How to Retain White Paper

Why is my painting looking so dull and lifeless?”

There are several reasons why:

  • Watercolour paintings must have a certain amount of white and light hued areas or spots to freshen it.
  • Sparkling highlights in your painting bring your painting to life.
  • Contrast of tone and colour makes highlights stand out and gives your painting a fresh appeal.
Retain white paper.

A5 watercolour: The highlight spots on the roses were reserved with liquid masking.

Fact one: Fresh clean white areas:

Some artists believe that a certain amount of your watercolour painting must be left white, untouched and unblemished.

Here you have to be careful. If white spots are left willy-nilly all over your painting, it will make your painting look spotty and confusing.

Why is that? White is a dominant eye-catching `colour’, especially if surrounded by dark colours. Therefore it is wise to plan your compositions format. Where possible:

  • Leave large white areas: For example all around the outer edge, as in a vignette.
  • Group highlights, eg: shimmers and sparkles on water, highlights on a bunch of grapes or within flower florets.
  • Link the white spots and allowed them to flow smoothly through the composition. Somewhat like the flow of vine tentacles or out reaching appendages of flower stamen.

Fact two:  Tonal format:

A good painting is divided up into three basic areas:

  1. A light toned area.
  2. A medium toned area
  3. And a dark toned area.

This makes it easier for viewers to assess what is happening in a painting. Naturally these areas will be interlaced according to the subject matter’s composition layout. If you haven’t noticed this before, it’s because the artist has done it subtly.

Fact three:  Highlights:

  • Highlights (bright spots) attract attention. Because they are read like shorthand, they must be placed strategically.
  • Select which highlights you want to use and which you need to illuminate.

 Fact four: Description:

Certain white areas in your subject matter are reserved for special effects, for example:

  • Leaving white contour edges between washes, for example silhouettes: For silver-lining of clouds when painting skies, and aura rim-lights (caused by back lighting) that you can fill in later with the desired colour effects.
  • Reserving shapes with liquid masking for houses, flowers, etc, so you can work and paint freely over them, over your whole painting, without messing or eliminating those objects or things we want to fill-in and work on later.
  • Sometimes I use liquid masking to reserve white or light coloured tree trunks, and fill-in later with desired colours. For example to create smooth tree trunks or knarred knotted tree bark (see illustration). It makes the tree trunks standout in 3D manner, perspectively.
  • Even splatter liquid masking to make speckled effects, like tiny flower buds, underwater seaweed effects, etc.

Notice the following image captions, have more explanations on how to do it and the effects you can create.

White cosmos flowers

First draw-in the cosmos flowers with an eye dropper, splatter liquid masking to make speckled effects for tiny buds, draw-in stalks and scribble in a few leaf shapes with liquid masking. When the masking is dry: paint freely all over the whole composition, working wet-in-wet (such fun) to create a beautiful atmospheric background ambiance for the flowers. When the paint is fully dried, rub off the masking and fill-in your colours. Play warm colour against cool colours. Walla, it’s easy as that!

Retain white paper.

Size 23×20.8cm, thick watercolour paper: This fascinating knobbly tree stands in the Mabalingwe game reserve, nestled in the Waterberg mountain range, Transvaal. It was late afternoon when we came across it. Note: Close-up the tree trunks seem to merge and make the painting look busy and confusing. But when seen from a distance, you can see the 3D effect of the tree trunks.

Reserving highlight spots:

The aim is to keep the paper white where you intend to place highlights in your composition, either by working around the spots while painting or retaining them with liquid masking.

Working around them:

As you may have already found out, it’s so easy to unintentionally obliterate your proposed white spots as you are painting.

Funny enough it is easier to work round them with a big round brush (that has a fine point) than it is to use a small fiddly brush. Why is that?

  • The big body of the brush allows you to create smooth-blended unblemished atmospheric conditions surrounding and in between the highlights.
  • The fine point of the big brush allows you to create fine outlined detailed shapes, eg: tiny wild flowers waving in grass and weeds.

Liquid masking:

Sometimes liquid masking is called ‘rubber cement’, latex rubber adhesive or liquid frisket.

Some artists don’t like to use liquid masking. They say it gives your painting an artificial appearance. While other artists believe it gives your painting additional style.

Whatever your belief, you can control the artificial appearance by graduating your colours and tones between the masking marks and their surrounding areas.

