When you’re planning a painting in watercolour (rather than a study or a practice piece), it’s really important to work out how you will tackle it. You need to think about highlights, light and dark, texture and detail and what order you’re going to paint them, as with watercolour you can’t paint over the top of mistakes like you can with oil paint or acrylic paint. In fact, sometimes ‘mistakes’ in watercolour are just things painted in the wrong order!
Here are some things to think about before you start your painting and once you’ve started:
1. Think about your composition
Drawing out a watercolour composition is tricky as the surface of the paper is easily dented and damaged. However, when being careful and drawing lightly it’s difficult to see what you are drawing and easy to make errors.
You will need to make sketches to decide on a composition you are happy with before you commit pencil to paper, so you don’t harm the paper surface with lots of rubbing out.
To make sure you get your drawing correct, do it on a piece of drawing paper first to give yourself the confidence to redraw if you need to and make corrections without damaging the final picture. Once you are happy that it is accurate and balanced, you can either trace it onto your sheet of watercolour paper, or use the grid method to transfer the drawing.
2. Choose your colours
Colour can be scary when building a painting, but as with most things, keeping it simple is the key.Try not to use too many colours in your palette, as you’ll create better harmony throughout your painting by keeping the colour simplified. You’ll be surprised how many colours you can mix with just a few base colours.
It’s a really good idea to make a colour sampler before you start on your image.
Choose a small amount of base colours that you think might work from looking at your image and paint them next to each other and layered over each other to see how they behave. Comparing them to your photo, you should start to get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t and if you need to add any colour or remove any. Remember watercolours are translucent so you will need to add more than one layer to add realism and depth. By practising painting colours over each other, you can also get an idea of how many layers you might need in your final painting.
You could make a simplified colour sketch of your final painting (if you have time) to be really sure of what colours you need to complete the final piece.
Here’s a quick guide to choosing and mixing colours with watercolour.
3. Decide if you need to use masking
Look at your reference photo or colour sketch and decide if any of the lightest parts need to be masked out. Masking will protect the white of the paper and allows you to paint over the top with freedom so you’re not making lots of marks trying to paint around a highlight that might draw the eye and be distracting.
Masking is good for:
- Highlights where you need a bright white mark
- Highlights where you need a light shape with smooth and flat surrounding colour, so you can confidently paint over a masked area, and remove the masking later to reveal a lighter shape
- Texture where you mask out scratch or spatter marks
I’ve written an article about how to use different masking techniques, such as masking fluid and masking tape. Read more about masking effects and how to achieve them.
4. Wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry?
Look again at your reference photo or colour sketch and think about the nature of the marks you will need to make. Are there any areas that are cloudy and soft and dreamy? Are there areas that have crisp edges?
- For softer areas you will need to work wet in wet, which will mean wetting the area that needs to be soft and painting on colour within it while the paper is still wet, to achieve soft colour transitions
- For areas with crisp edges, you’ll need to work on dry paper so that your colour edges don’t bleed into the surrounding areas.
5. Decide if you want to add any texture effects
As you have lots of different ways to create texture using watercolour, it is worth looking at your reference photo or colour sketch to decide if you want to use any texture-building techniques, such as using salt, or cling film. You can also decide if there are any particular brushes you need to use for specific parts of the painting, like fan brushes for grasses and foliage for example.
Read more about using texture effects when watercolour painting.
6. Get painting, but keep checking
Using everything you’ve thought about, start your painting.
Tape your paper down and wet it, then allow it to dry before you start, or use paper on a block that is pre-stretched.
With each layer of colour you apply, and whichever technique you use to apply your colour, make sure you stop and look and check that everything is progressing as you want it too. It’s easier to remove ‘mistakes’ while the paint is still wet than waiting until the final stage when the paint is dry.
More layers of paint will add depth to your work, make sure one layer is dry before you start the next.
7. If you need to correct yourself
Use a wet paper towel or a wet brush to carefully remove or soften newly dry paint, or a dry paper towel or a dry brush to remove or soften wet paint.
Try to do assess and correct if necessary when you finish a layer.
- Make preparatory drawings for composition
- Choose and test out your colours
- Transfer your drawing
- Mask out any areas that need masking
- Start painting, think about wet-on-wet, wet-on dry and texture
- Layer your paint to add depth
- Remove masking
- Soften and correct any masked areas
- Add final detail
Print out a PDF version of the Watercolour checklist