How to create a sunset watercolor painting was the topic for my Monday watercolor class this week. For this work I chose a sunset scene with lots of warm colors and interesting reflections.
The reference photo was provided by my friend Robyn Lovelock and is of Lake Bonney in South Australia, close to the borders of Victoria and New South Wales.
I chose this photo reference for my class for a number of reasons:
Firstly we had just completed a work which was predominately green and I wanted my students to have experience with a work with very little or no green in it.
Secondly this photo required very little editing to turn it into a nice watercolor painting.
Thirdly I wanted to teach them how to capture the light in a beautiful sunset.
Finally I could show my students how to tackle soft water reflections in barely damp paper. If not done at just the right time you can end up with unwanted backruns or cauliflowers. On the other hand if you wait too long you end up with hard edges which would not look right for this watery scene.
Very little prior drawing was done for this watercolor painting. In fact the only drawing was of a horizontal line representing the distant shoreline.
Painting design decisions
I made a number of decisions about the design of my watercolor painting at this point:
I placed the distant shoreline lower than in the photo to keep it well away from the center of the work.
I also decided to leave out the diagonal shore in the foreground as well as the tree on the left hand edge of the photo. They did not add to the painting and the hard edge of the diagonal would have acted to lead the eye out of the painting rather than keeping it in it.
I moved the position of the sun to the left for a more pleasing balance.
When I paint a scene like this I never slavishly try to paint everything that is in a photo – if I wanted to do that then I would just frame the photo. As artists we have the ability to extract the essence of an image and hopefully improve on it.
Brief steps for painting this watercolor
The sky was painted with the board held in a portrait position so that the water colors would flow parallel to the horizon line. Otherwise if I painted this with the board in a normal landscape position I risked all the colors flowing down into one another.
I made sure to leave some of the paper untouched where the sun is positioned. This gives my painting the greatest light.
I left the sky to dry fully.
I then painted the distant tree line running some of the dead tree trunks into the water (this is why they are dead).
Again I let this dry fully.
Finally I painted the water with horizontal brush strokes. Water reflections are a little duller than the object they are reflecting, in this case the sky.
While the lake area of our scene is still quite wet- the shine is still on the paper, I dropped in the soft edged reflections of the distant bushes and trees. The after it had lost its shine I used a small brush with a good point, and very little water to paint the soft edged reflections of the dead trees in the foreground. It is a good idea to practice this on a scrap piece of watercolor paper till you get the timing right. When you practice something like this make sure you use the same paper as the watercolor paper of your painting.
I have just loaded my latest watercolor demonstration painting. The painting is titled “Rising Mist” and is of an early morning scene on San Diego harbor with the mist rising. It is based on a photo my wife took a number of years ago as she was sailing out of the harbor on the way down to Mexico.
The demonstration takes you from the initial photographic inspiration, through how to draw boats and objects into the light, the initial wet on wet under wash, how to create a mist effect with watercolor paint, painting boat details and finishing with how to paint the reflections on the water.
If you would like to purchase a printable pdf copy of this demonstration which has larger images and no advertisements you can do so through my online store for US$1.00 or by clicking here: [wp_eStore_add_to_cart id=15]
As the paper dries, during the wet on wet technique, it will arrive at a point where it has lost its shine, now if at this stage you run the point of your brush across this damp section of paper you will see an interesting effect as shown in figure two. As the paper is no longer very wet, at this point it will actually have less water on it than is on your brush. Now what happens is that instead of the watercolor paint just running down the paper, some of it is actually sucked up into the dryer section of the paper – so you can get a whole range of soft to furry effects both up and down from the position of your brush stroke. I use this edge in many places within my watercolor paintings. This is a great edge I use for creating soft connections of a boat’s hull with the water so it looks like it is floating, I use it when creating certain shadow shapes, for quickly creating trees and reflections on a distant lake shore and I also use it in my watercolor landscape paintings to create a tree line on top of a hill. Its uses are almost endless!
When painting with watercolor you need to take advantage of this interaction of water,watercolor paint and gavity, to create the effects you would like to produce.
This is one of the most difficult of edges to conquer as so much depends on timing (how wet is your water color painting), how wet is your watercolor mixture in your pallet and brush, the anble of your board as well as how fast it is all drying; environmental conditions greatly affect your painting and you must be aware of them. When painting watercolor landscapes plein air environmental conditions are even more critical!
We will now look at the wet on wet watercolor painting technique.
A good exercise to understand the potential of using wet on wet techniques is to mix a milk strength mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson. Then tape a quarter sheet of rough textured watercolor paper to your board. Then with a round brush, about a size 16, and your board titled to about 25 degrees, wet the sheet down one side. Use lots of water so there is a shine on the paper.
Wet on wet watercolor painting technique
Now straight away pick up a brush of the pre-mixed watercolor and paint a wide strip across the top of the wet part of the paper about 2 inches from the top. The watercolor immediately starts to run down the page.
Now as you watch this you will notice a number of things. First, the water above the brush stroke you placed on the wet portion of the paper, flows down and gives you a very light soft (indistinct) edge as it washes the watercolor down from the point it was first placed. Secondly you will notice that the watercolor continues to flow and change shape as you watch it, in this way you are letting the watercolor help you paint your painting. Once it creates the particular shape you are after (i.e. when it has flowed far enough down your watercolor paper) you can lay the board down flat and it will stop flowing. Thirdly you should be able to notice that instead of just a single color appearing on the paper, as you had mixed it, the pigments have separated in parts. The French Ultramarine being more of a particle based watercolor will not flow as far as the Alizarin Crimson, which is more like a dye. So now you will see that the top part of this shape is slightly bluer than the bottom.
This type of soft wet on wet or wet in wet edge is very good for giving the impression of rain, soft sunset clouds, and any other effect requiring indistinct shape transitions.
Now obviously there are a number of factors which affect the result you will create with wet on wet techniques. Firstly how wet you wet the paper, secondly the angle of your board – the steeper the angle the quicker and further the watercolor paint will flow, thirdly how thick a mixture you mix with your paint – the more watery it is the further it will flow but also the lighter will be your result, and fourthly how much paint is on your brush.
From practice and observation you will be able to better predict the general outcome of wet on wet techniques.