There is no shortage of watercolor tutorials online or in books which detail different paint handling techniques. You can even find tips on adding things like salt and masking fluid with ease. However, there seems to be very little advice about the correct way to actually begin a watercolor painting. And what little you can find on this topic is often wrong. Here I will present the best way to begin a watercolor.
What you will need:
Watercolor paper (of course)
Drawing pencil & eraser
Start by drawing your composition on tracing paper. You can do this on regular drawing paper if you wish. But I prefer tracing paper because it gives you the ability to change your composition by laying another piece on top and tracing what’s below while making edits. I also like the smoothness of tracing paper, but that’s personal preference.
Once your composition is finished, turn the piece of tracing paper over and re-draw it on the back. As I do this, I pay attention to each line and make sure that they are all correct. One suggestion here: by placing a piece of scrap paper underneath the tracing paper, you won’t make a mess when some of the graphite rubs off from the bottom.
Now you have your image on both sides of the same piece of tracing paper. Turn it so that it is right-side-up and place it on the watercolor paper. Tape it in place. On occasion I have been lazy and not taped my paper down. I regretted it greatly when the paper shifted.
Now take a colored pencil and rub over all of the graphite lines using some force. Why a colored pencil? If, as you’re painting, you wish to start over and need to re-transfer your composition, you can use a different colored pencil. This way you will be able to see what you have transferred and what you have not.
After you’ve gone over all of the graphite lines with the colored pencil you can remove the tracing paper. There’s you’re composition on the watercolor paper. You can now begin painting.
So why bother going through all the trouble of transferring from tracing paper?
You could draw directly on the watercolor paper, but it’s not recommended. Watercolor paper is made with a special layer of gum on top. This gum slows the absorption of paint into the paper. Without it, paint would absorb instantly and you would be unable to control that paint at all.
Drawing on watercolor paper is fine. Erasing is the problem. Erasing will remove that gum layer and ruin the paper. This is the same reason that you should place a piece of scrap paper under your hand when you paint since the constant rubbing of you hand on the watercolor paper will remove the gum layer.
So, if you can draw everything perfectly on the first try, go ahead and skip the tracing paper. But if you’re human, you’ll want to use the tracing paper transfer technique.