3 Watercolor Brush Stroke Exercises to Practice Brush Control
I know you’re here for watercolor exercises, but let me first tell you a quick story about when I started teaching myself pointed pen calligraphy. I promise, it’s related!
When I decided I was going to learn calligraphy (before I rediscovered watercolors), I could not figure out how to practice in order to get better. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Copperplate , that I realized why. The reason I was having such a hard time learning is because I learn better with at least SOME rules to follow, so I can practice a basic foundation. Finding strict exercises among people who were writing in the modern style was difficult. While modern calligraphy follows basic principles of pointed pen lettering, there aren’t any real “rules” to the formation of letters. On the other hand, Copperplate is a traditional script. And with tradition, there are rules. And with rules, there are exercises. Once I found these exercises and used them to practice, I not only gained a better understanding of the tradition of pointed pen, but it made practicing modern calligraphy a lot easier.
All of this to say...I think of watercolors a little like modern calligraphy. It’s loose, there aren’t hard and fast traditional rules because it’s such an expressive and fluid medium. With watercolors, you can paint anything from a very loose abstract image to a super detailed photorealistic painting. No matter which style, however, there are still basic principles and techniques that we need to understand in order to be able to paint with watercolors.
One foundational skill in watercolors is understanding your brush, the strokes it can make, and how to handle it. In this post, I’m going to share 3 brush stroke exercises that you can do with a round tip brush to practice control.
This is especially important in watercolor because if you keep "touching up" a watercolor painting, it can easily be overworked. Laying down brush strokes with intention the first time and letting watercolors do their own thing often gives you the most beautiful results.
I’ll be using a Princeton 4050R Size 6 Round for all these exercises - but you can do these exercises with any size round brush. In fact, I encourage you to try this with different sizes if they are available!
This is my favorite exercise to do - when I get "in the zone" I can get pretty straight lines and it's almost meditative. Almost.
With your pinky resting on the paper and using your whole hand to move across the page (either vertically or horizontally), lightly press the tip down and slowly drag a thin line across the page.
Can you keep the width of the line consistent?
Can you draw multiple lines next to each other?
Try putting more (or less pressure) on the brush to vary the widths you're practicing at.
This is a great exercise to practice because it will come in handy when you are painting thin stems for flowers, branches, fences, or maybe a striped pattern on a shirt. By using this light touch you’re also able to draw really thin blade of grass by flicking when you get to the end of your thin stroke.
This exercise is great for practicing control with pressure and release. The goal of this exercise is to be able to control the change of pressure. Start off with a light touch, drag a thin line and gradually push down to the widest you can go and then pull back up so that you end with a thin line. You can also do this in reverse, start thick, go thin, and end thick.
Can you keep the shapes a consistent size?
Can you keep a consistent rhythm?
Want a challenge? Try painting alternating rows next to each other without touching the last row.
You might find that doing this vertically is harder than horizontally or that the opposite is true. We’re all different so it’s bound to vary between each person. I tend to do better going horizontal across the page, but challenge yourself and try both!
This exercise is a great exercise to get comfortable painting leaves with a single stroke. If you want to add more variation, put two of these strokes side by side and face them towards each other - think of it like you’re painting a left and right side of the leaf.
Dab & Pull
With this exercise you’re starting to learn how to control a slight turn with the brush as you press and/or lift from the paper. I am showing a few different ways you can play with this exercise using the same principles but changing up the strokes and direction.
The idea is that you want to start noticing what the brush does when you press down and then turn slightly left or right while continuing to move the brush - eventually lifting (with control) to end the stroke.
Can you consistently make the same sized marks?
What if you alternate the directions between the two?
Try starting with light pressure and then ending with full pressure.
Try starting with full pressure and picking up, releasing into a light pressure.
I realized when painting these and writing this post that these exercises are a lot easier to understand through video, so I put one together for you! I actually really love painting these types of simple exercises when I don’t know what to paint (I doodled these types of exercises for the first 10 days of my 100 day project this year - which is what inspired this blog post actually!)
So while there may not be very formal exercises to practice with watercolors, there are still some exercises that you can practice like these stroke exercises that will help you build a foundation of watercolor knowledge.
I hope that you have fun trying these out - if you’re in the market for brushes, you can check out this post for recommendations. And if you're looking for my supply recommendations for watercolor supplies, I have a free supply buying guide and checklist to help you get started with watercolors here:
If you find happen upon other exercises that you find helpful and enjoy, I’d love to see! Comment below or find me on Instagram @raeandlily.
Thanks for reading (and watching!)