10 tips for nice and fresh watercolors

One of the most recurrent question about watercolor probably is “how can I get a nice fresh loose sketch” (and not a dull, overworked or “a bit too pretty” one)?
I think it could be a good start, for this blog, to review a few tips about it. Please note we will probably go into some of these topics more deeply in upcoming articles. 😉 

Like you might know, I started to sketch – again (we all have been a child one day ☺️) – only two years and a half ago so I am pretty much a beginner! Thus, my goal is only to share what I happened to understand about the use of watercolor during these past two years.

Be sure it’s easier said than done (my own sketches are not always bright and fresh 😓) but I hope these few tips will help you a bit. I guess most of these tips may be obvious and boring for some of you but that’s good news if you are already  at ease with it! Plus, a booster shot is always a good idea! 😉
So, here are my 10 tips for fresh and loose watercolors.

1 – Keep enough white. 😊 Don’t add color everywhere! Always let the paper show in some areas, as highlights and sparkles for your sketches. Your main subject should always have a bit of white in it! When in doubt, essentially put the color in the shadows and let the lighten parts or lighter subjects white. The more white, the more light! (Isn’t it a great mantra?! 😁✌️)  

 The lightest part of each shell is left white and it’s not prevent them to be nice and colorful. ☺️ There are a lot of white sparkles in the background too.

Playing to spot the white areas in the other sketches of this post could be fun to do and a good exercice. 😉 

2 – Use a lot of paint and a lot of water. 

Paint from tubes is better than pans, as you don’t need to dilute it much to use it. This advice, above, doesn’t means just adding more water to your paint (your sketch would be paler). It means using a fully load brush with a lot of paint and water. Make puddles on your page with a lot of pigments floating! Let watercolor flow!! That way, the water will play with the paint and you will get a fresher look. You will be able, too, to create greater watery effects. 

 You may not want to try such an extreme approach 😇 but, believe me, using more water and more pigments is fun! You don’t have to be afraid of the flow as, most often, the water a and pigments will stay in the wash, they won’t run on the dry paper so your shapes won’t be lost. 😉

3 – Be bold! Don’t make painstaking sketches. Let the colors run into the others, add some splatters and allow color variations to be strong enough to really show, to be noticed. Don’t let the details steal your attention : try to paint big shapes, if possible (with melted colors in it). If you have been making finicky marks in one small area for 5 minutes, that’s not good. Stay loose!

 Brights colors, splatters, melted colors, don’t you like it?! ☺️😉

4 – Use a real brush. A big one, with natural hair. A waterbrush is handy but it won’t allow you to create great watercolor effects and the paint is often too diluted with it. I hope not to upset some of you saying that but a waterbrush is more a coloring tool than a painting tool. 😉 Keep it only for museums where you can’t use a water pot, or to use with watercolor pencils. My advice is using a squirrel “petit Gris” brush. Not expensive and just amazing! 😀 

 I made this tiny sketch only with this big squirrel brush! With its big belly and its fine point, it makes a really good job! 😍

At last, I sketched the brush on my page too (in my garden ☺️ ). 

5 – Apply watery light washes and shapes and then drop some more color into it. Don’t wait for another layer (after the first had dried) to apply value and color variations in your sketches! Use several colors in each of your washes. In the areas where the subject is darker, drop some bright colors in it (almost pure color, again, be bold!) while it’s still wet. For the shadows (form shadows and cast shadows), drop darker colors or cooler colors (for example, to darken a red, add a bit of blue).

 Look how I added some blue in the purplish sky and in the teal water as color variations and shadows, and how the green and yellowish part of the coast is worked wet in wet, with the colors melting together? It’s so fun and so interesting to mix the colors on the paper that way! 😀

6 – Use strong and bright colors. Don’t paint all your urban surroundings with beige and grey hues!! Choose bright and nice colors instead. 😉 The road and roofs are grey?! Try some blue, or purple! For this tree trunk, how dare you using some brown?! 😝😉 An orange or a dark red will be much better! Remember that watercolor dries lighter and duller so the red may seem really strong when applied but once melted a bit with the other colors on the sketch, and dry, it will only be nice, don’t worry! ☺️

 Blue roofs, orange walls, purplish sky… The sketch doesn’t look garish, though, does it?! Just cheerful, dynamic, expressive. 😀

7 – Contrast is so important! Add small dark strokes to your sketch. Now that you kept a lot of white and used bright and strong colors, be sure the range of values is wide enough by adding a few little strokes of really dark paint (yes, again! 😙), almost straight for the tube, on some dry areas. Add a few details, small strong shadows on your subjects… Make your sketch jump off the page!!! 

