How to paint fog with watercolor

I was recently asked by a reader about how to paint fog with watercolor. Fog is very easily painted with watercolors because it is so simple to create soft edges and light tones with this beautiful medium.

If you look at a foggy scene you will notice a number of things.

The effects of areal perspective, i.e. the effect of atmosphere on perspective, are made greater when there is fog or mist.

The fog makes distant objects much lighter, the edges softer, and the colors duller.

Let us look at these in turn.

You can see from the photo below of a harbor in fog that the distant boat on the left is much lighter than the boats on the right.

Rising Mist, San Diego, Harbor reference photo for watercolor painting demonstration
How to paint fog with watercoloor  San Diego, Harbor

The distant boat is also quite a bit less distinct than the boats in the foreground. If there was no fog the boat on the left would not appear so indistinct. The fog is making the effects of atmosphere much greater.

You can also see that all the colors in this water landscape are much duller than they would have been if there was no fog.

Just like in normal atmospheric perspective, distant objects will appear a little bluer than those in the foreground. However because of the fog blocking the blue sky, this effect will not be as great but worth including anyway.

How to paint fog

Here are the the key steps for how to paint fog with watercolor:

  • Paint the sky area with a very pale watercolor under painting of a light grey. If you are painting a water scene then continue this under painting into the water area. Make sure the water area is painted with stronger tones towards the foreground. Make sure the distant horizon is just a very soft edge, if it is noticeable at all.

Initial watercolor wash for misty scene

Paint the sky area with a very pale grey watercolor

You can see the full demonstration of how this misty harbor scene was painted here: How to paint fog with watercolor – harbor scene

  • If you are painting trees in the distance try to paint them in while the sky is still wet so that they have very soft edges.

Under painting for rain, fog and mist with watercolor

How to paint fog with distant trees
  • When painting a watercolor landscape use greyer (duller) colors than you would use if there was no fog in your landscape. Do not use bright colors in your painting as the fog would grey them all off.
  • Make your distant objects very light in tone.
  • How to paint fog reference photo. Watercolour painting reference.
    In fog distant objects are lighter, softer and duller.
  • Make foreground objects sharper, but not bright in color. This will increase the feeling of fog in the atmosphere.
Rain fog and mist reference photo Mt Hotham for watercolor painting
How to paint fog reference photo mountain road.
  • Any shadows will be indistinct if visible at all. However remember to make sure that any shadows are away for the direction of light.
  • If your watercolor painting has some fog sections and some bright sky areas then you will need to modify the above steps. The fog sections of your painting will use the above information while the sections in bright sky will use normal areal perspective techniques.
Mist around The Three Sisters, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Some scenes have both fog and sunlight

Next time there is some fog where you live go outside and have a close look at the scene. Nothing will show you how to paint fog better than by spending a little time observing it in real life.

Keeping the above points in mind you should be able to observe most of the effects. This will help you greatly when working on your own watercolor painting. Needless to say the same points above apply to all mediums but watercolors a ideally suited to painting foggy scenes.

Watercolor paintings – studio organization

Like other artists I spend a great deal of time in my studio. It is a space I generally feel very comfortable in. It includes not just all my art materials and equipment but also my computer, camera gear, completed paintings, etc. I have over 300 books on art and watercolor painting and these get squeezed in as well. Sometimes however it gets so disorganized that I begin to feel less comfortable in it. At this stage my productivity begins to wane. If it gets any worse my creativity drops as well, which is a real shame. For this reason I regularly review how everything is laid out and try to improve the organization of my studio space. I also tidy things up!

Organizing my studio

My aim is to have everything easily accessible. I don’t want to feel I could easily trip over a pile of books or that things are difficult to find.

As it is the start of the new year I thought it was time for another cleanout and rearrangement of my studio to make it easier to create watercolor paintings. I had lost some enthusiasm for painting which was brought on in part by my messy work space.  I found that I was often spending a lot of time looking for things or having to clean objects off my easel before I could start painting. This was slowing my productivity and dampening my creativity. I would like to create some special painting this year and one of the steps towards achieving this is to remove any impediments.

My first step was to go through my stack of watercolor paintings of which I had a few hundred.

Watercolor paintings collection

I went through all of my watercolor paintings to sort them into various categories. After the paintings were sorted they were in turn stored in individual drawers. I find plastic stackable drawers ideal for this function. Full sheet watercolor paintings are stored in a special cabinet I had made which is similar to a map cabinet. I store all of my blank watercolor papers in this same unit.

Watercolor paintings storage system
Watercolor paintings storage system

Some of my older artworks which I had kept over the years were over 15 years old. They were kept for various reason. Some paintings because I wasn’t sure if they were good enough to frame, others because I thought they were milestone works but not worth framing, some were kept as reference for when I would have another go at them. Other paintings had special memories for me so I could not let go of them.

