Watercolor Secrets You Need To Know

secrets, tips, techniques of watercolor, debiriley.com

If you’ve picked up some watercolor paints to try your hand at a dabble and a doodle for a nice relaxing time, but have come up with frustration and mud …. you’re probably not very happy with watercolors at the moment. But,  if I told you some secrets, I think you might change your mind!

secrets, tips, techniques of watercolor, debiriley.com
Secret Life of Watercolors




Watercolor’s  Secrets and Tips

This is part II  of Watercolor Secrets, if you missed last week’s Watercolor Secrets post just have a quick look!

After 25 years of watercolor painting, what are the secrets I wish I’d known from the beginning?



Summer colours watercolours debiriley.com
Summer colours


Here are the Secrets I’d tell my much younger self as I was just starting to paint with watercolors.


  • Watercolors aren’t meant to be applied heavy, densely like acrylics, oils, tempera
  • Start from Day 1 using a Testing Strip paper, to test the colours & tones beforehand
  • Watercolors are in their happy place, when they can flow:  not in a flood, nor parched dry
  • Artist quality materials will save you money, as they go 3x further & easier for corrections!
  • Don’t copy; study the Masters – Edward Seago, Turner, John Singer Sargeant
  • Don’t compare yourself to others, but Look for evidence of improvements
  • Start from Day 1 using the biggest brush possible and painting as large as possible
  • To my own self be true, follow my own vision
  • Plan, to learn the Basics as the prime goal, vs create paintings as the prime goal
  • To improve,  at anything,  you’re going to have to …. practice frequently
  • Watercolor has a zone:  shiny wet or bone dry and then,  its smooth sailing
  • “Nearly” dry,     is not a good time for making housecalls on watercolors!
  • Day 1 start with Cobalt pb28, Permanent Rose pv19, Winsor Lemon py175



watercolour blooms debiriley.com
Watercolour Blooms with just 3 tubes of paint debiriley.com

Watercolor: Interesting Techniques and  Facts


Permanent Rose

Permanent Rose pv19  or  quinacridone rose,  pv19    is a lovely clean transparent  rose red that is very very versatile.  It will mix well with nearly anything, creating salmons, scarlets, mango orange, browns, skin tones, greys, mauves and olive.   Superb workhorse.

A secret about this colour is that when applied in a wash, i.e. medium water load,  the rose colour will  creep to the very border of the shape to ‘edge’ it in a lovely soft, faint blush.

So, if I painted a leaf olive green, using my permanent rose and did not apply the paint densely…  once dry, the rose colour will appear gently upon the leaf edges!   Like magic, a very nice watercolor technique to know about.


Prussian Blue

Prussian Blue  pb 27  Tricky paint makers!  Well, to start off with it a a fabulous blue of deep intensity, perfect for landscape and foliage.  The Secret is, the name.  Because it has different names.  Various paint manufacturers name it Antwerp Blue,   Prussian Blue thus,   I made needless extra purchases of Prussian Blue.


Phalo Blue

Phalo blue pb15  is another with a multiple of aliases.  Winsor blue, Blockx blue, Intense blue, Monastical blue. They were all the same pb15 and I had them all.


Cobalt Blue Hue

Cobalt Blue HUE is not really a true  cobalt; nor will it create the  lovely clean range color mixes that genuine cobalt pb28 does.

Cobalt HUE is a mix of ultramarine, sometimes with phalo blue and then mixed with the Opaque White.  Thus you have a blend of an Opaque, a Staining and Granulating paint…. nowhere near the clean purity of the Transparency of Cobalt.

Why does this matter?    Mud!  I kept getting mud mixes and didn’t know why.



Paint Purchases

Choose paints for versatility of use, how they will mix and blend in harmony i.e. no mud,  with other colors.

Its always difficult once in the “candy shop”     I mean, the Art Store –  not to gravitate to the “Pretty Paints.”    But, sadly – these pretty paints,  very frequently are not good at mixing with others.  They clash, create arguments, stir things up.  They make mud.

Try to go for the functional basics and buy more of those quality paints, than wasting money on pretties.

You really, will only Need, 1 yellow.  Winsor Lemon. (or Hansa Yellow Light)  But,  you will do well to accumulate a lot more blue paints. Cobalt, Ultramarine, Prussian are the starters.  Blue paints are a major key when it comes to mixing lovely foliage greenery with fabulous depth.


Paper Value

Get the maximum value out of your dollar.

Find a paper that is reusable multiple times, front side and back.  The cheaper the paper, the more money you waste.  100% cotton rag Fabriano, Saunders, Arches – Arches especially will give value.

Use the paper. Repeatedly.



Tree trunk watercolours debiriley.com
Palette knife watercolours debiriley.com

Palette Knife

Palette Knife and watercolors marry up brilliantly!

Try dampening the cold press paper so the knife skates smoothly across the surface, just ‘skimming along.’   PK1008 palette knife is ideal this watercolor technique as its shape is suited for loose, bold and swift movements.

No need to dump tons of paint onto the knife, but just enough,  to slide it easily on the damp paper.