  • What I like about masking, is that it brings things forward, thus giving objects like tree trunks a 3D effect and highlights more sparkle.
  • And also, the spray of an incoming sea wave is blurred by its fast-moving action, but just a few masked water droplets gives the crashing wave’s impact, forceful power as it pounds against the rocks and cliff faces.


  • Be careful when you rub and peel off masking liquid, it sometimes rips up the paper.
  • Don’t paint on damaged paper. The paint is easily absorbed in those areas and makes dark marks that you can’t remove.
  • If the paper is roughened burnish (smooth) it with the back of a spoon before painting over it again.
  • If you apply liquid masking to a previous wash, even if it’s dry, it’s inclined to lift the previous paint, especially if you have used non-staining, segmented pigments. It’s advisable therefore to use strong intense staining pigments in this technique.

 Masking application precaution:

Warning: Don’t use a brush to apply masking liquid. Because masking liquid is a rubber compound, it sticks to the hairs of your brush and your brush will be ruined. Liquid masking has ammonia in it. If the rubber has already stuck to your brush, try cleaning it with ammonia and rinse it well afterwards with soap and then fresh water.

TIP: If you are still determined to use a brush, dig your brush into a cake of soap beforehand to protect the hairs somewhat. When finished, rinse your brush in ammonia, then soapy water, and lastly fresh clean water.Warning: Never leave your brush standing in ammonia too long, the hairs will deteriorate.

There are other ways of applying liquid masking:

Applying liquid masking with an eye dropper:

If you have eye-droppers with different size nozzle holes, select one to suit the job in hand:

  • Big nozzle hole eye-droppers for covering large areas like houses, rocks, cosmos flowers, etc.
  • Medium holes: Use for tree trunks, fence posts, etc
  • And small holes for tiny dots and fine detail, for example: sparkles, grass, sticks, twigs, etc.

 Eye dropper maintenance:

Rinse your eye-dropper in fresh clean water in between use and after use. Clean with a pipe cleaner to prevent clogging of the tube.

Applying liquid masking with a pen:

Whatever you do don’t use a fountain pen or any pen with a reservoir. Liquid masking clogs up the pen’s channels.

It is better to use a dip-pen. You know; those old-fashioned pens which you push in the nib into the top of the handle. Nibs come in different size widths. You can draw fine thin white lines with dip-pens, like washing line and fence wire. Tip: in this case use diluted masking fluid. Dilute with a little ammonia.

Other possible tools:

You can use a match stick to create rough twigs. Some artists use nose-buds (cotton-wool on tiny sticks) to create fuzzy wide lines and dots.

Retaining white paper.

Size 56.5×37.5cm, watercolour on thick rough paper: This is a real scene, along a pathway behind houses in Hillcrest, Natal. Immediately to the left is a sudden drop, a steep hillside, down into the valley far below. Notice how the masked highlights present an impressionistic `third colour’ dimension.

How to mix colours

How colourful.

A5 watercolour: Contrast of colour and tones. Notice how colourful the dark tones are.

Why discuss how to mix colours?

It is very important. The quality of your watercolour paintings depends on how you mix your colours.

 And it may surprise you,

but most people don’t know how to mix their colours!

I can hear you say to yourself, “Surely they learnt the basics while at school. That:

  • Yellow and blue makes green,
  • Yellow and red makes orange,
  • Red and blue makes violet!”

No, they don’t even know that when then come to art classes and have to make a colour wheel!   Besides that they often ask “How do you make brown and black?

  • Brown mixture: An equal mixture of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) make brown.
  • Black mixture: Theoretically an equal mixture of the secondary colours (orange, green and violet) make black. Note there is less yellow in this mixture. Strong intense pigments make the darkest freshest blacks, eg: translucent reds and Winsor thalo blue and green. 
Note: how colourful blacks are. More beautiful than pure black out of a tube (see illustrated watercolour painting above)

 Neither have they ever noticed the difference between cool colours and warm colours.

  • That blues and greens are cooler than reds and yellows.
  • That one red is cooler than another red, eg: alizarin red is cooler (slightly bluer) in hue than Cadmium red.
  • That there is a difference in blues too, eg: Winsor (thalo) blue is cooler than French ultramarine blue.
How to see the difference.

The difference between cool and warm pigments of the same primary or secondary colour.

First secret:  Making beautiful natural greens

Often you see people using their watercolours like they were colouring in with crayons. That is: using their colours straight from their paint box pans.

