4 Easy Watercolor Exercises for Beginners

Learn how to take your first steps in watercolor painting with these quick experimental exercises

Watercolor painting is a simple technique that's easy to master, but learning a few tricks can make a big difference and take your artwork to the next level. Understanding the best brush size, the ideal brushstroke direction, and the best type of paper gives you much better results.

Brazilian artist Isabela Quintes (@isabelaquintes) taught herself how to turn her love of illustration into a career. She now successfully sells her work online and collaborates with a range of brands.

Inspired by Brazil, Isabela Quintes turned her love of illustration into a profession.

Isabela constantly researches and explores different ways to capture reality and use imagination in her work. Brazil is her main source of inspiration - her home country is blessed with an incredible wealth of tropical flowers and plants.

Isabela also works on projects ranging from stationery designs and patterns to personalized wedding invitations, often featuring her vibrant botanical illustrations.

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Watercolor painting is a simple and easy-to-master technique. Learning a few basic tricks can really make a difference.

Here, Isabela shares a few of her favorite exercises to start you off in the world of watercolor painting. Following these methods will also help you familiarize yourself with the materials you need. But before diving into the exercises, here's a quick look at the history of botanical illustration and an introduction to the essential materials.

The History of Botanical Illustration

Flowers are a part of nature, and they’re also important in our society and culture. We use them to say “Sorry”, “I love you”, “Get better”, and “Goodbye”; and to decorate our notebooks, our clothes, and our homes. They’re probably one of the first things we learn to draw - perhaps even before we learned to write.

But while it might seem like we’ve been illustrating flowers forever, the history of botanical illustration is actually relatively recent. We didn’t paint a single plant throughout most of human history. How was this discipline born? And what do the flowers we have painted over the centuries say about us? Find out in the video below:

Materials: Botanical illustration with watercolor

Designer and illustrator Paulina Maciel (@pau_maciel) has made a career out of creating botanical illustrations with watercolor. She works on all kinds of projects for brands including El Palacio de Hierro, Desigual, and creative agencies.

She believes that as well as being handy with a brush and having sound botanical knowledge, you also need the right materials to capture the beauty of a flower, and the complexity of the veins in a leaf.

Paulina Maciel share her preferred materials in the next video:

Experimental watercolor exercises for beginners

One of the great secrets to watercolor painting is practice. You need to experiment with a range of papers, brushes, textures, and paints.

Isabela shows you how to get to grips with some of the materials you need and teaches you a few exercises to practice your brushstrokes and loosen up your wrist.

1. Train your wrist

Use satin watercolor paper for this exercise. Dip your brush in a little paint and create a square. The straighter it is, the better. This helps train your wrist to achieve more precise brushstrokes.

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Train your wrist to achieve precise brushstrokes by practising with a square (the straighter the square, the better).

Start with more paint on your brush, then add a little more water to lighten your color ready for a second square.

It doesn’t matter if your second square isn’t an exact replica of the first. The purpose of this exercise is to practice. Carry on creating little four-sided shapes and repeat whenever you feel the need.

2. Color intensity

In this exercise, we’re going to use satin watercolor paper and a number 8 brush to create four-sided shapes.

Create your first square using a normal amount of water. Then add a little more water to create your second square. And finally, use the least possible water for your third square.

The more water you use, the softer your final color. And inversely, the less water you use, the stronger the end color. This is a key concept to remember when using watercolor paints or experimenting with color.

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The more water you use, the softer your final color.

Watercolors dry faster on satin finished paper, so now try repeating this exercise but this time with thick-grain watercolor paper. Notice what this does to the color intensity. The grained paper makes things a lot more intense. The colors look more like oil paint because they dry more slowly.

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Thick-grain paper produces much greater intensity. Your colors look more like oils because they dry more slowly.

3. Practice details

This exercise works on straight lines to improve your detailing skills.

First practice and experiment with the weight of your brush stroke, the lighter the stroke, the finer the resulting line, (and inversely, the heavier your stroke the fatter the line).

Repeat this exercise with a liner: a fine number 0 brush, and notice the differences in your stroke.

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The lighter your stroke, the finer the line, the heavier your stroke the fatter the line.

Repeat the process again with thick grain paper. The paint will run out towards the end of your stroke. Because this paper is much rougher, it absorbs a larger quantity of paint and achieves completely different results.

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Rough paper absorbs more paint and produces completely different results.

Carry on practicing by creating freehand shapes like spirals or circles and playing with the amount of water you use.

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Practice creating shapes like spirals or circles with your hand raised off the paper.

4. Try tubes of watercolor paint

Watercolor paint comes in tubes as well as in pans. Let’s repeat the previous steps, this time using tubes of watercolor paint.

Isabela Quintes squeezes her paint directly onto the palette, then adds water. This achieves a much stronger color, which you can dilute if you wish.

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Squeeze the paint directly onto your palette, then add water.

Experiment with the intensity of your paints.

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Experiment with the intensity of your paints by squeezing different quantities out of the tube.

Practice creating lines, spirals and circles. The results will be very similar to that of other types of paper, but you will notice that watercolor in a tube produces a much less watery, more heavily pigmented paint.

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Practicing a variety of shapes helps to improve the precision of your brushstrokes.

Although these seem like simple exercises, they're an important way to understand how different kinds of brushes, papers, and paints work, and the various results you can achieve. Practice brings you closer to your materials and allows you to develop new techniques.

Step-by-Step Watercolor Tutorial: How to Paint a Banana Leaf

Love these exercises? Now you know a bit more about how to take your first steps in watercolor painting, don’t miss the next tutorial. It teaches you how to paint a banana leaf. The challenge is harder than it looks, making it a great opportunity to practice. Plus, Isabela Quintes reveals more of her tips:

If you want to learn how to create patterns from your watercolor illustrations and print them onto all kinds of objects, don’t miss Isabela Quintes’ online course: Botanical Watercolor for Patterns.

English version by @studiogaunt.

You may also like:

- 8 Free Templates for Drawing Insects and Plants as a Beginner
- DIY Tutorial: How to Create Bookmarks With Pressed Flowers
- 10 Artists and Designers to Draw Inspiration From for Your Botanical Watercolors
- Botanical Watercolor: Illustrate the Anatomy of Flowers, a course by Luli Reis
- Illustrated Portraits With Botanical Elements, a course by Isadora Zeferino


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