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Watercolor Painting:

The Basics and More

atercolor is pigment sus-
pended in a water-soluble
vehicle or base (usually gum arabic).
When mixed with water, the pigment
particles can spread out across the
page. You control how the pigment
blends and fows by regulating how
much water you use.
This medium has always been
perceived as very unforgiving, offer-
ing the artist little control. However,
the transparent effects and lumi-
nous washes possible with water-
color are unrivaled.
Watercolors are much less toxic
than many other media, and manu-
facturers are continually working on
improving and producing nontoxic
substitutes for the cobalts, cadmi-
ums and lead-based paints. When
using these colors, fnd a way to dis-
pose of your dirty water so as not to
endanger waterways.
Watercolor is available in differ-
ent grades and a variety of forms.
Experiment to fnd out what you like
and what works in your paintings.
Cakes of color usually have
very little glycerin, so the hues
appear concentrated. If you do
use this type of paint, soften
Autumn Sky
(watercolor on 140-lb cold-pressed paper, 12x10)
This article is excerpted from Watercolor Essentials 2009 by artist Birgit OConnor (www. and is used with permission of North Light Books, an imprint of F+W Media
Inc. Visit or your local bookseller, or call 800/448-0915 to obtain a
copy. OConnor is also the author of Watercolor in Motion (North Light Books, 2008). The self-
taught artist has shown her luminous paintings all around the world.
it by adding water to each color
before you begin.
Pans are similar to cakes but have
more glycerin, making them semi-
moist and easier to use.
Highly concentrated colors in
bottles are striking; however, since
these liquid colors are so strong, a
little can go a long way. Also, these
paints arent usually lightfast and
can fade over time.
Tube colors, my personal favorite,
have a moist, creamy texture that
blends beautifully when mixed on
the palette or on paper.
Make sure that you have a large enough
palette with a large mixing surface so that
you have room to mix a couple of dierent
combinations at a time.
Tere are several ways to set up your palette.
You can arrange your colors in groupings of lights
and darks or warm and cool colors, or you can cre-
ate a color wheel so that complementary colors
are opposite each other.
My basic materials list
Brushes: No. 30 natural-hair round, Nos. 8, 14, 20 sable/
synthetic-blend rounds, Nos. 3, 8, 20 synthetic rounds, wash
brush (21/2-inch bamboo hake brush, sky ow or mop)
No. 2 pencil or B art pencil
Vinyl eraser
Plastic one-gallon or two-gallon
water container
Paper: 140-lb. Arches cold-pressed
watercolor paper (for exercises),
300-lb. Arches cold-pressed
watercolor paper (for paintings)
Plastic palette with cover
Paper towels (to lift out excess
water and create texture)
Hair dryer (to speed up the drying
process and prevent unwanted
backwashesbe sure to apply
heat evenly)
Old terry cloth towel (to keep your
painting surface clean and remove
excess water from brushes)
Transparent watercolors
Large, plastic-cov-
ered palettes work
very well. Theyre
light for traveling
and inexpensive
enough that you
can keep several
palettes with a
variety of colors for
dierent subjects.
I prefer medium-
depth at wells.
Water tends to
accumulate in the
bottom of deeper
wells, making the
color too diluted.
watercolor essentials
Watercolor brushes can be expensive, but a few good brushes
can last almost a lifetime if you take care of them. Te most
common brush types are the following:
Round brushes are very versatile. Their brushstrokes
range from wide and rounded to thin and delicate.
Rounds create a soft, organic feel.
Flat brushes are angular and stiff. They create a
deliberate, hard-edged appearance. Flats are good for
both wide and thin strokes.
Filbert brushes are fat with a rounded point. They
are useful for blending edges.
Cats tongue brushes are flbert-style brushes with a
Fan brushes have spread-out bristles in a fan shape.
Detail brushes have tips that are short, pointed and
Line or liner brushes have long thin tips and are
good for detail lines.
Sword/dagger brushes create interesting brush-
strokes, ranging from wide to very thin. They work
well for painting fence lines and ropes.
Different brush fbers produce different results. Blends
and synthetics work well for more controlled paintings,
while natural brushes hold more water and color and are
softer, creating looser paintings.
Natural hair brushes hold the most water and are
soft enough to easily layer color upon color without
lifting previous layers.
Synthetic brushes spring back to form quickly and
hold much less water than blended or natural-hair
brushes. Some higher quality synthetic brushes are
almost comparable to sable/synthetic blends.
