5 Watercolor Rules That Are Totally Worth Breaking

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It's really great advice to learn the rules of watercolor before you begin to break them. But even so, here are five common “rules” that I hope you'll break as soon as you can. Get to it, you rebel.

The rule: Never use white

Where it comes from

Purists say that the white in watercolor paintings should always come from the white of the paper, and never from white paint.

Why you should break it

Yeah, it’s true that there is not a white paint in the entire universe that will appear whiter than the white of your paper... but don’t let that stop you from experimenting.

Master artists like J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin used white paint in almost every watercolor painting they ever created. They called it “body color,” because it gives watercolor paint body and opacity. They didn’t necessarily use it to create the whites in their paintings, but to give power and tint to other colors. Give some of their paintings a look and then give it a try. If was good enough for Turner…

The rule: Only use professional-grade paints

Where it comes from

Artist-grade paints use a higher percentage of pigment to binder than student-grade paints, and they also tend to be more lightfast. They're much more concentrated and will stand the test of time.

Why you should break it

I'll admit that artist grade paints are the way to go for work you plan to frame or sell. But buying a rainbow of pro-quality paints can cost a small fortune! For experimenting, brainstorming and just plain fun, I have several sets of very inexpensive paints that come in 24 to 36 colors for less than $10 a set. These are bright and inspiring, and I use them for color play, for working out ideas, and for making little creative projects like notecards and gift tags. And if there are colors and combinations that really speak to me, I can always invest in a similar color of artist-grade paint.

The rule: Limit your palette

Where it comes from

It’s a fact that color theory and mixing are much easier if we start with the primaries and learn how to create all of the other colors that we need. Plus, the fewer colors we use in a painting, the more color harmony our work will have.

Why you should break it

Once you have basic color theory down, it’s a whole big brave new color world out there. Some brands offer over 200 colors to choose from! So where do you start? Here's my rule: other than my core split-primary palette, I choose the hues that light me up. Look at a color chart and select four or five that speak to you, then add them to your core palette and test them out. You never know what color miracles await!

One cautionary note: Keep an eye on pigment numbers though. Some brands like to use romantic names like "Horizon Blue," which is really just PB15.3, or Phthalo Blue with a tiny bit of white added. If you check those pigment numbers, you won’t spend money buying the same paint twice.

The rule: Only use paper made specifically for watercolors

Where it comes from

Watercolor papers are treated in a special way so they aren't too absorbent, therefore giving us more time to move paint around before it soaks into the fibers.

Why you should break it

No one ever did anything out of the box by staying in the box, right? Once you're comfortable with the safety of a good watercolor paper, start exploring anything and everything.

I know an artist who paints on wood by applying a watercolor ground before beginning to paint on it. I love to paint on Japanese stationary papers, and I even keep my daily watercolor journal in a planner calendar with tissue-thin paper. Another friend uses empty tea bags! I’ll try anything once, and sometimes it's a complete failure. But…nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Just don’t paint in your husband’s dictionary. He might not appreciate entire definitions being rendered illegible. Not that I ever did that, of course.

The rule: Always work from light to dark

Where it comes from

Because watercolor is transparent, you really can’t paint light colors over dark colors. If we work from light to dark, we can gradually build up our images without worrying about erasing or covering up an area that doesn’t work as planned. It also helps us to gradually build contrast and form.

Why you should break it

There's a strong argument in favor of painting the palest layers first and then jumping in with the deepest areas of contrast. Then, once you've painted the extremes, you can gradually build up mid-tones for a seamless transition between lights and darks. And what about Sumi-e paintings that begin with that deepest black wash of ink? Don't knock it until you try it!

The rule: Learn the rules before you break them

I'm all for breaking the rules (as you can tell), but there is merit in learning them. They're rules for a reason! Most of them have been tried, tested and proven by many an artist.

As a self-taught artist, I learned many of the rules after I had already jumped into painting head first. Some were fantastic and helped me progress with much less frustration, and others just seemed silly and restrictive.

So yeah, I'm in favor of learning the rules — as long as you're never afraid to push the limits and make your own playbook for your watercolor journey. Try everything, store it all in your artist’s tool box, and use what you need. But never be afraid to break down barriers.

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5 Watercolor Rules That Are Totally Worth Breaking