TIP #18: The 4 Essentials of Watercolor

TIP # 18 The 4 Essentials of Watercolor

Watercolor is a popular medium to use with kids, and for good reason. It’s affordable and easy to get started with. But if you’re new to it, knowing just a few essential things can make all the difference.

Most non-artists venture into watercolor having little or no training with it. But this quick, 2-part watercolor primer will help you dive in with confidence. Then, you’ll be prepared with the knowledge you need to help kids achieve their best results.

You only need 4 things to get your students started with watercolor. But each one is essential!

The 4 Essentials of Watercolor:

1. Paint

When it comes to paint, quality matters. Always test new paint before buying it in bulk for your students. I like the Prang Oval 8 (or 16) sets (affiliate link) for elementary through middle school kids. The colors are clean and bright, they mix well, and they’re very affordable.

Another great feature of these sets is that you can order refills (affiliate link) for individual colors. Buying refills makes sense when most of the colors still have plenty left, but one or two are used up. Replacing just these colors with refills will save you money by extending the life of your paint set.

Refills are sold in packs of a dozen per color. Blue is usually the first color to go – all that sky and water! Next is the green, for grass and trees. Before the other colors need refilling, the entire set is usually in bad shape and in need of replacing.

Avoid paints labeled as “washable” (including the Prang). The colors tend to be less vivid, and that’s a compromise you just don’t need to make. I’ve never had a problem removing watercolor from clothes. But if you’re concerned about stains, an old shirt or smock is the best way to keep kids’ clothes paint-free.

Here’s one final pitch for using refillable paint sets like Prang. You can temporarily remove any colors that you don’t want students to use on a project. This is handy when students are over-using a particular color on their paintings, like mixing with too much black. So easy and 100% effective!

One of my readers teaches Art to kids in Kenya. She shared some genius advice about how she refills the used-up colors in her paint sets. I can’t believe I never thought of this before!

2. Brushes

The brushes that come with your paint sets are fine for Kindergarten. But for grades 1 & up, use better quality (yet still inexpensive) brushes (affiliate link). A size 6 or 8 round is good if you want to start with just a single brush. Or try a set like this one (affiliate link) for introducing flat brushes to the mix.

Whatever you do, never leave brushes inside the paint sets. Rinse brushes well after using them. Then store them separately so they stay clean and dry.

As you prep for painting, you can place students’ brushes in their water containers to save time passing out supplies. (But only when using student-grade brushes, please.)

3. Water

Teach students to use water carefully! Painting with watercolor is all about finding the balance between too much water and too little water.

Too much water equals less control. Less water gives you more control, but also less transparency. If watercolor paint looks thick and sticky (or shiny) as it dries, it needs more water! Always work with clean water, changing it as often as needed.

Students can learn to wet each color with a drop of water from their brush before they begin painting. This will give the paint a chance to liquefy a bit before using it. Or, to quickly prep for a whole class, open your sets and spritz them with water. This will also leave some pools of water in the lids for color mixing.

Keep in mind that many young kids have only painted with liquid tempera or liquid watercolor. They won’t be used to adding water as they paint. You may need to remind them to use more water.

4. Paper

Because watercolor is a wet media, you need a paper that’s thick enough not to buckle when it gets wet. A student grade watercolor paper (affiliate link) will be your best option. There are lots of inexpensive brands you can choose from.

If you really need to keep your cost down, a high quality (sulfite) construction paper can also work. I used Tru-Ray Heavyweight Construction Paper (affiliate link) almost exclusively for years before I ever introduced “real” watercolor paper to my K-8 students.

Most of all, don’t use lightweight paper, like copy paper, with watercolor. The results will be too discouraging. If copy paper is all you’ve got, you’d be better off to skip the paint and just draw instead.

That’s what you need to know about supplies for teaching kids how to paint with watercolor. Next week, I’ll be sharing Part 2 with all my best tips for watercolor instruction.

an inspiring quote:

“The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”  ~ Vince Lombardi

It’s easy to look at someone else’s success and not recognize all the hard work that went into getting there. A good painting or drawing can often look so simple until we try to do something similar ourselves. It’s only then that we can really appreciate all the effort that came before the success.