The Easy Way to Paint Watercolors

– Posted in: Succulents


Several years ago, I met artist Diane Palley McDonald while doing an article about her studio’s makeover for the San Diego Union-Tribune. (The news angle was that it was on HGTV’s “Designer’s Challenge.”) When I saw Diane’s paintings, I wistfully told her how much I loved watercolors. She asked, “Well, then, why not paint your own?” I said I couldn’t possibly, being too old to learn and too busy. She showed me paintings by her students—adults who’d never before taken a class and were convinced they had no artistic ability. They were amazing! Diane graciously invited me to attend a class, and I ended up taking a dozen. Since most of my subjects are garden-related, and you might want to paint your own flowers and plants, here’s what I learned.

(1) If you dislike having to draw, trace. Tracing enables me to paint almost from the get-go, and to quickly start over if I mess up. Begin by selecting a photo that inspires you, ideally with with simple lines and not a lot of fussy details. (OK, the one shown here has fussy details, but I’ll soon explain how I painted them.)

Print the photo on 8-1/2 by 11 paper so you have it to refer to. Print out a second copy on your printer’s “draft mode” so the image is muted. Using a black pen or soft-lead pencil, outline the picture’s main components so it looks like a page from a coloring book. Put the outlined photo on a light table or against a sunny window, and tape a piece of watercolor paper over it (I use Arches 140-lb cold press). Using a pencil, lightly trace the coloring-book lines onto the watercolor paper. Then, to keep it from buckling while you’re painting, tape the watercolor paper to a thick rectangle of cardboard or something similarly flat and portable.

(2) Paint near a large window for good light. If I must paint at night, I turn on two lamps. Finished paintings hang on wires stretched along a wall, not so much to let the paintings dry, but because I want to look at them. What’s the point of doing a painting if it sits in a drawer until someone gets around to framing it? (Which is never.)

Materials include tubes of watercolor paint in primary colors, cool and warm; a plastic palette with areas for paint and mixing it; several containers to hold clean water; paper towels for blotting; various-sized, good-quality artist’s brushes; a few inexpensive brushes; an eraser; masking fluid; and a bar of soap. Those last three enable me to reserve the white of the paper, which is how I painted the spines of the cactus above.

This koi-pond painting also illustrates “reserving the white of the paper.” Before applying any color, I painted the bright white of sun shining on water—but not with white paint, which looks dull and chalky. The beauty of watercolors is their translucency—the way they seem to glow with light. That “light” is the paper beneath the paint. It’s a pain to try to keep juicy washes of color out of areas you want to keep white. So, (3) brush masking fluid where you don’t want paint to go. Then you can slather on paint, concentrating on creating swaths of color. Apply the masking fluid (also called frisket) with a cheap brush, coating the bristles first with soapy water so they don’t stick together. When the painting is dry, remove the rubbery mask with an art eraser.

Look at my cactus painting again, and you’ll see how much masking I did before painting with color.

After doing no watercolors for nearly a year, I did three paintings in one day to complete my Succulents 2012 Watercolor Calendar. To ease back into painting, I began with a simple Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ rosette. I didn’t want to paint every bit of fringe on the leaf margins, but they’re important, so I masked a few to suggest the rest. The first wash was yellow, a color found in both the red and the green of the leaves.

(4) Let the painting dry before adding complimentary colors. After painting the green, in order to not muddy the colors, I let the paper dry completely before adding any red.

(5) Let the paint do its thing. To get the red to spread organically, as though in the plant’s cells, I first brushed clear water on the leaf margins. Then, before it dried but while the paper was still moist, I dabbed those areas with undiluted red paint. Voila: the color spread and the margins painted themselves.

(6) Use salt to create indistinct backgrounds. Sprinkle a wet wash with kosher salt. As the grains wick color from the top layer of paint, they’ll reveal the underlying color.

This makes wonderfully mottled, snowflake-like bursts, as in this painting of a bearded iris.

Another subject for the calendar, an agave, had an unusual variegation. Getting that to “read” correctly in a watercolor is beyond my skill level. Yet I loved the agave’s blue-green leaves and red teeth, so I decided to play them up, as well as the subtle indentations that the teeth made on inner leaves. So, (7) have fun experimenting with color. The worst that can happen is you’ll have to start over.

I did three versions of “Fred and Audrey” before I got one this one.

So, do you now know how I painted Miss December?

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 


Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
23 comments… add one

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Joy November 26, 2011, 6:22 am

Thank you – and Diane Palley McDonald – for the wonderful lesson in water color! Your artwork is gorgeous. But I’m still not up to the challenge – I definitely am “color” blind (visual version of being tone deaf?) and would not be capable of producing such things of beauty.

Hm. Don’t be so sure, Joy. Some artists prefer to paint only in sepia — the better to express values (lights and darks), like some photographers shoot only in black-and-white. I suspect, if you really wanted to pursue it, you could become the Ansel Adams of watercolor painting. — Debra

Lynn November 26, 2011, 6:28 am

WOW! Those are beautiful and you’re very talented!!!