Sable/synthetic blend brushes are a nice balance
between natural hair and high quality synthetics.
They can hold ample amounts of water and are soft
enough to layer without lifting.
Here are some of the interesting strokes
you can create with fan, mop, cats
tongue, round, at, lbert and sword
brushes (top to bottom).
watercolor essentials
There is a wide variety of fne art paper available; each paper reacts with
watercolor paint differently (see examples below, at left).
The hot-pressed sheet dries in the mold and then is run through heated
rollers. This paper is smooth, hard and not very absorbent. Hot-pressed
paper is ideal for drybrush techniques. It also works well for loose paint-
ings where backruns and blossoming can be used to your advantage.
The cold-pressed sheet is removed from the mold before the paper is quite
dry, then pressed without heat. Its semi-smooth and easily workable,
absorbing water and color well. Its the most commonly used surface for
The rough sheet is allowed to air-dry in the mold without any smooth-
ing or pressing. Color skips across the very rough, absorbent surface and
settles in the hollows, creating interesting effects. Rough paper is wonder-
ful for bold work.
In the scale for paper weights, the higher the number, the thicker and stiffer
the paper is. Lighter-weight papers such as a 90-lb or 140-lb tend to buckle
more and accept less water and handling. Heavier papers such as 300-lb are
able to accept more water, lifting, reworking and general handling. Standard
watercolor paper weights include 90-lb, 140-lb and 300-lb, with some new addi-
tions now available in 260-lb and 400-lb weights.
Paper is sold in various formats. Blocks are pads of mold-made, 100-percent
cotton paper with sealed adhesive edges. Blocks come in a variety of sizes and
eliminate the need for stretching.
Sheets are available in various sizes. A standard full
sheet is 22x30, a single elephant is 253/4x40, a double
elephant is 30x40 and a triple elephant is 40x60.
Ten-yard rolls of 441/2-inch paper are a very economi-
cal way to purchase paper. You can cut any length you
want. To remove the memory of the curl, cut your paper
to the desired length and soak it in a tub; then hang it on a
line with clothespins, or mount it to a board with staples.
Sizing is a glaze applied to paper to make it more resis-
tant to moisture absorption. Paper with both internal and
external sizing is best.
Traditionally in preparing the paper, most watercolor
artists soak and stretch their paper before painting. This
prevents buckling and allows you to use lighter-weight
papers. Stretching paper removes the surface sizing, which
then changes the fow of color for the initial wash. I prefer
to work with heavier, 300-lb paper because no preparation
(soaking or stretching) is necessary. I do not attach my
paper to boards because I want my paper to be fexible and
to bend if necessary.
Brush handling and care
If you take care of your brushes, they
can last a long time.
First and foremost, never leave
your brushes tip down in a jar or
water container, even if only for
a few moments. This can perma-
nently damage the tip.
Instead, keep an old terry cloth
towel next to your container.
Clean off your brush; then place
it on the towel.
Dip your brush in water before
you begin to prepare the tip.
Dip your brush in water before
dipping it into paint.
Avoid submerging the entire tip
in paint. Keep the color out near
the point, not by the ferrule.
Use watercolor brushes for
watercolor only.
Use only old inexpensive
brushes for masking fuid.
watercolor essentials
Setting the Tone With

y buddy jokes that I choose
bright, sun-flled subjects to
offset my quiet, sober personality.
The truth is: Painting subjects with
strong light and vibrant, high-key
colors evokes elements of my frst
lovedrawing. Working with pencil,
I model objects using shades of
gray; painting dazzlingly lit, color-
ful objects with watercolor, I create
dimension with clearly defned light,
middle and dark values.
As a former billboard painter,
I came to watercolor with the same
direct approach, and because Im
self-taught, I never learned that there
was any other way. I mix colors on
my palette, bring them to the appro-
priate levels of moisture, maybe do
a quick test or two on scraps of
paper, and then apply them directly
to the painting. No washes, no wet-
into-wet. I just mix the colors and
put them down, aiming at all times
to maintain maximum brilliance
and color intensity.
Follow along as I demonstrate my
process for developing luminous color
and share my best tips for creating
the illusion of light.
Keys to
In the photo that inspired Makin OJ (watercolor on paper, 24x18), light cascaded over the
orange halves and seemed to set them rolling across the paper. I was excited by the way
the crisp morning sunlight fell, from left to right, boldly on the rst orange, obliquely on the
next, with the last cast in shadow and lit from within by light transmitted through the fruit
itself. I was intrigued by the challenge to capture the luminous cellular quality of the juicy
cut oranges and their mottled rinds in a dynamic, high-key painting.
