Watercolour painting – a step-by-step walkthrough

This article is a compilation of several blog posts made during the course of ten days in April 2018.

I mention the date there because I didn’t want this page to come across as a “How To”, it’s more of a “How I did…”

Being relatively new and inexperienced with watercolour painting at the time of writing I’ve ended up with a picture which is acceptable to some, impressive to others and possibly amateurish to the more experienced eye.

In some time to come I hope to be that “experienced eye” and will review the process, and the result with horror, a horror that I’ve published that in my name. Note to future me; “don’t delete this, it’s good to remember where you’ve come from”.

This loose line sketch of a barn based on an image by Paul Laseau was posted on Instagram along with the question of what medium I should use to do the colours with.

The choices were limited I guess but the responses were ‘watercolour’ and one suggestion of watercolour and ink which I thought was a good idea but as the painting developed I decided against the ink as it would’ve detracted from the final image. I did however do another sketch painting on the side with a fineliner ink outline which worked well so it’s something I’ll certainly use again.

I generally avoid showing work in progress on paintings purely because I seem to be always on the brink of messing up. I can see a few benefits of posting up the progress shots, one of which being that I have fellow artists following this and they can chime in with suggestions and tips along the way.

Before I started with watercolour I heard it can be challenging but I didn’t imagine that it’d be a case of making a mess and see if you can fix it up afterwards. Having watched a few experienced watercolourists on YouTube it does seem to be a semi-controlled chaos to some – and of course they end up with wonderful paintings πŸ€”

This was the line sketch, it was drawn on my bumpy train ride – and I mean properly bumpy. The bumps on the line didn’t concern me too much as nature isn’t known for being overly formal and controlled perfection, it’s just a simple outline for the picture here.

Here’s the first step with a bit of paint thrown at it. I was after a stormy effect in the sky, or at least heavy rain-filled clouds coming in. Compositionally I’m going for darkness on the top right and bottom left, the line of fence posts hopefully leading the eye up to the focal point of the barn. There’s also going to be a little tree on the right hand side adding some balance, a tree is quite a “pull” for the eye when it comes to composition. A human shape, regardless of how small is an immense pull.

I soaked the paper with water first, went over with a light wash of mixed Payne’s Grey and Ultramarine and then dabs of the same colours. I had to tilt the paper around to spread the paint a bit whilst it soaked in, it probably was a bit too wet in fact.

Sky colour laid in behind the tree so it looks the same through the leaves.

I then left it to dry slightly tilted so I knew that the pigment would settle down into the base of the clouds. I didn’t want hard edges however so when it had fully dried I then went over the edges of them with a wet brush to erm… fuzzy them up a bit πŸ˜‰

Next up it was a case of wetting the ground area and laying in some colour patches and trying to remember to go a bit darker on the opposite corner to the dark patch on the sky in the top right.

Here’s a look at the palette in use. There’s the dark grey (almost black) in the corner and a patch of green. See that they’re blending together in the middle? Makes it fairly easy to pick up a variation of colour for dabbing on. Sometimes it’s desirable to aim for exact colour matches, exact patterns – for nature though I feel a bit of uncontrolled randomness is more appropriate.

A quick centre colour for the fence posts and leave it to completely dry for the next step.

When fully dried a bit more detail was added to the fence posts, taking into account of the light source coming from the left. Up until this point there hasn’t been too much necessity to really think about the light source and where shadow would be. But as it goes on the posts, the barn and the tree will have to be properly painted with light and shade in mind.

Note that I’ve tried to have more contrast for the closer posts than the posts further away. In fact I haven’t used any black at all from the left three backwards.

In nature, the further away anything is, the more muted the colours and contrasts will become. By trying to replicate that I’m hoping to give a greater sense of depth on the 2D surface.

I’ve also smooshed (technical term) the lines of the background of the grass areas as I didn’t want any hard lines causing a distraction. Compare the green areas to the left and right hand sides of the closest fence post to see what I mean by “smooshing” πŸ”

Continuing to add detail for the grass and other foliage, all the time allowing the previous layers to dry fully.

At this point I’ve also added the tree on the right hand side. I wasn’t overly happy with the tree as it came out, it looked far too formal and round. It looks more like one of those topiary bushes than a natural wild specimen.

All the time I was looking forward to getting some paint on the barn so it was great to get stuck into the roofwork going on.

I laid down a really wet wash of one colour here and then whilst still wet I dabbed in another brush load of a different colour and vaguely mixed it on the paper.

I didn’t want a perfect flat even wash (as if I could do that even if I wanted), preferring a more random blend so I let the watercolour gods decide what would happen here. Whilst it was still damp, but not wet, I then mixed in a third colour for some highlights.

You may have noticed I’ve started smooshing some of those cloud edges as well to try and make it more natural looking.

The plan was to go over the roof when totally dry with some feint lines to hopefully give the effect of a corrugated roof.

Deliberately rough and uneven lines there. If it were a new building I’d be aiming for hard straight lines, uniform colours, etc. But as this barn is supposed to be old, and pretty much a few years away from being torn down the roughness is intentional. Adds character πŸ‘πŸ»

As you can see, I’ve also fitted the planks of wood on the walls – and didn’t even pick up a splinter. This is just the first step for those, later they’ll be more defined with some shadows and well… dirt, for want of a better word. Again, if they looked like new wood on an old barn then that wouldn’t be in keeping.

Now for a scary part – putting down some really black paint in the barn but it’s the part I’ve been looking forward to most. 😁

I’ve also modified the tree to appear more natural. I did this by soaking the parts to lighten them, give it ten seconds to soak into that paint and then push down hard with a kitchen towel. Whilst that was drying off I did a few more modifications to the grass and the sky, just subtle changes to achieve the look I’m after. It’s easy to get carried away with these modifications and overwork it though.

When fully dried I did the shadows on the side of the barn (compare above and below). Also added the shadows to the planks and pulled in some other colours onto the planks to make them look rougher and more realistic.

And that’s that – the finished painting ready to send on to the next owner. I ran a prize draw to win the finished painting so hopefully the recipient will enjoy it.

I hope you enjoyed reading through this article. As mentioned at the outset, this was a “how I did” and not a “how to”, if you’re starting out in watercolour then hopefully this can provide some inspiration – just get stuck in and try, and remember if you do mess it up then it doesn’t really matter, we learn from mistakes so treat them as a positive experience.

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