 The day I painted this sketch, the weather was so rainy and the atmosphere so wet that the paper didn’t want to dry. That’s why the sketch looks really soft and fuzzy… But, thanks to the dark strokes I managed to add, at last, on the windows and passers by, the sketch is readable and strong enough.

8 – The paper is important too, of course. Learn how to paint on your paper. Actually, what really matters is not, I think, which paper you choose, but knowing how to paint on THIS paper. From a paper to another, you will need to use more or less water or paint… You might figure out that some papers dull your colors or are not suitable with the way you paint, or some subjects… 2 options : adapting the way you paint and trying something new in order to get a good result with the paper, or using another paper to see if it works better with the way you like to paint!  

 The orchid flower was painted on a smooth paper (actually, it’s not watercolor paper but it’s similar to a hot press paper) whereas the shell has been sketched on a grainy paper (Arches 300 gsm probably cold press). The rough grainy paper allows dry brush effects and gives texture to the shell sketch. On the other hand, the smooth paper gives a delicate impression and is more suitable for the silklike petals of the flower. 😊

9 – Don’t paint the same area several times. If the second layer is really different from the first and serves a purpose : creating new edges, defining smaller areas, glazing another color, it’s OK, of course. However, if it’s just a darker one on top of the first (because the first one was too weak), I think it’s not good (but yes, I do it too. 😳 Busy learning!! 😊). Let’s try to get it right the first time! 😉 

 I wish all my watercolor sketches could be as fresh as this one! 😙 It’s really simple, for sure, but I like this straightforwardness, this spontaneity. I am pretty sure I didn’t paint any areas twice, as I just pressed the brush filled with several colors on the paper to create the petals. Only the two bright red areas on the lower tulip were added later, I think, but it’s OK, as It doesn’t affect the entire petal.

10 – Stop soon enough!! It’s probably the tougher part. 😬 When people show their step by step, my favorite is quite often the first or second step. Later, for my taste, they spoil their fresh work! But the most terrible thing is : I do the same thing. 😭 And I am pretty sure you do it too! It’s so difficult to see the beauty of our spontaneous first washes when we worry about the likeliness of a subject. Plus, we usually believe that each stroke will improve the sketch… That’s true that, sometimes, the sketch is not so nice and it needs some adds and details to become good! But if you feel that your sketch seems to have a good start, that means that it almost already good. Be picky about what you add and let it be as it is : fresh and beautiful. 😊 

 This is the gorgeous first wash of an hydrangeas flowers sketch (I am not sure why there is so many flowers sketches in this post… But, you know, spring is coming!!! 😝). I humbly show it to you, as I didn’t manage to add few enough details to keep this freshness…. 😟 This is my favorite step of the sketch and I hope I will be able, in the future, to keep this kind of wet fresh look in more of my finalized sketches. ☺️

That’s it, these were my 10 tips!  I hope your liked this article and that these reminders could help you to be more often happy with your little paintings. We could talk about other ways to improve our watercolors but I focused especially on the freshness here. 😉

For now, sorry but I have to go. I must try to apply my own advices!!! 😁😜

Happy sketching!! 