Keeping Colors Bright
The most obvious way to keep
colors bright and luminous is to lay
down pure, transparent paint on
white paper, but you can also make
color appear more or less brilliant
in relation to the colors placed next
to it.
In Squeeze Me First! (left),
for example, the oranges in sun-
light get a boost from those cast
in shadow. The value difference
makes them jump off the page,
but they also beneft from the jux-
taposition of strong against muted
color. The opaque quality of the
darks helps make the bright notes
seem more luminous as well.
In Fresh Squeezed (opposite),
the mostly overlooked dark note
in the juice, right in the center of
painting, provides key informa-
tion that defnes the color of the
juice in light. At the same time, it
tells much about the light pass-
ing through the dome of the juicer.
Similar comments could be made
about the darker blue-green notes
in this painting.
artists toolkit
Paper: I use Arches 140-lb. cold-pressed, typically in block sizes 14x20 and 18x24.
When the work calls for a unique size, I turn to Arches cold-pressed watercolor
board, which can be cut to whatever size I need and allows me to start painting
immediately, no stretching required.
Brushes: I love my Escoda Reserva Series 1212 Kolinsky-Tajmyr sable round brushes,
sizes 8 to 16. I also have a full quiver of Winsor & Newton Cotman synthetic rounds
that I use for down-and-dirty techniques, such as scrubbing and lifting, to which
I wouldnt subject my delicate kolinsky sables.
Paints: My rst choice is Winsor & Newton Artists Water Colour, but Daniel Smiths
quinacridones are also a staple on my palette. I use Aquacover by Creative Mark
when I need to recapture a highlight that Ive lost.
To begin Squeeze Me
First! (watercolor on
paper, 20x17), which is
bathed in bright sunlight,
I covered the paper with
a warm yellow wash
with the exception of
the white highlights
I wanted to preserve.
Next, I laid in a wash on
the central orange that
approximated its overall
color. To play o that
spot of color, I laid in a
color note for the cast
shadow to its right, then
a note for the aqua color
next to that, the yellow-
green next to that, and
so on around the piece.
watercolor essentials
As I watched my
wife twist and
crush oranges over
the ribbed dome
of the juicer for our
orange juice one
morning, a lightning
bolt of inspiration
struck. What was
once breakfast
was transformed
into still life. With
camera in hand,
I dragged every-
thing outside into
the brilliant morn-
ing sun. Bathed
in light, the juicer
turned magical.
Three of my best
watercolors, includ-
ing Fresh Squeezed
(watercolor on
paper, 17x15), came
from this shoot.
I often create a
quick, loose color
study before I delve
into a painting. In
this study for Fresh
Squeezed (far left),
I worked out the
composition and
tested many dif-
ferent color mixes
before I settled on
this palette.
A spread from my
color notes (left)
oers a sneak
peek into my color-
mixing process.
watercolor essentials
Preserving Highlights
Generally speaking, Im careful with my whites.
I paint around them if I can, use masking fuid
if I cant and, in rare cases, I use opaque white
paint to reclaim highlights.
In the upper left quarter of Makin OJ (page
59) you can see all three techniques at work.
The half orange facing the sun uses the white
of the paper for the center and the ring around
the edge. The tiny cellular highlights were
Although I
relish the often
unnoticed middle
and dark tones in
paintings such as
Sliced Citrus With
(watercolor on
paper, 14x20), for
me, color is all
there is.
Doing a color study such as the one above, I know pretty quickly
if the composition is a winner and if the colors are going to be a
challenge or not.
Despite the variety involved, mixing colors for the bright, juicy
fruit came fairly easily for this painting.
watercolor essentials
created with masking fuid. Directly above it,
the orange rind in sunlight nearly drove me
to distraction trying to capture the dimpled
effect of the ruddy rind. I had to use Aquacover
opaque white by Creative Mark to bring back
the highlights I had lost.
In general, if I want to work in broad
washesareas that cant be broken down into
small enough sections where I can work around
my highlightsI reach for Winsor & Newton
Colourless Art Masking Fluid.
For Cool Citrus (watercolor on paper, 24x18), I began
with a neutral gray wash a little lighter than what you see
in the upper left corner. An underpainting such as this
helps unify the cast of the nished piece.
see the light: 3 tips
1. Natural light appears dierent
every moment of the day. Morning
light can be bright but cool. Midday
light can be warm and hazy. Evening
light, which has traveled through the
days heated atmosphere, can cast
rosy hues.
