This guide to painting grass with watercolors. is based on my 25 years of experience of painting watercolor landscapes.
In it I’ve included 13 tips and techniques that hopefully will answer any questions you may have on the subject
Round watercolor brushes – using the point
Most artists would use a round brush as their primary implement when painting watercolors. This is why I’m going to show you this technique, because pretty much everyone will have a round brush in their kit.
When purchasing a round brush, the key thing to look for is that the brush, when wet, bounces back to a nice point and it holds a lot of paint.
When you’re using a round brush to create grass, you don’t start at the top and work down. You start at the bottom of the clump of grass and then flick up.
Figure 1: To paint grass with a round watercolor brush, flick up from the ground.
Then as you’re flicking up, you quickly raise the brush so that you’re left with a nice point at the tip of the grass.
Splayed hairs of round brush
Another technique is to splay the hairs of your brush.
Take about half of the paint from the brush, splay the hairs like this:
Figure 2: Splaying the hairs of a watercolor round brush
Then you can create a different texture with more of a broken edge to your grasses.
Figure 3: Grass painted with splayed hairs of round watercolor brush
Figure 4: Grass without any shadow looks like it is just floating on air
Then once you’ve painted the grass, remember there’s always going to be a shadow.
Otherwise, if you just leave the grass hanging like this, they look like they’re just floating on air. You can also use the point of the brush to create seed heads or flowers within the grass.
Figure 5: Grass with shadow to connect it to the ground
Linear perspective – grass in the distance appears smaller than in the foreground
When painting a landscape, grasses in the foreground are going to appear bigger than grasses in the distance. So if you’ve got some grass in the distance, make sure it’s smaller than the grass in the foreground.
Figure 6: Grass looks smaller in the distance
Painting Grass with Watercolors with a Rigger brush for finer lines
If you don’t have a round brush with a fine point on it, or if you want even thinner blades of grass, then you can use a rigger. A rigger is a brush with a long, thin brush head on it, typically used to create fine lines. For example, when painting power lines in a street scene or the rigging on a boat.
And like the round brush, you start at the bottom and flick up.
Figure 7: Use a rigger for even finer grass
One of my favourite brushes for painting grasses is the fan brush. I like to use stiff hog head brushes rather than the very soft synthetic ones. And I like a brush where the hairs are fairly separated like they are on this brush.
Figure 8: Fan brush that I use. It has stiff separated hog hairs.
You can use it many ways. Again, I like to start from the bottom and flick up, remember to change the direction.
It allows you to paint grass very quickly. You can also use it to put in the shadow.
In addition to flicking the brush to create the grass shape, you can dab it to put some seed heads in the grass, just press very lightly.
Figure 9: Grasses produced with a fan brush
In addition to painting the grass this way, you can change the angle of the brush to create thicker grasses if that’s what you’re after.
Generally, I use a combination of all three techniques when I’m painting grass with a fan brush.
Using masking fluid to mask out some blades of grass
The masking will preserve the white of the paper. Later we will lift the masking and we can do some adjustments to it.
Let the background dry.
Okay, now I can go in and paint some more grass. Quick flicks with my round brush.
Figure 10: Masking lifted
Throw in some shadow areas. These are the shadows where one blade of grass blocks the light onto another one.
Obviously, your flower heads could be any color. I’m just showing you the brush techniques here. We will dry this stage because you can’t remove the masking until the paper is bone dry. The best way to remove masking from your paper is with one of these crepe erasers.
It’s a particular rubber that gets attracted to the masking and it comes off very easy. I don’t recommend using your finger to rub the masking off. One, it can get quite painful under your fingernail. But two, the oils on your finger will then get into the paper and can affect how the watercolor flows on your paper.
Now we can go back in with some other colors and other brushes.
Where this technique is handy is if you had flower heads and you wanted to save that part of the paper for bright colors.
Figure 11: Masking on white paper bright flower color
If you painted and then masked, you wouldn’t get such bright colors because the paint underneath the marked area would dull your colors.
Painting an underpainting on my paper before applying the masking.
In this case the masking will preserve the underpainting color as the lightest tones within the grass.
Now we’ll let that dry. So now I can use my round brush, my fan brush or the rigor or a combination of all to paint the rest of the grass.
Now remove the masking with one of these crepe erasers. And you can see how the grass looks very light but it’s actually the color of the underpainting. We can now go in and finish this off.
When you look at grasses, they’re not just one regular shape. They’re varying heights, different angles, different tones due to the shadows, overlapping shapes, and different types of grass.
When I’m painting grasses like this, I try to capture the feeling of all of those effects.
Figure 12: Masking lifted leaving highlights that are the color of the underpainting
Using scraping as a technique to create both dark and light blades of grass.
When the wet paper has a lot of shine on it. If I was to scrape into that surface, instead of ending up with a light edge or a light blade of grass, I’d end up with a dark blade of grass. So, if I just get an old credit card or my fingernail, for me I prefer my fingernail because they use much more interesting shapes.
I vary the height and angle of the grass.
Figure 13: Dark blades of grass made by scraping into wet paint.
So now we’ve created dark blades of grass. And the reason this is happening is because the scraping cuts through the top layer of sizing and then the paint falls through that layer into the middle that is more absorbent. So here it’s absorbing a lot of that paint more so than on the surface and that’s what’s giving us these dark lines.
Now if I wait until that shine goes but the paper is still damp, then you’ll see I’ll be able to create some lighter shapes.
I can now go in and scrape in some lighter grass.
Figure 14: Scraping into damp non-shiny paint to create lighter grass
In some areas, where there’s a bit more moisture, you’ll get a combination of lighter and darker shapes.
