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The Ingredients to a Winning Watercolor

Most winning watercolors will include these 3 important ingredients exploiting each point to its fullest. This means 1) exploiting composition to tell the story, 2) exploiting tone to convey depth and substance and 3) exploiting edges to create atmosphere, mood and interest. ~ Al Kline

Like the ingredients to a delicious pie, watercolor paintings require specific ingredients to make them pleasing to the eye. What makes a watercolor work and what doesn’t?

Typically, if the painting doesn’t work, it may be lacking in one or more of the ingredients that I perceive is crucial to painting watercolor.

I. Composition and Drawing

Crucial to good painting is what I would consider the ‘inspiration’ of any painting, which begins with an idea, composition and the visualization of the painting through a solid foundation – the drawing. This usually begins with selecting a subject and composing it in such as way that it creates interest. Selecting a focal point or a few focal points and ‘lead-ins’ to a painting provides interest. By drawing the eye through a painting, it creates interest and a story.

“What you convey in your sketch and composition should be the essence of what you paint.”

Of course, painting has its own challenges, but a good composition and drawing will probably get you two-thirds of the way there.

Composition is probably the main ingredient to all great paintings. Without it, the painting will be dull and uninteresting. Composition ingredients should include exploiting the rule of thirds, the golden rule and the ZALHO – Picasso principal.

Sketching and drawing are, by far, the quickest way to improve composition and design in your paintings. Unfortunately, it’s something many of us don’t practice enough. Learning perspective , proportions and spacial relationships to objects is the key to producing a good drawing. And this takes lots of practice.! (See The Power of Sketching in Watercolor)

The golden ratio of composition

II. Tone or Value

Tone or Value in painting is crucial to providing depth, providing volume to shapes and spacial relationships in a painting. It gives a two-dimensional canvas a three dimensional appearance. Without tone, a painting will be flat, dull and lifeless.

One of the most confusing aspects of painting for most beginners is the understanding that tone is irrespective of color, but that color can provide a variety of tones. (i.e. the tonal study). In other words, you can achieve deeper tone by adding to the consistency of color (i.e. tonal scale).

A tonal study using a single color in different concentrations of water to pigment.

In watercolor, this means adding more water to a particular color creating a weaker tone and adding more pigment to provide a deeper tone.

When we discuss consistency of paint, we often describe this as tea, coffee, milk, cream or butter. Each paint will have a different range of tones and may not provide a full scale of tones depending on the color. For instance, yellow only has a scale of tones ranging to a 3-4/10 on the tonal scale. Darker and cooler colors will provide a greater range of tones.

Value or tone is simply the ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ in your painting. A full range of tones may be up to 10 different shades and the least as few a 3 shades. The more realistic a painting, the greater the tonal range.

When approaching a subject, it is best to look at the subject ‘tonally’. In other words, look at the object and say “how light or dark is it in relation to the surrounding objects in my painting” . Then ask “is it warm or cold in color”.

In landscape painting or most any other painting, it’s wise to look at objects in relation to one another. Where is the background, mid-ground and foreground? Where are the focal points in my painting? This is where tonal values are crucial in order to paint a believable landscape that provides depth and character. Objects closer to you in a painting should have greater tonal value and in order to push back objects, they should have less tone. Warmer colors are generally closer and cooler colors are further back. You can combine this concept with soft edges to provide atmosphere in a background and sharper edges in the mid and foreground.

Watercolor is an ideal medium in this regard because graduated washes and layering from lighter to darker tones will create volume and depth.

When painting in watercolor, it is always wise to start from light and work to darker tonal values. Of course, knowing when to do this and what edges you want to achieve is the challenge of watercolor. (More on edges later) When done properly, watercolor can produce an effect unequaled to other mediums.

Light can be created by juxtaposing light tones or even white paper to dark values. To create atmosphere, you must understand the relationship of value to the background, midground and foreground. In general, backgrounds have weaker pigment (lighter values) and are cooler in color.

Tonal values are simply a range of pigment concentrations in watercolor. And color, can have a range of tonal values by altering the concentration of water. (See 4 Tips on the Importance of Value in Painting)

III. Edges in Watercolor

Edges in watercolor come simply in 3 ways: 1) soft (wet paint into wet paper) , 2) Medium or (wet paint into damp paper and 3) Hard or (wet, thicker paint on dry paper.