It was interesting to see that while I had been producing some nice work quite early on I was also producing some very poor ones. The nice artworks were for subjects I felt comfortable with and had already mastered. The not so good paintings usually resulted because I was trying something new and had confusions about how to proceed. Some artworks were not worthy of framing but had sections I particularly liked. These I had kept to highlight my improvements and to remind me of what I had learned through the painting. I threw out about a one foot I stack of old watercolor paintings and found the exercise quite invigorating.

Watercolor paintings no longer worthy of a frame will be recycled
Watercolor paintings for recycling

In amongst these old watercolor paintings I found some overlooked gems. They probably got covered by other paintings during one of my prolific periods and got forgotten about. These have now been added to my pile of paintings waiting to be framed. I do not frame any of my work until I’m ready to exhibit them unless it’s a piece that I particularly like and will probably keep for myself. In this way they take up less space in my studio and permit me to make any changes I may discover are needed right until framing time.

In addition to the work that was worthy of being in a frame I also found about half a dozen pieces that had sections that could be cropped out to make very nice watercolor paintings in their own right. These I will keep for more price sensitive exhibitions, for instance, I exhibit a couple of times a year in a local shopping center with one of my art groups, we have found these exhibitions demand lower prices and these smaller works are ideal.

A few works were just incomplete or their failings could be fixed and the painting salvaged. These went to another pile.

If you are like me and work best in a fairly ordered environment then it is important to keep your workspace organized. I’m generally very busy not just with my artwork so it is easy for me to wander off doing other things. If I find it is too difficult to get my material ready to start painting I can easily get involved in another non-painting project. I try to keep my studio in a state where I can start a watercolor painting as soon as the urge hits me.

All of my work is now relegated various categories. These stacks of watercolor paintings include the following:

  • Paintings which I no longer consider worthy of being in a frame or if I have progressed sufficiently as a watercolor artist that I now do much better work of the same subject. These works will be used as scrap paper for testing my water colors while painting. A few I may paint on the back of – though I rarely do this. I will also use some for experimental purposes e.g. washing off most of the water colors and painting over the top, working over sections with pastels or inks, etc. Some sections of your failed paintings can also be cut up and used a book marks.
  • Watercolor paintings ready to be framed, stored by size. They range from small 16th sheet paintings (7” x 5” or 18 cm x 13 cm) up to full sheet watercolors.
  • Watercolor paintings still not completed
  • Pen and wash works.
  • Pen and ink works.
  • Drawings.
  • Special watercolor paintings used for teaching and reference purposes

Below are some works I was able to crop from works that did not work as larger works of art  but were quite good watercolor paintings in the cropped form.

Watercolor classes versus painting at home

Some students only attend watercolor classes or workshops. They rarely produce artwork at home or in their studio. I am always encouraging my students to try and paint as much as possible at home. In addition to attending my watercolor classes. I did this because I noticed that those that did so progressed much faster than students who just attended classes. Recently I realised the main reason why these students progressed at their faster rate. It has all to do with developing their observation skills versus memory skills.  Let’s look briefly at the pros and cons of watercolor classes.

Pros and cons of watercolor classes

If you attend a class or watercolor workshop you will achieve a number of things. Firstly there is the camaraderie of working with other students. Secondly you learn watercolor techniques from your teacher who can also critique your artwork. Thirdly, regular classes keep you moving along with your watercolor painting when you might otherwise be tempted to give up.

One of the paintings I have my students produce in my watercolor classes by watercolour painting Joe Cartwright
One of the paintings I have my students produce in my watercolor classes.

However observation skills can suffer when you attend a watercolor class or workshop.  This is because students concentrate more on trying to remember everything their teacher is saying, rather than observing what is happening with their own work. Your teacher may show you a step in a watercolor painting which you are expected to follow. When you go back to your easel your first thought is usually to try and remember what you have just been shown. Instead of you thinking through the steps you need to take to complete your watercolor painting you spend your time trying to “remember” what you were told. To progress with your watercolor painting what you need is the ability to think through the steps for yourself. You also need to observe the affects you create with your watercolor paints. Observation is critical to improving your watercolor painting techniques.

Furthermore there can be plenty of distractions in a watercolor class. Other students talking, your tutor or other students looking over your shoulder as you paint. Concerns about what others might think about your painting. Cramped space, poor or different lighting, etc. All of these things can hinder you ability to observe.

When you are painting at home, you are forced to think through your own steps to complete your watercolor artwork. You are also more likely to observe what is happening on your paper than in the classroom. It is much more important for you to observe what is happening on your own watercolor painting than to sit there and just try and remember the steps someone else has given you. Furthermore, when you are working on your watercolor painting at home or in your studio you are not distracted by other people. This makes it much easier for you to concentrate and observe. It is for this reason that I have found that students that do some work at home in addition to their classes always progress the fastest with their watercolor painting skills.