31 thoughts on “10 tips for nice and fresh watercolors

  1. I don’t know where to start! Well I could start to say thanks! Thanks for your generosity. All yo10 advices are so valuable. All though I had to spent some time with my dictionary understanding all the words! I can’t blame you. My language is danish, so I have a little struggel with my English!.
    I’ve got hundreds of questions, but I won’t tier you!
    So here’s a few:
    Is your kind of brush made of squirrel better than the Kolinsky I’m using? Which size do you prefer?
    I mostly got W&N pans, and have some difficulties getting enough strong colors on my palet to paint with. Any tip?
    Are you using really and I mean really much water in your sketches to have the time to finish a whole painting. I’m referring to tip number 7, where there are many detail to be aware of? Do you make a drawing before painting?
    Well Anne-Laure you’re a great help and you make it seems so easy. If only you could sit beside my, because on my own I get quite frustrated. I can’t understand that you only have been painting a few years. You must be special blessed
    NB. One last question (for now) Don’t you have problems with colors in your sketchbook, showing the colors through to the backside of the paper? It looks as if the paper is very thin

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Pernille! I don’t know where to start either !!
    My English isn’t very good and I hope you won’t learn wrong sentences because of me!….
    I will probably answer you bit by bit.

    The Kolinsky sable brushes are very good brushes too! They are considered the best. They hold a bit less water than the squirrel ones but they have a finer point. As the Kolinski sable hair is very expensive, you may not have a very big brush, though.
    If you think you could like to have a bigger brush not to be lost in the details., and to paint bigger shapes, a big squirrel brush is less expensive than a Kolinski one, of course, so it can be a good option. As it retains a lot of water, it’s good to paint skies and so on. ☺️
    It’s difficult to talk about brush sizes, as brands don’t have the same numbers or references… My first squirrel brush was a “1” and now I use a “3”.
    I have just bought a 1 inch flat brush so it’s wide! It is not probably for everyone but I like it to paint big shapes, and geometric shapes like roofs, walls etc.

    Did you try to spray some water on your pans before using it? Perhaps it could help? We do that with the tube paint too, to help the paint becoming juicy again.
    Perhaps, you could think about one of two strong colors you could need (maybe Moonglow, or Indigo, for shadows ?) and buy one or two tubes of these colors. It would allow you to try tube paint and to get strong darks for your sketches… You could remove the content of one or two pans you don’t really use (like the white?! ) or seem too weak and put a bit of tube paint in it to have it with your other colors.

    I will answer your other questions later. Thanks for your interest! ☺️

    • Hi Pernille!
      Here am I again. 🙂

      So, for your question about the wetness, it’s important to say that I don’t work at all like some painters who wet the entire sheet of watercolor paper on both sides and work wet in wet. I paint on dry paper. 🙂
      But, sometimes, I wet only an area, for exemple the sky, with clear water first, and drop the colors in it. At other times, I make a first colorful wash for a subject, for example a building, and than I add details while the paper is still wet to get a softer look. Sometimes, I add the details on dry paper too. It depends on the look you are after ! 😉
      I am not sure this answers your question, though. Please tell me !

      No, I don’t draw with a pencil first because I figured out that my watercolor is more like coloring then and I don’t like that. The fun of watercolor is a little lost, for me, and the result is way less interesting. So, I like to sketch straight with the brush, painting shapes to define the subject.
      If I feel I need some lines, I make an ink and wash sketch, drawing with a fude nib fountain pen filled with waterproof ink first and then adding watercolors.

      Be sure it’s not easy! Sometimes my sketches suck and sometimes they are just enough nice to please me (because I spent a good time doing it or because I like the subject…) but not really outstanding! 😉
      I hope that, with some little videos I envision to share, you will feel almost like if you were sitting beside me. 🙂 And perhaps we will have the chance, one day, to meet each other, for example at an urban sketchers symposium?! 😀

      I try to practice a lot and to be happy with the results even if it can always be nicer, to preserve the fun of sketching and the urge to do it. 🙂

      The sketchbooks I use these days, the black Daler Rowney sketchbooks, have 180 gsm paper I think. It’s pretty thin for watercolor but I never had any bleed through issues! 😀 I can use a lot of water but the water mostly float on the paper so it won’t go to the other side.
      However, I think it’s more difficult to paint on such a paper because it dries very quickly. It’s hard to paint a big wash on it without hard edges. Real watercolor paper like Arches or Fabriano cold press is easier to use.

