sketching in watercolor

Why you should Start Sketching in Watercolor (Ideas & Tips for Beginners)

A watercolor sketch can be defined as an unfinished, unrefined painting, usually made as a rough draft before a finished work of art. Some people see it as part of a process. But I think these simple versions of paintings are a valuable ingredient to successful watercolors. 

Sketching is a good habit for developing and improving your skills, without the fear of spoiling a sophisticated watercolor.

In a way, the notion of sketching frees you from the obligation for results. If a sketch goes wrong, what the heck? 

It’s just a sketch. 

You might never get any further than a sketch. But does that mean you’re not being creative?

Nope… Not in my opinion

You could easily pursue sketching in watercolor as your daily creative outlet. I get as much joy out of sketching as I do out of painting a more advanced subject.

But sketching can also be a valuable tool before committing to a larger project. Sometimes, just painting a quick sketch can help you avoid any mistakes you might make if you jump straight into a finished watercolor.

So how do you get into sketching and how should you approach it? If you’re struggling with watercolors or you’re wondering how to get more out of your watercolor sketches, the following few tips should help.

Why start Sketching in Watercolor?

For anyone who wants to progress with their art I think sketching in watercolor is something you should be doing.

There are a few important advantages to watercolor sketches. For me the most noteworthy benefits are the following:

  1. 1
    ​It removes the fear of trying to get things right the first time.
  2. 2
    ​It provides regular practice to improve your painting skills.
  3. 3
    ​Can be done quickly so it doesn’t require a lot of time.
  4. 4
    ​Helps you to simplify subjects and portray what’s essential.
  5. 5
    ​Sketching can ​be used as a study tool before painting a “finished” watercolor (for things like composition, color palettes, value studies)
  6. 6
    ​You can test different techniques and find a “style” that suits you.


Sketching Removes the Fear of Watercolors

As a beginner I was often afraid of messing up. This is a big frustration for a lot of artists. 

But sketching inherently allows you to use a loose approach to watercolors. I think this is great for learning to “let go”.

But when someone tells you to “loosen up” your painting, that in itself is a lot to ask!

How do you get over the fear of putting brush to paper? 

When you know something is important, it creates a big mental barrier. Thinking about making mistakes isn’t going to make your work any more spontaneous. You have to tell yourself that what you're doing isn’t important. The only person who ever has to see your sketchbook is you. 

You need to put some distance between your ambitions and your painting process. And sketching is an excellent way to do this. Just treat each sketch as a work in progress and tell yourself you’ll paint the “real” watercolor some other time!

Here are a few tips to help get you to “loosen up”...

  • ​Use a bigger brush than you think you need. This helps you avoid focusing on too much detail.
  • ​Watercolor can do some unexpected things. Blooms and backruns are a common frustration for watercolor artists. Let these things happen without worrying about them. You’ll learn under what conditions they happen so you can better control watercolors in the future. Use plenty of water, allow the colors to flow, and splash some paint around.
  • Simplify your subject. Study it to reduce it to its most important features. Remember you’re sketching an impression, not a highly realistic rendering.
  • ​Learn to control values. Values are the lights and darks in a painting. Even if you get the shapes wrong, if the values are roughly correct, you’ll get a more realistic and convincing result.
  • ​Mix colors less and try applying pure pigments. You’ll get brighter, more vivid, and colorful results. Colors mix together on the page as you layer them, and when they diffuse into wet washes. This mixing on the paper will naturally tone down colors and produce more subtle unsaturated mixes of hues. Over-mixing colors can produce dull muddy hues.
  • ​Leave white highlights and spaces on the page. The contrast usually leads to a more visually appealing result.
loose watercolor sketch

​​In this sketch I deliberately painted in a loose style, letting the colors merge into each other and drip down the paper. I particularly like the complementary color scheme in this piece.

Regular Practice Strengthens your Painting Skills

Once you get into a regular habit of sketching, painting doesn’t seem so difficult. 

You’ll be less apprehensive about starting a painting, and your skills and understanding of watercolors will automatically improve.

As the saying goes…  “practice makes perfect”

Regular practice will help you become familiar with your watercolors and how they react on the paper. The experience gained helps you anticipate how to use your paints to achieve a desired result. 

A Sketch can be Quick

There’s really no excuse.

Sketches, by their nature, can be done quickly. It’s often hard to find time in our busy schedules to do the things we want. If time is limiting you and preventing you from painting, then telling yourself you’ll do a quick sketch in 15 minutes can be just the thing you need. 

This gain in time helps you to achieve regular practice. And slowly make watercolor painting a (good) habit.

Painting quick also means you’ll stop sooner (often paintings get ruined because you don’t know when to stop)

Here are a few tips on how to get results in a short amount of time:

  • ​The sketching process should not be painstaking. Treat it as an exercise, not a masterpiece.
  • ​Tell yourself that you're painting a quick impression of the subject. Paint and sketch “roughly”. Don’t worry about getting the correct perspective or shapes.
  • ​Give yourself a time limit for each new painting. If overworking a painting is one of your struggles, imposing a time limit may help you get to the essentials without overdoing things.
quick watercolor sketch

This pen​cil and watercolor sketch was completed in ​25 minutes!  I just did a quick pencil outline then put color down ​over the top.

