Painting Watercolour from Life: Tips & Tricks

by Cass Art Student Ambassador

Watercolour is known as one of the trickiest art materials to conquer, so I'd like to start by saying kudos for taking on the challenge! While it can be difficult to master, watercolour is brilliant for a range of subjects and styles, from delicate still life studies, to expressive landscapes. It is also a great medium to use for drawing from life, as unlike oil paint or acrylic, it dries really quickly and often comes in small, easily-transportable sets.

An ideal watercolour painting should look fresh and spontaneous, but also carefully observed, which can be a difficult balancing act to get right. Practice makes perfect, and like me, you'll probably find that you produce one good piece for every twenty terrible ones. That being said, there are several techniques that you can learn to help you along the way- I used Cass Art's Artist Watercolour Professional Pack try a few of them out...

Layering with Colour & Detail

Watercolour is the perfect medium for layering, which can help to create a real depth of tone in your work. I began this piece by drawing out my landscape in pencil, and then slowly began adding paint; working from the lightest tones up to the darkest. Building a piece up with separate washes of colour allows you to pick and choose which areas you want to be the darkest or most vibrant. I started with a flat wash brush to set down the background blocks of colour, and worked into the piece with a size 1 Kolinsky sable brush, which is great for detail and mark-making.

The Arches Block watercolour paper I used is 640gsm, which is incredibly thick (regular printer paper is 80gsm) and brilliant for layering techniques- the higher the gsm, the more washes you can apply to it before it begins to bend or wrinkle. The paper allowed for a lot more detail and re-working in my piece than would have been possible with standard watercolour paper. 

Monochrome Studies

A big problem with watercolour is how easily the colour can turn muddy if you use too many washes. To avoid this, I suggest having a go at the ‘line and wash’ monochrome technique, which will help you to work out the values or tones of what you’re painting and save you from over-layering your piece. The picture above is made up of around five separate tones, which were painted one by one, from light to dark. This method teaches you to find the correct values without the need to keep applying washes. I took a black and white photo of my subject before painting, in order to better understand the relationship between light and dark.


Layering with Values

A traditional method of watercolour painting requires you to lay down your values first, and then layer washes of flat colour over the top of them. When the second layer of paint is applied, each colour takes on the tone of the shade beneath, creating an immediate effect of light and shadow. Once it has dried, you can work into your piece further with finishing details- using a fine brush at this stage will allow the delicate marks and brush-strokes to really stand out against the even surface of the background.


Spontaneity & Intuition 

Many watercolour techniques require a lot of time for preparation and consideration, but you may not want to spend too long planning your painting, and instead get straight into it! This can be great fun and just as effective.

Watercolour sets, such as the Winsor & Newton Artists' Metal Box of 24 Half Pans, often leave you spoilt for choice when it comes to colour, but I always recommend trying to limit your palette for each individual piece. Working within a set number of colours can help to make the final piece more harmonious, and gives you the freedom to go crazy in other areas of the creative process- experiment with sweeping brush stokes, stylised shapes and exaggerated compositions. You might also want to try adding some special effects using candle wax or oil pastels- applying one of these to the paper before painting will create a resist, and can give the effect of flickering light through trees, glistening water, or anything else you can imagine.

The Rest is Up to You...

Just keep practicing, experimenting and take inspiration from the masters; Sargent, Turner and Hockney. Most importantly- don’t give up!

Feeling Inspired?

Take a look at more of Josh's work.

Shop for the Artist Watercolour Professional Pack and other watercolour products online at Cass Art.

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