Now we can go in and finish this.
Figure 16: Cow without grass connecting it to the ground.
You can use all these techniques, not just for painting grass, but also if you’re painting a flower bed or something similar.
Grass connects objects to the ground
Another thing grass does is it helps connect objects to the ground, whether they’re cows, fences, buildings, or rocks.
Figure 15: Cow without grass connecting it to the ground.
So, if we have a cow or some other animal without any grass underneath it, the cow is not connected to anything. If I get my fan brush and just by flicking some blades of grass under their legs the cows and other objects are now connected to the ground.
The same with fence posts, rocks, and buildings.
Figure 16: Cows, rocks and fences with grass under them.
Improving your composition with grass
This is just a typical landscape, some grass, trees, blue sky, and a building.
When you’re painting a landscape, the ground also conforms to what we call aerial perspective. Aerial perspective refers to the effect of the atmosphere where, similar objects like in this case the grasses, will be lighter, duller, bluer and softer or less distinct in the distance than in the foreground.
Figure 17: Completed watercolor landscape of simple farm scene
So, I started with this slightly dull green grass in the distance.
Then as I came forward, I added more of my Aureolin and Cobalt Turquoise, which started brightening up the grass.
Figure 18: Initial grass watercolor wash
You can see how already, in this area, there’s that feeling of depth in my painting. Now, right now, other than these white areas which I’ve left on purpose, some of which will become rocks, this area is relatively flat.
I can splatter some paint to add even more depth by adding more detail to the foreground. I picked up some of the green I’ve got and then vary it maybe with raw umber, and some of the other colors I’ve used. Maybe some French Ultramarine as well.
Figure 19: Splatter technique used in the foreground to add more depth and interest to the painting.
So now on the ground we have in the distance very little detail to duller colors and as I come forward those colors are getting brighter and stronger in tone. And that’s what’s helping give our painting some feeling of depth. Now before I do anything else on this, I’ll need to let it dry.
So, here’s a simple landscape. We’ve created some depth in the landscape. What else can we do with grass? Well, one of the things that grass can do is it can direct the eye.
For instance, if I just painted some grass and ran it all the way along the bottom of the painting, I would risk the eye just following that grass out of the painting. So, I would not position the grass like that.
What I would do instead is, in the foreground I paint some bigger grass.
And then as it moves further away it will become smaller.
It will also become a little bit lighter and duller. This is because the same thing that affected the ground will also affect the grass.
And without being too obvious, if the building is going to be our focal point, then we can use the grass to direct the eye in that direction.
Figure 20: Small farm watercolor landscape showing how grass can driect the eye to the focal point.
The grass, depending on where the light’s coming from, will have some sort of shadow.
You won’t necessarily see it in the distant grasses.
So, the grass is directing the eye into our focal point, which for this painting is the building.
And in the far distance, say along the bottom of the building, there would be some grass, unless the building is on concrete.
The grass helps break up a sharp edge, so that’s something else that grass does. And the same along fence lines. Quite often you’ll find the grass there is longer than in the open fields. Finally, another thing the grass does, it makes a boring area a lot more interesting.
By the way, with some of these little white shapes, I quite often either fill them in or put a dark mark underneath and turn them into rocks with a little highlight on top. I also leave some untouched as they add extra areas of interest in the foreground.
Large foreground shadows on grass
Figure 21: Farmland with large foreground shadow over grass
Now we’re going to have a look at how you paint grass in an area of your painting that has a very strong shadow. I’ll start by mixing some shadow colour.
In a bright blue sunny day, shadow colour will be a mixture of French Ultramarine, a little bit of Permanent Rose. If you don’t have a Permanent Rose, Alizarin Crimson will work just as well. I then add a small amount of Burnt Sienna.
I’ll begin by painting the ground without any of the shadow colour first.
Within a shadow you’ll find other shapes, if you go and look at a lawn for instance, it won’t be just one flat colour. If you look close to it, you’ll see dark shapes, some undulations that cause different shapes. To make this area a little bit more interesting, I’ll splatter some paint.
I’ll just mix some different colours, stronger greens, slightly different greens.
Maybe even splatter some water.
Now I let that dry. What you must remember is that grass is not a flat object, so when a shadow is cast on it, at the edge there’ll be some blades of grass that are in shadow and other blades of grass that are in sunshine. Too often people paint shadows on grass, and they paint very sharp edges on the edge of the shadow and that looks very artificial. So, let’s assume that there’s some object outside our picture plane, like a tree or something like that, it’s casting a shadow across our grass like this. And if it’s a tree there’ll be gaps in it where the light comes through leaves or gaps in the leaves.
Let’s say something like that. Then remember we’re trying to give the impression of grass on this surface. We paint, with our shadow colour, at the edges, here and there some grass.
And so, the dark blades of grass are the blades that are in shadow and then the negative shape or the shape between the grass can also read as grass in sunshine. Now you can also go into these areas and add some other colours if they look too flat. And then you can also paint out of there with some brighter grass that’s not in shadow.
Figure 22: Large shadow on foreground grass painted with watercolors
Grass in water
When we’re painting grass in water, quite often near a water’s edge you’ll have some grass that’s growing up in the shallows.
And in that case, you must give some thought to the subject of reflections. So, I’m going to give you a little demonstration of that.
Figure 23: Watercolor painting of reeds in water with reflections
I’ll do a very quick pale wash of slightly brown water.
But in the water, we’re going to have some grass as well. Grass or reeds, they’re all relatively thin vertical plants. Let’s paint our grass. I’m going to just use my rigger for these.
When you have grass in water you have to look at their reflections.
The reflections must lean in the direction of the reeds or grass.
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