A variety of watercolor edges

Of course, this is the simplified version. There are various effects or edges that can be made at different times of the drying process. This is what usaully separates the students from the professional watercolorists.

Professional watercolorists instinctively know through repetition and practice what effect they want to achieve by putting watercolor paint, in the correct consistency (weaker to stronger pigments) at the correct time.

Of course, when this is mastered, you can achieve various effects by knowing the paper wetness and how edges are created.

In general, here is how edges are created in watercolor by paper wetness and pigment consistency :

1. Wet paint into extremely wet paper will create a SOFT UNCONTROLLED EDGE

Weaker transparent paint will create very nice skies in this stage of painting. Remember that a weaker paint will also dry lighter on the tonal scale in this stage. This is a time when colors can be mixed on paper and they will create some real magic. Graduated washes can be achieved creating soft and lost and found edges. Paper can be tilted in this stage to allow colors to mix and run together.

Thicker paint will lead to explosions and uncontrolled edges with greater tonal contrast, especially against lighter areas of paper. It can be used in other areas of your painting where increased tone is required.

You can really have fun with this edge for it is usually exploited in the first or second wash. When dried and combined with a hard edge, it can really create a fantastic look.

2. Wet paint into moist paper will create a SOFT CONTROLLED EDGE.

Moist paper is when it sheens in the light. This is the best time to create distant ranges and tree lines. It creates a misty effect with deeper pigment. This stage will only last a very short time, so it must be done before the paper dries and is damp, which will create a harder edge.

At this stage, edges can achieve soft transition and blending of shapes. It is difficult to tell where one shape ends and the other begins. It is crucial to exploit this edge in every watercolor painting because is speaks of watercolor and can’t be achieved in any other medium.

Shapes can be painted and will retain a relatively solid shape, but will blend into other shapes seamlessly. Thicker paint will make it more difficult to achieve this edge on moist paper. This is a better stage to ‘lift’ off paint and a good time to model paint to create soft passages of color.

3. Wet paint into damp paper will create a MEDIUM CONTROLLED EDGE.

This is the best time to create lost and found edges with thicker paint, such as the consistency of thicker pigment with less water. It is a great time to paint rocks and trees in landscape painting. It is best when connecting shapes that require a broken edge allowing them to partially flow together (such as boat reflections in water, darker shapes that anchor to the earth or shadowed areas in buildings for example). Weaker washes will cause the underlying paint to lift at this stage or even get muddy.

If you try and place weaker paint during this stage, the paint will explode leaving cauliflowers. However, you can also create some wonderful ‘texturing’ on damp paper.

4. Wet paint into dry paper will create a HARD CONTROLLED EDGE.

This is best for creating sharp edges and contrast in paintings. It is the best time to create positive and negative shapes with contrast. Edges can be broken if the brush is moved quickly across the paper.

Remember, hard edges can only be produced if the paper is completely dry.

Weak washes in the sky on dry paper will create wonderful cloud shapes with hard edges. With more pigment, it is reserved for darker areas such as shadows, trees, rocks, branches and foreground items. The thickest pigment directly out of the tube is reserved for highlights such as street lights and figures, typically reserved for dry brush technique and the final finishing touches of your painting.

Of course, varying effects such as splatter, scratching, lifting can only be done if the paint is still wet and ideally if the paper is still moist or even re-moistened when dry. Once the paint completely dries, it cannot be changed or manipulated unless it is re-wet without sealing the paint.

Edges in watercolor is probably one of the most important characteristics and one of the best tools in our watercolor arsenal to be exploited. Each watercolor should express a variety of edges to achieve a desired effect. Watercolors without this variety of edges will often look flat and uninteresting.

So, most winning watercolors will include these 3 important ingredients of watercolor, exploiting each point to its fullest. This means 1) exploiting a composition to tell the story, 2) exploiting tone to convey depth and substance and 3) exploiting the various edges in watercolor to create atmosphere, mood and interest.

In these following paintings, I will convey some of the points discussed above including composition/drawing, tone and edges.

