Simple watercolor painting using candle wax

Candle wax can be used to protect the highlights or white passages in your watercolor painting. I have used it to create the impression of waterfalls, white foam on the sea, and to save highlights on rocks. This simple watercolor painting using candle wax was done with only a few colors and some quick watercolor washes. It is one of the early exercises I have all my beginner watercolor students do.

The trick with using candle wax is to understand the surface of your paper and what effect you are trying to produce. If you press lightly, less wax will be deposited on the paper surface. If the paper is textured, rather than smooth, you will get a broken edge of white unless you press very hard. The easiest way to learn the properties of wax on watercolor paper is to try it. Any experimenting you do on various papers and candle sizes will be beneficial.

The wax creates a barrier on the paper surface so that it stops the paint from sticking to its surface.

The one big negative about using wax on your watercolor paper is that it is permanent. You can’t remove it and you can’t paint over it. So you have to really need or want to use it and you have to know exactly where you want to place the wax.

Materials for using wax on watercolor paper

  • Arches 300gsm Cold Pressed (also known as Medium) watercolor paper, eighth sheet (approx. 7.5″ x 6″ (19cm x 14cm).
  • Brushes: Round — Sizes 24 and 12 for larger washes and 8 for the smaller areas and detail.
  • Paints: All Winsor and Newton — Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cad Orange.
  • Backing board
  • Masking tape
  • Old towel to control wetness of your brushes
  • Pencil, tissues, and large water container that holds about 3 pints.
  • Clear (white) candle


I did a very light drawing of where the rocks would go.

Image showing me drawing with a candle where the highlights in my watercolor painting are to be preserved
Once a very pale drawing is done showing where the rocks will go I drew in the highlights with my candle wax
Image showing how to save highlights on rocks with candle wax
Using candle wax to preserve highlights on rocks

Watercolor under painting

Before laying down my first wash I mixed my sky colors in my palette. The colors used were Cobalt Blue with a touch of Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Alizarin Crimson on its own, and some Cad Orange on its own.

By premixing my starting colors I can paint the big washes very quickly.


Photo of watercolor palette showing colors mixed before starting watercolor painting
Colors mixed before starting watercolor under painting

I start my under painting with the Cobalt Blue and Permanent Alizarin Crimson mix. I lay this wash down at a bit of an angle so that the sky does not have a horizontal look. Your brush must be fully loaded with paint. (A fully loaded brush is one that if you hold it vertically, with the point down, it will drip.)

Each wash of watercolor paint must be wet enough that it easily flows down the paper and forms a bead of paint at its bottom. You have to paint it very quickly or you will get streaks in the sky.

After you lay the first wash down, quickly load up your brush with the Permanent Alizarin Crimson and run this along the bottom of the blue wash. I run my brush about a quarter to a half brush thickness from the bottom of the first wash. You have to paint each wash fast enough that you can see the watercolors flow down your paper. If you are not seeing this then you are not loading up your brush with enough paint or you are moving the brush too slowly.

Repeat the above with the Cad Orange mix down to the distant horizon.

image showing painting of the sea
Painting the sea with French Ultramarine added to the left over blue sky mix

I then added some French Ultramarine to the blue mix in my palette and used this to paint the water down to the sand which was a just Raw Umber.

Photo of painting the sea and sand with watercolor
Painting the sea and sand. Notice the whole painting is just one wet wash at this stage

The sea area was a bit weak so I added more pigment while the painting was still wet to strengthen the sea color. I then dropped in a much stronger mix of the sea color under the wet waves.

image of stronger watercolor mix added under the waves to add more form
Add thicker mix of sea color under the waves

I let the under painting dry thoroughly at this stage!

Once the under painting was totally dry, I painted the rocks with a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. While the rocks were still wet I used a clean damp brush and softened the edges that touched the sand — ­quite often you will see damp sand, even little pools, around the edges of rocks near the sea.

watercolor painting of rocks on sand
Paint the rocks with a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna

 Finished simple watercolor painting using candle wax

The painting was completed with the addition of a few squiggles on the sand to represent sea weed or other flotsam and jetsam that ends up along the shore. In this case the squiggles are used to break up the sand area into more interesting shapes.

This type of painting can be done very quickly and is a good exercise for teaching beginner watercolor artists how to handle quite wet washes.

The birds would probably have been better left without the wax and then just placed in later with a dark color or white gouache.

Image of completed simple watercolor painting using candle wax
Finished simple watercolor painting using candle wax.

Mastering Watercolors – a practical guide

My three year project to write a book to assist artists with their watercolor painting is now complete. Both a paperback and eBook version are available from Amazon.

