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Streamlining the Watercolor Process

I have found that the painting process can be broken down into three distinct steps. These are just simple steps that I follow in my painting process that keep it simple and streamlined. Many times, the stages can overlap and it's up to the artist to tie it all together ~ Al Kline

Lately, I have been streamlining my approach to watercolor painting.  The process I’m about to describe is the culmination of three years of sketching and painting on almost a daily basis.

I still believe the best way to improve your approach to watercolor painting is to 1) read a lot of books, 2) take professional instruction and workshops from accomplished artists and 3) practice daily.

As you know, I’ve taken a few watercolor workshops and I’ve noticed a common denominator:  “Watercolor painting is best painted light to dark with increasing tonal values”. 

This may seem like a simple statement, but it can be confusing when you start to paint.  Often, we want to paint in the dark values very quickly. If you start with dark tones too early, the painting can loose its freshness and many times the tonal shift is too abrupt. Of course this can also depend on your style of painting. But for my style of painting, this holds true.

When I first began painting in 2017, I found it difficult to get my mid-tones to transition correctly.  I would often place darks very quickly and try and allow the darker pigment to wash a bit to get my mid-tones. I’ve noticed lately, that by slowly increasing tonal values, the midtones will many times “paint themselves”.

I have an example of my latest approach to watercolor painting with some comments on the process.  I have found that the painting process can be broken down into three distinct steps. These are just simple steps that I follow in my painting process that keep it simple and streamlined. It is up to the artist to tie them all together! I believe in order to get confident in painting this way, you should try and keep your painting process consistent.

I.  The Sketch

The sketch is the start of the painting.  The sketch should be loose and free.  Composition should be paramount and you should identify where you want to place your lights and darks.  Distinguish the background, middle ground and fore ground and plan your painting properly.  Remember, your paintings will improve dramatically when you practice and refine your sketching.

Here is my reference photo for this work “Lion Fish”.
Here is my sketch of the photo. When I sketch loosely like this, there is no need to trace, use a light board or projector. I never use such devices. I like the look of a natural sketch to give my paintings a more natural feel. A good painting starts with a good sketch. I accent the interesting details in my sketch and even exaggerate them. Remember, ff you are painting impressionism, the sketch must be very loose and impressionistic. If your sketch is too rigid, your painting will also likely look rigid and uninteresting.

II.  The First Wash

The first wash should start very wet into wet.  Lately, I have even started pre-wetting the paper once I identify the background, mid-ground and foreground.  I then slowly begin to increase tone by increasing the density of my pigments while painting wet into wet.  Let the pigments flow and mix on the paper freely!

I also try and keep my colors and pallet simple.  The colors in this first wash should be light, avoiding the darker pigments.  (Save those dark pigments for later!).  I use light, deep and rich colors including cobalt blue and cerulean blue (Blue spectrum), Alizarin Crimson and cadmium red (Reds spectrum) and mixing the two for my purples.  I use gamboge, yellow ochre and Quinacridone Gold for my lighter colors (yellow spectrum).

One thing I’m cognizant of is to add some areas of shadowing.  I let this run wet into wet.  If you are interested in deeper shadows, like a cast-shadow, save that for the second and final wash.

I also texture in the first wash.  I allow the paper to almost dry (damp) and then I texture with water and spray.  Many people have asked me if I use salt to get my effects.  I simply get my effects by texturing water to allow the paint to separate before it dries.

Once you are completely satisfied with this wash, let it completely dry!

The following photo shows how I increase color and tonal value as I paint wet into wet in the ‘first wash’.

Here, in the first stages of the first wash, I identify my background and add my colors. I increase some colors as I paint to increase tone and add some shadowing. I let the colors flow and mix on the paper. I then add some texturing. This is a very loose and free wash. Once I’m completely satisfied with this look, I let is completely dry!

III. Second and Final Wash

After the paper is dry, I go back in and increase and highlight the pigments with darker and richer tones of color. I’m cognizant of juxtaposing my lights and darks. Remember to save the whites here and don’t fill everything in. Try and not destroy the underlying texture of the first wash.

Once I feel that the darker tones are pulling my painting together, I dry brush, accent the darks including more splatter and add my detail work. This is an important time to try and unify your painting.

The detail work should not clutter, but rather enhance the final look of the work. One of the biggest mistakes before you finish is to try and add just a little more! If your struggling to find things to paint, your probably finished. When you’re finished, sign it!

In my third and final stages, I add deeper and richer colors to accent the original underwash. I may even add more shadow work and accent my darker values. This is the time I will add some texture such as splatter, etc.
Once I’m completely satisfied with the final work, I may even add some lighter and darker lines with the watercolor pen to finish off and accent the work. This is the final time to pull all your elements together into your single vision and final version of the work. I often make sure I unify the work as I go. Unification is an important aspect of painting in every stage so the painting works together as a whole and singular piece. Be careful in this final stage to not overdo it. It’s easy to start cluttering up the work if your not careful. And don’t forget to sign your work!

I think by simplifying the process in this way, it will allow you to get some really nice effects in your work. It also takes some of the fear out of painting watercolor. This technique also allows you to paint very quickly and is partly the result of plein air techniques that I have learned where your don’t have a lot of time to paint!

I always find it a little difficult to break this type of painting technique into distinct stages. In watercolor, many times, these stages are overlapping. It is up to the artist to decide on the effects and overall look of the work and then tie the entire work together or unify the work. I like the idea of working more wet into wet to get that final look of watercolor. This is something that sets watercolor apart from other painting mediums. I hope you enjoyed this post! Happy painting!


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