Summer Slumber

In “Summer Slumber”, when we look at the composition, it is very sound. We have 3 objects (3 animals) in different proportions with the bedsheets falling off at an angle to give it interest. When we look at the tones, there are some dark tones that contrast the lighter areas with good color harmony. More pigment was used with less water to create volume, to the large dog who is the main focal point. Because of the volume and contrast, your eye is drawn directly to the largest dog and moves up to the cat and around to the smaller dog. A full range of edges are used in this painting including wet into wet, uncontrolled and controlled edges. The softness of the larger dogs fur is created by controlled soft edges into moist paper. To create deeper tonal values, I used more pigment of the same color. To decrease the tone, I used more water. Once the paper dried, I created sharp contrast of purple shadows and the harder edges of the bedspread patterns and the larger dogs tail with hard edge brush marks. There are other examples with a full range of edges and tone in this watercolor work.

Storms Passing

In this above plein air painting, which I painted just as some storm clouds were passing and breaking in a simple harbor scene. This is a nice composition with a limited range of tone, but exploiting a full range of edges. Here, I tried to capture the mood by using wet into wet washes for the sky and composing the sky to be in the upper 2/3 of this painting. The boats and water is in the bottom 1/3. I created the clouds by adding thicker paint (cream) to the underlying light wash while it was still extremely wet. (wet uncontrolled edges) I left a dry area to produce a hard edge in the cloud. I wanted to juxtapose a hard cloud edge with a lost and found edge in the clouds. (Wet controlled edges)

I produced the background in a similar way by placing cooler colors with thicker paint on the horizon line while it was still wet. (Soft controlled edges-wet into moist paper). This caused some furring which produces a nice distant effect. I then cut around the pier and the boats and did a smooth graduated wash for the water. This was also done wet into wet to allow the colors to mix and transition. (Wet controlled edges using a bead). It’s important to match the sky to the water since its reflective in color somewhat. But, to create distance, you have to increase the tone of the water as you work down the page increasing pigment with less water and creating a ‘bead’ to allow the color to mix without harsh transition. I tried to stay true to the mood by color consistency and limiting my pallete. Lastly, I painted the mid-foreground structures with buttery paint exploiting both soft and hard edges. Since the boats were pure white paper, I was able to leave some highlights and provide contrast and tonal value. In order to create volume to the hull of the blue boat (which is my focal point), I used thicker paint in a wet on wet technique and allowed the hull to ‘paint itself’. This is the beauty of watercolor.

Zbukvic Seascape

In this last example, I recently watched the great Joseph Zbukvic paint this seascape in real time. Here, the composition is wonderful, having a variety of boats of different sizes and exploiting compositional balance and harmony. There is a strong horizontal pier and strong vertical shapes in the form of masts that connect the sky with the earth. He exploits and utilizes a full range of tones from the lightest light in the sky and water to the darkest areas of the pier and boats.

He began by using a weak graduated wash from the sky all the way to the water at the bottom of the paper. He transitions his wash using wet into wet technique creating a bead. To make the water appears to move , he placed a creamy, stronger pigment of the same water color on moist paper to make the ripple effect. He has a distinct background, midground and foreground. He utilized and exploited wet into wet cool color for the background and wet into moist paper that anchors both the pier and boat house to the boats in the water creating a lost a found effect.

The “lost and found” look along the bottom of the boats as the painted ‘melts’ into the water was created by applying thicker paint on moist-damp paper. This created a soft-controlled edge on moist paper. The ripples from the boats on the water is created by a medium-controlled edges with stronger paint and his signature brush marks.

The masts and the pier is created by dry brush on dry paper with thicker paint. He finishes this off with richer consistency of paint for his dry brush marks and signature brush work.

I hope you enjoy my post and I hope this helps. Happy painting!


  1. Right on Al…
    We met last fall at the SWS member show. Really like your work…you inspire me! Someday I would like to come down to the south Texas coast and paint some boats (not many boats up here). Maybe we can get together.
    keep on painting,


    1. Thanks Michael, I’m glad you came over and read my blog. I still have your painting from 2017 of the rolling highway, which is an extremely strong composition. I’m happy to own such a beautiful painting!


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