More Advanced Painting With Watercolor

Updated on May 20, 2020
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Girl Among the Blossoms


Step-by-Step Watercolor Painting

We artists are really illusionists. We are creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat two-dimensional surface. The only tools we have to work with are light and shadows placed in such a way as to look natural. This goes back to the chapter on value. Dark shadows placed next to sunlit highlights can create the perfect illusion of shape and dimension.

People are always asking me if I like watercolor more than oils or acrylic. That's a hard question. Each has its own merits, pluses, and minuses. Oils can cover mistakes but take a long time to dry. Watercolors are not as forgiving but they are fast-drying and you can always start over. The paper is less expensive than a canvas for oils or acrylics. But I think I love the transparency most about watercolors. They are bright and cheerful. The absolute best feature for me is that they don't chase my husband out of the house. I open my oil paints and he just can't stand the smell long. And I really don't want him to leave, so watercolor it is!

Rule of Thirds


Center of Interest

The next thing to consider is where your center of interest (or focal point) is placed. Never place the focal point in the dead center of the paper. It will look boring. Keep it at a third. Also, the horizon line should never be placed in the middle of the page. Keep it at a third above or below the middle of your paper. A simple way of checking is to draw a tic-tac-toe onto your paper. The center of interest should fall where one of the four lines cross.

“Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.” John Ruskin

Sand Castles


Color Temperature

Colors can be warm or cool. When painting you need to set the overall mood of the picture by picking the temperature. You can change your reference photo to stay with the mood you like by changing the colors of things like flowers, trees, houses, people’s clothing, etc. In most pictures, there are both warms and cools. In a flower arrangement, for instance, the flowers can be warm (pinks and reds) while the shadows and leaves are cool (blues and greens). What you need to do is make sure they are not equal. There should be more warms than cools for a warm picture or more cools than warm for a cool picture. An equal amount of warm and cool is boring to your audience.

Tulip Wrap

Watercolor on wrinkled paper.
Watercolor on wrinkled paper. | Source

Things to Avoid

  • An uninterrupted horizontal or vertical line
  • Balloon trees
  • Drawing things right to the bottom of the paper
  • Putting the heaviest things at the top of the paper
  • Putting your subject exactly in the center
  • Rainbows
  • Smiley faces
  • Stick figures
  • Suns in corners (Remember if you are looking into the sun, usually you can’t see anything else.)
  • Copying other’s work (That is called stealing.)

Purple Irises

Watercolor on wrinkled paper.
Watercolor on wrinkled paper. | Source


When working with photos, you can find some interesting subjects with too much going on in the background. If you attempted to paint everything in the photo it would be too busy and take away from your subject. Learn to eliminate busy backgrounds and help the audience focus on an interesting subject. Flowers, for instance, can have too many leaves or too much behind them. Make an interesting blurred wash to indicate something is back there but not anything we want to focus on.

“A painting is never finished—it simply stops in interesting places.” Paul Gardner

Red Roses

Watercolor on wrinkled paper
Watercolor on wrinkled paper | Source

Odd Numbers

In most paintings, the rule of odd numbers is best to follow. Flowers should be in 1, 3, 5, 7, etc. Even numbered objects look spaced and boring. Florists know this and make arrangements in odd numbers. There is something pleasing about 3’s. Three birds flying in the sky. Decorators know this and will put odd numbered paintings on a wall or an odd number of pillows on a sofa. There are very rare instances when you can make an even number work for you but if in doubt… make it odd.


Persimmons | Source

Complementary Colors

Tying in two complementary colors in your painting will make it sing. Try using lots of blue in the background with orange flowers. Red roses love to sit next to greens and the leaves make nice places for greens. Yellow loves to be next to violet. Plan your picture to have complements together even if it is a small spot. Imagine you have painted a deep forest with lots of greens and blues in the sky. But it is boring and needs something. What? Try adding a few red or orange flowers at the base of the trees, or add a few gold and orange leaves in the trees. Just a few will make the whole painting sing.

You can use colored pencil to enhance your watercolor with more details.
You can use colored pencil to enhance your watercolor with more details. | Source

Grey Scale

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Grey Scale
Grey Scale
Grey Scale | Source


What is your favorite kind of painting to look at?

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Notice the "Alone Again" painting has highlights that are not pure white but are close and low lights that are not pure black but are close. There are 8 degrees of value in this picture. Also, notice that I was unhappy with the painting in the original form. The background was too dark and took away from the lady's hands. So I took rice paper and glued it onto my picture around the left side and bottom. When it dried I painted watercolor edges almost like a frame under my lady's fingers. This took away some of the darkness and added an extra dimension that was not there before. I believe it saved the painting and earned me several awards, including a 2nd place ribbon in the Society of Western Artists Annual Open Show in 2005.

"Alone Again"
"Alone Again" | Source

Final Thoughts

Are you a beginner or an advanced painter? Did you get anything out of this article? Leave a comment below if there are any questions I can answer for you. Check out my website at

Questions & Answers

  • Don't you think watercolours should be soft and transparent?

    I know they look bright but they are transparent watercolors. I layer many layers of color over each other in order to get a rich bright color. You can achieve some deep color even with transparent watercolor depending on the layering of color. In some cases, I layer from 5 to 20 layers of color.

Color Comments Welcome

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      Conradofontanilla, I'm so glad I did. You should paint again!

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      5 years ago from Philippines

      You rekindle my urge to paint. I used to paint myself, using acrylic and pastel. I want a quick finish.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      Keep painting, everyone. It's a new year filled with new painting possibilities.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      6 years ago from Fresno CA

      @John Dyhouse: So true. Thank you for liking my lens.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      6 years ago from UK

      I used to paint with watercolour but now find that pastels are my medium of choice.A very useful lens and I am glad to see that Value has such a high place in your estimation. This is of couorse how it should be. Lots of things can be glossed over by an artist but value should always be of primary significance. Get the colour wrong and no one will mind. Get the values wrong and everyone will jump on it.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      6 years ago from Fresno CA

      @delia-delia: Thank you.

    • delia-delia profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens and artwork with great info!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      6 years ago from Fresno CA

      @Judy Filarecki: Thank you for visiting my lens. I appreciate the koodos. I love to paint. I think if you wait for the paper to dry between layers you get a lot more control than you would think. Enjoy painting.

    • Judy Filarecki profile image

      Judy Filarecki 

      6 years ago from SW Arizona and Northern New York

      You do such a beautiful job with the watercolors. I always struggle with them. I love the freedom of the flow of colors, but I am such a detail person that I feel threatened for lack of control. I'm pinning you lens so I can look at it again and try some of your suggestions.


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