Art lesson: Watercolor techniques

Published by Lori Pickert on April 16, 2008 at 07:30 PM


We’ll be taking watercolors with us to the woods and the prairie and the garden this summer with our nature journals, so we can give our drawings a wash of color.

Since it’s still quite cold and blustery in our corner of the world, we did a little drawing outside for Friday’s art class, then we headed inside to review some watercolor techniques.

I’ve already shared that I think the best way to introduce any child to a medium is with plenty of free exploration. Time — time to play and explore and experiment! Children need time to master materials before they can work purposefully.

This is a pretty common material, though — most of my students have already used watercolors. And my time with them is limited to an hour and a half a week. So I thought I’d lead them through some simple guided experiments to become familiar with (or become reacquainted with) what watercolors can do and how they behave.

This “lesson” isn’t about making art — we’re just going to learn and/or practice a few skills so we’re ready to make art next time!

Everyone started out with their watercolor paints, a nice heavy sheet of watercolor paper, a paintbrush, and some clean water.

First, we talked about how to get the paint wet to get it started. We loaded up our brush with a lot of color. Then we painted one big stripe across the top of our paper.


Then we dipped our brush back into the water and without getting more paint, we painted a second stripe across the bottom of the first stripe. The paint ran together, but the bottom stripe was lighter. Then we did it again and got an even lighter stripe. Now we had a graded wash.



Next, we cleaned out brushes thoroughly (by swishing our water violently) and then painted a wet square of plain water on our paper.


Then we loaded up our brush with color again and painted on the wet paper.


Then we painted another line beside it on the dry paper and talked about the differences.


(The kids loved this whole exercise — part art, part science experiment, lots of excited exclamations: “Look at mine!” “Cool!”)

Now we painted another big block of a light color.


We cleaned our brush and loaded it up with a darker color and then put some splotches into the light color to see what would happen.


We talked about what happens when the colors mix together.


Then we chose a different color and painted another big area next to this one, allowing them to touch.


What happened? The colors blend together. When might we want this to happen? If we don't want the colors to mix, what should we do? (Wait for the first color to dry!)

Next we painted another big blue square.


More science! This time we're going to practice taking paint up from the paper.

We rinse our brush well and then use our fingertips to squeeze the water from the bristles.


Now use your dry brush to suck up some paint from your blue square. You've made a white spot! Magic!


You can also use this technique to fix mixtakes — well, a little mistake anyway!

Then we used a crumpled piece of paper towel to take up more paint, and stamp a pattern as well!


If you have time (and materials), you can experiment with using a small piece of sponge, crumpled tissue paper, leaves from the garden, and anything else you can think of to stamp in your watercolors.

Next, we used a white crayon to draw on the paper to make a resist.

Anything waxy will create a place the watercolor paint won’t stick — crayon, oil pastel, even a candle! (I know it’s a little late, but those plain wax crayons that come with Easter egg-decorating kits are perfect for this.)

Draw a little something on your paper and then paint over it.


We talked a bit about when you might want to use your white crayon — if there is something white in your picture that you want to stay white, for example.

Of course, you can use any color of crayon to make a resist painting! For our nature journal kit, though, we'll make sure to carry a white crayon.


Finally, we finished by using everything we just learned to paint whatever we wanted!






See also:

Nature journals

Free exploration/working purposefully


Comment by Quinne on April 17, 2008 at 02:31 AM

Hi Lori :) I enjoyed this post so much! I think the sweeties and I will enjoy doing this, too. Blessings! Q

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 17, 2008 at 02:55 AM

yay, i'm' glad, Q :^)

send pics if you want to share!


Comment by Ali on April 17, 2008 at 09:02 AM

I would have learned a lot in that class!

Comment by Anneke on April 17, 2008 at 09:07 AM

First of all: thanks for visiting my blog! Once I saw your comment, I immediately visited yours and got inspired right away! I haven't got much time to read and watch it all, so I will come back soon (and in the meanwhile... maybe I'll give my girls a watercolour-lesson; I love to be creative with my children, but I haven't been doing that quite a while, and I'm missing it badly...)

Comment by kristen on April 17, 2008 at 11:55 AM

Thanks for the tutorial! I can't wait to do this. We have done watercolors countless times but a little instruction and not all experiment will be good.

