6 ways I overcame my fear of watercolour painting

6 ways I overcame my fear of watercolour painting

I copied this painting by David Phua on YouTube. Click here to watch his video!


1. Use cheap materials

Sometimes as outsiders looking into the lives of professional artists, it is easy to be dazzled not only by their skills, but by their amazing, high-quality (expensive) tools.

A newbie can be forgiven for thinking that using expensive things can help in creating good painting. This is only true if you have the skills to utilise them.

If you’re anything like me and starting from scratch, having the proper expensive watercolour paper, paint and brush would probably increase your anxiety rather than your confidence.

I did buy expensive watercolour paint before, but after ONE painting went horribly wrong, I was inundated by thoughts of, “HOW MUCH MONEY DID I PLASTER OVER THIS FAILED PAINTING?” I put them away in the darkest corner of my cupboard, thinking that I’d get back to them when I’m better at painting. But no one gets better without practice. Last I checked, those expensive paints were as hard as the first cookies I baked in school.

For cheap tools, I suggest:

1.1 Water brush pens

I use the ones by Pentel. They come in three sizes and can be found in Popular bookstore. They cost around RM10-RM13 per brush, depending on their size. If you buy all three, it’ll cost you around RM35++.


Hear me out. Water brush pens are magic. The tip of the brush is always moist and they don’t dry up. The strands don’t come off and stick themselves on your art when you’re painting. I’ve spent money on a LOT of cheap brushes of different sizes before (trust me, I’m a cheapskate) and I haven’t found any that doesn’t shed like a freaking Saint Bernard. If you own such a thing, congratulations and please share with me where you got them. If you don’t, these water brush pens are guaranteed to be your lifelong companions. I cannot recommend them enough.

If you only have enough money for one, take the medium size. It’s flexible enough to be used for huge strokes and smaller strokes. Sometimes I’m so comfortable using the medium-sized one I forget to use the other two.

1.2 Any cheap watercolour cake set you can find in your local bookstore

I bought mine from… wait for it… Popular bookstore! Pretty sure the brand is by Popular as well. It cost me RM8.90. And I love it.

1.3 Any notebook/paper you already own

These are actually old notebooks from four years ago… I scribbled some notes in them but there were plenty of leftover blank pages.

However do avoid using the thin tracing paper type. Those will tear if you so much as sneeze in their general direction. Anything that feels thick enough is probably good enough.

1.4 The things that will happen when you use cheap materials

When you watch YouTube tutorials, you’re going to roll your eyes about a million times when the artist says stuff like, “Mix Yellow Ochre with Cobalt Blue to get this colour, then use a bit of Prussian Blue at the edge here…” because when you look at your colour options, there’s blue, and there’s yellow, and there’s green. Even Microsoft Paint’s default colours are more impressive than your cheap paint. The colours will not be pretty. They probably don’t mix very well. The colours are really light, especially when they dry. You’ll have to put layers after layers to have some semblance of contrast. The paper will curl up like a curry puff and form their own water reservoir until you blot them out with paper napkins stolen from McD (since we’re on the subject of being cheap). Paper might also tear.

However I strongly believe that if you can overcome the shortcomings of barely adequate tools and produce beautiful artwork anyway, that means you’ve developed some kickass skills. If you can do this much with cheap stuff, imagine how much you can do with expensive stuff, especially when you’re much better and much more confident and definitely, infinitely more patient.

This applies to a lot of other things as well. I’m not saying everyone should start with cheap stuff. I’m saying if you’re curious and want to try out new stuff (like watercolour) but you’re not the heir/heiress of a very rich, almost dead tycoon, go cheap.

Nothing makes you grow like hardship.


2. Un-blank that canvas

I suffer from an overwhelming need to keep notebooks in pristine condition. This is where cheap materials come into play. Take your pen, pencil, crayon, pastels, heck your lipstick and colour the shit out of that blank piece of paper. Fill the clean page with ridiculously unimpressive blots of paint. Make people think you have a child or a cat (even if you don’t) who loves to draw in your book. Do this often enough and hopefully you will slowly cure yourself of this mental illness.

In my earlier paintings, I actually overcame this fear by drawing something on the top half, and then in the middle of colouring, I would deliberately wipe my dirty brush on the bottom half of the page. It felt so liberating. When you go through your notebook in the future, those random brush strokes will be part of your memory. The book will look lived-in. Worked on. Like someone actually worked on each page lovingly (or angrily) and actually made progress, rather than trying to fill each page with perfect looking drawings.

Give me a notebook that shows progress from crappy to not-so-crappy any day than a whole book filled with masterpieces. The latter is called a magazine.


3. Paint in grids or small frames

Draw small boxes on your paper and try to draw and paint within the confines of that box. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find small drawings appealing. Even if you mess up, they end up looking quite decent. Fill the whole book with grids if you must. Anything that can help you toss that irrational fear into the wind.

If you really don’t know what to paint, do what I do and paint block colours in small boxes. This is foolproof. Dip your brush in your watercolour paint and fill the box with every colour you have. When you’re done, drink coffee and admire your handiwork.

This exercise also helps you appreciate the pigments (or lack of) in each shade. You really see how each colour really looks like on paper. Be acquainted. Get to know them.


4. Paint in monochrome

Use a single colour to paint anything. Instead of worrying about mixing green with yellow with brown with red with everything in Doraemon’s three-dimensional pocket, just pick one colour you love and go to town with it.

Paint a tree all in blue. Paint the sky all in pink. Paint a suburb all in brown. Paint a portrait all in gray. This will teach you to pay attention to tone, instead of colours. You will learn where to layer on the paint heavily to get the shadows to be dark enough and where to tread lightly to show where the light lands.

Thinking in tones instead of colour is actually a very important skill. Fill a whole book with monochrome paintings if that fancies you.

In watercolour world, you hold absolute power. If you want people to be purple, so be it!

Make sure it’s your book though. I will bite anyone who touches my book.


5. Don’t worry about the initial sketch

Some people spend so much time and effort doing the line art for their painting they end up never colouring it… for fear of ruining it.

Either you look for and print out free line arts by a multitude of generous artists out there on the internet, or take five minutes roughly sketching your own version of crappy line art.

Draw easy things. Draw a pencil. Draw an eraser. Freehand all of them. The perspective is off? So what? The lines are not straight? Good. Decided to draw a house but it looks crooked and it curves in an impossible way? PERFECT!

I see so much beauty in imperfection. If I want a perfect replica of what I see in front of me, I’d get a photograph.

Moreover, when you lay on the watercolour, the pencil line art will disappear underneath it and the end result will be a completely different animal than when you started. It could be better or worse, but the point is you’re painting!


6. Embrace your crappiness

Like Bob Ross said, “We don’t make mistakes. Just happy accidents.”

Be proud of how distorted and ridiculous your drawings look. They are your babies and you will love them equally.

Just because you think what you’re painting is horrendous, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t finish it. You will be surprised once you come back to it after a few hours.

If you want to be careful, be careful with money. On the canvas, be the insane, rebellious, unpredictable, wild, undomesticated, completely off-the-hinge artist you know you are.

All the best and most importantly, have fun!


My earlier painting (5 June 2017)


My painting 10 days later. I learned from a YouTube tutorial done by ‘Paint with DAVID’. Click here to watch the video!


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