Watercolour Hints & Tips

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Colour Ranges and Their Combinations

In the past, water colours have been the medium most susceptible to fading from light due to the thinness of the wash.  As the 20th century rolled on, the permanence of pigments and the colours available have continued to improve. The result is today’s painters have palettes and permanence that past masters could only have dreamt about.

Tubes v. Pans

Pan colour can be easier to use because it is less inhibiting and easier to control the strength of colour. Pan boxes are ideal for travelling, as many different colours can fit into a small box.

Tubes are more popular overall, used by regular painters or those who use high volumes of colour. Tube colours make stronger washes much more quickly than pan colours.


Water colour is a transparent technique because all the colours are applied so thinly. However, the inherent differences in pigments do still show in painting. Cadmiums for example, are still relatively opaque even in water colour. Opaque colours tend to give flatter washes and will cover the underpainting more.

Use of  White

The white of the paper provides the bright sparkle of water colour and can be left unpainted for the most intense highlights. This does not however prohibit the use of white within your palette of colours.

Chinese White is excellent for toning down colour mixtures and for transparent highlights. Titanium White is a more opaque white with greater covering power, ideal for rescuing small areas, or achieving bright whites on tinted paper.

Elizabeth Everill

Basic Palettes

Your initial palette should provide a wide colour spectrum and should have a good balance between transparent and opaque colours and between strong tinting and weaker tinting colours. Permanent colours are always desirable and the main palette should ideally be low in price. The common practice is to maintain a broad palette of about twelve colours and add to it for specific requirements. Here are the recommended palettes:

Artists' Water Colour

Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, Scarlet Lake, Permanent Rose, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), Winsor Green (Blue Shade), Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Chinese White.

Cotman Water Colour

Lemon Yellow Hue, Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, Cadmium Red Hue, Permanent Rose, Alizarin Crimson Hue, Ultramarine, Intense Blue, Viridian Hue, Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Chinese White.

Colour Mixing - The Six Colour System

Restricted palettes are used by both beginners and serious painters to develop their understanding and use of colour. The six colour system uses two reds, two yellows and two blues as a ‘primary’ palette. This provides both a blue shade red and a yellow shade red for example, which will ensure clean violets and clean oranges from your palette. The additional colours recommended in the basic palette introduce a wider range of tones and greater variation in opacity and tinting strength.

Additional Colours For Particular Techniques

When choosing new colours, an excellent investment is a hand painted colour chart of the range. For a small price, you’ll be able to see all the colours in graded washes, helping you to make the right choice before buying new tubes. The colours named are from Artists’ Water Colour, although many are also available from the Cotman range.

Landscape Painting

New or different colours can really broaden your painting vocabulary. For landscapes, yellows, blues, greens and earth colours are always useful.

Landscape Colours: Nickel Titanium Yellow, Transparent Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Indanthrene Blue, Cobalt Blues, Winsor Blue (Red Shade), Prussian Blue, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Cobalt Turquoises, Cobalt Greens, Viridian, Winsor Green (Yellow Shade), Terre Verte, Oxide of Chromium, Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Olive Green, Green Gold, Naples Yellow Deep, Raw Sienna, Light Red, Caput Mortuum Violet, Burnt Umber, Payne’s Gray, Davy’s Gray, Ivory Black, Titanium White.

James Fletcher Watson

Portrait Painting

Portraiture needs that spark of life and character; clean, crisp colour mixtures and tones will achieve these. Pinks, violets and earth colours will make some of the subtle tones required for portraits.

Portrait Colours: Lemon Yellow (Nickel Titanate), Nickel Titanium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red Deep, Rose Doré, Quinacridone Red, Permanent Carmine, Rose Madder Genuine, Purple Madder, Permanent Magenta, Cobalt Violet, Permanent Mauve, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Turquoise, Naples Yellow, Naples Yellow Deep, Raw Sienna, Light Red, Venetian Red, Indian Red, Caput Mortuum Violet, Burnt Umber, Davy’s Gray, Ivory Black, Titanium White.

Gerry Ball

Secondary Colours

In addition to the bright secondary colours you will achieve from your basic palette, single pigment ‘secondaries’ are important, eg. Winsor Green (Blue Shade) can make brighter mixes than if you use a green mixed from a blue & yellow.

Secondary Colours: Winsor Orange, Quinacridone Magenta, Permanent Magenta, Thioindigo Violet, Cobalt Violet, Permanent Mauve, Ultramarine Violet, Winsor Violet (Dioxazine), Cobalt Turquoises & Greens, Viridian, Winsor Greens, Oxide of Chromium, Green Gold.

