 😊

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