For example Winsor thalo intense green:

It looks very garish mixed only with water, especially over large areas. Greens look better when mixed with more neutral colours, for example:

  • Violet and green (makes teal green)
  • Orange and green (makes olive green)
  • Burnt sienna and sap green.
  • Raw sienna and Hooker’s green.
  • Burnt umber and thalo green or viridian green.

Note: And some artists don’t believe in mixing browns with green. But I do whatever it takes to get the effect I require as long as the quality of the painting isn’t compromised.

How to make green.

Example of green mixtures.

For more interesting greens:

  • A yellow with cerulean blue or indigo blue.
  • Indigo blue with viridian or sap green.
  • Blue-violet and chrome oxide green.
  • Sap green and French ultramarine.

Note: These last colour combinations, have the best results when the additional colours are lightly brushed in. That is: not pre-mixed in your palette plate.

 Second secret:  Keeping your colours clean and fresh.

On the other hand you get people trying mixing their colours on their painting, because they were not happy with the colour they have already there. Once started, they keep adding more colours, in the hope they can fix the problem. This is a recipe for disaster. The more colours added, turns your painting into murky `mud’. Why, because now all three primaries are involved in some form or other.

How do you prevent this?

  • First: Don’t mix your colours in the paint box pans. It’s wiser to pre-mix your colours in your palette plate reservoir wells, where you can judge intensity strength and hue against the whiteness of the palette.
  • It is wise to reduce the amount of pigments involved in your mixtures. Where possible keep it to two pigments only. Or involve only analogous colours (those sitting on one side of your colour wheel)
  • If you want to add another colour to a former wet wash, don’t fuss and stir in other colours. Rather drop-in (tip-in) another colour and watch while it spreads naturally.
  • To prevent soiling of colours, keep light colours away from dark colours in your paint box.
  • And to keep washes fresh, rinse you brush well before choosing another colour in your paint box.
  • It is easier to get your paint out of the pans quickly and cleanly, if you finely spray your paint box pans with water before you start to paint.

Third secret:  Colours affect people emotionally:

  • Paintings that consist mostly of cool colours (like blue & green) makes people feel cold. Cool coloured paintings have no impact emotionally.
  • To make your watercolour paintings exciting and more sell-able, play warm colours against cool colours. The pest results are when there are more warm colours than cool colours.
  • If all your colours are bright in your painting, they compete with one another, like they are all shouting at once. Tip: the contrast of neutrals to natural grays enhances your bright colours.

Fourth secret:  Natural greys:

Natural greys made of complementary coloured mixtures (colours opposite on the colour wheel). Natural greys are far more beautiful than pure blacks and grey pigments straight from the paint box or tubes. Black added to your mixtures will make your watercolours look dull and dead because black is non-reflective colour.

Typical natural grey mixtures:

  • Mixtures of green and red or magenta.
  • Mixtures of blue and burnt umber.

 Note: Watercolour mixtures differ from oil paints. You won’t get the same mixture blending results as you get in oil paints. Watercolour washes are more mottled and interesting.

It’s over to you what you make of this information:

Have fun experimenting with these colour combinations. You don’t know what effects they can really make until you mix your own stock of pigments.

  • For example, make swatches like my ‘green mixture’ illustration and label them to remember what pigments you used, for future use.
  • Your results will depend on how much water was involved in tinting the intensity of the colours.
  • Also you won’t get such beautiful washes of colour and special effects, if you aren’t using Artist’s Quality watercolour pigments. Cheap watercolour pigments haven’t the same constitution eminence.
  • The tine of colour and shade of black or grey depends on which primary pigment is more dominant.

Handling Watercolour Fluidity with Ease

A5 watercolour

This watercolour has several fluid techniques involved.

Fallacies and reality:

A lot of people think watercolours are unpredictable. Why do people have this negative attitude towards watercolours?

  • People generally think artists are so talented that they just have to splash paint on effortlessly and masterpieces materialize. So they try splashing paint on and land up working willy-nilly in the hope a miracle will occur. The fact is successful artists plan procedures before starting to paint.
  • Also people think watercolour paintings are created in just a few minutes. Not so, it takes more than a few minutes to paint a watercolour. Anything from an hour to three hours, depending on the size of the painting, considering drying time procedures and what effects you wish to create. Knowing at what stage you can take a break, when to leave off and continue the next day or even a year later!
  • Also, most people have problems because they impatiently apply another coat of paint before previous coats of paint has dried. So it isn’t surprising that the paint runs amok.
The fact is: liquids naturally flow where it’s wet. Example liquid paint flows freely in water or in wet paint.  ….All it takes to control the situation: is to observe the state of the paper and how wet, semi-wet or dry the previous wash of colour is, before adding more paint. That means, judging and timing the right moment.

