How to Make Watercolors

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 21 of 100.

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I’ve gotten a few emails from strangers in my life, and for the most part, these emails ask for advice. “How do you publish something in the New Yorker?” the emails wonder. “How do you love more than one person at one time?” It’s always strange to me, because I am not really an expert at anything, and I’m not 100% sure how anything in the history of time has happened. For example, once I made a perfect (I mean PERFECT) batch of vegan sugar cookies with sprinkles in them. I followed the same recipe again four more times and they were never perfect ever again. Who knows how things happen. It’s all a total mystery.


But anyway, last week, a woman wrote and asked me how to do watercolors. 


I don’t know how to answer the question of how to do watercolors, because I really don’t know how to do them. As with everything, if I was forced to give advice I would say, “You do watercolors by doing them.” And then I would want to refer the person asking for advice to a real and actual artist who really and actually has a sense of what he or she is doing.

Then someone at school today forwarded this lovely little Op-Ed praising mediocrity, and it said: "But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them."

The writer mentions watercolors specifically. He says: "If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following.”


As a teacher, I see this all the time in the attitudes of my students. When I’m teaching a breezy class to adult-shaped people about making art, the idea that creating the art will not accrue fame, fortune, or even Instagram followers makes my students twist up their faces in a fit of barely contained horror. What is the point? They seem to ask me with their frantic eyes. I would just watch television if I didn’t think I could sell a set of clever postcards to a local arts fest with these skills.

And look: I know that it’s not really fair for me to be bemoan the itch for quote-unquote success, since I’ve had some. I have sold my watercolors to strangers. Some of them are in actual paper magazines, parading around like they’re just as real as all the other graphics. I went to an art school, and I will die trying to pay the art school off. Art schools are all about success and failure around the false objectivity of art.

I’m not immune to any of this. Frankly, I’m amazed that I still make watercolors at all, and here’s why. 


The first watercolor I ever made was such a disaster that I definitely destroyed it in a fire. It felt like such a waste of a nice piece of paper; such an insult to the pretty little palette I’d purchased at Blick.


I wish I hadn’t burned it, because I want to show it to you. I can see it in my mind’s eye, and my mind still slightly gags and tries desperately to turn away when it looks, but you probably don’t believe it was as bad as it was. I tried to paint a woman in a pink dress, leaping. I had an image from a magazine to copy. But I didn’t know how to copy the image, and the brain-like blob that materialized was such a travesty that the only other person who ever saw the painting said, “Huh. Is that, like, abstract shapes?” 


Somehow, I went from burning my kindergarten-reject “leaping woman” to being able to render most conceivable things in watercolor, so, yes, I do have advice that spans beyond, “Keep going.” But the main piece of advice is absolutely keep going. And enjoy it. Enjoy all the failures, enjoy all the layers, enjoy every moment that you get to be by yourself with your paint set. This is the reason your ancestors fought wars: so you could sink into the pleasure of making, not so that you could sink into the depths of inner turmoil and self-judgement.


A few things I’ve learned from others, along the way:

- I have a few palettes, and a few sets of supplies. Here they are.

 This was an empty palette, and I fill it with my favorite colors from little paint tubes. I have included an image at the top listing the colors that I choose. I would say just two hints: start with transparent watercolors over opaque ones (so, forget all the cadmiums); and you have no need for black.

This was an empty palette, and I fill it with my favorite colors from little paint tubes. I have included an image at the top listing the colors that I choose. I would say just two hints: start with transparent watercolors over opaque ones (so, forget all the cadmiums); and you have no need for black.

 This is my dry pan, and I have two of these. My grandmother bought them for me. This is my opaque palette; the transparent one faded into the folds of the universe. I like the dry pans so much. It’s all a lot less work. But all the good painters use wet tubes. So you can be like me and have both!

This is my dry pan, and I have two of these. My grandmother bought them for me. This is my opaque palette; the transparent one faded into the folds of the universe. I like the dry pans so much. It’s all a lot less work. But all the good painters use wet tubes. So you can be like me and have both!



 I JUST bought this unicorn glitter palette from a Japanese watercolor store online. It is ONLY good on black paper. But I love how these little pads look, and I love dipping my brush into them and swirling the shimmer all around. No regrets here.

I JUST bought this unicorn glitter palette from a Japanese watercolor store online. It is ONLY good on black paper. But I love how these little pads look, and I love dipping my brush into them and swirling the shimmer all around. No regrets here.

 I have a bunch of pen holders for dip pens, and about a hundred billion nibs, but my absolute favorite one is the G-Nib (pictured with the blue ink on it, sort of in the background). I don’t really like to use anything else when I’m lettering. I love the control and the ease that comes with it. I mostly use synthetic brushes (like that white liner, which is AWESOME), but I do have this really pretty number 10 round squirrel hair brush, which I use EVERY DAY. Sometimes I use that hand-made bamboo tip that my art teacher whittled in front of me. There are two Pentel Pocket Brushes in there, the mother of all supplies (I have seven), and a white Uniball for writing on black paper or colorful envelopes. And finally, and itsy bitsy Micron. 005 is as small as they come, sister.

