As many of you know, I’ve really dug deep into the world of watercolour art this year. I would like to point out that I am still, in absolutely no way, an expert on the matter, but I do enjoy myself quite a lot. I have focused on portraits, so, bear in mind that that’s mostly the viewpoint I am talking from in the following post. And what is this post?
Well, I’ve now been approached a couple times about how I do things and I thought, why not share my “insights”? I’ve also done a poll on Twitter and had quite a few people interested in it. I will try and do a short summary of this post on the platform as well (hopefully).
First off, let’s talk basics aka materials. I am of the strong opinion that you don’t need to spend loads of money when you start out. Try using a basic watercolour palette, like the ones you might use for school, and regular paper to work on your technique. If you like what you’re doing and find yourself enjoying the process and would now like to dig deeper, there’s a whole world of different papers, brushes and colours you get to explore. Everyone needs to find the materials they are most comfortable with, so, here are my favourite products and the reason why I like them so much:
- paper: I’m currently mostly working on 100% cotton/300g/cold-pressed paper in DIN A4 size. It’s my preferred size, because I neither like to do very small artwork nor do I have the space for big projects. The other components are important, because you’ll want to look for durable paper that can hold a lot of water.
- brushes: I don’t go for certain brands, but I found I prefer round brushes. I have them in all different sizes, but my saving grace has really been an investment in detail brushes (the kind you’d use for model making). I could not imagine having to botch my way through a drawing without those anymore.
- watercolour palettes: as I said above, I think you can do a lot with a very basic palette. The colours might not be as durable and rich, but you can still mix a great many shades out of them. Only after I had worked with regular colours for a while, did I front some money for higher quality palettes. I went for a 24-colour-White Night palette and then different palettes (e.g. metallic colours …) from Van Gogh. I personally don’t work with colours in tubes, I prefer them solid.
- masking fluid: this is one of my favourite gadgets ever. I have a masking fluid pen with which I mark certain areas that will be highlighted later on (this is done before you start working with watercolours). You can go into great detail with those pens and make sure single hairs are noticeable even in very dark areas.
- masking tape, paper towels, several vessels containing water: believe me, you’ll need those!
This varies from person to person and, again, I can only speak to how I do things. There’s people who really enjoy drawing on their sketch pad directly, but I like to draw on single sheets of paper. I fix that sheet of paper to my drawing base with the above mentioned masking tape.
Attention: if you use light paper/lower quality paper, there’s a danger of the masking tape ripping it!
Even before that though, I make my initial sketch/outline of the person I want to draw. I use a mechanical pencil for my sketches and am always careful that I don’t press down on the paper too hard. These sketches help me to get proportions right before I put something irreversible on the paper. You have to make sure you don’t need to erase too much, because that will likely irritate the paper and make things harder for you once you get to the water-stage of things.
Sneaky tip: if you are unsure about your proportions and getting the initial sketch right, just turn up the brightness on your laptop/computer screen and trace whoever/whatever you want to draw.
The amount of detail you go into is completely up to you. Hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and difficult patterns are things I like to put into my pencil sketch. As I said above, I make sure to not press down too hard with the pencil, because you want it to be a guideline for you later on, but not something that is noticeable through the watercolours. The outline helps guide the water a little bit and I like that, so I don’t erase it all, even though I have seen several artists do sketches just to erase them so that they are barely visible at all.
Above you can see examples of my outlines and the finished projects!
There is no way for me to tell you just how much water vs how much colour you should use. As always, it very much depends on what you are trying to do and what effect you are trying to accomplish. There’s a couple things I can try to explain though and I just really hope that they make sense.
General rule of watercolour: always go from light to dark colours and not the other way round!
When I tackle my drawings, I like to work in certain blocks. You should always choose whether to start with the background or the object/person in the foreground. I prefer doing the background first, because I feel like I can make less “mistakes” that way. There’s really nothing worse than having done a beautiful portrait just to go a bit overboard with the background …
Here’s how I do backgrounds:
First, I wet the areas I want to colour with a brush. I use quite big brushes to get a moderate amount of water on there, but always make sure not to cross over the outline of the person’s face or clothes. Sometimes I get a bit too cautious, which can leave an unlucky white area later on.
After the paper has been wetted, I mostly use the colours directly on paper without much mixing or watering. I enjoy the way they merge with the water create all sorts of patterns.
Handy trick: when you aren’t yet confident with your colour intensity and selection, always have a piece of paper ready to try your colours before putting it on for good. I still do this all the time!
As mentioned above, I like to work in blocks. So, after the background is dry (and really only then), I start on the face. If you are impatient and want to work on several areas, make sure that they do not touch! Water is sneaky and colours will easily bleed over. Since you work from light to dark colours, you will need to work with several layers and wait so that they can dry as well.
When I work on faces and clothes, I never apply the colour directly on the paper/canvas. I always mix it with water first, use paper towels to adjust the wetness of the brush and only then get to work. Watercolours are pretty unforgiving, but having paper towels at the ready can make a difference sometimes. Or, if you accidentally used too much colour, you can always try to soften it with more water.
As a benchmark, I need about 4-5 hours in total per portrait I do. Compared to other artists I know, who use the medium as well for their art, this is actually on the lower end of the time spectrum. There’s people who do their watercolour work over the course of several days!
Never forget: Watercolour art requires a lot of patience! Let layers dry!
Final details can be done with detail brushes and watercolor, but I like to do a lot of the finishing touches with a white gel pen and coloured pencils (which I sharpen with a knife for more precision). It’s a balancing act to make sure the pencils’ structure on the paper doesn’t overtake the delicacy of the watercolours.