It’s all a matter of cause and effect:

  • Where the paper is wet and shiny, the paint will run and blur there.
  • When the paper is dull and dry, the paint won’t run where it’s dry.
  • When there is too much water, the paper becomes soggy. Thin, over wet paper puckers (cockles) easily and pools of water form in the valleys. A recipe for disaster! Mop it up quickly.
  • If there is too much liquid on your brush and the previous wash hasn’t dried yet, you will get ugly watery ‘cabbage’ effects. Mop it up quickly, or if you want the lacy look, leave it to do its thing.

Mingling of colours:

Beginners are shocked when their brush touches a previous patch of wet paint and the colour from the brush is quickly zapped and mingles with the previous wash. Gosh, that wasn’t what they expected. What now, what should they do!!

Mingling of colours isn’t necessary a bad thing. Sometimes lovely unexpected ambiance effects are created this way. In fact artists often use this as a technique, to make special atmospheric effects! The result will depend on how much liquid is involved and what the constitutions of the pigments are.

Time artists spend on planning:

You have to ask yourself a few questions when planning your painting:

  • What do I want to achieve? What effects do I want?
  • What type of undercoats? Do I use an overall imprimatura wash or start within designated areas?
  • Since watercolours generally start out with light washes of colour, what under-colour do I need? How will the topcoats relate to this undercoat?
  • Consider the composition format. What is important? What can I leave out? How much detail do I need?
  • What should stay blurred?
  • What type of contour edges and textures do I want?

If your watercolour is a soggy mess:

  • It’s because you used too much water.
  • And kept adding and stirring in more paint.
  • And possibly three equal amounts of the primary colours (yellow, red and blue) were added to the ‘melting pot’.

Taking advantage of ‘tip and runs’:

If your brush has tipped another wet area where the paint is still wet, naturally it will run and spread out into the nearest wet area. To some people this may cause them drama. But artists use this as a trick to create distant trees along a mountain range’s contour edge.

Remember: the amount of water controls the consequences.

Spreading test:

Some watercolour pigments run faster than others in wet areas. To test the pigments you have:

  • Dab fresh clean water on your paper (like in the illustration below).
  • Then tip one side of the dab of water with paint and watch what happens. How quick or slow each pigment takes.
  • To make the test plausible: Make sure there is enough water in each dab, so that the paint can run easier.
  • Watercolours don’t run as quickly or spread so easily in damp or on semi-dry paper.

Note: If you tilt the paper, the paint will run and spread even farther into the wet area. Thus ensures you have some control where you want the colour to be.

Spreading of watercolour

Spreading test.

So you see dramas can be turned to your advantage! Artists learn to go with the flow of what’s happening as their painting evolves, if you don’t mind the pun!

If you want to learn more about watercolour secrets, start at the beginning of the ‘watercolour secrets’ category – listing in the left bar column.

All About Lost & Found Edges

Did you know?

That not many new students know the contrast of tone controls the perspective and dimension of objects in their paintings, or how the quality of edges can turn a mediocre painting into a masterpiece just by:

  1. Creating a 3D effect: In order to see form within paintings, from that of its surroundings, one has to be able to judge the difference and contrast of dark and light tones.
  2. Using lost and found edges: Controlling the quality of contour edges adds drama to your paintings and helps to settle objects comfortably within their surroundings.

 It’s a fact that without these two factors, a painting will mean nothing if people can’t distinguish what is actually in your paintings. All is not lost if you read on….

All you need to do is use strong contrast.

The strong darkness of the dry trees gives the watercolour depth.

What are ‘Lost and found’ edges?

Lost and found edges describe the quality or state of perimeters, ie outer contour edges of shapes, brushstrokes and planes.

Found-edges are sharp-edges or hard-edges. They happen when the paper is dry.

  • Neat detail has sharp-edges and outlines. Detailed things are seen as static.
  • Neat well-defined contour edges and brushstrokes are easily read.
  • If sharp-edges are overdone, your painting looks lifeless, contrived and stiff.
  • Sharp-edges convey an object has sharp edges, eg: knife blade, jagged rocks, etc.
  • Sharp-edged planes: Example mountain ranges. If the contour edge is sharp all along the mountain range, it isn’t natural. Perspectively, things in the distance are out of focus. You only find sharp edges where there is a distinct severe cliff face. Rolling hills have soft-edged contours.
  • If all the things in the painting are sharp-edged the painting looks stiff and contrived.