I have a bunch of pen holders for dip pens, and about a hundred billion nibs, but my absolute favorite one is the G-Nib (pictured with the blue ink on it, sort of in the background). I don’t really like to use anything else when I’m lettering. I love the control and the ease that comes with it. I mostly use synthetic brushes (like that white liner, which is AWESOME), but I do have this really pretty number 10 round squirrel hair brush, which I use EVERY DAY. Sometimes I use that hand-made bamboo tip that my art teacher whittled in front of me. There are two Pentel Pocket Brushes in there, the mother of all supplies (I have seven), and a white Uniball for writing on black paper or colorful envelopes. And finally, and itsy bitsy Micron. 005 is as small as they come, sister.

 From left: A so-so metal pencil sharpener Peggy Macnamara Gave me; an infallible MAGIC BULLET pencil sharpener, which every human with pencils should have several of; a little set of G-nibs for my dip pen; white plastic Staedtler erasers, which I love more than any eraser (profound apologies to the kneaded eraser crowd, I just can’t change what I love). Also tucked in there: an angle nib, a pink gel pen (GEL PENS ARE GREAT, Y’ALL), a B softness drawing pencil, a regular number two pencil with an eraser, and a ballpoint pen.

From left: A so-so metal pencil sharpener Peggy Macnamara Gave me; an infallible MAGIC BULLET pencil sharpener, which every human with pencils should have several of; a little set of G-nibs for my dip pen; white plastic Staedtler erasers, which I love more than any eraser (profound apologies to the kneaded eraser crowd, I just can’t change what I love). Also tucked in there: an angle nib, a pink gel pen (GEL PENS ARE GREAT, Y’ALL), a B softness drawing pencil, a regular number two pencil with an eraser, and a ballpoint pen.

I love the things I use, and I recommend them whole-heartedly, but everyone loves playing with something different. I’ve never met a person who didn’t get a big kick out of a fresh 05 Micron felt-tip, for example. I don’t use those anymore, but they’re so pleasantly easy to control, and the results make the artist feel careful and coffee-shoppy. Nothing wrong with that. Loving one’s materials, and getting into the habit of abusing them a little bit, is the first step to a full-on love affair with paints.

- Similarly, try all the papers. You may love the feel of a warm-pressed paper; you might be enamored with the tooth of a cold-pressed one. Try 100-pound, try scholastic. Try them all. Find your paper truth.

- You can draw with pencil first, or even black ink, if you want to! Peggy Macnamara draws everything with a super-soft lead pencil, which looks very dark on her smooth paper. But, she assures you, the pencil will disappear. And she’s right, it will, and it does.

I used to think that you had to put the color down first and then draw over it with your ink pen if you wanted that effect. Not so. You can treat watercolors like a box of crayons in a coloring book if you want! Make sure the ink you use is waterproof so that your watercolors won’t smudge it, and then go forth.

- Use. More. Water.

I think that when we were all in first grade, and our teachers gave us those eight-color Prang pan sets, we figured out that if you wanted a rich pigment, you had to use as little water as possible, and nobody every grew up enough to understand that we were wrong. It’s like learning to tie your shoes with the bunny ears. It’s gonna work fine, because you’re six, but there’s a better way.

The better way is to let your colors dry, and then layer, layer, layer. Use a lot of water, because, contrary to what you have come to believe, watercolors are extremely forgiving. But they want to be WET.

- On the subject of layering: use transparent watercolors, and build your own browns. Peggy doesn’t use any brown, black, or green from bottles in her work. She builds those colors layer by layer. She had me do a redwing blackbird once without using black, and it was very frustrating, but the resulting “black” is so much more dynamic than anything I could have gotten at the watercolor market. I put down purple and then let it dry. I put green on top; let it dry. Orange. Yellow. Purple again. Blue. Orange again. And at some point, this very shapely black emerged, and it looked like a bird’s black; not a plastic black at all.

 See how round that black is?

See how round that black is?

- Spill, splatter, splash. And then you have to (surprise, surprise!) let it dry and wait. Nothing is ever so dramatic as you think it is in watercolors.

- Watercolors have a bad rap. A lot of people think they’re tricky, and maybe they are, but they ask for patience with the same virility as oil colors do. People just don’t give watercolors the same respect as oils because they’re so democratic; they’re they everyman’s paint. If you want to get into oils, you have to have at least a thousand dollars to spare. But any old Jane off the street can take up watercoloring for less than it costs to get coffee.

Because they're cheap, watercolors get no respect. This is crazy and it is dumb. This is why we should ALL LOVE WATERCOLORS and propel them to the top echelon of painted things. They give everyone the tools to make something lovely and tricky and special, regardless of background. And yet, watercolors are never in the painting sections of museums. They’re always shoved in with the drawings, like they’re somehow less. Challenge this idea, please! Watercolors are magical and they matter. They’re basically a political medium, and we need to all cherish them and bring them forward, not put them down and push them back.