Watercolor is a magical and often challenging medium. However, once mastered, it will reward you with  the pleasure of creating striking works of art of infinite variety.

Mastering Watercolours by Joe Cartwright
Click on image to purchase from Amazon

I have been painting with watercolors for over 18 years and have been teaching for more than ten. I love the challenge of watercolor painting, and especially enjoy finding simple ways to explain and teach this wonderful medium.

Through this book, I set out to clear up widespread misconceptions about painting with watercolors. These common confusions hold watercolor artists back from achieving their full potential. I have tried to fill it with practical advice and techniques. My aim was to simplify watercolor painting to assist you in your personal watercolor adventure – so you could enjoy the journey!

Here are some of the topics covered in the book:

  • Key points that will move your work to a new level
  • Watercolor basics
  • How to fix watercolor paintings
  • Step by step demonstrations
  • Understanding the importance of water and time when painting with watercolors
  • Solutions to watercolor painting problems
  • Reflections and shadows explained
  • How to paint outdoors with watercolors
  • Perspective for landscape and urban street scenes
  • How to paint water scenes
  • What are tones and how to see them
  • Selling your artwork

Click here to purchase from Amazon

Watercolor painting demonstration – Pughs Lagoon

The subject of this scene is really the early morning light on the grassed hillside. Pughs Lagoon is about 30 minutes from my home and a popular site for local artists. This painting was done en plein air and, as I was quite happy with the result, I thought I would go through the steps I took to complete it.

Because of the rapidly changing light, these situations require quite fast painting and a clear idea of the steps you need to take to capture the subject – in this case it was the light. I was at this same location the week before so I already had a good idea of the painting I wanted to create before I arrived.

Photo of Pughs Lagoon, Richmond, NSW, Australia
Pughs Lagoon, Richmond, NSW, Australia


  • Paper: Arches 300gsm Cold Pressed watercolor paper, quarter sheet (approx. 15″ x 11″ (38cm x 28cm)).
  • Brushes: Round, sizes 24 and 16 for larger washes, and 12, 10 and 8 for smaller areas and detail.
  • Watercolor paints: All Winsor and Newton artist’s quality, Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Turquoise, Aureolin and Cad Orange.
  • Other items are: 0.7mm HB clutch pencil, fine mist spray bottle, stiff backing board, masking tape, old towel to control wetness of your brushes, tissues and simple watercolor easel. Collapsible water container.
  • Lightweight plein air painting easel

Drawing and watercolor under painting

Image of Simple drawing and watercolor under painting
Simple drawing and watercolor under painting

My sketch was kept light, focusing on the two buildings and the water line. I also indicated where the two major tree groupings would go. The trees were not drawn in any detail. As I was focusing on the light on the hill, I placed the waterline at about 20% up from the bottom of my watercolor paper.

Once the drawing was done, it was then time for the under painting. Notice that I kept the lagoon area dry. You cannot do this section until the rest of the painting is done, otherwise you would not know what to put in the reflections.

The watercolors I used for the under painting were Cobalt Blue and Cad Orange for the sky. Both were mixed with a lot of water as they would make up the lightest section of the painting. It is better for the sky to be too light than too dark. Winsor and Newton’s Cad Orange is a very yellow orange and is used with plenty of water or it will appear opaque. If your orange is too red, like with the fruit orange, it may be better to use Yellow Ochre instead.

The greens were mixed with various mixes of Cobalt Turquoise, Aureolin and Raw Umber for the lighter passages. A small amount of French Ultramarine was added for the darker ones. Here and there I also used a touch of Burnt Sienna.

As you can see, all the edges in the sky, tree and hill area, apart from a few left highlights, are all soft. This means they were painted wet on wet.

The paper was not pre-wet.

My plein air watercolour setup at Pughs Lagoon
My plein air watercolor setup at Pugh’s Lagoon

The sky was painted all the way down to the water’s edge, though with a lot more water in the mix in the hill area. I then immediately went in with the tree and grass under painting. It was the wet sky wash that gave me all the lovely soft wet on wet edges for the trees and grass.

The angle of my easel was at about 40 degrees. When I paint outdoors I keep my board at a steeper angle to allow me to paint with less water. The steeper board angle lets the watercolors flow as they would with more water but at a lower angle. This allows me to keep my paper a littler drier while still creating the same effects I can produce in my studio work. As I don’t have access to a hair dryer when painting outdoors, the drier I can keep my paper the faster it will dry fully so I can move on to the various stages of my painting. It still has to be wet enough for the watercolors to flow however.

I let this stage dry totally – both the paint and paper.

