Locating And Setting Up Your Work Space: Watercolors

Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. –Pablo Picasso

zorn studio

Studio of Anders Zorn

In these lessons, I will continually refer to your “studio.” This doesn’t mean you need to have a professional artists’ studio! This can be your garage, basement, kitchen table—wherever you will feel comfortable creating.

We briefly discussed studios in our Choosing Your Paint lesson. We’ll get into more detail about selecting your work space in this lesson.

Here are the topics we’ll be discussing in determining a suitable work space:


How Much Time Do I Need?

Your Studio Work Space: Examples And Watercolor Paint Considerations

Computer/Internet Access



Exercise 1: Storage Search

Exercise 2: Find Your Space

Exercise 3: Treasure Hunt


Watercolor is an excellent medium to choose if you have a busy life and not a lot of time to deal with clean up. This section will aid you in setting up the space where you will paint. You’ll want a space that’s free of distractions, including household guests and pets. A lot of time you have to devote to creating is lost if you need to set up your supplies each time. Having everything set up in your workspace already is ideal, but if you can’t manage that, then try to keep all your supplies in one place nearby.

How Much Time Do I Need?

The time you have to devote to creating can be diminished significantly if you need to set up your studio each time. Having everything set up before you even decide to work is ideal, but if you can’t manage that, then try to keep all your supplies in one place. The nice thing about watercolor painting is that you need less than 5 minutes to setup and clean up your studio, and that assumes you have to unpack everything.

Because I have a dedicated space, my only startup time is to put on my apron and fill my containers with clean water. Clean up is as simple as wiping the palette clean (spray the surface with water, mop up with paper towel) and putting the cover on. Swish your brushes in clean water and shake them out. Put away your supplies, dump your water, and throw away your paper towels. Usually hang your rag on the back of your chair to dry out.   Many times, I lose track of the time and realize I forgot to pick the kids up. With watercolor, you just walk out the door and leave it all sitting there. If you forgot to wash out your brush or close your palette, it is not the end of the world. Just clean your brush when you get back and a little water will reactivate your paints.   The only issue is if you are in the middle of laying down a large watercolor wash (putting down a continuous expanse of paint in a large wet area). You are best to finish this completely before you answer the door because it may not dry the way you want it to.

          How much time do I need for a painting session?

I find it best to have up to two hours set aside to really focus on painting. It takes a while to get in the zone. If you are only working for 10 minutes here and there, it is difficult to really plan, think through, and execute your ideas. It is also critical to force yourself to work through the “ugly” stages of painting. Having enough time without distractions to focus on your painting can help you get past frustrations and not give up too easily.

What if I don’t have an hour—or six?!

If you don’t have an hour, then do what you can! Remember that art takes time and patience, so if you only have 15 minutes a day to devote to it, that’s fine—as long as you keep with it.

This lesson implies that you are setting up a studio indoors, but don’t forget painting en plein air. This means your studio is outside! En plein air is a French term that means “in the open air.”   You can paint in any medium outside, but watercolor particularly lends itself to painting outdoors.   See our lesson on Painting En Plein Air for more suggestions.

Your Studio Work Space: Examples And Watercolor Paint Considerations


One of the big benefits of watercolor is that you can get by with a small area on the kitchen table if that is the only thing available. A lot depends on how big a painting you are working on, but if you are just starting out and using a small watercolor sketchbook and only two or three colors, you could probably get by with only two or three feet of space. Still, I find it best to have a little room to spread out—four to five feet of table space is ideal. As you get further along, you’ll want more space to store all your materials, but a rolling cart with drawers and some space in the closet is a fine start.

Remember, with watercolor you just need one or two containers of water, a few brushes, good lighting, a rag, some paper to paint on and a simple palette. You can download and print our Watercolor Recommendation List here.