2. Sunlight is typically warm. Water-
colorists often use the white of the
paper to depict sunlight, when, in
fact, the white of the paper can
appear quite cool.
3. Its the relationship between
colors that speaks the most about
light and shadow. If you see shad-
ows at all, its because they have
light in them. Where does this light
come from? Is the shadow reect-
ing the blue sky? Is it picking up
color from nearby objects? Resist
the tendency to go to your darkest
dark too quickly; leave something
in reserve. Indeed, youd be hard-
pressed to nd any really dark notes
in my paintings.
keep colors fresh: 3 tips
1. Steer clear of thin, diluted color. Take advantage of
the full range of color intensity available to you.
2. Start your painting by mixing a bright color. Apply the
color strong but not at full strength so you have some
wiggle room. Work in other colors around the bright and
see how they inuence one another: In comparison, one
color will be dominant and one subordinate; one warmer
and one cooler. It will become apparent which color needs
to be more intense and which less.
3. Once youre satised with your bright, leave it alone.
Let it be the anchor to which you key your remaining colors.
Adjust your middle and darker notes accordingly.
watercolor essentials
I started the full-size painting by covering the
entire 30x30-inch sheet of paper with a cool
blue wash, bathing the piece in shadow. I began
working in the upper left corner until I was com-
fortable with my green color mix. I then moved
to the center and began working on my blues. At
this stage, the colors were not yet at full inten-
sity; only later, when I could see the full illusion
take shape, would I work at full color strength.
Prep Work: Blue Planet (opposite) was too large
and complex to do a full-scale color study, so
I focused on a small section that contained all
the major colors. I tested a variety of blue and
green mixes before I was satisfed. The blue
mix I settled on consists of 60 percent Antwerp
blue and 40 percent royal blue. The green mix
consists of 80 percent permanent sap green, 10
percent quinacridone magenta and 10 percent of
the blue mix. The reds were gradations of opera
rose, permanent rose and quinacridone violet.
Building Color and Light One Step at a Time
color notes
For every painting, I make a series
of color notes in notebooks I keep
specically for this purpose. The
notes began as simple swatches of
color mixes, but eventually expanded
to include small color sketches as
well. My paintings can take 40 to 50
hours each to complete and, because
I still work a full-time job, I might
be working on a piece for months.
When I go back to a painting after a
week, sometimes longer, I dont have
to recall which colors I was using; I
simply refer to my color notes. They
also come in handy when I choose to
use similar still life elements for other
paintings. Many hours of color mixing
are already completed for me.
By the time I nished the painting, Id lled ve 11x15-inch sheets of my notebook
with color notes like the one above, which also included a small color study.
I began by working out the main blue and green mixes that would dominate
the painting; most of the colors I used sprang from these mixes or incorporated
one or the other in some way.
watercolor essentials
I continued in the
same manner, work-
ing to cover the entire
painting with color. Here
I focused primarily on
the values of my blues,
establishing the pattern
of lights and darks.
As every color was
infuenced by each sub-
sequent color I put down,
I needed to remain mindful
of the color relationships
I was creating and adjust
them accordingly. At this
stage, the main leaf in
the center had taken on
a bluish cast because the
truer greens around it
were too powerful. The
painting was becoming
a diagonal tug-of-war
between the blues and the
greens. To create balance,
I needed to bring out more
greens in the left half of
the painting. Choosing
pinks and red-violets that
would ft in was one of the
fnal challenges.
2 3
Before I was done,
I had completely
repainted the rose-
like succulent in
the bottom left cor-
ner at least three
times to get it right.
In all, Blue Planet
(watercolor on
paper, 30x29) took
about ve months
of Saturdays to
complete. Although
the painting may
not conform to
classic watercolor
rules for success,
Im pleased with
the results.
watercolor essentials
f you aim to fnd new, exciting subjects to paint, keep
in mind that its not just the objects in your paintings
that make the work unique, but also your interpretation
and the personal creativity you bring to them.
Golden koi are symbolic of love, good fortune and
strength. In the demonstration that follows, Ill show you
how to put a different spin on this oft-painted subject.
Harmonizing shape, color and movement will reinforce
the feeling of a quiet
moment found while
peering into the shal-
lows of a fsh pond.
Breaking forms into
multiple planes will
give the appearance of
volume and dimension.
Practice frst on a piece
of sketch paper so that
when it comes time to
paint, youll layer shape,
color and movement
with confdence.