The Most Transparent Colours

Using the most transparent colours allows each wash laid down to have the maximum influence on the next one. Infinite optical colour mixtures are possible. Addition of Gum Arabic will also increase transparency.

Transparent Colours:
Aureolin, Gamboge Genuine, Indian Yellow, Rose Doré, Quinacridone Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Carmine, Rose Madder Genuine, Quinacridone Magenta, Purple Madder, Permanent Magenta, Thioindigo Violet, Winsor Violet (Dioxazine), Ultramarine (Green Shade), Winsor Blue (Red Shade), Antwerp Blue, Prussian Blue, Viridian, Winsor Green (Yellow Shade), Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Olive Green, Green Gold, Raw Sienna, Quinacridone Gold, Perylene Maroon, Burnt Umber, Gum Arabic.

The Most Opaque Colours

Using the most opaque colours gives flatter washes and greater covering over previous washes. Opaque colours are also useful for toning down colour mixtures. For even greater opacity, try combining some Designers’ Gouache colours into your technique.

Opaque Colours: Lemon Yellow (Nickel Titanate), Cadmium Yellows, Orange and Reds, Vermilion Hue, Winsor Emerald, Oxide of Chromium, Cobalt Green (Yellow Shade), Naples Yellow, Naples Yellow Deep, Light Red, Venetian Red, Indian Red, Caput Mortuum Violet, Sepia, Indigo, Neutral Tint, Blue Black, Ivory Black, Lamp Black, Titanium White. All tints made with white.

David Easton

High Key (Bright) Colours

These are generally the colours with high tinting strength. High key palettes are popular with flower painters and for more abstract effects in water colour.

High Key Colours:
Bismuth Yellow, Cadmium Yellows, Orange and Reds, Quinacridone Reds and Violets, Winsor Violet (Dioxazine), Indanthrene Blue, Winsor colours, Titanium White.

David Easton

Low Key (Subdued) Colours

These are generally low tinting strength colours. Low key palettes are also achieved with tints (colour plus white) and shades (colour plus black).

Low Key Colours:
Antwerp Blue, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Turquoise, Cobalt Green, Viridian, Terre Verte, Oxide of Chromium, Naples Yellow, Naples Yellow Deep, Raw Sienna, Light Red, Indian Red, Caput Mortuum Violet, Burnt Umber, Vandyke Brown, Sepia, Indigo, Payne’s Gray, Blacks, Davy’s Gray, Titanium White for tints.

Emma Pearce

Granulating Colours

The granulation of some colours is prized by watercolourists to achieve texture on the paper. The more colours are mixed together and the larger the quantity of water, the more granulation results. If you wish to minimise granulation, distilled water may help, to maximise this effect try using our Granulation Medium

Granulating Colours:
Cadmium Red, Cadmium Red Deep, Rose Madder Genuine, Cobalt Violet, Permanent Mauve, Ultramarine Violet, Cobalt Blue Deep, French Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Cobalt Green, Viridian, Oxide of Chromium, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Ivory Black.

Staining Colours

Lifting washes can mean anything from a complete wash down under a tap, to get a ‘smokey’ background, to the sponging out of a small area to lighten or rescue it. The following staining colours will stay in the paper and lift less easily than the other colours in your palette. The use of Gum Arabic will reduce the degree of staining. Generally Winsor & Newton water colour papers are more conducive to lifting than others.

Staining Colours:
Bismuth Yellow, Cadmium Yellows, Winsor Lemon, Transparent Yellow, Aureolin, Gamboge Genuine, Bright Red, Cadmium Scarlet, Scarlet Lake, Vermilion Hue, Cadmium Red, Winsor Red, Rose Doré, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Carmine, Permanent Rose, Purple Madder, Permanent Magenta, Winsor Violet (Dioxazine), Winsor Blues, Prussian Blue, Winsor Greens, Winsor Emerald, Oxide of Chromium, Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Olive Green, Gold Ochre, Quinacridone Gold, Venetian Red, Brown Madder, Perylene Maroon, Caput Mortuum Violet, Vandyke Brown, Indigo, Payne’s Gray, Neutral Tint, Gum Arabic.


Mediums are used to create an even wider variety of techniques and effects.

Gum Arabic

Adding Gum Arabic to a water colour wash will have the following effects:

  • increase transparency and gloss to give greater brilliance of colour.
  • reduce the staining of pigments, making washes easier to lift.


Ox Gall

A few drops of Ox Gall added to your water pot will improve the wetting and flow of your first water colour washes on any hard sized papers. On soft sized papers it may increase the staining power of some pigments.