Painting the trees and shrubs

Painting trees and buildings with watercolor
Painting trees and buildings

With the under painting totally dry it was time to paint the trees, shrubs and buildings. Starting on the left with the trees, I moved from left to right also painting the buildings as I moved along. The trees and shrubs were painted with the same colors as those used for the underpainting, though with varying mixtures of paint. Less water was used, creating thicker mixes to strengthen the tones, which allowed the trees to be contrasted from the grass on the hill.

The sides of the buildings were painted with a very weak mix of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, and Cobalt Blue. The building in the distance had a little more blue in the mix as it was further away. The chimneys were painted with Burnt Sienna and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. The colors for the roof were French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. The distant roof has more water in the mix to push is further away in the picture plain.

Picture of how to paint the shadows after trees and building were completed
The shadows painted after trees and building completed

As I continued to work from left to right ­­- right to left if you are right handed – I kept varying the colors and tones used, to create an interesting composition. I took inspiration from the view in front of me but I was not constrained to place everything where I saw it. My main intention was to create an engaging work of art, not a replacement for a photograph.

Painting the Shadows

Once the trees and the building were completed I quickly added the shadow shapes. These not only anchored the objects to the ground but were critical to giving the painting its feeling of bright morning light. My shadows were painted with a mixture of French Ultramarine and Permanent Alizarin Crimson; the mix has to lean towards the blue not the red however.

In a couple of areas I had splashed on (with my brush) some clean water. In this way, when the shadows were painted, they produced some nice soft edges as they hit the wet spot. Make sure your shadow color is already mixed before you splash on the water, or else it will dry before you start painting your shadow, thus defeating its purpose.

Image showing what happens if some clean water is splashed here just before the shadow was painted
Some clean water had been splashed here just before the shadow was painted

 Painting the water of the lagoon

The water was painted with the same green colors with a touch of Burnt Sienna to grey them off.  Reflections on water are always a little duller than the objects being reflected. I used this time to sharpen the shapes of some of the grasses on the water’s edge with mixes of Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and French Ultramarine. Remember to make your reflections directly below the object being reflected, and towards the bottom of your paper.

Finishing my plein air watercolor painting

I let the lagoon area dry thoroughly, and then painted the final details. These included the birds and logs in the water along with their reflections. I also added a few clumps of grass on the hill and a small leafless tree near the buildings. I make sure not to overdo this however. Objects such as these are placed only with balance and composition in mind. Just because something is there doesn’t mean you have to include it or that you can’t move it.

Watercolor Painting of Pughs Lagoon by Joe Cartwright
Pughs Lagoon watercolor painting 14.5″ x 10.5″ (37cm x 27cm)

I hope this watercolor painting demonstration may inspire you to get your paints out and go plein air painting as well.

Plein air watercolor painting problems

Sometimes plein air watercolor painting problems seem tougher than at others due to non-ideal conditions, if you are on holidays and are there to paint then you just have to try and make the best of your environment. I recently spent 4 days painting at a little New South Wales town called Glen Davis. The daytime temperatures got up to around 99 degrees (37 degrees Celsius), the wind was also quite strong. These conditions, in addition to annoying visits from flies and biting insects made plein air painting with my watercolors quite a challenge.

Glen Davis is situated in the Capertee Valley, from which the Capertee River flows. The valley forms a canyon that is the widest in the world (larger than the Grand Canyon). Glen Davis is located north of Lithgow, New South Wales, off the road to Mudgee.

Capertee Valley from Pearsons Lookout
Capertee Valley from Pearsons Lookout

The town and its surrounds are an artist’s paradise with magnificent views all around.

Glen Davis cliffs at sunset
Glen Davis cliffs at sunset

Plein air watercolor painting problems and solutions

My strategy was to try and get some painting done very early each day, while the temperature was still quite pleasant, even fresh for a little while, before it got too hot. So I would grab a quick cup of coffee and head off to do a painting before breakfast. With the cooler weather my main concerns were the slow drying time of my paper and the rapidly changing light. I did one half sheet watercolor painting and 9 quarter sheet over the four days.

A common mistake plein air watercolor artists make is to try and continue working on top of a damp under painting. It is critical to make sure your under painting is totally dry before you start working on your second wash. To speed up the drying I placed my painting in my car and used its air-conditioning system to help dry it.

Other problems to overcome early in the day was the rapidly changing light, and atmospheric effects. One painting I did which managed to capture the last of the early morning mist required me to keep in mind just what the mist looked like when I first started to paint as it was long gone by the time I had finished my painting.

