Watercolors Step By Step

Front cover of Watercolors Step By Step by Joe Cartwright

Thanks to overwhelmingly positive responses to the demonstrations in my first book “Mastering Watercolors – a practical guide,” I’ve created this new book as a collection of additional how-to demos. Here you’ll find twelve step-by-step paintings with reference photos and plenty of images to guide you through each piece. I’ve also included a section on watercolor basics, materials, and what to consider when working from photographs. Continue reading “Watercolors Step By Step”

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

Drawing

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.

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

Materials

  • 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.

Wet street painting with reflections

This wet street painting was inspired by a photo I took one morning while I was leaving Bathurst. It had been raining earlier but the rain had stopped and the sun was just breaking through the clouds. I love painting wet weather scenes as it opens up some exciting design possibilities.

Wet street painting with reflections by Joe Cartwright
Wet street with reflections watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

Reference photo for wet street painting

Here is my reference photo for this watercolor painting. I have obviously made changes to aid my composition. The Church on the right is The Uniting (Methodist) Church. William Street, Bathurst.

Wet weather watercolor painting: Reference photo of William Street, Bathurst.
Wet weather watercolor painting: Reference photo of William Street, Bathurst.

Watercolor Materials

  • Watercolor paper: quarter sheet (37cm x 27cm ) of 300 GSM Arches cold pressed paper.
  • Brushes: round, sizes 24, 16, 12, and 8. Rigger.
  • Palette with large areas.
  • Artist’s quality watercolor paints: French Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Red, Cobalt Turquoise, Raw Umber, and Aureolin. White gouache. All paints are by Winsor and Newton.
  • Old piece of old towel to take moisture out of watercolor brushes.
  • Box of plain tissues.
  • Easel or something to support the board at an angle of about 20 to 30°.
  • Masking tape to fix watercolor paper to board.

Drawing the street scene

The first step is to draw the street scene. The key point is to start with eye level and then draw your objects relative to that. What do I mean by this? Well, when drawing with perspective, objects above eye level will appear to move down to it the further away they are. While objects below eye level will appear to come up to it as they move away.

Another point about eye level which is important is that it basically tells you approximately how tall people are – hence eye level. You can then make all your other objects, cars, awnings, posts, fences, etc. , relative to that height.

The drawing of the street scene prior to watercolour painting
The drawing of the street scene prior to under painting

Watercolor under painting

For the sky I used a weak mix of Cobalt Blue with a little Cad Orange for the warmer parts of the sky. I ran the blue and light orange mix down to the foreground. I painted around the bodies of the main figures and around the windscreen of the two closest cars.

While the sky area was still wet I dropped in a mix of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson for the distant hill. I added a small amount of Cobalt Turquoise and Aureolin into the hills to give them a little tinge of green.

I used a similar mix, with the addition of a small amount of Burnt Siena, to paint the blue grey surface of the road, making the mix stronger as it came forward in the picture plane. This had to be done while the previous sky based wash was still wet as I wanted soft edges on the road surface. I left parts of the road very light to enhance the impression of a wet street.

Watercolor Under Painting of street scene
Under wash for our wet street painting.

I let this stage dry thoroughly!

Painting distant buildings with watercolor

Next we paint the buildings on the other side of the road.

The watercolors used are French Ultramarine, Burnt Siena, and Alizarin Crimson.

Notice how the buildings in the distance are very indistinct with more detail showing progressively as I come forward. The distant colors are also much bluer and lighter.

Lightness in watercolor painting is achieve by adding more water to your mix. Even though distant images are barely distinguishable I still kept varying my colors to add interest. Most of the details were left for the church and the building next to it.

The distant cars had some of the local building color merged into them to fix them tonally at a particular spot in the picture plane.

The trees behind the church were painting with a mix of Cobalt Turquoise, Raw Umber, Aureolin, and some French Ultramarine. Later I used a similar mix to paint the tree behind the horizontial roof line of the church.

Watercolor painting the distant buildings
Watercolor painting the distant buildings

The near trees and buildings

The buildings on the left hand side are barely distinguishable however I again I used some softer and lighter edges in the distance with stronger and sharper edges in the foreground. This area of the painting was painted with various mixes of French Ultramarine, Burnt Siena, and Alizarin Crimson.

Before the vague building shapes are dry I start placing the trees. I used a size 8 round watercolor brush in combination with a rigger brush for the distant tree. Notice how much lighter the distant tree is to the one in the foreground. This is important to create space in the painting.

I finished this side of the road by painting the darkest tree with much less water. I used a size 12 round brush for most of the tree with some rigger work for the finest branches.

Once this was dry I loosely painted the fence along the bottom.

How to paint the near buildings and trees with watercolor
How to paint the near buildings and trees with watercolor

Painting the people and cars

The cars and people are painted next. As they will have their reflections on the wet street you have to paint them before you can do their reflections.

I do not dwell on which colors to use for the people and cars. I mix some Raw Umber with Cad Red for the figures heads. For their clothing I just pick colors that will harmonize with the rest of the painting or in the case of the woman in red in the distance a color that will attract the eye and add some interest.

The cars are painted with mixtures of French Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson, and some Burnt Siena. The important thing is not the colors you choose but the tone (how dark or light a color is) of the object. It is tone that mostly gives my painting a feeling of depth, which is what I always try to achieve.

I painted the lamp posts and power lines at this time.

Watercolor painting of cars and people prior to doing road reflections
Watercolor painting of cars and people prior to doing road reflections

Finishing the painting – reflections

To finish off this wet street painting we need to add the reflections. In fact a watercolor painting such as this always feels incomplete until the reflections are done.

To paint the reflections I start by mixing the colors for the reflections. This is basically the same mixture as that used for the buildings, people, cars, etc.

Once the colors are mixed I wet most of the road surface with clean water. I use a lot of water to do this so that I leave the surface with a shine on it. I do leave part of the road dry – under the two people walking across the road and beside the car on the left. This allows me to place some sharp edges under the two figures and beside the main car.

I then drop in the reflections and let them run down the page. The reflections should appear directly below the object being reflected but the actual shape does not have to be too accurate as the road surface is not like a true mirror. The road has bumps and undulations on it as well as its own color which combines with that of the reflected color.

The reflections also obey the rules of areal perspective becoming stronger in tone as they move closer to the viewer.

The reflections of the tail lights are pure Cadmium Red painted into the wet surface. The headlight reflections were done with some white gouache.

For the two people with umbrellas I painted their reflections lighter as they were in the distance.

After signing the painting it is finished!

Wet street with reflections watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Wet street painting with reflections

If you liked this wet street painting demonstration you may like to look at some of my other watercolor painting demonstrations.

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.