Should You Outline a Watercolor Painting?


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It can be tricky business to outline a watercolor painting with ink. If you choose the wrong type of ink, you’re suddenly left with a mess of smeared ink instead of a beautifully painted art piece. So, is using ink with watercolor even worth it? Should you outline a watercolor painting?

As long as you use an archival, waterproof ink, you can outline your watercolor painting with no issues. Whether you create your outline before or after you paint is completely up to you. If you decide to create your outline after you paint, just make sure your watercolors are completely dry first.

If you love the look of crisp ink outlines with flowy watercolor paints, you NEED to start experimenting with mixing these two mediums. It’s a lot of fun. 

how to outline a watercolor painting with ink

But, before you get started, you need to buy the right pens to outline your watercolor paintings with. If you choose the wrong pens, you’ll be setting yourself up for disaster and nothing else will matter.

Let’s talk about the types of pens you’ll want to look into, plus the ones that are my personal favorites.

The Pens Your Need to Outline Watercolor Paintings

To outline watercolor paintings, you’ll need archival pens. These pens are designed to withstand water, even the large amounts of water required to make watercolor paintings, without any smearing or smudging. 

Archival pens are appropriately named, as they are designed to stand the test of time and be great for “archives.” If there’s anything you want to last for years and years to come without fading, bleeding, or getting warped, you’ll want to use archival pens.

Part of what makes archival pens “archival” is that they’re waterproof. No matter how much water you put on them, they won’t smear or bleed. Of course, your paper may not be so lucky, but your pen marks will survive.

Not only will archival pens ensure that your ink outlines don’t smear as you watercolor over them, they will also ensure that your artwork lasts for a lifetime.

Alright, so let’s dig into it. What types of archival pens should you buy for outlining your watercolor paintings? 

A very popular choice of archival pens, which is also my personal favorite, is the Micron brand. They are inexpensive while also being very high quality. 

I have used Micron pens for years and love how they look and feel. 

My favorite Micron set comes with 6 pens, each with different sized tips ranging from 005 (.20mm) to 08 (.5mm). I’ve always been pleased with this range of sizes for ink outlines. 005 is really thin, but not so thin that you can’t see it. 08 will give you a thicker outline without going into marker territory.

micron archival waterproof pens

If you want a few more options though, Micron offers a great 10 pen set that gives you some larger tipped pens.

And if you really fall in love with Microns, you can get this luscious 73 Micron pen pack that comes with all sorts of different colors and sizes. I’m hoping Santa puts this under my tree this year 🙂 

If you aren’t ready to become as obsessed with Micron pens as I am, there are a LOT of other archival pen options on Amazon and your local art store that you can check out.

Again, getting the right archival pens is the #1 key to success with outlining your watercolor paintings. But, once you have your pens, then what?

Let’s talk about some techniques to keep in mind as you work.

But, before we move on, let me take a second to recommend my top resource for taking your watercolor skills to the next level. Skillshare has a TON of amazing watercolor classes taught by professional artists. They are incredible.

And, you can take these classes for free! Just sign up for a free trial to Skillshare and take as many painting classes as you please!

Should You Outline Before or After You Watercolor?

You can create your ink outline before or or after your watercolor, depending on your preference. If you do decide to make your ink outline after you watercolor, make sure that your watercolor paint is completely dry before you start inking.

The great thing about outlining a watercolor painting is that you have a lot of freedom. You can ink before you watercolor, watercolor before you ink, or try a bit of both. 

should you watercolor or outline first

The method you choose is completely up to you!

That said, there’s one BIG thing to keep in mind:

If you outline after you watercolor, make sure that your watercolor is COMPLETELY dry first. 

If you don’t, you run the risk of some smeared ink lines. 

Other than that, you don’t have much to worry about when outlining your watercolor works. Get your creativity flowing and have fun with it!

Naturally, combining ink outlines with watercolor painting is an intentional and beautiful creative style. That said, I’ve also found it to be a great failsafe for covering up strong pencil lines I never meant to have.

inking and watercoloring together

Use Ink Outlines to Cover Up Pencil Marks in Your Watercolor Paintings

If you have pencil marks that are obnoxiously standing out on your watercolor paintings, add a beautiful ink outline to cover them up. This can be a great way to turn a “mistake” into a happy accident.

I put “mistake” in quotes because there are no mistakes in art, right? That said, unintentional pencil lines that stick out in a watercolor painting can be annoying. That’s why outlining a watercolor painting in pencil without leaving marks can be a tricky business.

So, my solution is to cover up the pencil marks with something intentional and beautiful. Grab those archival pens and create an ink outline that makes your piece of art even more stunning and interesting. 

Check out more from Adventures with Art!

Outlining a watercolor painting with ink is a great opportunity to make your art more dynamic, creative, and full of life. I don’t know about you, but I just love the stark contrast between dark, crisp ink lines and light, flowy, watercolor strokes. 

Have fun mixing your ink and watercolor mediums together and see what types of beautiful art you can create.

Diana Fitts

Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana's latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.

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