​Sketches Help to Simplify your Paintings

Watercolor works well when you apply a minimum of brushstrokes and not too many layers of paint. This comes back to the idea of overworking watercolors. If you mix too many pigments you can end up with murky looking colors. Watercolor is a transparent medium and works well with a minimum of fuss.

Sketching helps you learn to use a minimum of gestures and gain confidence with your brushwork. I admire artists who can express a subject with a few deliberate brush marks. Sketching can help you achieve this.

Treat your painting a bit like taking notes. 

When you look at a subject try to reduce it to its basic elements. For example, an apple isn’t an apple, but rather a mixture of shapes of different color and value. I think if you can dissect your subjects this way you’ll go a long way to creating attractive compositions.

Try these tips:

  • ​Use minimal shapes and lines.
  • ​Simplify a subject to its basic parts. You can tighten up a painting later by adding more detail if you want.
  • ​Reduce things to big shapes, colors and values (lights and darks). The details are less important than you think.
  • ​Ask yourself “what’s the focal point”? Try to capture the essence of the subject. What was it that attracted you to the subject in the first place. That’s probably what you want to try and express.
simplified watercolor cherry blossoms

​Without trying to be realistic, these cherry blossoms are reduced to their simplest form. the five petals are painted with a wet and wet style by dabbing color into a very pale wash, then the petals are left to dry before painting the center in a wet on dry style.


Helps you Study a Subject Beforehand

Rather than jumping straight into a painting and hoping not to make any errors, sketching a subject beforehand can go a long way to making your final painting a success.

There are three principal things I try to resolve when I use a sketch for this purpose:

  • ​Composition
  • ​Color palette
  • ​Values

Composition is something we don’t always think about at the beginning of a new project, but it can help make a difference between a painting that stands out or one that seems flat and boring. 

Composition is all about leading the eye of the observer to emphasize a point. There are many ways to achieve interesting compositions. For example, by positioning the subject in a certain way, or by using contrasting colors (the eye is attracted to the brightest point in a painting).

Sketches let you test out different compositions before you commit to the final painting.

Color palettes are just as important to good looking watercolors. A common mistake is to use too many colors in a painting. Certain combinations of colors produce better color harmonies and reflect mood and atmosphere. 

If you’re not sure what colors to use in a piece, then a sketch using a couple of alternatives can help with the final choice.

As mentioned earlier, values are incredibly important for painting realistic looking watercolors. Value is just another term for the level of darkness or lightness of a shape, but these tonal values are what help us read our three-dimensional environment and make sense of it.

Dare I say when I started watercolor painting I didn’t understand the “value of values”.

Doing a value study is a good way of figuring out just how intense or light different parts of a subject needs to be. But remember, you can also force values to help the composition. For example by making the subject (your focal point) very light, and contrasting it with a dark background, you can make objects stand out, and at the same time improve your composition!

Cool huh?

simple watercolor sketch composition

​After studying my technique for painting individual cherry blossoms, I moved on the a branched composition. I like the contrast with the white background and the strong valued flowers. The color scheme sets up a nice wide range of analogous colors...

Find your Style

Sketching in watercolor on a regular basis can be a way of finding you own style. 

Every artist has their own particular style, whether it’s intentional or by accident. Artists who are new to watercolor are usually attracted to a particular style and might try to imitate that. But eventually you’ll probably settle into a style of painting that is your own. 

Sketching is a great way to develop that style over time. It gives you the freedom to experiment, try different techniques, and maybe even mix watercolor with different media to see what suits you best.

And who knows…

You might even have fun!

My Favorite Sketching Supplies

It may have crossed your mind that sketching implies painting often and possibly in large quantities. 

But watercolor supplies can be expensive, and in particular paper!

For this reason I don't (always) use high quality cotton watercolor paper when I’m sketching. 

Expense might even be a factor that prevents you from painting for fear of waste. And that would be a huge shame.

Low quality paper usually contains more celulose (wood pulp) and less cotton. This changes the behaviour of the paint on the surface, and most artists prefer working on 100% cotton paper. But if the cost of this quality paper prevents you from enjoying sketching you need to find a good alternative!

A sketchbook is the perfect instrument to get your creativity flowing. Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorite supplies to use when sketching (The links lead to Amazon). 

This uses a heavy 270gsm paper with a white cold-press finish. Although not intended only for watercolor I find the smooth paper doesn’t buckle or warp, so it can handle wet washes. I like the big 12” x 9” format and the hardback protection makes it good for traveling.

This another great traveling sketchbook. The paper holds watercolor well. I like to have a smaller format sketchbook like this because painting small forces you to paint what’s essential. And it’s easy to carry around all day!

This heavy 140lb / 300gsm paper is ideal for painting in watercolor and it’s my go-to choice for inexpensive paper.

If you’re looking for a minimal paint color palette to get started I recommend you have at least one warm and one cool primary color just like in this kit. And Daniel Smith are fantastic quality watercolors!


Why you Should be Sketching

Sketching is the perfect exercise for budding watercolor artists. It’s a way of engaging with the world around us, and an excellent tool for practicing your skills. 

Remember, a sketch is yours, and you can choose whether or not to share it. Never remove a page from your sketchbook. We all have watercolors that we’re not happy with. But don’t underestimate the value of your creative work.

And hey… Sometimes a sketch looks even better than a “real” painting!

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