Watercolour magic

September 7, 2018 | 7 Comments

Following on from my comments earlier in the week, that watercolour painting is much more than simply mixing perfect colour matches…

Today, I want to share a little from the theory section of the first lesson in SketchingNow Watercolour.

I believe that the more you understand your materials, the more you can use them freely because you know what to expect. When it comes to watercolour, I always anticipate the unexpected! So I’m keen to have a practical knowledge which borders on scientific at times, but the goal is always to get better results when working loosely. Tight thinking but loose sketching.

In my Watercolour course, I wanted to share my understanding of watercolour (pigments suspended in water) in a visual way, and so I created a few diagrams to explain what’s happening on the page, and then I demonstrated these concepts with paint. So this article just contains the written version of what I did on video.

Anyway, enough background… let’s just get straight into it!

What is Watercolour?

At the most basic level it’s important to understand that watercolour is not a dye i.e. it’s not colour completely dissolved into water, behaving as a homogenous liquid. Instead, watercolour is composed of particles that are suspended in water. When we put a wash on the page, the water evaporates, leaving the particles (pigments) to settle into the paper fibres.

What we’re seeing as the end result is simply pigments on paper. Note: there’s also gum arabic in the mix to hold the pigments together as paint and also help the pigment stick to the paper, but in essence when the painting is dry we’re left with just pigments.

Watercolour Magic

When we mix two different pigments, such as pink and blue, we get purple. Beginners are normally only concerned about the colour aspect of mixing paint, but the special thing about watercolour is that the pigments that make up those different colours have different characteristics – eg. size and weight.

When we put this mix on the page, some of the pigments sink to the bottom and others float on the surface. This results in an amazing separation of the pigments – what I call watercolour magic. This is what makes watercolour so special. What I really want you to get out of this course, above everything else, is this idea of letting the pigments settle naturally on the page.

We can adjust a mix while it’s wet by adding a little bit more water and/or pigment, but if we start fiddling on the page – over-mixing – we destroy all of that magic because the pigments become intermixed and they’re also forced down into the paper fibres.

More watercolour magic

The other magical thing about watercolour (which I suppose some people would have expected me to have said first of all) is the fact that it’s a transparent medium. Watercolour can produce beautiful luminous paintings.

This glow happens because light travels through the water between the pigments and bounces back off the white of the paper.

Some watercolour pigments are more opaque than others and the most opaque in my palette is Cobalt Turquoise Light. When you put a thick layer of it on the page it is opaque and you can’t see the paper underneath it. However, with enough water in the mix, this opaque paint can look transparent because there is enough water to separate the pigments, resulting in a lovely transparency from the reflected light off the paper.

Paper also affects the magic. In the first example (Stillman & Birn Beta) there is some lovely separation of pigments and a distinct pink around the edge. On rougher paper the watercolour wash is more even than on smooth paper where there are more marks. Each paper we use will produce different types of magic.


To summarise these concepts:

To achieve watercolour magic we need to develop the confidence to go for it and then leave it alone – no fiddling!

To maximise the magic we need to:

  • find the pigments/pigment combinations that will produce the most magic
  • control the water to pigment ratio so that we get the most magic
  • find the best paper to get the results that we want.


So there you have it, a written version of the first video in Lesson 1, SketchingNow Watercolour.

We then go on to look at principles of how water behaves and water control and awareness. All essential concepts to understand when sketching with watercolour.

I hope you found this useful!
Or if you are doing/have done the course, that you don’t mind a re-cap!



  • Sabine Koch says:

    I started these exercises yesterday. I love the effects. Thank you!

  • Ilse says:

    I did your course and loved it! And I don’t mind your recap. Just wondering if you are not giving away too much for free from this great course :)?! You put so much effort in it, you owe it to have paying customers…

    • Liz Steel says:

      I’m glad you liked the course. I think you will agree that it is only a small % of what is in the course… even in Lesson 1 it’s only 5 mins worth of 70 mins. I’m happy to give away some of the good stuff (not just basic things that people can find anywhere) so thatit gives people a better idea of what is in the course 😀

  • Glenys Gallagher says:

    Thank you so much for this amazing clear and informative explanation of water colour. I didn’t know all this and now I understand …. Love to know how mediums ( or anything) works.

  • Inge says:

    Thank you for explaining this. I have just started your foundationscourse and have next to zero experience with watercolour. I’ve made a colour chart yesterday and have mixed feelings about it. There were lots of good surprises, but I’ve also used too much paint I think and now I know I’ve been fiddling a lot too. Your analytical explanation is very helpful and makes it a lot easier for me to understand what’s happening and why! It’s an amazing journey full of surprises! And yes, this post is a huge teaser for your watercolourcourse! But I’m taking one step at a time and will be busy with Foundations first! And thank you for your enthousiasm – it’s infectious!

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