Harmonize Shape,
Color and Movement
A Symbiotic Trio
In Summer Light (opaque
watercolor on paper, 7x7),
the brushstrokes guide the
eye in a clockwise direction
that leads to the center of the
painting, creating a swaying-in-
the-wind eect. The gold and
violet, and the red and green,
complement each other to add
a further sense of cohesion
to the vibrant painting.
Draw a plan for the
layers of sh
I draw the parts of the fsh that are
closest to me frst. The dorsal fn
and head of each are a good place
to start. Next, I add bodies and tails,
giving life and rhythm to my fsh by
curving the parts. After fnishing the
bodies, tails and side pectoral fns,
I give each fsh its own character
by varying the contour and size.
Draw and glaze
the top layer
Re-creating the frst layer of my
drawing on watercolor paper with
a pencil, I transfer two fsh from
my sketch. I glaze around the heads
and fns with pure red-orange (a
mix of permanent yellow-orange
and cadmium red deep). I dilute the
color to soften it, leaving a hard edge
to defne the shapes, and then let it
dry. Throughout the painting process,
each element is drawn and painted
one layer at a time.
Reduce the intensity
of the red-orange
I combine a touch of cobalt turquoise
with the red-orange mix to slightly
reduce the intensity. As the layering
continues through this piece, the
orange becomes progressively more
neutral, or grayed.
Make a hard edge
I follow my plan to sketch the
bodies of the fsh. Working in one
small section at a time, I paint the
slightly neutral red-orange along
the edge of one fsh.
Excerpted from Simplifying Design & Color for
Artists: Positive Results Using Negative Painting
Techniques by Linda Kemp (North Light Books,
2013). Available at
and wherever books are sold.
you begin
Consider the following as
you plan your painting:
Objective: Create harmony
in color, shape and move-
ment. Practice glazing
techniques for subtle
transitions in intensity
with touches of clean tints
and neutrals.
Simplied color concept:
Paint with changes in
intensity, working with
complementary colors.
Keep the values close.
Shape-making strategy:
Think round. Curves,
curls, circles and ovals
work together to unify
shape and movement.
Dynamic impact: Clean
tints appear luminous
when paired with neutrals.
Practical suggestions
for success: Let each layer
dry before progressing
to the next step.
tool kit
Surface: 140-lb. cold-
pressed or hot-pressed
watercolor paper, 5x7
Paints: cadmium orange,
cadmium red deep, cobalt
turquoise, permanent
Brushes: No. 12 or 14 round
Misc.: sketchbook or
sketch paper, pencil
watercolor essentials
Pull the color away
from the body
I wash the color away from the
fsh by dampening the paper
and creating a soft edge, gradually
transitioning the intensity of
the color.
Dilute the color outward
I continue to paint around the
forms, diluting the paint as its pulled
toward the edge of the paper. Then
I set the work aside to dry (or use a
hair dryer to speed the process).
Continue building
I follow my fsh blueprint to add
the fns and more levels of layering.
Based on the number of sections
Ive divided the painting into, this
requires several steps of sketching
and glazing.
5 6
watercolor essentials
Neutralize the color
as you add layers
For each new layer I add, the
red-orange becomes more grayed.
I accomplish this by increasing the
percentage of turquoise in the mix.
I test the paint as I work, adding
more water as needed to keep the
value from becoming too dark.
Add some pebbles
I paint the frst set of pebbles
under the fsh, accentuating the
stones round form and a circular pat-
tern to carry the theme through. Next,
I paint around the stones with grayed
color. Little hits of pure turquoise
create a jolt of color.
Scatter stones
I follow the same basic strat-
egy for building in the negative space
to add more pebbles. Im not paint-
ing the pebbles; Im painting around
them. I work slowly and let the paper
dry between steps.
Keep the motif going
My painting now has fve
levels of pebbles. Working from the
upper to the lower levels as I build,
the piles of pebbles get deeper.
9 10
watercolor essentials
Develop the inside details
Eyes and the fns bony spines can be added, but instead
of painting them in, I paint around them.
A United Front
The combination of color, shape and movement produces a calming,
quiet effect in the completed painting (below). The blended comple-
mentary hues, repetitive shapes of the pebbles and the semicircular
positioning of the fsh add up to a harmonious result.
Color, shape and movementas well as the bright shot of turquoise in the
center of the paintingdraw the viewers eye into The Love DanceGolden Koi
(below; watercolor on paper, 5x7).
watercolor essentials
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