Lost-edges are soft blurred edges, that is blended contours and graduated auras between form and its immediate background. This happens when the paper is wet or damp.

Things that live grow and move:

Examples: grass, trees and washing on the line blow in the wind. The wings of flying birds are not easily seen because they are blurred. Therefore:

  • Soft-edges suggest movement, action and motion.
  • All moving things are blurred. Moving feet and bicycle wheels are blurred. You don’t even see the feet of people walking in the distance. This confirms that fewer brushstrokes say more.
  • Blurred contours also suggest that something is round, sphere shaped, like balls, eggs and rolling hills.
  • You create mood when you blur things.
  • Blurred areas imply smoke, mist and mystery.
  • Blurring suggest atmospheric dimension (aerial perspective).
  • Importantly, soft-edges stimulate our senses and create emotion.
All edges

The difference between lost and found edges.

All things have shadows.

The egg has a round contour, therefore its shadow edges are blurred.

How do you make lost and found edges?

  • You get lost-edges when your watercolour paper is wet or semi-wet.
  • You get clear found-edges when your watercolour paper is dry.

Where do you use lost and found edges?

  • Lost edges are generally used around the outer edges of your painting. Why, because this creates a tunnel effect, drawing the eye inwards, into the painting and towards the main point of interest.
  • Found-edges and strong contrast of tone are generally found at the main point of interest in the painting. Sharp contrast of tone attracts the eye, bringing the main subject into focus and giving it importance.

Why use contrast of tone?

If everything is neatly detailed at the same tone level throughout the painting, people can’t cipher what’s happening in your painting. There needs to be a big difference of tone at the main point of interest to distinguish its importance from that of the rest of the painting.

Variation of edges is important:

  • Sharp-edges make things look static, lifeless.
  • Sharp-edged objects stand out away from their surroundings. If you soften their outer contour edges they melt into place, settle nicely into their environment.
  • Blurred edges make it easier for the eye to travel over and through your painting. The perusing of the eye is not jarred from one form to another or from one plane to another.
  • Variation of edges is more appealing.
  • Blurred areas give the painting atmosphere and endless fascination.
  • Flower petals are delicate, so give them soft blurred edges. Unless of cause you want to draw attention to the main point of interest.
  • Textured things have ‘broken’ edges, intermittent contours.
  • Gradation of colour and tone along contour edges also softens an edge.
All along the edge.

Softening the edges of flower petals with gradation.

Here I did one flower at a time, from left to right.

  1. First the flower colour,
  2. Then wetted the contour edge of the flower with fresh clean water.
  3. Then I added an intermediate transitional colour to the wet contour edge.
  4. Then the green background was added to the right.
  5. I dropped in a little colour into the green background to suggest out of focus buds.
  6. Lastly I added the stamen and pistils to the flowers’ centers.

That is not all:

If you want to experience more, download the free books on watercolours on the page: Free Art Books.

Why Watch the Paper?

Watercolours are NOT difficult as most people seem to think:

  • All it takes is watching the state of your paper,
  • When to apply your brush,
  • Watching where you put your brush,
  • And how much liquid on your brush and paper.
  • How the quality of the paper makes a difference.
  • And lastly how to control the condition of your paper.
Watch the watercolour paper.

A5 watercolour: The old road to the homestead.

Watching the state of the paper:

It’s important to always watch the condition of your watercolour paper before applying paint:

  • Wet-in-wet: If your paper is too wet, you will get very blurry washes and vague shapes. Why? Because paint runs very easily on wet paper. Therefore things will only be blurred where you have pre-wet the paper.
  • Wet-in-dry: That is, wet brush on dry paper. When the paper is dry, you’ll get sharp-edged brushstrokes. Dry paper gives you sharp-edged detail.
  • But if you want soft-edged brushstrokes and contour edges, wait until the paper isn’t too wet or too dry. The stage of dampness depends on how blurred you require the result.
Remember the stage or state of wetness, dampness or dryness of your paper controls the condition of the effects you are trying to create.Waiting and judging for the right moment to apply your paint is called `timing’.

 Spreading your paint:

  • If you have trouble spreading your paint: It’s because you don’t have enough liquid on your brush, and the paper is too dry. If your brush is big and fully loaded (with water and paint) and your paper is wet, the easier the brush will flow over the paper.
  • Basically it’s the amount of liquid that controls any wash. That is: how much liquid there is on your brush and on the paper.
  • If the paper is dry and has textured tooth (rough surface), you will get a broken-colour-wash of colour. The reason why, is because paint only covers tips and not enough paint to fall into the hollows of the rough textured paper.
Watch how paint spreads over tooth.