It is always much nicer if you have a dedicated space where you can leave your work setup, but the nice thing about watercolor is that it dries relatively quickly (a few minutes to half an hour if paper is really wet), so you can easily paint for a few hours, and then pack it all up before you need the table again for dinner.   If you care about your table, be sure to cover it with a plastic tablecloth that you can wipe off easily. You should make sure the floor where you are working is easy to wipe up. For example, never work in a carpeted area unless you put a plastic tarp down. Watercolor is very easy to clean up, but some pigments are staining and you will forever have a “smattering” of color where you didn’t intend it. And don’t forget yourself…be sure to wear an apron and clothes you don’t mind getting dripped on.

Computer/Internet Access

You’re going to be watching tutorial videos as you’re painting, so you’ll want to have a computer or smartphone and internet access in your studio. We recommend for all our videos that you watch the video first all the way through without attempting to paint along, then read the text, and finally watch it a second time while painting. The videos should be watched in full screen whenever possible.

Important note: We spent a lot of time trying to make the Closed Captions on our YouTube teaching videos as accurate as possible. We hope this allows those students who do not understand English to more effectively convert the Closed Captions into their language of choice. Of course, we realize any translation will not be completely accurate, but we are hopeful that the translation, combined with the video, will allow anyone in the world to understand the videos and thus take all of the Beginner’s School courses.

See our discussion on how to translate Closed Captions here: Closed Captioning on YouTube

It’s nice to have access to a computer even if you’re done watching our tutorial videos just in case you need a reference image or have a quick question about something. The one problem with having a computer and internet access in your studio is that is can be very distracting. If you choose to have this in your studio, make sure you’re not wasting all your studio time on Facebook!


You will need sufficient lighting wherever you decide to work. Overhead lighting is generally sufficient to see your paint clearly. You don’t want to have reflections in your paint, which can happen if you have a lamp behind you (this can also cause distracting shadows). If you have a window nearby, then utilize some natural light! This cuts down on electricity costs and allows you to see the colors as they really are. The best is a North-facing window. Why North? Because direct sunlight never enters the studio (causing glare) and the lighting remains relatively stable throughout the day (if the window faces East, you will only have light in the morning). South of the equator, you’ll want a South-facing window. Of course, if you’re painting at night, you will probably want to get a light bulb that gives off ‘natural light’ so you can judge your colors accurately. Some light bulbs put out different colors (sometimes more blue, sometimes more pink) and this can affect the way you see your colors. Full-spectrum fluorescent tubes are very close to North light and Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) are energy-saving and put out nice light to paint by. For a more in-depth discussion of studio lighting, see this article by artist Will Kemp: http://willkempartschool.com/art-studio-lighting-design/

A light that clamps on to your table can be a big help if you don’t have enough lighting to begin with. Like this:



When you’re first starting out, it can be rather intimidating to have someone looking over your shoulder while you’re trying to learn. Try to find a space where you’re not being watched/bugged every 5 minutes (art takes concentration) or try to establish a little “private” time so that you’re free to create and not answer the door for the mail/take the dog outside/etc. for a while.

          Room to Move and The Mirror Trick

Whenever you’re working on a painting, you need to be able to back away from it once in a while to see how it’s looking. It sounds silly, but backing up and looking at it from a distance really gives you a better perspective and allows you to see what’s working and what’s not so you can make adjustments. You’ll want a studio space that allows you sufficient room to back up 5 or 6 feet (depending on the size of your painting) without backing into obstacles to trip over. Of course, if your paper is only 6” x 4”, you’ll only need to back up about 2 feet. If your paper is a full sheet size (22”x 30”), you’ll need more like 10 feet of distance to really tell if it the painting is working.   If you don’t have that much room, just move your painting somewhere you can stand back to look at it.   For example, I sometimes setup my artwork in the doorway and back up down the hallway to look at it, or put it on top to the fireplace mantel and look through a doorway into the living room. The other trick that works well is using a mirror. I’ll bring my painting into the bedroom and stand as far back from the mirror as possible. This ends up doubling the viewing distance and has the added benefit of letting you see your painting in reverse, which can sometimes highlight composition problems.

          Standing vs. Sitting

Many watercolor painters work both with an easel and without. Even if you do not use an easel at all, you will often want to prop your surface at a slight angle (at least 5-10 degrees). This helps the paint flow on the paper using gravity and results in the paint being absorbed into the paper more evenly (no puddling).

