Underpainting for watercolor landscape of a mountain valley scene

Initial watercolor underpainting

It is important that the initial watercolor (watercolour) underpainting results in a watercolor that already looks like a landscape. By this I mean, your sky should be finished and the land area should appear as a separate shape with lighter (more water in the mix) and cooler (bluer) colors in the distance and warmer (redder) and stronger (less water in the mix) colors in the foreground.

Imagine you are painting the ground upon which all the objects, hills and trees in this case, are later placed. If the underpainting is not done right, objects will not necessarily appear in their correct position in the picture plane.

I start by placing water in my palette for each of my main colors. It is at this stage that you should estimate how much watercolor paint you will mix for each segment of your under wash and place that amount of water in your palette for each mix.

It is important that you place enough water for each mix in your palette so you do not have to keep adding more water as you go along – you just need to add more watercolor paint to thicken or vary the color of a particular mix as you move the scene from the distance to the foreground. It is much better to mix more watercolor than you need rather than not enough.

For the sky I mixed some Cobalt Blue in one mix, and Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna with a tiny bit of Alizarin Crimson for the other. The sky is usually the lightest tone within your painting, in fact as a general rule it is better to make the sky too light rather than too dark as all the rest of your paintings tones will follow from it.

For the ground I mixed some Cobalt Turquoise and Aureolin with a little Raw Umber to grey off the mixture so it is not too bright.

I paint the sky mostly with the side of my size 16 round brush.

Soft grey sky with watercolor paints. Watercolor painting of sky.

Soft grey sky with watercolor paints

I start by wetting, with the side of my brush, the areas which will be predominantly blue. This is quite a wet wash and the water should bead at the bottom where it hits dry paper.

Next I go in with my Cobalt Blue watercolor paint mix right into the wet area. I do not try to be very accurate with this as I was to create a variety of edge shapes where my brush runs over both the wet and some of the dry areas. I aim to leave interesting shapes which represent the edges of clouds and little highlights in the sky. Again this paint mix will bead where it hits dry paper.

While the above is still very wet I go into the remaining dry cloud shape areas with my grey mix of Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna and a touch of Alizarin Crimson. By again using the side of the brush I create interesting dry brush edge effects. I also make sure that by touching the little beads of paint that are left over from the previous wash that the two blend together here and there to give a nice variety of edges. In this case they add to the feeling of a grey and wet sky.

After the major cloud shapes I run the bottom of the sky and cloud shapes down to the ground level with the point of my brush, not the side, to create a fairly distinct edge. The paint should still be wet enough to bead.

Next I pick up my green watercolor mix and start painting my ground area. In doing this I run my first brush stroke along the bottom of the bead formed by the painting of the sky so the colors flow into one another which will help reinforce the feeling of a distant vista. You do not want a sharp-edged line delineating the distant horizon in this case but instead a soft merging of the sky with the ground.

I painted the ground area with quick horizontal brush strokes, and I made sure to leave the lake and stream untouched, I also left a few other areas of white paper which will act as little highlights in the finished painting.

As I moved down my painting I added more paint and increased the ratio of Raw Umber in the green mixture as I went along. This results in a warmer and stronger tone gradually developing towards the front of the painting. The underpainting for our watercolor is now completed.

I let this dry completely!

Painting a grey sky and distant valley with watercolors. Underpaintingstage.

Painting a grey sky and distant valley with watercolors. Underpainting stage.

Continue to: Painting the middle distance in a watercolor landscape