What ‘tooth’ means and how paint spreads over the tooth on textured paper.

Timing of application:

It is just the matter of judging the state of your paper, whether the paper is dry, wet, damp or semi-dry, before you apply your brush:

  • If there is a pool of water (and paint) on your paper, mop it up quickly before you have a disaster.
  • If there too much liquid on your brush you’ll get `cabbage’ wash effects.
  • If your paper is wet, the paint will run very easily.
  • If the paper is shiny, it’s still wet.
  • If the paper is semi-glossy, it’s starting to dry.
  • If the paper is starting to go dull, it’s damp.
  • If the paper is matt, it’s dry.

 How to see the state of the paper:

I often get the question at this stage of instruction: “How do you see how glossy the paper is or not?”

If you are not seeing the difference, place your painting between you and the nearest window. It is easier to see this during the day.

The more you paint, the more you get your `timing’ right. No one can actually tell you what really occurs unless you observe and experience it for yourself.

Watch what you are doing: Be careful where you place your brush. Watch how your brush spreads its hairs. Don’t rush, watch how the paint spreads and blends.

 The quality of the paper:

  • Thin paper cockles and buckles badly. Pools of water collect in the valleys of the paper.
  • Wood-pulp paper, eg: blank newspaper, goes yellow in time.
  • Avoid acid-free paper, it goes yellow in time.
  • Hot pressed paper is very smooth. The paint sits in globules on its shiny surface.
  • Very absorbent types of paper suck up liquid too quickly, to make it easy to spread paint. You need more liquid to apply unbroken smooth washes.
  • Thick textured paper needs more liquid to fill in the valleys of the `tooth’. A damp brush catches only the tips of the tooth because there isn’t enough liquid on the brush to run into the tooth valleys of the paper’s texture.
  • On the other hand thick textured paper is perfect to make dappled segmented effects. First wet your paper and fully load your brush with segmented pigments.
  • Fine tooth, semi-absorbent cold-pressed paper gives you smooth blends and gradations. This creates beautiful atmospheric washes.
  • You need to practice often to learn how to handle Waka-sen and Jito-shi Japanese papers. Some artists use rice paper instead. I don’t think Japanese papers are available in South Africa.

Environment control:

Working out doors your paper gets dry quicker than if you were working indoors.

  • Place a piece of wet velt or dish-clothe on a light panelite board. The velt helps to keep your paper damp. The size of the board depends on the size of your watercolour paper. You don’t usually work with big sheets of paper when working outdoors. The wind is sure to give you opposition.
  • Spray or sponge your paper with water, both sides before starting to paint.
  • To hasten the drying time when working indoors, place your watercolour painting on a dry towel. This allows the air to circulate and dry your paper.
  • If you use a hair dryer to quicken the drying time, the paper buckles and the paint dries unevenly, especially if the paper is thin and of poor quality.
  • Controlling soft-edges: Say you are painting a bowl of flowers and want to keep the petal edges delicate. Soften the edges of the flower’s contour edge with a clean wet brush. And keep it somewhat wet until you get around to painting around it.


The best water to use for watercolours:

  • Very hard water is inclined to precipitate the pigment particles, ie hastens vapour to form solid deposits.
  • If you haven’t any soft water, try using rainwater or distilled water instead.

For more tips on watercolour, check out the free downloads of watercolour books.

See How Watercolour Paintings Evolve

  • Paintings evolve stage by stage, layer by layer.
  • Each layer is planned to get the best results.
  • Watercolours start with light washes of colour.
  • Tips on how and when to apply paint.
How watercolours evolve

This watercolour was painted, starting with the sky and trees.

Watercolour procedures:

With watercolours you work from light to dark. That is: you start with light washes of colour and with each additional layer of paint the painting gets darker and darker. So it is wise to control how many layers of paint you use and what you intend to do with each layer.

You can start with a light imprimatura undercoat or be selective of what area you wish to start painting in.

Imprimatura wash:

An imprimatura is an overall wash, first layer of paint that works as a background colour. It helps to link and unite all the objects within your composition. The tone-level and colour you choose for your imprimatura wash is important.

