Preparing for a Watercolor Painting

Steve MItchell Watercolor Piece

The prep-work it takes to get ready for a watercolor painting can be time consuming and easy to overlook. However, taking the proper measures prior to starting a watercolor painting (and in this case, a watercolor landscape) can help bring you success in your painting and make the execution more free flowing.  

Watercolor artist Steve Mitchell is one of our 2016 Online Workshop Instructors who created a series of 4 videos on watercoloring that you can follow along to for free (click here to access his classes). Below is a look at how Steve prepares to paint a watercolor landscape:

Step 1: Photo Reference and Thumbnails

  • Select a photo reference to have handy as you paint. As you’ll see in the next few steps, Steve often selects multiple photos and uses elements from each for his painting.
  • Work out your composition and light/dark values in small thumbnail sketches. It is best to work out 3 or more thumbnail options.
  • This is where you can combine elements from your photo references to see what layout and composition works best. Steve combines the sky from one photo, the mountains from the backdrop of another photo, and the foreground, trees and brush from a third photo.
  • Choose the thumbnail you think will work best and mentally think through how you’d paint it

Photo References

Thumbnail Sketches

Step 2: Supplies

  • Below is a list of materials that Steve uses for his landscape watercolor. In general these are standard supplies needed for creating watercolor paintings, but certain elements could vary depending on the type of painting being created.
    • Paper: Steve uses Strathmore 500 Series Gemini Cold Press paper, 300lb (638gsm). Click here to see more of our watercolor papers.
    • Brushes: ¾” oval wash brush, #10 round brush, #2 rigger/liner brush
    • Low-tack artists or painters tape
    • Soft eraser
    • Pencil: HB, #2 or lighter 
    • Spray bottle
    • Paper towel
    • Watercolor paint – Steve uses the following color palette:
      • Sepia
      • Payne’s Gray
      • Ultramarine Blue
      • Prussian Blue
      • Azo Green
      • Indian Yellow
      • Quinacridone Red
      • Red-Iron Oxide

Gemini Paper




Step 3: Set up your work area

  • Low painting angles are recommended for the large wetter washes to prevent heavy run down to the bottom.
  • More comfortable steep painting angles such as an upright easel can be used later for less washy details.
  • Large mixing palettes and areas are beneficial for wet washes. Small palette mixing areas can be supplemented with disposable Styrofoam or plastic plates.
  • Have plenty of blotting material available (paper towels and rags) to adjust moisture levels in your brush. This will need to happen constantly when painting.
  • Have plenty of water available to clean your brush as you paint.

Work Station

Step 4: Prepare your surface for painting

  • Cut your watercolor paper down to the size you’d like if necessary.
  • Use the artists or painters tape to adhere the paper to the table or to a flat board if you’re going to adjust the angle as you paint. Steve uses the tape to make a slight border around the entire sheet.
  • Consult your preferred thumbnail and very lightly pencil in the major features to be painted.

Tape Paper Down

Now you’re ready to get those watercolors out! To see Steve’s video lesson on how he painted this landscape, click here and follow along to Landscape Part 1, and Landscape Part 2.

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Finished Piece

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