In summary, observation is critical for watercolor painting, probably more so than for any other medium. It is much easier to observe when you are at home in your own studio rather than with all the distractions in a class. Obviously for more experienced artists this is not such a problem, but then again an experienced watercolor artist is less likely to be attending watercolor classes or going to workshops. I hope the above is of some use to you in your watercolor painting journey.

Watercolor painting Chrysanthemums

Yellow chrysanthemums in red pot

Chrysanthemums can present a challenge to watercolor artists. The temptation is to try and paint all the detail. While this is possible it can lead to a tight lifeless painting. While visiting my sister in law recently I did this watercolor painting of her pot of chrysanthemums as a gift. This is a demonstration of the steps I took in completing it.

I did this watercolour painting outdoors, on her patio, because that was where the flowers were situated. The flower pot was sitting on a metal table. The light was excellent at the time. Luckily the weather was quite mild so it did not create too much of a challenge. If it had been a hot morning I would have taken the vase of flowers indoors and painted it there.

When I do a still life painting like this I do not aim for reality but more the feeling of the flow of the shapes (flowers). I like to let my water colors run into one another in places while making sure I keep some pure colors where they are needed.

Sometimes I paint the background first but this time I painted it after I finished the flowers and pot. I left lots of little unpainted highlights to keep a sketchy feel to the painting.

Reference photo for watercolor painting of chrysanthemums

Here is a photo of the chrysanthemums I painted in case you would like to try painting this same subject.

Pot of Chrysanthemums reference for watercolor painting

Pot of Chrysanthemums reference for watercolor painting

Preliminary sketch of chrysanthemums and pot

My first step was to do a loose and light sketch of the chrysanthemums and pot on my watercolour paper. I settled on a simple design for my watercolor painting. My pencil marks were light as I do not usually erase them when the painting is completed.

Preliminary sketch of flowers prior to watercolor painting
Preliminary sketch of flowers prior to watercolor painting

Watercolor paints used

The colors I used are all artists quality watercolors by Winsor and Newton. The pigments were:

Cadmium Yellow Pale, Aureolin, Cobalt Turquoise, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, French Ultramarine, Raw Umber, and Burnt Sienna.

I prepared my initial the watercolour mixes. One was straight Cad Yellow Pale, another was a green mixed with Aureolin (a cool yellow), Cobalt Turquoise ( a greenish blue), French Ultramarine, and a little Raw Umber to grey the mixture off a bit. The third mix was Permanent Alizarin Crimson with a little Cad Red – this will be used for some of the reddish tips of on some of the flowers. The reddish mixture will later be modified into the color for the pot.

Preparation of initial water color mixtures for watercolor painting of chrysanthemums
Preparation of initial water color mixtures

Painting the flowers

I started with the yellows. Cadmium Yellow Pale for the sunlit flowers. I painted quickly to so the mixture would not dry before I finished laying down all of the yellows. As soon as the yellows were done I gave them a little spray with my fine mist spray bottle to keep the shine on the flower area.

Start with the bright yellow of the chrysanthemum flowers using Cad Yellow Pale
Start with the bright yellow of the chrysanthemum flowers using Cad Yellow Pale

While the flowers were still wet I dropped in some of the red mixture in the tips of a few of the chrysanthemums. I also started placing some of the green stems and leaves. Notice how I let some of the flower color flow into the stems and vice versa. I like this effect and in real life you would get these colors reflecting into one another anyway.

watercolor painting of the stems and leaves of the chrysanthemums
Painting the stems and leaves of the chrysanthemums

I continue working in this manner until all of the flowers, leaves and stems are complete. I added some French Ultramarine into my green mixture for the greens in shadows. The darker mixture also had less water in them.

Completed chrysanthemums and foliage
Completed chrysanthemums and foliage

Watercolor painting of the flower pot

I now moved on to the red flower pot. Again I did not wait for all of the flower section of this painting to dry. I was happy for some of the flower and stem colors to flow into the pot color.

The pot was initially painted with a wash of Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Red. I painted the entire surface of the pot with this mix. While it was still wet I added some French Ultramarine into the red mixture in my palette and then dropped this into the shaded sections of the flower pot.

Notice how I saved the white paper in sections to retain highlights. This is especially important at the top rim of the flower pot and its tray.

I added more French Ultramarine to my mixture in my watercolor palette till it had a creamy consistency.  You may need to add more of the red colors if you mix is too blue. This was used to add the deep shadow areas at the top of the pot amongst the foliage, and at the bottom. It was also used to add the shadow of the flower pot on the table top.

Painting of red flower pot and yellow chrysanthemums with watercolors
Painting of flower pot with watercolors

All that was left to do now was the background.