  • If the imprimatura wash is too dark, your painting will turn out dark and look depressing.
  • The colour you choose to use as our imprimatura wash is the overall undertone colour of the scene you wish to paint.
  • Imprimatura washes have an impact on how your painting is perceived. For example, if you use a light wash of raw sienna it will radiate up through the topcoats as through the sun is shining through your painting.
  • Imprimatura washes are usually warm colours. A cool colour will make you painting look cold and uninviting.
  • If your imprimatura wash is a complementary colour to the topcoats, the end result will be a grey picture, eg: Green over pink makes grey. So to keep your painting fresh be careful which colours you are using over others.
  • If your imprimatura wash is covered by another primary colour, the result will be a secondary colour, eg: Blue over yellow makes green.
How paintings evolve.

Example of starting with separate areas.

Examples of selective painting:

  • You generally start at the top of your watercolour paper and work down. That is, starting with the sky, then the background hills and lastly the foreground. This prevents smudging and the sky sets the overall tone level of the land below.
  • When painting clouds, you paint the blue of the sky first, leaving the white of the clouds. And while the paint is still wet soften the lower edges with a light grey underbelly. The tops of the clouds usually have sharper edges than the bottom edges.
  • If you are painting a bowl of flowers you generally start with the centre flowers and work outwards. Then paint in the background and vase. Lastly the foreground (table top).

Dry-to-dry procedure creates too much detail:

If you start with dry paper you’ll get neat sharp-edged brushstrokes. And once you have neat detail, it restricts creativity. It’s not so easy to soften or change anything later as most pigments stain the paper.

But, if you start with large wet blurred mass shapes, you can alter the shape of things somewhat. That is: soak up and blot paint or add paint as you wish. Working this way, working wet-in-wet, gives you more leeway for your paintings to evolve.

The wet-in-wet procedure:

  • Start by wetting (finely spraying) your paper with water before painting with colour. Wetting your paper allows your brush and paint to flow easier.
  • Add an imprimatura wash, or apply separate washes of colour that blur and create mass shapes on the wet paper.
  • As you work always watch the drying process, so as to know when to add (brush-in) more colour and shapes to build up the basic composition.
  • Also always watch your brush behaviour. So that you not only apply the brush to the right place, but how the hairs of your brush are spreading the paint on the paper. Should you level your brush horizontally or use the tip. Roll or twist your brush to make the right brushstroke shapes, etc.
  • As you add more colours, take time out to watch how the colours merge and blend. How are they interlacing with each other? Decide whether you should you tilt the paper and control where the liquid colours are running into or not? Warning: don’t interfere too much before the paint starts gelling and drying. If you leave it too late your painting will look tired and overworked.
  • Starting out with big undercoats and blurred mass shapes allows you to create atmospheric contours that are easier on the eye than sharp edges.
  • As you proceed you are defining shapes, until your painting is complete.


Before applying paint:

  • Always consider what your colour scheme you intend to use, before mixing your colours on you palette, so that you get the correct shade and tint. This saves many a dramatic mistake.
  • Always watch the consistency of your paint before applying it. Will the colour be too dark or too light? Is there too little or too much liquid on your brush?
  • What is the state of the paper? Do I want this application to blur in a wet spot or make a sharp-edged brushstroke in a dry area?

 While applying paint:

  • If you want to paint next to something and don’t want the colours to touch run and mingle, make sure the paint of the object concerned is dry before applying more paint next to it.

Planning your composition:

Because paintings evolve layer-by-layer, stage-by-stage it’s only obvious if we want our watercolour painting to be successful that we should plan the format of our paintings beforehand.

Unsuccessful watercolour paintings are generally due to starting out willy-nilly, impatiently adding more and more paint, hoping by chance the end result will be great.

If you plan your moves you’ll know what to do at any given moment. If you understand procedures and the constitution of your medium it reduces so many problems. You won’t have to force issues or make so many corrections later.

  • First take time to analyze and digest the scene you wish to paint.
  • Decide how you are going to compose the composition and how that will affect each layer of paint.
  • Whether you are going to start with an imprimatura or work selectively areas by area.
  • Investigate and think what possibilities there are. If you did this or that, what do you think will be the outcome?
  • What is the mood? What is the overall undertone colour?
  • What colour scheme should you use? How do the colours relate? Can I change the colours to make the colours more dramatic and vibrant?
  • What basic shapes are there? Take note of the main symbolic shapes, the flow of gestures and angles? How objects, forms and space relate to one another.
  • Sharp strong contrast of tone and colour shouldn’t be scattered all over your painting? That’s confusing. Where you place it is important. It should mainly be at the main paint of interest.
  • Be selective with detail. Simplify what you see and eliminates unnecessary detail. Where possible group small things together and make mass shapes out of them.
  • What possible bright highlight spots are there? If there is bright highlights, which ones do you need to use and retain the white of the paper? And if there are light fresh green leaves, start with a light green wash in that area and darken around them as you proceed to give them their mass shape.