Comment by Gretchen on April 17, 2008 at 01:09 PM

Watercolor is my favorite! I think it is a great medium for kids; so may adults find it too "difficult" to use but children don't have this narrow view yet. Thanks for a great lesson!
Thanks for your kind words on my blog. I have just found your's recently but I think it is a wonderful wealth of information and because of it I am definitely evaluating my approach to my child's education.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 17, 2008 at 02:54 PM

good morning, all! :^)

ali, i would *love* to have you as a student any time. ;^)

anneke, thank you! and if you & the girls watercolor, send me a link or some pictures so i can see. :^)

kristen - yay, let me know how it goes! really, this whole exercise is about getting the kids to play with the watercolors *before* they make a picture - because you know how frustrating and upsetting it is to try to make something and have the colors suddenly run together - aaghh! :^) this way they can experiment and explore with *what the material does* separate from, and most importantly *before*, trying to make something to look the way they want it to. good stuff!

gretchen - thank you so much! i really appreciate your kind words. :^)

Comment by Geninne on April 17, 2008 at 04:47 PM

Oh man! I wish I could've been there with you guys!!!
Wonderful tutorial!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 17, 2008 at 05:27 PM

oh, i wish you would have been with us, too, geninne! :^D


Comment by ana lilia on April 17, 2008 at 05:55 PM

I love this tutorial! I have tried using watercolors before and even bought a set for my oldest daughter, but because we don't really know how to paint with watercolors, we usually got a murky picture. With your tutorial I'm sure we will finally learn how to get the effects we want in our paintings! Can't wait to try it out! Thank you so much!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 17, 2008 at 06:02 PM

ana - thank you so much! let me know how it goes! :^)

Comment by molly on April 17, 2008 at 06:14 PM

When I clicked over from your flickr picture I was holding my breath that your post was going to be a little watercolor technique lesson. Perfection, my friend.

Now, if I could just get the lunch dishes off the kitchen table, I think we'll have a little session this afternoon. (be impressed that I didn't say get the breakfast dishes off the table, b/c that's usually the scenario.)

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 17, 2008 at 07:14 PM

hello molly :^)

ah, let me know if you do! and hey - if it's the breakfast *and* the lunch dishes, then you're into my territory. ;^)

Comment by Melissa on April 18, 2008 at 12:36 AM

Wow, you have a fantastic blog! I'm sure I will enjoy visiting here often. My personal favorite medium to work with is watercolor. I'm by no means an expert with it, but I enjoy the freedom you have when working with it.

And thank you so much for the great clouds resource! I think I might return our other book to the library and go with reading from this. I will add this resource to my next post.

Blessings to you and your homeschool,

In the Sparrow's Nest

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 18, 2008 at 03:58 AM

hi melissa, and thank you for visiting!

someone in my local homeschool group just posted that e-book about clouds today - what a coincidence! so i had to share it. ;^)

(if it had been another few days, i would never have remembered where i saw it! lol)

Comment by Megan on April 18, 2008 at 11:42 AM

I'm so sorry I was out at that garage sale instead of enjoying the class with the rest of you. Darnit, it looks really fun!

I'll stay this week! I promise!

I think it's interesting to see pictures that are more "literal" (I don't know the artistic vocabulary) and the ones that are more "representational."

I mean, the one with fixed borders between specific objects as "literal" and then the ones with shapes and colors more like hinting at an object being "representational".

Do you think that is skill, or personality, or some mysterious combination of both showing up in the painting style preferences? I would have thought the nature of water color would lend itself to the latter style of painting - representational.

But my mom is an artist, so, (sadly) in an effort to rebel against her, I actively refused to participate in artistic endeavors. Ah, the foolish foolish things we do...

So I really don't know very much about art.

You know my oldest is very orderly. And my other 2 are more free-spirited. But then my oldest has the most experience with paints. I don't think my other 2 have painted very much at all.

And they STILL would not be painting if not for your SUPER-AWESOME art class that makes even me want to do it.

See you later!

Comment by laeroport on April 18, 2008 at 02:23 PM

I can't wait to go home and get out the watercolors! Aidin bought a watercolor set with her Christmas money, but she has not used them much. I think if we play and experiment with them first she might be more interested.
Thanks, Lori!

P.S. did you make the brownies?