Last Mist - Glen Davis watercolor painting
Last Mist – Glen Davis watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

In another painting, with strong light and shadow shapes on the cliff faces I painted the shadow shapes at the same time I painted the sky, with a light version of the sky color. This allowed me to see just where the stronger shadows should go when I was ready to paint them. These shadows too had moved on by the time I was finishing the cliff face but having them recorded with the light sky color meant I had no problem.

Paint shadow areas with light sky color such as Cobalt Blue
Paint shadow areas with light sky color such as Cobalt Blue

Sometimes too, if I had my easel face on to the subject I was painting, it meant that the sun would be directly on my watercolor painting surface. This makes your work dry even faster, plus makes it harder to judge tones – to say nothing of it being hard on your eyes. This is where an umbrella is very useful but if you don’t have a suitable one then turn your easel around so that your board shades your work. You would then look at the subject and then look back down at your work and paint the next section.

Getting one painting done before breakfast usually meant I had at least one good painting for the day which made the rest of my efforts a lot more pleasurable.

Later in the day the problem was the reverse with my work drying too fast! Painting in the heat of the day requires a different technique.

As the heat and wind rose, I either stayed back at our camp or made some adjustments to my equipment and procedure to allow me to continue to paint.

I have a light umbrella which I use to shade my painting surface in those situations where there is no natural shade.

An umbrella can solve some plein air watercolor painting problems
An umbrella can solve some plein air watercolor painting problems

Also I would give my watercolor paper a light spray before starting my under painting. This spray of water was just to get the temperature of the paper down to give me a little more time before my wash would dry.

I also kept spraying my painted surface lightly with water to keep the shine on the paper as needed.

However despite this you will still find your watercolor washes will still dry very quickly. This is part of the plein air challenge. I use large brushes, e.g. a 24 round, for the initial under painting, after I have mixed much more paint than I needed. If you don’t mix enough you will run out part way through a passage and risk muddying up your watercolor wash as you try to mix more paint while your painting is rapidly drying.

Once the underpainting stage is done you can work in smaller areas with smaller brushes making the effect of the heat less important. Remember to still mix more paint than you need however. It is surprising just how fast your watercolor paint will dry in hot and windy conditions.

If you don’t want to mix lots of paint then just paint smaller and leave the bigger paintings till your skill and speed of painting improves.

Despite the heat one morning it was rain that was the problem. In this case there is nothing you can do but take you painting and hop into your car. Never try to continue with a watercolor painting in the rain. It doesn’t work!

Here are the watercolor paintings I produced over the four days:

How to use color thumbnails to change mood

Recently one of my students painted a nice watercolor seascape. Her reference photo was of a coastal scene at Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia. It was of a bright day and her original painting reflected this. However she wanted to change the mood of her painting and was not sure how to go about it. So I suggested that she creates a series of watercolor thumbnails to find the color combination that would provide the mood she was after.

Obviously there is a lot more to changing mood than just changing color, such as varying edges, adjusting areal perspective, even textural effects. However this is a simple way to make “a change” in the mood of your painting. For example,changing a sky color from blue to red or vice versa immediately alters the mood and feeling of your painting. I will write more about painting mood and how to change it, with other techniques, in future articles.

Reference photo

Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng
Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng

Original watercolor painting by Margaret Ng

Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng
Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng

After producing this painting, Margaret now wanted to paint the same scene but with a different mood.

Painting mood, color selection

Because she tended to put in too much detail when doing this type of exercise in the past I had her paint her 2” x 3” swatches with a large brush (size 16 round). This stopped her from getting too detailed and let her free up and play with various color combinations. Students usually find this exercise quite fun as they can play with the colors rather than getting bogged down in detail.

Below is a photo of the various color combinations she produced. As you can see the swatches are all quite small so she was able to fit quite a few on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper ( 14.5” x 10.5”).

Painting mood can be changed with color, watercolor swatches about 2" x 3"
Watercolor swatches about 2″ x 3″ Painting mood can be easily changed with colors.

After picking the color combination that best represented the mood Margaret was after (second from the right, top row) she did a larger sketch of the scene using these selected colors.

The image below is the result. This time she included more details. The bulk of the painting was done with a size 16 round brush with a good point. However for some of the details she used a size 8 round watercolor brush.

Seascape small watercolor sketch
Seascape small watercolor sketch 6″ x 4″

She was now able to confidently move on to her final painting. The result is the watercolor painting below which was a very good result.

You can apply this technique yourself anytime you are unsure of how to proceed with the colors for your painting.

When doing this exercise, it is important not to allow yourself to tighten up by using too small a brush. You are not trying to create tiny works of art but just looking for color combinations you can use in a larger finished artwork.

So next time you are stuck with what colors to use for a particular mood you are trying to achieve with your painting why not give this a  go.

Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme
Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme