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  • Rachel Jackson

Two Scottish based Artists share advice for those beginning to use watercolour paint.

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

I’m still learning as I use watercolour paint myself. As a medical illustrator, we were not expressive in our work as our primary goal was accuracy. We were heavily trained in photographic techniques too, rather than traditional artists/painting techniques and were often advised to use the thicker paint; Gouache. Away from illustration…as an artist, I am mostly self-taught.

Generally I have found that less is more with watercolour and that how the water is applied, paint layered, and paint application techniques are fundamental in ensuring you get the most out of this medium. I tend to add a lot of detail which creates a tightness that watercolour in my opinion is better without. What I mean by that is, I add a bit too much paint and this can cause the colour to become muddy at times and the result unnecessarily overworked.

People ask me…” Who’s your favourite artist?” There are soooo many to be honest, but for this Blog I’ll introduce you to one of my local favourites, Gemma Petrie. Gemma’s abstract style and approach complement my attempt to bring the histology, x-rays and morphology to Cover 5. I hope to inspire you to give it a go too!

Gemma is a local artist (North Scotland) and creates artwork that reflects her surroundings. Gemma lives in an area I grew up in and I see so much of my childhood environment within her work. Not only that, but she is able to balance colour, shape and texture that results in me searching through the piece for those memories. It’s akin to when you are lying looking up at the sky and make shapes out of the clouds. I have always thought that I will have her work in my surgery so that patients can enjoy finding things within them as I do. A great way to distract, calm and create conversation, I think.

GP: “The small hidden worlds in nature, for example the mini ecosystems found within rock pools and forests, allow me to portray a representation of protection, to describe the need to protect our families, ourselves and our environment.”

I’ve chatted to Gemma and we have a few beginner watercolour tips for you:

Top tips

Basic colours set to start with:

This selection gives you each of the primary colours on their hot and cold.

• Ultramarine blue

• Cerulean blue

• Prussian blue

• Lemon yellow

• Cadmium yellow

• Alizarin red

• Cadmium red

• Vandyke brown

• Ochre yellow

• Naples yellow

- Naples yellow is a great colour for creating creamy shades.

- Traditionally neither white nor black is used. Instead of paint the white of the paper is used to create light in a painting. Work from the lightest colours and washes to the darkest tones and strongest colours. To create blacks and greys a mixture of blue, red and yellow or blue and brown can be used.

- Watercolour for the most part is about patience and timing. Patience is something I do not have. I combat the urge to fidget with paintings when they aren’t dry enough by having several paintings on the go at once.

- Don’t forget to try watercolour pencils too.

- Do not leave your brushes sitting in water and shape your brush gently back to its point once you’ve used it. This will help keep your brushes good and extend their life.

- Keep your water clean. Especially when using pale colours. Mucky water will make muddy paintings.

- Go strong when mixing colours. The colour will fade as the paint dries. If you are intending to do a wash make sure you mix plenty of the colour you are going to use. It will stop you creating a hard line where it isn’t intended and saves attempting to remix an exact colour match.

- Brushes can be very expensive, but you can do most things with just 3 or 4 different sizes of brush. A round size 1 or 2, a round size 4, 6 or 8 and a wash brush. The best brushes to use are natural or synthetic brushes that are soft with a good point. If your brushes have a good point you can make a variety of different width lines with just one brush. Brushes with hard bristles, like hog hair, will not give you even colour distribution and may damage the paper.

- Practise and playing are the best way to improve!


There are different weights of paper. The heavier the paper the more water you can use without it buckling. There are three different types of watercolour paper. Hot pressed, not/cold pressed and rough. Hot pressed is the smoothest, not is slightly textured and rough has the most texture. If you want to use a lighter weight of paper it is best to stretch the paper before painting. This will stop the paper buckling. There are many videos on the internet to show you how to this.

- Watercolour paper is rougher than drawing paper and heavier. I generally use a +300gsm paper as I like to use a lot of water.

- Mounting tape will attach your paper to a board (if you want). This helps protect the paper from warping after applying so much water.

Paint application and removal

- Good brushes – I’ve been known to spend just shy of £100 on a brush. I don’t regret that as for some pieces it makes a difference - carries the paint better and lasts longer. However, some of the best results do not involve using a brush at all. I am not the sort to invest in ridiculously expensive dental equipment and be left looking like I have “all the gear and no idea!”. Learn the basics well.

- Tissues, cotton buds, clingfilm, salt – these are great to remove paint, add texture and add/remove fine detail.

Masking fluid - this is a glue solution that you can paint on areas that you want to leave unexposed to the watercolour paint itself. This will dry and can be peeled off once you have finished your painting. I used this for the jellyfish tendrils and bubbles.


- The only limitation is your imagination, not the medium itself so spend time experimenting. Start with an image and style you like and try to copy it, just to reduce the fear of a blank page.

Artwork: Rachel Jackson

- The fifteen min rule! Many things in life require a lengthy uninterrupted working time to see progress. However, art in many cases does not, in fact, the more time I have to complete work, the more I tend to use it, never making a call on its completion. Instead all too often I’m left chasing my tail. It is one of my flaws…pedantic wannabe dentist remember! This is a mistake because many of the more simple, effortless pieces have had the best impact.

- You can build skills with short regular bursts of activity. This means it can fit in with many people’s schedules, you can escape and relax regularly whilst steadily improving too.

- Practice controlling the amount of water used. Work on the ‘value’ of the colour (light to dark etc).

- Take the pressure off yourself and don’t see it as a final piece of artwork but acquiring tools for your toolbox initially. Don’t start painting a landscape, try a tree branch or only the leaves to begin with.

- Once you have tried multiple techniques, reflect on your weaker areas and fine tune those. And remember …little and often, but don’t be surprised if fifteen min turns into a few hours. Let that happen and go with the flow.

- Get yourself out and about too as it’s an easy medium to use on the go. You can buy nice little travel easels too. I started with a small A5 watercolour pad to simply try out different methods. I then bought a book of postcard sized paper and when away on holiday painted little scenes for my own memories or sent them to friends and family. Take time out, make a memory box of paintings or begin a creative journal.

Artwork: Gemma Petrie


Useful videos

Video to show you a few techniques. Notice the brushes used and the amount of water applied. Water is a major factor in creating the results you want. When I begin, I literally throw my sheet of watercolour paper in a bath of water, then tape it to a piece of board. I’ve been known to put the kettle on and use the boiling water to wash away everything I’ve just applied to see what result I get.


So there you have two different artists applying the same principles.

Don't faff about....give it a go! :)

(Image permissions @Gemma Petrie)

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