      Thank you again, Pernille, to give life with me to this young blog! 🙂
      Let’s keep in touch. 🙂

      • Unfortunately I’m hopeless to draw. That’s why I draw with a pencil before painting. In that way I can erase my faults.
        The way you are using the ink and watercolor together looks amazing. But we all know that you are a talent!
        I never paint outside. This summer I must try that, but I think I’m to shy by letting anyone look 😉
        I could start by buying a useful bag as yours. Honestly I often get so frustrated because inside my head I can make wonderful sketches, but in reality it often sucks 🙁
        You have no idea how helpful you are by doing this blog. Thanks from my heart. It would be fun meating you some time, but right now I get terrified by the thought of letting you see the little I’m able to make 🙂
        By the way – dont you ever carry a chair with you?
        Have a nice evening. 🙂

        • Don’t say your are hopeless to draw! That’s difficult for me too but I make progresses so it’s possible! ☺️ I was thinking that perhaps you would be more at ease for painting than drawing, like me, and that always making a pencil drawing may not be the best idea…
          Perhaps you could just try to make some brush marks to express a subject and it would free you from this drawing problem? When painting, the edge of the shape you make with your brush is your line. It helps you define the subject. But, as long as the wash is wet, you can change your shape edges and correct your “drawing”! Do you understand what I mean?

          When you are painting outside, most people usually don’t look at your sketches, especially if you are in a place where they are really busy. And, when they look at it, then usually say it’s nice. ☺️
          I am sure if you let me see what you are doing when we will meet, I will think you make a really good job and perhaps I will have some ideas to help you free your work?

          About the sketching issue again, perhaps you could try to create looser sketches with wonky lines, to draw faster to get a dynamic… In my opinion, the more your draw slowly trying to make an accurate sketch, the more the wrong lines are showing!! Sometimes, I try to play with a continuous line, really wonky, and just to create a fun sketch, not an accurate one! ☺️ Have your tried bind drawing, too?

          I am going to a watercolor workshop in Portugal, with Marc Taro Holmes, within two weeks (hiiiiiiiii I am so so SO happy!!!!! ) so I decided to buy a folded stool. But before that I have always drawn standing.
          The first stool I ordered was light and small but it was absolutely awful to sit on it.
          So, I bought one slightly bigger where I can sit comfortably. ☺️
          I may show you my stuff ready for Portugal next week with the bag I bought, the stool, my boards and so on. ☺️

    • Dear Anne-Laure. Thanks a lot for your adequate answers. I’m so happy that you will take the time to be so informative! I promise I will try to diminish my eagerness for asking! On the other hand it’s a big help when I am so new in this matter I have now bought a water spray bottle. Good advice!
      I’ve got a Kolenski number 6, but I’m not satisfied because the hairs does not easily end in at tip… A friend of mine told me to try and leave the soap in the brush when washing it. Then it easyer will keep the shape! Have you tried that?
      I’ll go for the tubes the next time I’m buying new stuff

      • I admit that I am not happy with the tip of the Kolinski brush my sister gave me as a gift either…. It may exist Kolinski brushes with a finer tip but it seems that they often have a rounder tip, not a pointy one like the squirrel brushes… I am not sure using soap will make the hair of the center of your brush longer!!

        Have a very good day Pernille!

  3. You make it sound so easy…and just 2 years?? Well, you are a born natural then, who just had to discover it! I love your IG feed and now look forward to seeing you here, too! -Lynda (Girllovesbike2 on IG)

    • Hi Lynda,

      Thank you for your comment and your great words about my work.
      I don’t know if I am a born natural artist but that’s true that I have been practicing a lot of artistic activities since I was born so I suppose it helped. And I have been sketching a lot for these two and a half past years. Practicing a lot helps too! 🙂

      See you on Instagram or here! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Flowing and dripping watercolors. | Watercolor sketching

    • Thank you Louise!! I think that things are so much clearer when there is a visual example with it.
      I am happy you found the illustrations useful and thought they are striking examples for the advices.

    • Having read this I thought it was rather ennihgtenilg. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this short article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

      • Thank you so much for your feedback Lily!
        I am really happy my articles seems useful for you. ☺️

        Yes, reading and talking about watercolor is never time wasted!!! 😛

  5. Great tips!! I am looking for a squirrel brush like the one you use. I am not sure where to get one (best for price) and what size. It is hard to tell how large they are!! Where did you get yours?
    Thanks so much,

    • Hi Becky!