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For more info, go to the page that has free manual books on painting watercolours.



Painting Space

  • Painting just objects without background is boring.
  • Consider the space in between painted objects filled with air.
  • And air is fill of energy!.
  • Atmospheric conditions give your paintings depth and create mood.
  • The emotional aspect of mood is what helps to sell your paintings.
Space is filled with energy.

A5 Watercolour: In the misty hilltops.

Just objects:

The general public sees things as objects, so it’s only natural that novices paint things as objects. And then when their endeavour doesn’t turnout as they hoped, they ask, “What is wrong with my painting? It looks childish. It doesn’t hold together some how! What’s missing?”

The environment between objects is important. It’s the condition of negative space between objects that controls the emotional impact of your paintings.

Negative space:

The space in between the objects is the environment in which the objects exist. How the negative space between the objects is painted is important.

  • The atmospheric condition within the space sets the mood of the painting.
  • The outline of objects fit like a jigsaw puzzle with the shapes of the negative areas. Consider: without the pieces of the negative space, the jigsaw picture is incomplete.
  • The outlines of the objects are the boundaries of the negative areas.

Filling open negative spaces:

Amateurs think every corner of a painting must be filled with something. For example, if there is an open space in the foreground, “Oh that area looks empty. I think I will fill it with a few rocks”.

Paintings shouldn’t be cluttered. If a painting is full of objects it becomes confusing, too much to absorb at one glance. There should be smooth open areas without detail so people can easily digest what is happening in the painting. What is important and what isn’t so important.

These open spaces are called `places of rest’:

Open uncluttered areas are restful compared with the dramatic impact of the main point of interest. Paintings are more appealing when there is about 20-45% open uncluttered spaces.

Energy of space:

When I say uncluttered, it doesn’t mean there is nothing there. The fact is space has atmosphere, and atmosphere is filled with energy. Consider radio wavelengths, etc that are in air! And how particles of dust make beautiful sunsets!

  • Energy and atmospheric depth is suggested by inter-blending soft washes of warm and cool colours.
  • Your paintings would be boring without atmospheric dimension. Atmospheric conditions give your paintings depth.

State of boundaries:

The state of these outline boundaries is important in the relationship between objects and their surroundings.

  • If objects have neat and clear contour edges, the object will stand out (alone) away from their background. Sharp contour edges drawn attention to the object. This is  partly done at the main point of interest.
  • If the outline of the objects are blurred and blend somewhat with its surroundings, the objects settle comfortably in their surroundings

Smooth transitions:

The melding relationship of the objects and their surroundings creates a smooth easy visual transition through your painting.

  • Gradation of colour and tone surrounding sharp-edged contours, eg: softening silhouettes with auras.
  • Radiation of auras around objects and within foliage pinholes against bight skies.
  • Dropping-in colours in previous washes, create blurred suggestions of things and colour variations of shadows.
That is what is so wonderful about watercolours. Watercolours make it possible to blend and merge colours and contours easily. You can create such gorgeous atmospheric vistas with watercolours, easier and better than any other medium. All it needs is a wet brush on wet paper. The amount of liquid depends on the effect you wish to create.

A lot about nothing:

Even though the open areas are non-descriptive, it can reveal out of focus objects, such as blurred grass and weeds blowing in the wind, suggestions of rocks and stones, etc. This type of out-of-focus area can be interesting, yet vague. The vagueness allows the eye to travel smoothly into and around the painting easily. Any detail and contrast there is, is there to catch, lead and direct the eye to the main point of interest.

Blurring of negative space.

A5 Watercolour: Flood of light through the mist.

Painting description:

The contrast of colours and temperature makes the painting exciting. The emphasis and contrast of tone is put on the trees and grass. In reality the basic format of the picture consists of only trees and grass! Even through the painting is filled with detail -the blurred areas counteract the busyness of the finer detail. The painting would have been even more complicated if a house, road or people had been added to the format.

MORE: You will find more on how to paint atmospheric watercolours on the page: Free art books. Just download the watercolour art book there, it’s a free download.