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 18, 2008 at 08:27 PM

megan - artists can make watercolors look so crisp you'd think you could reach down and pick up a leaf off the page - although i think blendy (i like to coin words) soft paintings are probably what you are more likely to think of when you hear "watercolor".

there's a large variety of what's possible.

at some point maybe we'll shrink up some really heavy paper and have a go at that - you get a really different look.

fun stuff! :^)

lori ! ! :^D) i have the buttermilk in the fridge! i haven't made them yet! lol - i guess it'll be this weekend! :^)

and yes - i think the experimenting takes the pressure off and if anything puts you more in the mood to paint - let me know how it goes! :^D)

Comment by Loe on April 19, 2008 at 10:53 AM

Thank you for this tutorial! I've been looking for something like this for a very long time. I don't have kids yet; just for myself! i was never taught how to use water colors and all the books on it have you making landscapes and all that straight away, whereas I wanted to first know the very basic "what happens when..." things. I prefer reading about it before experimenting myself. So thank you so much for this!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 19, 2008 at 12:37 PM

thank you, loe! :^)

enjoy playing, and let me know how it goes! :^)

Comment by cindy k on April 21, 2008 at 11:45 AM

i love to paint with watercolors and it can be a challenge. i love your lesson and the use of the crayons. you guys are so creative and have fun with it.

Comment by Brynn on April 22, 2008 at 08:36 PM

Oh, I have been looking at this. Scared by artistic pursuits as a child, I am rediscovering with my kiddos. I know there are so many possibilities with water colors. I like this straightforward approach to discovery.

Do you know if you can refill the water color kits? I hate throwing away so much plastic.


Comment by Lori Pickert on April 23, 2008 at 12:51 AM

hi brynn. i'm you are rediscovering your inner artist with your kids. :^)

i don't know that you can buy replacement pans for the prang brand, but you can definitely buy replacement pans for other (more expensive) brands. you can also just buy tube watercolors and refill the pans yourself. or you can buy an inexpensive plastic or metal palette and use tube watercolors (you squeeze them out & let them dry).

a set like the prang one is nice, though, for the built-in wells + palette + it all closes neatly when you're done and can be thrown in your bag immediately - as long as there's not a lot of excess water, i don't have problems with leakage. your mileage may vary!

let me know how it goes! :^)

Comment by Andrea on May 24, 2008 at 01:27 AM

As a parent that knows NOTHING about painting, THANK YOU! My kids will appreciate this.

Comment by Stefani on May 24, 2008 at 02:53 AM

Where the heck have I been?
Great stuff going on over here girl!

I can't wait to break out the water colors.

We are headed to the beach in about a week. We're definitely going to be doing some nature and observational drawing there!

Comment by serene on September 4, 2008 at 02:22 PM

hi.. Lori..
I found your blog while searching for ideas on making a "reading corner" or "nook" for children..
I clicked on the picture with your son -i think- reading with a green backgournd behind him..
and I got stuck here for more than an hour.. reading and exploring your blog.
I admire your love for art and kids.. and your dedication to make us see the world through the eyes of an artist child!
I live in saudi arabia - though not a citizen -
I struggle daily .. to find ways to inspire my two kids and teach them about the world in creative fun ways from my big urban apartment!
it's a difficult task.. but your experience will help me stay inspired and motivated when I feel down or helpless.

best wishes to you.. and your lovely kids .. and to every mom who loves to "maintain" her children's creativity throughout their lives.

Comment by Leisa on October 17, 2008 at 11:44 PM

A+ tutorial!


Comment by Leslie on February 11, 2009 at 07:51 PM

Lori, thanks so much for this tutorial. We tried out the techniques that you mentioned here and then illustrated stanza's from one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem. It was wonderful. They really got into it and use many of the techniques that they just learned. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2009 at 08:05 PM

leslie, thank you for letting me know! :^) i’m glad it worked for you!

Comment by Keisha on February 15, 2009 at 11:46 PM

I think it's wonderful how you have done this. Being an art teach in the public school system, I feel that there is this push to 'get products' out of kindergarteners. The idea of just letting the students experient with no goal in mind first is great. It keeps the fun in it all and also keeps the teacher from becoming so stressed!!!!!

Comment by Lisa on June 27, 2009 at 09:44 PM

Thanks so much for this post. I plan on doing this exercise with my girls next week. We love watercolor painting but are just beginners. This post will really help us.

Lisa ;)

Comment by Lesley on August 18, 2012 at 05:22 PM

Thank you for this post!! It always seems easier if you are unfamiliar with something to hear from another how they would begin! It gives a jumpstart to our effort! Love your blog Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 19, 2012 at 09:34 AM

thank you, lesley! :)

Comment by Mhorai on May 18, 2013 at 08:27 AM

Wow, thank you for this along with the rest of your lovely blog. I'm going to be homeschooling my first grader starting next year and consider myself very "art challenged". I really appreciate this kind of "how to" that is inspiring and empowering. Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 18, 2013 at 09:59 AM

thank you! :)

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