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Watercolour is such a beautiful medium, but many sketchers experience frustration that that beauty seems out of reach.
Let’s face it. Watercolour can look washed out and a bit flat. Then again, it can be rich and vibrant. A little knowledge of a few simple watercolour techniques goes a very long way. In this article, I will show you how five different ways with watercolour – all of them very easy – can make a huge difference to a sketch.
There’s nothing weak or washed out about the colours in this sketch. Watercolour can be as rich as you want it to be!
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The ultimate goal is to walk that very fine line between control and being out of control. I feel I’m just beginning to tread that line – and it’s exciting.
Using watercolour in an urban setting presents challenges that are different to those you’ll find in nature. You’ll likely be looking for bright, intense colours where there are man-made subjects, and soft, more muted colours in a natural setting. But they both need to be treated in a way that lets the beautiful heart and soul of your paint to shine through.
I’m going to share some secrets to using successful watercolour techniques. Of course, they’re not secrets, but it can feel like that. You see some artists’ work and you wonder how they can be using the same brand of paint that you are, but have such different results.
Things That Look Nice
In this article I’ll show you how to:
– make your colours glow through glazing
– use wet-on-wet techniques for soft and creative effects
– use playful, creative application of colour
– leave areas white to bring lightness, three-dimensionality and highlights to objects
– make colour pop through exaggeration and deepening of colour next to edges.
Things That Look LESS Nice
I will also explain how undesirable effects happen
– how muddy colour forms (poking around in paint before it’s dry but after it’s still very wet)
– how blooms form (adding lots of watery paint to not-yet-dry paint)
– how visible brushstrokes form (allowing paint to sit, even briefly, before blending out and softening the edges)
– how colour looks too washed out (usually down to not using enough paint, or not enough layers, or adding paint to wet paper)
I will introduce five ways to make watercolour deep and vibrant and with colour that pops, as follows:
1. Wet-on-wet – where wet paint is added to fresh, wet paint
2. Creative colouring – using multiple colours on a uniform plane for a lively effect
3. Making colour pop – where deeper colour is added to objects at edges, where planes meet
4. Glazing – where wet paint is added in layers to completely dry paint
5. Leaving areas white – (for highlights and to lift an area of watercolour, or to suggest sunlight)
These five squares illustrate the techniques I’d like to demonstrate. If they are new to you, it’s a good idea to draw five squares of your own (in pencil or waterproof ink!) and try them out.
The first two watercolour techniques, Wet-on-Wet and Creative Colouring, are as follows:
Clean water is added to your (clean spot in) your palette. You load your brush with a decent amount of paint – about half of the brush – and it’s added to the water on your palette to make a wash. It’s important that there are no heavy, undilute blobs of paint on your brush, as these can quickly stain your page and be difficult to lift.
Once on the page, and while the paint is still completely wet, you can add one or more of these washes and you’ll make a lovely soft blend of colour as they run into each other. The colour possibilities are endless. You’ll start with nice colours running into each other, but soon you’ll allow them to run all over the place, doing their own special dance where you’re not really the choreographer any more.
2. Creative Colouring:
A flat area of uniform colour is given life and variety by adding two or more colours to a single object. You’ll see a few examples in this article. It’s a combination of wet-on-wet and going off-piste. What selection of colours is up to you, and while you might want to start by adding harmonising tones, you might find yourself becoming more courageous, adding colours that don’t “go” well together. It’s your playground! Do what you like and never fear experimentation.
I wanted to suggest the delicate colours of these shellfish, but I wanted to keep it light and loose. The wet-on-wet technique, plus a little creative colouring, gives the right lively effect.
Practice these two techniques. Choose a subject – something a little flat and without colour variation but in a strong colour, would be ideal. A brightly coloured cushion would be perfect.
Keep the paint nice and wet, and let the colours swirl around.
Don’t add too much water, or the colour won’t be strong.
Don’t wet the page with clear water first, or the colour will be very washed out.
You’re looking for a nice soggy brush, with lots of paint on it.
Here’s another example of Creative Colouring, where I used lots of shades of orange, brown and rust for a roof that was more or less the same colour:
3. Making Colour Pop:
We all love that emotional response you get when you see a sketch with colour that pops. It’s like the artist has understood at a deep level how to make colours complement each other. They may well have. I know that as a child I spent blissful hours arranging and rearranging the colours in my packet of markers in combinations that looked good. I think lots of youngsters do it – and now my daughter spends ages rearranging colours in exactly the same way – but on her phone, with an app called Hue. It must be instinctive to want to put order on colour!
You don’t need to have the ability to see what colours look well together – after all, what you find beautiful might be unique to you. But you can make your colours pop nonetheless, using a very easy technique.
Look at the scene before you. There is likely to be a series of planes, with some things in the foreground, others in the background. I used this sketch of two bags of flour to illustrate my point.
The first picture is the outline.