Hi, Lynn — All these kind comments are going to go to my head! I’ll soon expect to sell my paintings via Sotheby’s. Seriously, I’m thrilled when even my family members like them. When I finish a painting, I show it to them, holding my breath.– Debra

Dixie November 26, 2011, 8:35 am

You have a lot of talent! Those are lovely pictures.

Thanks, Dixie. I do think that “talent” has a lot to do with selecting the right subject matter. That, and not showing my reject pile!

Laura November 26, 2011, 9:49 am

I am so glad I saw this post. I always wanted to learn how to paint with watercolors but never took a class. I am so impressed by your paintings that I am convinced I can learn too.

Your paintings are amazing, thanks for sharing them!

Hi, Laura — Thank you! Yes, of course you can learn how to do this. It’s a skill. I’d equate the difficulty level with learning how to type. The tracing technique simply makes it easier, but you still have to work at it. (Or play at it.) But if you have to draw the image freehand first, it’s more like typing on a manual keyboard. It’s still doable, just more effort. And hey, who doesn’t prefer the ways computers have made our lives easier? And digital cameras and printers? — Debra

Karen Dyck November 26, 2011, 11:07 am

Congratulations on tackling this new art form. Your water colours are terrific!

Hi, Karen — Thank you! It’s exhilarating to do something successfully that I’d admired and assumed was beyond reach. But I still have a long ways to go. My New Year’s resolution: Go beyond agaves.– Debra

Gail Klein November 26, 2011, 12:52 pm

Thank you, thank you.
Your paintings are stunning and your text gives me hope.

Hi, Gail — The important thing is to give yourself permission to fail. With Diane’s method, you can experiment to your heart’s content, and if you’re not satisfied with the results, simply trace the lines onto another piece of watercolor paper. That said, there IS a learning curve when it comes to understanding paint, mixing colors, doing washes, brush techniques, etc. But nothing you can’t learn via library books and YouTube videos. — Debra

Rose Marie Nichols McGee November 26, 2011, 12:57 pm

You’ve just given me a wonderful gift. Having wanted to start sketching and painting after many years I’ve become only an appreciative spectator to art. It’s been needling at me and was unsure how to begin and wondering if it foolish to even try.
I now better understand your talents as a speaker, you truly explain but are concise.

Hi, Rose Marie — What a great compliment from a fellow writer. Thank YOU. Yes, dive into painting. Let me know how it goes! — Debra

susan hirsch November 26, 2011, 1:17 pm

wow. Debra – I ahd no idea you painted the calendar
offerings! As a former art teacher I congratulate you on your method! You add a creativity of your own..

Hi, Susan — I’ve been boring my Facebook friends, trumpeting the news of the calendar for several days now. Speaking of which, it’s available at 50% off, now through Jan. 2 (enter code GIFT4THEYEAR). And, wow, you’re an art teacher? Your kind comment is so appreciated. I took an adult education class after I learned Diane’s technique, and instead of sketching my subjects before painting them, I simply used the light-table technique. I disclosed this to the teacher, who was NOT pleased (she saw it as a form of cheating, I suppose) BUT the other students gathered ’round and begged to know HOW I did it. — Debra

Lorene November 26, 2011, 1:32 pm

Debra – what a delightful tutorial. The greatest “tip” being … skip the hard part (or find an efficient way through them) and get to the joyful bits!!!!

I think I’ll put that on Jan 1, 2012 on my calendar!!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you…

Hi, Lorene — I love that: GET TO THE JOYFUL BITS. In fact, I’ll practice that right now on a box of See’s candies. If I bite into one and it’s a “chew,” I’m going to immediately set it aside in search of my favorites: the more joyful “creams.” — Debra

Cathryn Farr November 26, 2011, 2:27 pm

Your timing is incredible! My children are just embarking upon painting and your blog is just the inspiration we needed.
Thanks you for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

Hi, Cathryn — You’re welcome. Diane taught classes for children, btw. We adults would show up in the evening and admire new paintings hanging on wires along her wall, only to find out 8-year-olds had painted them. — Debra

jj November 26, 2011, 4:22 pm

Thanks so much for the inspiration! It was just what I was waiting for, without knowing it. You do beautiful work.

Hi, JJ — Thank you! The holidays are a great time to start painting. You can fiddle around without feeling like you ought to be more “productive.” — Debra

Cat November 26, 2011, 5:40 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Hey, Cat — Any thanks go to Diane, a lovely person in every respect. — Debra

Lesley Mills November 26, 2011, 6:31 pm

Debra–Your watercolors are simply amazing! You inspired me to not dismiss the opportunity to create.

Hi, Lesley — Thank you! Yes, when Diane offered me the class, I really didn’t consider it, at first. But something inside me knew it was an opportunity that might not come again. I’m glad I listened — to her, and to that little voice inside. — Debra

Gayle Madwin November 26, 2011, 10:05 pm

I took several high school art classes and one university watercolor class. Not one of them ever introduced me to frisket. How convenient that this post arrived just in time for holiday wish list writing!