      Thank you for your kind comment!

      About the squirrel brushes, I think it’s a tricky topic, as the ones I buy in France (in my art store) don’t seem really expensive to me (14 to 20€ for a good size ☺️ ) but, as soon as I look at the products online (in some other countries), the price really seem higher…

      And about the size, it’s a problem too! The brushes I buy in France have small numbers : 1, 2, 3, 4 and are big brushes. But online / in other countries, the numbers are different and, I agree with you, it’s really difficult to be sure how is the size, really!
      When searching online, I often try to find a photo with other elements in it to get a sense of scale (searching for the name of the brush and “blog”, for example, hoping someone showed the brush with his stuff and gave an opinion about it if possible!) but the search is not always successful…

      The brushes I use are from the French brand Dalbe. They show them here or here, for example, and even a number 1 is a good choice to paint in a sketchbook. But I don’t think that these website send products out of France…

      I am sorry I can’t really help you.
      I hope you will be able to find one big enough at a good price. They are so juicy!!
      These brushes really help to use enough water with the paint and to get a “watercolor look”.

  6. These paintings are beautiful! And your tips and personal suggestions in the comments are so helpful. Thank you .
    I also would like to know exact details and size of squirrel “petit Gris” brusuch you use and where do you think you could buy one that would ship to the USA?
    It seems tools make all the difference. Thank you again.

    • Laura,

      Please tell me if my answer to Becky is Ok for you too… ☺️
      It’s always difficult to share “shopping tips” when living in different countries…

      About the size, I started with the size 1 and it was already a good size!
      Each time I bought a new one (I lost one and then I bought a new one again as a back up before my travels to be sure I would always have a squirrel brush, even if I would loose one), I bought one a bit bigger, just because. 😉 Now, I have the size 3 or 4 but I am not even sure if I can tell if it’s better than the smaller one or not, sorry!

      I think Raphaël makes some squirrel brushes but they are more expensive than the ones I can buy in France, I think…

  7. Hi Anne-Laure,
    Yes if course, your answer to Becky and to me is great. I did find this daVinci brush on Amazon.com: da Vinci Brushes
    4.8 out of 5 stars 6 Reviews
    da Vinci Watercolor Series 5358 Petit Gris Pur Paint Brush Set, Russian Blue Squirrel Hair Mix, 2 Brushes (Series 418)
    Sorry, it’s not a link. It was kind of expensive. I ordered it so we’ll see. It’s as close as I can get to yours.
    I love your descriptions of your water colors and style of painting. You are so inspiring.
    Thank you so much for your help.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you for the information!
      I hope you will be happy with you brush but I am sure you will!

      Once again, the material doesn’t make you paint better 😉 but it helps to get some good results with the good technique and a lot of practice. ☺️

      Happy painting!!

  8. Thank you so much.
    I am hope you will do more with showing how you use your techniques using lots of water and pigment.
    Thank you so much.

    • Hi Laura,

      Yes, I will try to show some more demos, of course, using a lot of water and pigment, if possible (that’s not always easy for me, either!). ☺️

  9. These are the best tips I’ve read on this subject, and I’ve read lots! I aim to paint loose watercolors but often have trouble keeping my paintings loose and interpretive. Rather I tend to lapse into the habit of painting every detail exactly as it appears, without even realizing it. I was getting frustrated with a subject tonight so I went back to read this post and then started over, focusing on your advice about leaving enough white space and mainly putting color in shadows – it turned out wonderfully! Thank you so much!

  10. I just want to let you know your watercolor advice and the work you show here is a big reason I keep painting, because I know your teaching is spot on and I love the paintings. I don’t know if you do workshops or where you are, but if you do I would love to be a student! Ive been painting only a couple years and yes, I am guilty of all the things we aren’t supposed to do in watercolor….but you make it so beautiful and fresh its irresistible! Thank you again for your teaching and inspiration….really invaluable to me 🙂

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