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Mistakes are part of learning if you can analyze them and learn from them. However, when you are a beginning artist, it is not always obvious what you are doing wrong. You may make the same mistake over and over, get frustrated and feel like quitting -- and never realize that the problem might be easily fixed. This post deals with the most common mistakes that inexperienced watercolor artists make and suggest ways to avoid them.

Beginner Mistake #1: Wrong Paper

This is the most common mistake that I see so many beginners make when trying watercolors for the first time. They do not appreciate the importance of using the right kind of paper and use any paper on hand, usually drawing paper or mixed media paper. As a result, their sketches do not turn out as planned, causing frustration and loss of confidence.

In the photo below, the left sample is done on drawing paper, and the right is on watercolor paper. Note how much smoother the transition and how much richer the texture is when using watercolor paper.

Watercolor paper is usually expensive, or at least it seems like a big investment to beginners. That's why beginners think that they will practice on regular paper until they 'get good.'

Here's a solution: instead of buying a watercolor paper pad, get just one large sheet of 100% cotton paper, cut it up into small sheets and use them for your first experiments. It is a good way to get to know your watercolors and paper.

Here is my practical guide to watercolor paper: Hot and Cold Press Watercolor Paper: Is There Really Much Difference?

Beginner Mistake #2: Using Too Much or Too Little Water

Too much water leads to the pigment becoming too diluted. As a result, the sketch looks dull and pale, and the paper becomes too wet and takes a long time to dry.

Too little water causes the opposite problem: even though the colors are bright, the colors are applied unevenly, and the sketch does not look good. Watercolor is a very gentle, subtle medium. Watercolor needs water! When your paint is too thick, the watercolor loses these qualities. It becomes opaque, much like gouache, but this is not what you need with watercolors.

You may choose to use little water in order to achieve a special effect, but you can't use it as your main technique. Overall, you want a wet brush, but not too wet.

The photo below shows (top to bottom) one and the same pigment with

1. not enough water

2. too much water

3. the right amount of water

No one can tell you how much water is the right amount. The trick is experimenting: drawing lines, drawing different shapes of different sizes, and trying paints on different kinds of paper with different brushes. And noticing the difference.

If you keep making the same mistakes, if you are not sure what you are doing wrong, or if you are not satisfied with your progress, you can come to me for a one-on-one mentoring session. I will help you fix the things that need fixing, suggest ways to improve your technique and answer any questions you might have. Our one-to-one mentoring session can be devoted to anything that you need help with: your questions and concerns, a particular technique or sketching medium. You can also ask for feedback on your artwork. Click here for more information.

Beginner Mistake #3: Not Loading the Brush with Water and/or Paint

Beginners tend to only dip the tip of the brush into the water or paint. What you should do instead is fill the brush with water all the way from the tip to the metal part. The same goes for loading the brush with paint.

Compare these two lines: made with the same pigment, the one at the top lack both water and paint. The one at the bottom is done with a saturated brush.

Side note: do not leave your brushes in water for a long time. This ruins the brushes, both the bristles and the wooden part. When you're done painting, rinse the brushes and dry them, do not let them sit in the water.

Beginner Mistake #4: Not Letting the Paint Dry When Painting Layers

I see this a lot in my student's projects. They do not let the first layer dry before they apply the next. As a result, the colors bleed and run into each other.

You often need to add a layer when you want to create some depth in your sketch by adding shadows. When a darker color of the shadow is applied on top of a wet first layer, the sketch looks messy.

The top line in the photo below was made over the blue layer while it was still wet. The other two were applied on top of a dry layer. The two bottom lines have very clear borders, even though the quantity of pigment is different in them.

My Skillshare Class Urban Sketching for Beginners: Watercolor Sketch in Three Steps shows the basics of using watercolors in urban sketching.

Beginner Mistake #5: Relying on Pre-mixed Colors

When you buy your first set of watercolors, the intuitive thing to do is to buy a set with lots of different colors. They look great, and the idea of having such beautiful colors is very appealing, especially for beginners.

Having a large set is fun, but mixing your own colors is so much more fun! Learning how to mix gives you a wide range and great flexibility. It allows you to create beautiful gradients and color transitions.

Compare the two trees: the one on the left painted with a pre-mixed green, the one on the right painted with colors mixed by me.

Mixing colors is a bit like alchemy. Or magic. It seems difficult and unpredictable at first, but the trick is the same as always: practice and experimenting.

Here's my post on mixing greens: How to Mix Greens with Watercolor.

Let's recap. Here are 5 ways to avoid mistakes and improve your art:

  1. Use good-quality watercolors paper

  2. Control the amount of water: avoid using too much or too little water.

  3. Load your whole brush with paint and water, not just the tip.

  4. Let the paint dry before applying the next layer.

  5. Mix your own colors.

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I meant to drop a note to say thank you for this post. I constantly struggled with tips 3 & 4. I have followed your advice and it has made a tremendous difference. It moved up my work a notch. So pleased with the results.


Julia Henze
Julia Henze
Jan 13, 2023
Replying to

Britt, I'm so happy to hear that these tips helped you improve your drawings! And I'm even more happy to hear that you pleased to see the result. That's amazing!

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