Painting the background of my watercolor still life

I used a mix of French Ultramarine and Permanent Alizarin Crimson for the background and table top. I used lighter mixes for the background and stronger ones for the table top. These colors were selected as they complemented the yellow of the chrysanthemums and would make them appear brighter. The background wash was varied to add interest.

I hinted at the table top with crisscross lines. Again in keeping with the style of this work I purposefully allowed some edges to bleed into one another. Someone pointed out that the distant table edge could have been higher as currently the pot tends to look like it is leaning forward a little – this is correct.

This watercolour painting was done quite quickly taking about 45 minutes from start to finish. As I was allowing water colors to flow into one another I did not have to wait for sections to dry.

Watercolor painting demonstration of Chrysantemums in red pot by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting of Chrysantemums in red pot by Joe Cartwright

Should you have any questions about this demonstration or watercolor painting in general please let me know through my Contact page.


Forth Bridge – Scotland

I painted this watercolor painting of the Forth Bridge in Scotland as a gift to a very close family friend. He has often mentioned how much he admired this bridge so I thought I would surprise him with this little gift when we visited him in Oregon.

I have seen this bridge myself and could see why my friend liked it so much. Unfortunately my photo reference was lost. It was also a very grey day during my visit. However I was able to find the photo below on by George Gastin for which I thank him.

The Forth Bridge from South Queensferry. By George Gastin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The Forth Bridge from South Queensferry. By George Gastin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Drawing the bridge

The first step is to draw a detailed sketch of the bridge. The drawing is more important with these iconic structures.  If you have difficulty drawing this type of structure you can trace it and then transfer it to your watercolor paper.

Once you have completed the drawing you will need to mask any parts of the bridge that are in full sunlight. I did not mask the parts in shade or on the other side of the bridge as they would be slightly duller in color anyway.

Drawing of Forth Bridge Scotland UK with masking fluid applied
Drawing of Forth Bridge Scotland UK with masking fluid applied

Watercolor under painting for Forth Bridge

I painted the sky with cobalt blue and some Alizarin Crimson and Yellow Ocre for the clouds. I made sure to leave some parts of the clouds untouched so the white of the paper could act as a highlight. You can read about how I paint these skies in detail in this article: Painting the sky and clouds.

watercolor under painting of Forth Bridge Scotland
Watercolor under painting of Forth Bridge Scotland

I ran the sky down to the distant waters edge. I then painted the water with mixes of French Ultramarine, a small amount of Cobalt Turquoise and a small amount of Alizarin Crimson. I used lighter tones (more water) in the distance and less water in the foreground.

The ripples in the foreground were dropped in wet-on-wet with a thicker mix of French Ultramarine, combined with a little bit of the other two colors. I have written an another article on how to paint water which is well worth reading if you are interested.

I let this stage of my watercolor painting dry thoroughly.

Painting the distant shoreline

The shoreline is painted with lighter and bluer colors in the distance with warmer ones in the foreground. For the closest land on the left I mainly used French Ultramarine and Raw Umber.

With the distant land masses painted I was ready to tackle the bridge.

Painting the distant shoreline with watercolor
Painting the distant shoreline with watercolor

Watercolor painting steps for the bridge

I used Cad Red with a little French Ultramarine for the bridge sections which are furthest from the light. I used a lot for water in the mixtures for the sections in the distance and reduced the water content as I painted the closer bridge spans. I use the water content of my watercolor mixtures to simulate the effect of atmosphere on colors.

Once this section of my watercolor painting was completed I let it dry completely before removing the dry masking fluid. I use a crepe eraser to take off the masking fluid.

First step in panting the bridge structure with watercolor
First step in panting the bridge structure with watercolor

To finish off this watercolor painting I did the following:

  1. Painted the pillars with mixtures of Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber. I used some French Ultramarine with Burnt Sienna for some of the darker and shadowed sections.
  2. I painted the remaining brightly lit beams of the bridge with Cad Red which was mixed with some Cad Orange in some places. Again the strongest tones and brightest colors were used for the parts of the bridge closest to the viewer.
  3. Once the bridge structure was completed I was able to work on the reflections. I used similar water colors to those used for the bridge but made them a little duller. You can read more about the color of reflections and shadows in my article on the subject.
  4. I first wet the entire area from under the bridge to the bottom of my watercolor painting with clean water. I used a very soft two inch flat brush for this. I then dropped in the reflected colors from the left hand side making them stronger and brighter as I worked from left to right. Notice how the reflections in the distance a quite a bit softer than those in the foreground. The sharpest edge reflections I put in as a second layer after the original soft reflections had dried.
  5. I placed a few birds in the sky to break up that space to finish my watercolor painting of the Forth Bridge.
Forth Bridge Scotland Watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Forth Bridge Scotland Watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

While this article was about how I painted the Forth Bridge, the technique can be used or adapted for any other bridge in a similar scene.