More Advanced Painting with Watercolor

Updated on August 2, 2016
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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 Starting with Values and Composition

We artists are really illusionists. We are creating the illusion of 3-dimensions on a flat 2-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 is the way to 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 it's 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 canvas for oils or acrylics. But I think I love the transparency most about watercolor. 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 flowerscan 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. 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.)

More things to avoid

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 the 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


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 you 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.

Value - Mixing mud


Color Meanings and Mud

As I have explained Color Meanings in another article; certain colors will cancel each other out and make a neutral or “mud.” Unless you are painting mud, you really don’t want muddy colors. The novice usually achieves this by accident. If you are careful not to mix more than three colors together, you should be safe.

I went to a demonstration where a lady mixed four and five colors together on purpose. I asked her why she was making mud and she smiled. Because, she said, she was preparing to paint the ground under her tractor. Sure enough, she laid in oranges and blues, reds and greens, to make a colorful, neutral earth tone like nothing I had ever seen. I would have used burnt umber and cadmium red pale for a warm brown. However her neutral earth was not just brown. In places you could still see the warm orange, and in places the blue was visible, yet muted by the mud. She went on to do a similar thing with the barn behind the tractor. She streaked upward strokes of permanent rose and green, ultramarine blue and cadmium orange, purple lake and cadmium yellow, with a few streaks in between of just permanent rose, or ultramarine blue or cadmium orange. The result was old barn wood that was neutral mud and at the same time full of color. Fascinating.

In the "Hay Harvest" painting (above), I used a number of colors for the hay, including pink, blue, green, yellow ochre and brown.

Grey Scale


Value Scale

Every artist should have a value scale and a grey scale. Make one of your own by cutting a strip of paper about 12 inches by 3 or 4 inches. For the grey scale, divide the paper into 9 even (about 1 inch) squares or spaces. The first being the darkest, deepest value of black and the last being pure white of the paper. In between these two extremes, paint shades of grey. The middle strip should be middle grey halfway between black and white. This is a guide to help you.The grey scale is important because it forces us to look at our pictures differently. Many people fail to see the full range of value in nature. The common mistake is to paint in middle values and forget that every picture should have at least 5 to 6 degrees of value; that is, there should be at least 5 to 6 values of gray in the picture. Most people se the middle greys or values and leave out the highlights or white-whites and the low light or dark-darks. If you hold up a grey scale to your picture you will more easily see if you have neglected the low lights or the highlights.A value scale is not as precise but also valuable. Pick a color (not yellow: too light) and load your brush with this color as deep and dark as you can. If you are using dry paint, stir the paint with your brush ten to twelve times to get as much pigment on the hairs of the brush as possible. Then make a swipe on your paper. This is the deepest value you can get with this color. Do not add any more paint from here on to your brush. Dip your brush into the water and drag it across the rim of the cup to remove any "drip" factor and make another swipe on your value scale paper next to the first one. The value should be a little lighter. Dip you brush into the water again and remove any drip before making another swipe on the paper. Keep doing this until the swipe on the paper is nearly clear water. This is the amount of value you can achieve from this one color. You should see deep value, medium value and light value on one paper.

Value: Alone Again Painting


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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.

Questions & Answers

    Are you a beginner or an advanced painter? Did you get anything out of this article?

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      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

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

      • conradofontanilla profile image


        3 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 

        3 years ago from Fresno CA

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

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        5 years ago from Fresno CA

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

      • John Dyhouse profile image

        John Dyhouse 

        5 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 

        5 years ago from Fresno CA

        @delia-delia: Thank you.

      • delia-delia profile image


        5 years ago

        Great lens and artwork with great info!

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        5 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 

        5 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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