Secrets of shadows.  Shadows aren’t black, they’re darker versions of the local colour.  i.e.  if the blouse is medium blue tone, the shadows will be a darker blue.  Not black.

Also, when creating tree shadows,  think about soft edges.   Shadows really aren’t hard edged. Especially if they’re distant from the object. If they are within a few inches, then they are sharper.


wet in wet, impressionist sky debiriley.com
Wet in Wet sky

Wet into Wet Technique

Wet into wet is great fun.   Creating depth and soft edges, its a magical technique especially suited for skies.  Or equally nice for forests.   Wet the paper.  Load the big brush with dripping paint and just ‘kiss’ the surface of the paper. No need to have to rub, or do much stroking as the incoming paint will latch onto the paper’s dampness and flood into it.

A secret:  

Watercolor paint will only travel where the paper is wet/damp.  The dry paper areas around the dampness, will act as locked gates,  preventing the paint from escaping.



Graded Wash Watercolor Technique

Graded wash,  is the second of the two most useful techniques to practice and master.

Graded wash is applying the paint dark to mid, to lighter tones.  Or vice versa.  The usefulness of this wash can’t be underplayed.

The sky, is a prime example, as it is dark above, mid, then lighter at the horizon.  A Table top is darker in front, mid, then paler at the back – as are meadows, roads, rivers, etc.

A vase can be painted using the graded wash. Just, turn the paper around so that the side of the vase now is upwards and you can proceed with the graded wash with ease. When done, return the paper to its normal position.


Lighter Than It First Looks

Watercolor dries paler.

You think you slather on the deep darks, big and bold. Then it dries.

Alas! What happened?

Watercolor dries about half tone to one full tone lighter than when it is wet.  You have to learn through experience how to gauge this.  But, its ok.  All you have to do anyway, is to go over the area with a light wash, to make it that half tone darker. Easy!

Where there’s a problem – there is a solution.  99% of the time



Mud. If, by chance it happens… there are some solutions.  Say you are trying to make a pale dove grey and it goes thick, murky, brown.

The secret is Wipe half of that mix away.  Add some water.    Then add a bit of blue.  This should start to delete the mud. Add a dash more water if its still a bit too murky.

Check the colors you’re using. Are they student paints?  Are they Opaque paints?  like cadmium, ochre, Indian red,  etc.    Did you use Paynes Grey, Neutral tint?

Perhaps you mixed 2 warm colors together?  Like French Ultramarine  (a warm blue)  and  Scarlet Red (a warm red)?     A better formula is 2 cool colors together, or 1 cool and 1 warm; this is a much safer bet to avoid mud.


colour chart debiriley.com
Staining Transparent Opaque Granulating

Paint Charts

Paint Charts are a great way to reinforce and learn color mixing skills.

I think for a couple years I did one or two every week, learning new mixes and blends.  And seeing how one brand can be totally different to another.

Eye opening.

watercolour mixing chart, limited palette, colour Mix recipes, debiriley.com
Watercolour Chart: 3 Tube Mixes debiriley.com



I have been updating my new Page,  Watercolour Tips with ongoing articles that you may enjoy reading some of those posts as well.


I believe that’s about 25 of my secrets, tips and techniques I’ve learned over the past 25 + years of the watercolor school of trial and error.  Otherwise known as the trail of tissues.

Perhaps, you won’t have the same frustrations now you know some of the secrets in advance!   Good luck, have fun and enjoy happy watercolors.  




Published by debiriley

The act of creation, in any media is a fascinating and magical process. I simply love to create. Expressing in color, line, tone, texture - as if, they were words upon a page. Creating a uniquely me, interpretation. Enjoy More of my "one-of-a-kind" expressive art at society6.com/debiriley and, redbubble.com/people/debijriley/shop

14 thoughts on “Watercolor Secrets You Need To Know

    1. you’re welcome Jill! yes, the PK1008 knife is the best thing since sliced bread… nearly… 🙂 thank you Jill, for your lovely comments! cheers, Debi

      Liked by 1 person

    1. that is really thoughtful of you! I know you are a photographer… so you may not be ‘riveted’ on watercolor 101 – so, Thank You, for your kindness! 🙂 cheers, Debi

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My prime interest is photography Debi, but I really appreciate any artist that uses watercolours. I’ve had a few dabbles with it over the years, and I really enjoy it. But I never seem to have the time to be consistent about it, and the fact that I can’t paint either!! Lol! 🙂


  1. Such a wealth of information Deb! Love this and want to pin it for future reference! So so so appreciate your generosity in sharing your knowledge and beautiful art!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hi Jodi, Very glad that it can be used and passed along! thank you for letting me know, that it will be helpful 🙂 Debi


    1. that’s great! I’m glad its helpful 🙂 when you get a moment, you might have a quick look at my Watercolor Tips page, it has a list of several very helpful, watercolor posts 🙂 Thank you, very much for your lovely comment!! cheers, Debi


    1. thank you!! and the same for you, I love how with a few lines and a wash of color you create gorgeous fashion illustrations!


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