If you switch between standing and sitting at the table as I do, it is a good idea to have your table at the correct height for standing and then have an adjustable stool high enough for when you are sitting. If you are lucky enough to have an adjustable/tilting drafting table, that is ideal. But an inexpensive folding plastic table from Costco can work fine, too. You can always buy lifters to put under the table legs to elevate it to a good height for standing. You’ll have to play with the exact height to fit your personal dimensions.

My table and chair are the right height for sitting when I’m working flat on the table. If I wish to stand, then I prop my work up on a box so that it’s the right height so I don’t need to hunch over. The box I use is the top of a heavy-duty cardboard box, cut at a slight angle. I place a piece of Masonite on top and then my board with my stretched paper goes on top of that. These are the box dimensions:

wc setup

The box has the added benefit of creating extra storage space. Here’s a photo of the box in my studio with a painting in progress on top:

kaarens studio

If I want to leave the work on the box and sit, then I use an adjustable height stool.

If you do use an easel, you will want one that can easily adjust the angle. Some companies make easels specifically for watercolors that recline all the way flat, like these:

wc easel

wc plein air easel

Although these can be handy, I find that if I want to work flat (or almost flat), I’d prefer to use the table. So I use the easel only when I’m working nearly vertical (which can be really fun in watercolor).

          Storing Your Materials

If you can swing it, try to have a place to work where you can leave your materials set up so you don’t waste precious creating time setting everything up! If you can’t do this, then try to store things efficiently so you minimize your set up time. Have all your materials in one place (water containers, rags, brushes, paints, etc.) so you’re not running around the house trying to find everything you need.

You can also get a plastic art organizer from the art store. These are nice because they have both large and small compartments for organization.


art bin closed art bin


A rolling cart with plastic drawers is also great for storing your materials.

plastic storage

And, of course, any empty cupboard or dresser drawer will work just as well.


          Storing Your Work

This is always the hardest part for painters—figuring out what to do with all your paintings. Unless you’re hanging them on your walls, giving them as gifts, or selling them like crazy, you’ll need a place to store your work.

For storing watercolor works on paper (that have not yet been framed), a large box under the bed works fine. They make special acid free storage boxes as well. But unless you are at the professional level and selling your work, I wouldn’t bother paying extra for those.

under bed tupperware

If you have the money and space, a flat-fold file is a real luxury and a perfect place to keep finished works on paper.

flat file

Once you get to the point of framing your work, then you’ll need to find a wall to hang them or space in your closet to store them.

Exercise One: Storage Search

Find a place to store your paintings. If you have room under your bed, consider getting a Tupperware container to store them in. If not, try to find an empty drawer (Spring cleaning time!).


          Last But Not Least…

You should feel comfortable in your space! Play some music that makes you happy. Hang up an inspirational picture. Throw a pretty tapestry over the door. Whatever you need to do to make the space personal and comfortable, do it. You will have a good time creating if you’re comfortable and you’re less likely to get frustrated with what you’re doing. So bring in some positive energy and make that space yours!

Exercise Two: Find Your Space

Taking into account the considerations discussed in the lesson, choose your studio space. If you’re going to keep your studio in your home, you may need to talk to your roommates/parents/significant other about where you will set up.

If you’ve ever considered renting a studio/work space, first read our article on that in the Student Resource Center here.  If  you decide you’re going to rent a studio space, review the article and come up with a list of considerations to ask the landlord before you start looking for studio space.



Exercise Three: Treasure Hunt

Go around your house and find three things that will make your studio space feel comfortable for you. It may be a vase of flowers (as Monet always had in his studio) or a motivating poster. Think about the music you’ll enjoy painting to.

artist quote

okeefe quote

Follow us on Pinterest @beginnersschool for more inspiring quotes like these!

Key Lesson Learnings: We’ve covered a lot in this lesson. We’ve talked about and helped you select your work space, and given you some painting tips. We stressed the importance of keeping your supplies organized to maximize your watercolor painting time.

Next lesson: Watercolor Supplies And What Do I Need?



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