We asked five talented artists to divulge their secrets for creating watercolor illustrations that sell on a continuous basis. Here are their top tips.
If the mid-18th to mid-19th Century represented “the Golden Age of watercolor” for painters like John Constable, Richard Parkes Bonington, and John Sell Cotman, then perhaps we’re now entering another one. This time, however, watercolors aren’t only on canvas. They’re on book covers and business cards, in logos and website designs, and beyond.
“I feel that watercolors have become very popular in the last few years, even though they are more timeless than ‘trendy,’” Estonian-based artist Tina Bits tells us. Some products seem to have been made for this medium — like wedding invitations, nursery art, wrapping paper patterns, and home decor and kitchen art, just to name a few.
We asked five talented artists to impart their secrets for creating watercolor illustrations that sell on a regular basis. Read on for their best tips for creating marketable, evergreen work — from figurative paintings to abstract art, and everything in-between.
1. Start Cheap
“My advice to emerging illustrators is to start and keep going,” Russian-based artist Nadya Dobrynina urges. “It’s very rare to get a perfect watercolor painting after you’ve just started, but it is important to keep practicing, watching tutorials, reading books, and gathering inspiration.’
“For that reason, the brand of watercolors and paper in those early stages is not important. You need to be able to work without fear of ruining a piece of expensive paper; otherwise, you would never start drawing. The most important thing is to paint every day, no matter the materials. That’s the advice I wish I’d received early in my career.”
2. Go Abstract
“Watercolor is an excellent material for creating abstract compositions,” Dobrynina continues. “You can play with different paints and experiment with texture, stain, strokes, and more. I derive great pleasure from experimenting.”
These abstract compositions are also in demand among commercial clients. “My best-selling watercolor illustrations are my animals and my abstract backgrounds,” Dobrynina says. “My animals are painted very carefully, and they turned out masterfully, so that wasn’t a surprise to me. But the popularity of the backgrounds did surprise me initially, as they are quite simple. Maybe it’s because they are versatile and adaptable.”
3. Maintain a List of Keywords
Some artists add keywords to their work during the uploading process, but many start much earlier by jotting down ideas as part of the brainstorming phase. Keeping a running list of keywords can be an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation, as it is for Tina Bits. “I like doing a series of paintings united by a single theme, and I often make lists of keywords and topics I’d like to explore,” she tells us.
4. Limit Your Color Palette
“When creating abstract illustrations and realistic ones, alike, try not to apply the full spectrum of colors you have in your palette,” Anna Russett of Veris Studio advises. “Instead, use a maximum of two to three key colors, accompanied by different shades derived from these colors. This will make the illustration look more harmonious, which is essential. At the end of the day, an abstract illustration is as much a design product as a painting, so everything in it should be as logical and consistent as possible.”
5. Sketch First
“Usually, my process starts with creating sketches, whenever I feel inspired,” Swedish-based artist Maria Sem tells us. “I, then, return to my sketchbook when I’m looking for ideas for new illustrations.’
“At one point, I used graphite pencils for my sketches, but the process of retouching goes so much smoother and faster if you use a watercolor pencil or any other light-colored pencil. That way, you’ll avoid smudges that have to be edited out on the computer.”
6. …Or Don’t
“I’m a firm believer in practice makes perfect. Good composition, powerful color palettes, and confident outlines are absolutely achievable, if you put in a bit of work,” Tina Bits tells us. “But for me, it was painting without a pencil sketch that gave me an incredible sense of freedom. It forced me to trust my own hand and transform years of training into bright, fresh watercolors.”
7. Seek Inspiration in Nature
“Natural elements — like the sea, pebbles, shadows, and tree branches — can be fantastic inspiration for abstract watercolor paintings,” Tina Bits adds. “I also try to paint only by natural light, as I find it makes any color scheme easier to handle.”
8. Choose Smooth Paper
“It’s important to choose the right paper for drawing,” Anna Russett tells us. “When I’m illustrating for stock, for instance, I tend to avoid using paper that is too rough or textured. In the digital version, I prefer the texture to be unobtrusive so that the watercolor looks light and transparent.”
While textured paper also works in some situations, clean, smooth paper makes it easier for customers to adapt your designs, and even add their own textures, if they wish.
9. Paint the Same Subject Multiple Times
The most mentioned tip among the artists we interviewed? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and start over. “It does happen sometimes that I paint something and I’m immediately satisfied, but this is rare,” Ukrainian-based artist Lora Coshel, a.k.a. Karma3, admits.
“In most cases, you have to draw something over and over again, since the technique is such that you cannot go back and ‘fix’ anything. In the end, however, the works that make me proudest and happiest are the ones where the result was obtained with great difficulty. The more you paint, the better your technique becomes.”
10. Play with Shapes
“In abstract painting, in particular, I like to use similar shapes, because then the compositions are harmonious,” Coshel explains. “For example, a composition with ovals of different shapes is likely to come together more nicely than one that uses a bunch of incongruous shapes. Also, when choosing colors for a composition, I tend to think it’s better to have both warm and cold shades for contrast.”
11. Perfect Each Element
“I try to make my illustrations so good on paper that they won’t need much correction digitally,” Anna Russett says. “In other words, I’d rather there be fewer elements, but they are all perfect. I tend to paint watercolors in one layer so that the final product is light, clean, and transparent. Even one bad item can ruin an entire collection, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure the quality of everything you submit.”
12. Keep It Simple
“For me, abstract watercolors are the hardest to paint, as I tend to overcomplicate them, add too many details, and fill up all the space,” Tina Bits explains. “A great abstract watercolor should start with a stain of color — look at it, listen to it, and give it space to shine. I like to keep it very simple. Watercolor art looks particularly great as wall decor because it sets the mood, without stealing the spotlight.”
13. If Needed, Finesse It in Post
Even perfect illustrations might need a little polishing during post-processing. “I prefer using physical materials — like grained paper, paints, and brushes — but after I’ve finished creating an image, I always finalize it on the computer,” Nadya Dobrynina says. “There, I’ll make subtle adjustments, like cleaning out the background, adding brightness and saturation, or finessing the colors.”
14. Invest in a Good Scanner
“Quality art supplies, if you can afford them, can be very inspiring, but I don’t see them as necessary,” Tina Bits says. “However, if you want your watercolor artwork to look good and sell well digitally, I recommend buying a good scanner. It’ll make you happier, and it’ll make your clients happier, too.”
15. Take Breaks
When you’re stuck, sometimes the best way forward is to step away from the page, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
“After I complete a major piece, I need some sort of break,” Lora Coshel says. “I usually use this time to relax, read, watch films, or do some kind of technical task on the computer. I also love going to flower markets because there are so many great ideas there, waiting to be discovered. As time passes, I begin to notice a lot of beauty around me, and I feel inspired to start again.”
16. Embrace Accidents
“Watercolors can never be 100 percent controlled,” Maria Sem admits. “You just add water, and they create their own magic on the paper. It’s a material that poses a unique challenge because you can’t be sure what will happen in the end.’
“But, this is also my favorite part of painting with watercolors. In fact, one of my favorite techniques came to me by accident. I just painted some bright drops of color and added clean water. In the process, I created a ‘cloud’ effect that I still use today.”
Cover image by Maria Sem.
Uncover more secrets to illustrating as a career with these tips and insights:
- Helena Perez Garcia on Artistic Inspiration and the Business of Illustration
- A Beginner’s Guide to Promoting Your Illustrations on Social Media
- 20 Pastel Color Palettes to Get the Rococo Art Look
- A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Illustrations for Stock
- 8 Tips for Finding Inspiration and Overcoming Creative Burnout