Beginners Guide to Paint: Watercolour

Do you feel inspired by the John Moores Painting Prize 2020 but have no idea where to start? We spoke to the experts at Windsor and Newton to find out how to choose the right medium for you, starting with watercolour!

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Shanti Panchal, The Terrace, 2019, watercolour on paper (John Moores Painting Prize 2020)

An introduction to watercolour 

Loved for its luminosity and the way it slowly sinks into paper, as well as its rich history and special qualities, watercolour is still a very valid medium for today’s contemporary artists and worthy of consideration if you are thinking of starting out yourself. Yet there are lots of preconceptions held about watercolour: it’s a rather contradictory medium, seen by some as the perfect entry into painting but by others as technically challenging and tricky to master. Let’s explore if watercolour is right for you. 

Watercolour’s popularity past and present  

JMW Turner’s favoured medium was watercolour and his most influential and widely praised paintings were his powerful, large watercolours, such as The Lake of Lucerne. This was painted on a sheet of paper of the very largest format available to Turner, in effect matching the size of oil paintings, which was very unusual for the time. Watercolour may not instantly spring to mind when we think about contemporary art, but this perception is being challenged and artists are again experimenting with watercolour’s versatility to create larger, more dramatic works. Such as in the work of Barbara Nicholls.

A mound of loose red pigment

What is watercolour?

At its most fundamental, watercolour is made by combining a pigment with a binder of Gum Arabic. The formulation for each individual watercolour however is unique and varies according to the nature and behaviour of each individual pigment. Watercolour is essentially a staining technique, so the handling properties of the pigments are paramount; whether they can produce a smooth or a textured wash; how opaque or transparent they are; the brilliance and strength of their colour, and so on. These characteristics serve as a set of tools to help artists broaden their creative expression and manipulate their work.  

What is meant by professional-quality paints?

Many brands will offer a professional range and then a good quality alternative. At Winsor & Newton all of our watercolours, both in the Professional and the Cotman ranges use fine art pigments. The Professional Watercolour range has a higher concentration of these pigments and the colour range is larger, in addition optimal dispersion of the pigment through a highly refined milling process means every wash will remain vibrant and luminescent. If you are unsure, Cotman represents a good value alternative to begin with.  

Water colours tubes of paint on a paint pan

Single or mixed pigments?

With a range like Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour, a higher degree of single pigments means that you have more control over mixing other colours and are in less danger of creating a muddy palette. There are instances however where colours made from a combination of pigments are invaluable such as Hooker’s Green, first created by William Hooker for his botanical studies, or the Payne’s Gray formulation by William Payne, to offer a more subtle tonal shift than black.

Through innovation, beautiful synthetic alternatives to colours that had previously been lost have been realised, such as Smalt, which owing to its lack of lightfastness and gritty texture was unworkable as a pigment. The lightfast and single pigment Transparent Orange can also offer a unique expansion to your palette. Or invaluable colours, such as Alizarin Crimson, which were never permanent but through synthetic alternatives are now available. Clearly defined as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, synthetic alternatives offer a choice for the artist.

Tubes or pans?

Pans are invaluable when outside or when needing to work quickly and directly, for example, painting from observation. They are also air dry so there is no need to dispose of any unused paint. However, to work on a large scale with a quicker release, tubes are very useful. You can use large quantities in one go, which is particularly helpful with a restricted palette. Tubes are ideal for studio works or large areas needing one colour.

Water colour pan of different colours

Core colours 

Each artist builds their own perfect palette of colours, which end up being the base of their work. In all palettes you will find a red, yellow and a blue but in some you may find more than one type. Here are our colour recommendations:

3 core colours
Winsor Lemon
Alizarin Crimson
French Ultramarine

6 core colours
Winsor Lemon
Cadmium-Free Yellow
Alizarin Crimson
Cadmium-Free Red
French Ultramarine
Winsor Blue (Green Shade)


Using Mediums extends the artistic possibilities of your watercolour without any risk to the permanence of the painting. By adding the appropriate medium, you can increasing texture, improve blending and lifting, create iridescence, increasing drying time, and so on. Experiment with different mediums and techniques, you’ll produce some exciting work. Here are three good mediums to try out:

Gum Arabic

A pale coloured solution that controls the spread of wet colour, reduces staining and slows drying. Gum Arabic also increases transparency, brilliance and gloss. Just add a few drops to the water you mix with.

Iridescent Medium

Gives watercolours a pearlescent or glitter effect and is particularly effective when mixed with transparent colours and those possessing a strong mass tone like Prussian blue which goes from an almost black to reveal a vibrant blue undertone. You can also apply over a dried wash.

Art Masking fluid

A liquid composed of latex and pigment, for masking areas of work needing protection when colour is applied in broad washes. Protect your brushes by lathering your brush in soap before use.

Close up shot of blue watercolour paint on paper

Some tips for starting out:

  • When laying down your watercolour, remember that it will dry matt as water adds a shine.

  • Try laying a wash first by moving wavy lines of colour across your paper. The wave motion will prevent streaking. As it dries is should become more uniform. This is a great technique for when large areas of colour are required.

  • Try the wet-in-wet technique: wet your surface area thoroughly, then load your brush with plenty of water and colour, drop the colour onto the wet area and then do the same with another colour, watch as the pigment moves and blends.

  • The lids on most sets double up as palettes, use the dips to hold water and the flat surface for mixing.

  • To ensure your watercolour tubes always perform, remember to keep the threads on the neck free of colour, replace the lids tightly and store them at ambient temperature.

  • It is worth investing in good quality materials. Watercolour paper is sized in order to hold the colour and maximise its brightness. The brush you use should be able to hold large amounts of colour so you can achieve smoother longer marks. Having the right tools and surfaces means you will achieve much better results.