Aquapasto is a gel medium which is added to tube water colour in proportions of up to 50%, before water is added. It provides water colours with a texture which can be scratched out or thickens washes and keeps them wetter longer by reducing the flow of the colour. It is excellent for blending multiple washes on the paper and reworking them as required. The reduction of flow also prevents two washes bleeding into each other - great for clouds and skies.

Masking Fluid

Masking Fluid protects areas of your work when colour is applied in broad washes. Follow these helpful tips to get the best results when masking.

  • Shake bottle before use.
  • Do not use on wet or damp paper.
  • Use gelatine surface sized paper, this helps to prevent  the fluid from adhering too strongly to the paper.
  • Use old brushes or dip pens to avoid damaging valuable brushes.
  • Wash brushes in soapy water immediately after use.
  • Ensure fluid is dry before applying colour.
  • Do not leave fluid on paper for long periods of time.
  • Use Colourless Art Masking Fluid if there is any risk of staining from the pigmented Art Masking Fluid.
  • If spilt by accident, wash item immediately in soapy water. Once dry, the latex can only be removed by picking at it. There are unfortunately no solvents available.

Special Effects

Water colour is well suited to numerous special effects. Impressive results can be achieved very quickly with these simple tricks of the trade.

Salt for Added Texture

If salt is sprinkled onto a water colour wash, it will absorb the wet colour. Once dry, it is brushed away, leaving a pitted texture. Try fine and coarse salt for different effects.

Splatters and Splashes

Extra tone, texture and solidity is provided by splattering colours over an underpainting. Make a stencil to protect the areas you want unsplattered. Mix a darker wash and use a hog brush to flick the colour on in different concentrations. You can also splatter with masking fluid at the beginning of the work if you want white splatters instead. Remember not to leave the fluid on for longer than you have to.


Sanding a finished wash can be a useful rescue technique. If you finish a painting and find it lacking highlights, sanding is an option. Using a coarse sandpaper, lightly remove some of the paper, leaving a mottled wash with highlights. Be careful or you’ll rub too much off and make the picture worse! Washes will not go on evenly over sanded paper.

Cling Film (Protective Food Film)

Intricate washes of various tones are quickly made by the use of cling film! Apply a wash to your chosen area, crumple up some cling film and press it onto the wash, making sure not to smudge or move the wet colour. Leave this to dry whilst you have a break. When you peel the film away the texture is ready made. Try this with blended washes of more than one colour for even more varied texture.


For protection, a water colour painting should be displayed behind glass, using a mount to ensure the work is not directly against the glass. When choosing mounts, small pictures generally suit larger mounts whilst larger pictures will look good in smaller mounts.

Remember to use acid free mounts and backings; without them your painting will discolour in the frame.

NB. Varnishing water colours is generally not recommended because it alters the tones of the painting.  A varnish will also sink into the paper, discolouring and embrittling it.

Sable Brushes

Sable is the best type of hair for water colour brushes due to its excellent colour carrying capacity, ability to point and to spring back to shape. Series 7 sables are the world’s finest, first made for Queen Victoria, they are the only ‘tapered dressed’ sables. This means the selection of a number of different length hairs for each brush head. Series 7 brushes have larger bellies (width of the brush head) and finer points, giving maximum colour carrying capacity and the ultimate in control.

Painting with a Series 7 is speedy and controlled; the colour goes exactly where you want it, in the quantity you need. For those who want to use sable at a more affordable price, Series 16 (707 in USA) and Cirrus Series 110 offer good value. In addition to these traditional round heads for water colour; designers and illustrators often prefer Series 3A or Cirrus Series 220 which have elongated round heads, particularly suited to linear work.

Sable / Synthetic and Synthetic Brushes

Sceptre Gold II Series 101 are round brushes made from a mixture of sable and synthetic to approach the performance of sable at a more economic price. Cotman Series 111 are pure synthetic round brushes. They are economical water colour brushes which point well and have moderate colour carrying capacity.

Cleaning Brushes

Brushes will last many years if well cared for. Brushes should be rinsed throughout every painting session and should not be stood on their heads in your water pot. It is important to wash all your brushes thoroughly at the end of each day.  Rinsing in water alone is not sufficient to rinse the pigment from the ferrule end.

A long term build up of pigment will eventually prevent the brush from pointing.

  • Rinse brush in water.
  • Wash with warm water and household soap, repeating until there is no trace of colour.
  • Shape brush, dry handle and stand upright in a jar to dry.