In the second picture, I’ve given a light wash over the two bags. This is only the first stage! You’ve probably heard of layering in watercolour: however, for a realistic effect, you’ll need to define which areas need darkening, and which you should leave nice and light. That’s where you just ahve to look carefully, and think about what you see.
The third picture is key. Suddenly the bags appear to pop! Can you see what I have done to make the colours stand out? The technique is simple, and I’ll explain the reasoning behind it.
All you have to do is deepen up the colours in the narrow area where one item is behind another. I used to think that this was just a construct of watercolour, something that isn’t there but looks good in a watercolour sketch. Then I looked carefully at some objects, one in front of the other, and I realised that indeed the object in the background is SLIGHTLY darker just at the point where it meets the border with the object in front of it.
Makes sense? Arrange two objects in front of you. Place one in front of the other, and look carefully at the colour of the object behind, where it meets the edge of the foreground object. Can you see that it is almost imperceptibly deeper there? I hope so. If you exaggerate this small darkening, you will make the colours pop. In the example above, I deepened all the colours on the bag with the red bottom. I added a darker colour to the colour I had used, but not one that would alter it too much. I also made sure the original colour I used was less dilute than in the first wash. For example, I added yellow ochre to Naples yellow; a tiny bit of burnt umber to alizarin crimson for the red stripe at the bottom; a very dilute bit of indigo where the bag has white bits, and so on.
Try it! I think you’ll be pleased with the results.
Glazing is the term used for adding fresh wet layers of watercolour onto paint that has already dried. It’s a very controlled way to work, and you can achieve great depth of colour this way.
The most important thing to remember when glazing is to let a layer dry thoroughly before adding the next. If you don’t do this, the layer underneath will lift, or you’ll make a muddy effect – neither of which is good.
In this example of pumpkins, you can see how the colours are wishy-washy before I build them up through layering. You’ll keep the vibrancy of the colour underneath as long as you remember to let the colour underneath dry thoroughly.
It’s also a good example of the use of colour-popping technique, where the orange of the pumpkins behind others is deepened up next the the boundary edge.
5. Leaving White for Highlights:
This is a really bog topic, and I can only touch on it here. In a nutshell, the more white you leave, the lighter the touch you’ll create. On a technical level, you should always leave white where strong sunlight hits an edge. But it goes deeper than that: for some reason, leaving seemingly-random white patches in a sketch really lends itslef well to watercolour. Of course, you’ll always leave a white bit in the centre of a spherical object to show the light hitting it. The sketch above shows that well. In keeping with the pumpkin theme, here are are few more examples:
Try to get used to leaving areas white, even when they aren’t white in reality. Identify the part of the subject that light is hitting and don’t give it any colour. In strong sunlight you can leave a hard edge between it and the colour next to it, in soft light you can blend out the colour to clear water.
Here’s another example of a subject where I have used highlights of unpainted white paper. Other techniques are used as well, wet-on-wet and glazing being the most obvious:
The statue was easy in the sense that the marble was white to begin with, but the tops of the leaves weren’t. However, I felt the only way to capture the brilliance of the sunshine on them was to leave them white.
Blooms, Mud and Other Watercolour Timing Faux-Pas
I’m often asked, “How do you fix a bloom?” The answer is you can’t, but you can avoid them happening if you know how they form. If you add clear water to an area of paint that has started to dry, you’ll create a bloom. I used to fear them, but oddly, I now embrace them – and even contrive to form them, because they look very pretty. It does take confidence though. Try making one yourself!
I don’t embrace muddy paint, on the contrary, I avoid them like the plague. I like my colours to be clear and true and not muddy! If you add wet paint to paint that is nearly dry (as opposed to starting to dry) you will lose the translucent effect of watercolour that we all love so much. Muddy is different from muted – you can still have light-filled watercolour with muted colours…but mud is not desirable!
Practice deliberately adding more paint at different stages of drying time. Soon it will be instinctive.
3. Colour lifting
If your paint doesn’t end up muddy, adding fresh colour to almost dry paint can also do something just as bad – lift what you’ve already put down. That is another effect that is very hard to fix. If it happens, just be patient, wait for it to dry thoroughly and then have another go at smoothing it out.
4. Wishy-Washy Watercolour
If you don’t put on enough paint – whether in glazing, wet-on-wet or however you apply it – your colour will look weak and unattractive. Also, make sure you are using artists’ watercolours as opposed to students, or you’re losing out on intensity before you even start.
5. Visible Brushstrokes
Make sure not to let an area of paint sit without blending out the edges, if you need to work on some other part of the page. Blue especially tends to stain very quickly – just brush out the edges with clean water and you can come back to it at your leisure.
Here’s a last sketch that shows some of the techniques I’ve mentioned. As you can see, between the five techniques there is a wide variety of effects achievable.
These five techniques are not to hard to practice, but if you get used to the question of timing and how it affects watercolour, you’ll have learned a lot.