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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Watercolors 101: What you need to know before you start the stress-reducing hobby

Watercolor painting has gained popularity in recent years, offering a peaceful respite for people wanting to get in touch with their creative side.

The portability, sustainability and affordability of the supplies, plus the mental health benefits of watercolor painting led to its comeback in 2023, Medium reported.

Mixed media artist Katie Frey recently finished teaching weeks of watercolor classes through Spokane Parks and Recreation at Corbin Arts Center.

“Corbin Art had enough people on the waitlist to add another class,” said Frey who ended up leading back-to-back classes each week, because of the high demand.

After spending five weeks in her “Intro to Watercolors” class, it’s obvious why.

Here’s what I learned in my time in the class.

While it costs less than other art hobbies, it’s not cheap … But there are ways to make it less spendy.

If you’re going for the best quality, paint is the item to splurge on. However, you don’t need every color in the rainbow. You can make any color with four primary paints: Quinacridone Magenta, Cadmium Yellow, Phthalo Blue and Payne’s Grey.

Daniel Smith brand is suggested, but be careful not to buy the gouache, which is opaque compared to the transparency of classic watercolors. I used the tubes ($6-$13 each color), but multicolor half pans ($40-$65) are available, as well.

For the best spread and fast absorption, Frey recommends 140-pound cold-press watercolor paper.

“Arches is, of course, the best,” Frey said, “but if you are on a budget, try Fabriano or Fluid Watercolor Paper.” Arches is $20-$25 for 12-sheet pads, while Fluid is $5-$10 for 15-sheet pads.

Color wheels can be found in art stores or online to understand basic color theory and to aid you in mixing the four colors to find the perfect shade. Or, you can make your own color wheel.

Two to three brushes can create any painting you desire, so you don’t need an entire set. One long, round size 6 brush and one long, round size 12 should help you create any painting you desire. If you want a fuller set, a flat, mop, hake or wash brush can help form large backgrounds, skies or mountains, while a thin size 0 or 2 can create fine lines and details.

For support, a 13-by-17-inch sketch board with a handle is nice, but “a piece of wood, foam core or clay board works fine,” Frey said.

Finally, a mixing palette (plastic if on a budget; porcelain if wanting higher quality), water container (this could be as simple as a mason jar or a $4 collapsible brush bucket), painter’s tape, ruler, pencil, eraser and nonbleeding pen (like a fine-point Sharpie) round out the needed supplies.

All of these supplies were found at Spokane Art Supply at the same price as – or lower than – Amazon. Plus, the local supply store offers discounts for students or those enrolled in classes.

There are many ways to learn how to do watercolor.

While I enjoyed my class with Frey, whose art is viewable at Pottery Place Plus and Avenue West Gallery, she isn’t set to host another watercolor class until the fall. There are plenty of upcoming classes in Spokane, however.

Megan Perkins is leading a class, “Loosen Up Your Watercolor Painting,” through Spokane Parks and Recreation for ages 14 and up from 1-5 p.m. May 18 for $69 at the Corbin Arts Center.

The Spokane Art School is hosting “Painting the Rainbow: Beginner’s Color Theory using Watercolor” with artist Andi Keating from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. May 26 for ages 11 and up. The class costs $24, plus $10 supplies.

The Spokane Watercolor Society is hosting a four-day workshop from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April 18-21 in conjunction with the society’s National Show with Soon Young Warren. The multiday workshop costs $575 and is currently waitlisted.

Stan Miller will teach “Painting Animals in Watercolor” at Spokane Art Supply, which runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 27-28. Costs are available by emailing

Elise Beattie will teach “Fearless Watercolors: Painting Fun Level One” through Spokane Community College’s Act 2 Continuing Education program. The $55 class, plus supplies, will be hosted at the South Side Senior Center from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Fridays, May 10 through June 7.

Artist and “En Plein Air Watercolor” author Ron Stocke will host a three-day watercolor class from Sept. 13-15 for $280, also at Spokane Art Supply.

For those light on money and time, online tutorials are available. Joe Cartwright’s “Beginner watercolor painting course” offers 39 YouTube step-by-step videos perfect for beginners.

Other YouTube videos, like Helen’s “Watercolour Painting Tutorials,” give guided lessons on painting specific works, from flowers to penguins to coffee cups.

A failed painting is not a failure.

It’s extra practice. And you’ll need extra scrap paper for color testing, anyway.

There’s not just one way to paint.

There are many techniques that create different effects in watercolor.

Wet on wet is one of the most common. To use this style, wet your blank paper with a brush, and then apply your paint. This allows colors to blend, making for softer transitions. With more practice, wet on wet can be used to drop in different colors of paint, to create a tie-dye-like effect perfect for abstract or colorful backgrounds.

Wet on dry is another popular technique. When you apply wet paint onto dry paper, it allows for more control, making for sharper edges or details.

A rare technique, dry on dry, consists of using a dry brush to apply paint on the paper. This creates a rough, textured look.

A flat wash technique, better applied with a mop-like brush, is nice for making backgrounds. The practice applies a solid color to a large area of the paper with a wet brush covered in paint. It’s best to apply the paint in even strokes, ensuring full coverage.

A lift-out is a good oopsie-daisy technique to have in your back pocket. If you flub a section of your painting, you can wet the area you want to lift out with a damp brush or towel, and then use a clean, dry brush or paper towel to lift out the paint. This can also be used purposefully to lighten specific areas, or even to create clouds in a colorful sky.

There is not one best way to paint, just the way you like best.

It’s a good practice in letting go of control.

As a recovering perfectionist (suggested reading: “The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control” by Katherine Morgan Schafler), watercolor is the perfect way to toss out all expectations. Unlike pencil drawing or other more controllable paints (like acrylic or oil), your canvas is heavily influenced by the water you use.

While artists can learn how to manipulate paint and water over time, beginners will find that their outcomes are not exactly as expected. Sometimes there are blooms, where excess water creates a bloom-like effect, pushing color to its edges. Sometimes there are unexpected bleeds between colors, muddying transitions or lines.

You may be able to guide your art piece in a way you’d like, but the water settles how it will. Often, even if it appears to be a mistake, the result is beautiful. It’s forgiving.

Watercolor painting can bring a sense of peace that some may seek in religion, meditation or yoga. Research has found that making art can activate reward pathways, reduce stress, lower anxiety and improve mood.

Frankly, watercolor is the art of letting go.