In Painting with Watercolors for Beginners, I walked you through foundational watercolor supplies and basic painting techniques. Today, I’ll teach you additional watercolor tips and techniques focusing on how to really “see” a subject so you can paint it!
This article is a sequel to Painting with Watercolors for Beginners. If you have not yet read Painting with Watercolors for Beginners post, give it a look! If you feel like you have a decent handle on the basics, keep reading!
Before We Get Started …
This watercolor beginner tutorial focuses on a very small facet of watercolor painting. If you want to solidify your understanding of watercolor basics and much, much more, consider enrolling in TPK’s The Ultimate Beginner’s Watercolor Online Course. With its 10+ hours of video instruction, it’s one of the most thorough watercolor courses available on the web!
Painting From a Photograph
I almost always paint from a photograph because a photograph is constant. The lighting never changes, so you can take your time painting. A good, high-quality photo is ideal so you can observe details. I recommend practicing with this photograph of an apple. Just follow along with this tutorial in order to learn about some basic techniques and good habits to form.
1. Change Your Paradigm
The trickiest part of the whole painting process is really seeing the photograph. What I want you to do is try to change your paradigm. Stop seeing the apple as an apple, and try to see it as an object made up of shapes, colors, and shadows/light spots. The visuals below will help you to see the apple from a shape perspective:
And here’s the apple from a simplified color perspective:
Here are the shadows and highlights; all unmarked areas are medium tones:
2. Make a Pencil Draft
Before you begin painting, you’ll need a pencil draft. You can either trace directly over a printed-out version of the image using a light box, which is the technique I use for my watercolor illustrated maps, or you can free-hand draw the subject. In this tutorial, I am going to free-hand draw. Don’t worry about the pencil sketch looking exactly like the photo; “good enough” is just fine. Remember: if you wanted an exact replica of the apple, you’d just frame a photo! This painting will be your interpretation of the apple.
3. Paint a Base Layer
Now, moisten the main colors you’ll use to paint your apple: vibrant red (like a cadmium red) and light green (like a serpentine green). Then, use a very wet size 2-ish paintbrush to apply light versions of those colors to the pencil draft.
I looked at my simplified color perspective photo to figure out where to add the red and where to add the green. Here’s that photo, again, for your reference.
4. Add Layers of Paint
From here on out, it’s just a layering process. As shown in the sphere video in Painting with Watercolors for Beginners, you’ll want to tackle your medium tones next. I have chosen to use two medium tones: a stronger concentration of red for the red side, and a mixture of green and brown for the green side.
As you blend the medium tones into the lighter tones, take care to preserve your light spots. Basically: just avoid painting over them. (This image shows you where to find light spots.)
Once you’ve blended the medium tones, it’s time to add in shadows. I always paint shadows darker than they appear in the reference photo. I suggest experimenting with a color other than black for your shadow. I love to use violet hematite for my shadows, but any deep purple (or purple/brown mixture) works!
You’ll want to paint the violet/purple on your illustration wherever your shadows appear in the photo. “Tease” each shadow out by using water and a light touch, again, as shown in the sphere video.
5. Put On the Finishing Touches
At this point, your apple should be looking more like a real apple than a blob comprised of a couple of colors. It probably still lacks some details, though. To identify those missing details, examine your illustration vs. the photo. You might notice that you’ve missed a shadow here or a dot there. Add them in as you see them! Here’s a tip, too: on larger art pieces, especially, you’ll reach a point in which you know the artwork doesn’t look quite right, but you can’t identify why. If that happens, leave the artwork alone for a few hours or overnight. When you see the artwork again with “fresh eyes”, it will be obvious to you what you need to do. Since this is a small piece, I was able to create it in one session. Here are a series of photos outlining the details I added:
Once you are satisfied with how your illustration looks — and once you add in other details like the stem, which takes a minute or two — you’re finished! I know with certainty that I am done because a few hours after creating this painting, I absentmindedly attempted to pick the “apple” off of my desk. I was grasping for a 3D object!
Painting From Real Life
I very rarely paint from real life because I find it so much easier to use a reference photo! If you are interested in painting from life, though, I recommend picking up a copy of Samantha Dion Baker’s Draw Your Day. While Draw Your Day doesn’t teach you in-depth watercolor techniques, it does include many inspirational examples of subjects you might paint from real life and information on how to do that.
Painting Without Using a Reference
Most subjects painted without a reference will turn out delightfully imaginative and appealing. I love painting florals and patterns without a reference — like the botanical “B” shown below — because they remind me of a storybook illustration.
Sometimes it may be impossible to draw something using a reference photo. For example, it would be very difficult to paint “Fritz the Fruit-Foraging Fox” (an adorable illustration by Teagan White) from a reference photo. It’s not every day you see a smiling, walking fox in a sweater and trousers, after all.
Despite not having a reference photo, you can tell that artist White implemented knowledge of shading and contouring. The insides of the fox’s ears, for example, are darker than the rest of his face to signify depth. The little grapes in his basket have shadows and light spots. The scarf has three different shades in order to show you the different folds. In short, White has used her knowledge and experience of drawing things from real life or a reference photo in order to paint using only her imagination. For this reason, I would recommend practicing painting from reference photos before you try creating an illustration like the fox above from imagination alone.
Using Ink and Watercolor Together
Combining ink and watercolor will always give you a striking effect. However, you must use a waterproof ink if you don’t want the ink to run when you apply paint to it! I prefer to use Ziller Soot Black.
Wait several minutes (or several hours, if you can) for the the ink to completely dry. Once the ink has dried, you can go over it with watercolor paint.
Do Your Own Thing
Part of the beauty of doing anything creative is you can ignore what you’ve been told and do your own thing. Remember, Picasso was a classically-trained painter who could create extremely realistic pieces at a very young age. Despite his classical skill, he chose to ignore convention, and he — in concert with fellow painter Braque — came up with Cubism.
Through articles like this one, I am imparting my watercolor knowledge to you. However, I want you to feel free to distort or modify that knowledge to come up with your own style! That’s the beauty of creativity … you can take into consideration what you know, but you don’t have to implement it. If you have any more questions about watercoloring (or want to share your own experience), please feel free to comment! Thanks very much for reading; it’s a pleasure to have you here.
This article was first posted in May of 2015. It has been updated to include new photos and clearer information.