Gasp. I can’t imagine life without frisket! I just wish it didn’t seize up like jello, and have to be replaced. Mine is a year old, and it’s the consistency of Elmer’s Glue. I really need to paint more often. I do hope all the kind comments posted here will inspire me. That, and I have a 2013 calendar to create (nothing lights a fire under me like a deadline). — Debra

Pam/Digging November 27, 2011, 3:23 am

Debra, I would happily decorate an entire wall with your beautiful watercolors. Are you selling your originals on Etsy yet?

Hi, Pam — What a fantastic compliment! I’d love to create watercolors for sale someday, and Etsy seems a good way to go. But I have so little time now for painting—too busy with book-related stuff, public speaking, etc. Will definitely keep it in mind, though. All the comments on this post have been so encouraging, how can I not do it?– Debra

Candy Suter November 27, 2011, 4:46 am

What a wonderful post. When I was in college (many years ago) I minored in art and loved to draw and was learning to paint and watercolor. But in my early 20’s and while I was still in school I inherited essential tremor. I have done a post on it you can read. I had to give up on drawing or doing anything intricate with my hands. Thank goodness succulents are very forgiving and I can still use my art skills. So I really admire your work, it is really beautiful. I will be ordering a calendar. It is ok and at least I can enjoy looking at your wonderful work when I look at it every day while hanging in my kitchen.

Hi, Candy — Yes, dear one, paint with succulents! They come in every color, size, shape and texture. And with your art background, it’s no wonder you do such beautiful compositions. — Debra

Joy November 27, 2011, 4:29 pm

Hi Debra – not only are you generous with your writing, photographs and knowledge (water color painting!) but you’ve so kindly taken time to respond to all your commenters. Your (good) karma bank must be full to the brim!

Hi, Joy — I’m all for good karma, but it’s Gardening Gone Wild’s policy that contributors (co-bloggers) respond to comments. Of course I’m happy to do it, but the thanks go to Fran Sorin, who created and oversees Gardening Gone Wild. Btw, I see by the stats that this particular post has had nearly 500 views! (Guess I should be glad not all of them commented, ha.) — Debra

Cheryl Renshaw November 29, 2011, 6:17 pm

Hi Debra,
Another trick for tracing an image is to rub graphite (pencil lead) or charcoal over the back of a printed photo, then trace over the main lines on the photo with a sharp pencil or pen (I like to use a pen so I can see where I’ve traced). Happy painting! I’ve really got to scratch out some time to do more of that, too…my folder of images I want to paint keeps growing.

Hi, Cheryl — I have a folder of images I want to paint, too! Thanks for sharing the graphite idea—a good one that doesn’t rely on a bright window or light table. Btw, the pencil lines of my traced images virtually disappear. Most aren’t visible in the final painting. — Debra

michelle d. December 1, 2011, 1:01 pm

You are both inspiring and generous with your talent.
Thoroughly enjoyed this post and the paintings.

Hi, Michelle — I’m so pleased you liked it. You’re such an amazing and creative artist yourself, getting a thumb’s-up from you is like winning an award! — Debra

Rachel Mathews December 1, 2011, 2:32 pm

These are so beautiful Debra, very inspiring. I would love ‘see’ how you paint – any chance of us twisting your arm to video yourself next time?

I use the tracing cheat for doing garden perspectives, hadn’t thought to do it for watercolours… you’ve made me want to pick up the paint brush again. :o)

Love the bright colours too.

Hi, Rachel — I hadn’t thought of videorecording myself painting. It does take me hours to do a painting, and I like to work on three at a time. Otherwise, I get impatient and don’t want to wait for the paint to dry, which is essential to getting some of the best effects. Diane, my instructor, did show us how to use a hair dryer to shorten the wait, but I still think air-drying is best. I tend to overwork my paintings, too, so that helps me leave well enough alone. That said, I could set up the camcorder on a tripod on my work table, and edit the footage to a few minutes for a YouTube video. I probably won’t get around to it right away, but you’ve given me something to think about! — Debra

Rachel Mathews December 5, 2011, 4:36 pm

Actually it would be great to see you work on several at once – with a bit of editing it would make an excellent YouTube video – keep us posted :o)

I do need a reason to paint, I can’t seem to do it for the fun of it. The calendar gave me a deadline. We’ll see! — Debra

Wife Mother Gardener December 6, 2011, 2:14 pm

Beautiful! It has been a few years since I enjoyed watercolors, but this post is inspiring.

Thanks for sharing your art and freeing perspective!

You’re very welcome! A good thing to share with kids. — Debra

Barb Alt December 6, 2011, 3:32 pm

Debra, thank you so much! You’ve given me the hope that I can, in fact, do something creative! I have no talent, and no sense of color, but now that I understand the process I have hope!! Mix that with a watercolor class, and there’s no stopping me! What a great gift you’ve given! Thank you!

Hi, Barb — “Talent” is much over-rated. And you do have a sense of color, you just don’t know it. By all means, take a watercolor class, but also read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” It explains what artists know that others don’t: How to not just look at a subject, but really SEE it. I figured that out on my own as a child, and to this day I can draw anything, provided it’s in right front of me (and not too complicated). But like most people, I can’t pull images out of my head and put them on paper. To me, THAT’s talent. — Debra

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