Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.
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!
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 grid 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
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.
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
- 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)
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
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 3s. 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.
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 to the trees. Just a few will make the whole painting sing.
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 eight degrees of value in this picture. Also, notice that I was unhappy with the painting in its 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.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Don't you think watercolours should be soft and transparent?
Answer: 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
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 22, 2021:
It is time for me to create a new article on painting since I have done so many new things lately. Look for the next one in my watercolor series.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 12, 2015:
Conradofontanilla, I'm so glad I did. You should paint again!
conradofontanilla from Philippines on February 10, 2015:
You rekindle my urge to paint. I used to paint myself, using acrylic and pastel. I want a quick finish.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on January 06, 2015:
Keep painting, everyone. It's a new year filled with new painting possibilities.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 23, 2013:
@John Dyhouse: So true. Thank you for liking my lens.
John Dyhouse from UK on October 23, 2013:
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.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 16, 2013:
@delia-delia: Thank you.
Delia on October 16, 2013:
Great lens and artwork with great info!
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 05, 2013:
@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 from SW Arizona and Northern New York on October 05, 2013:
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.