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.

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