Step-by-Step Watercolor Demonstration: Low and High Contrast

This painting is two value studies in one. The background is a very narrow range of values and the foreground uses the maximum contrast, going from almost black to white.


Reference Photo

Try converting your reference photo to black and white to simplify the image into a gray scale. Increasing the contrast will make fewer values. [Photo by good friend and fellow painter, Don Barron]

1. Make Your Drawing and Apply Masking
After you’ve drawn, use an old brush, a No. 4 or no. 6 round, to apply masking fluid to the parts that you want to keep white. Examine the reference photo to determine where the masking fluid should be used. Any white areas on the boats and water need to be protected.



2. Wash Background and Water

To keep the distinction between background and foreground, do the first washes on wet paper. Wet the sheet with clear water using a large brush. A 2-inch (51mm) flat is ideal. If you use a sponge, be gentle to avoid scuffing.

Use the 1-inch (25mm) flat (or larger) and start with a very pale Cadmium Orange in the center, leaving a bit of white. Add Cobalt Blue followed by Burnt Sienna. Use horizontal strokes of Burnt Sienna and Phthalo Blue for the water.

3. Add Mist
Dry the painting after the first wash. Apply very thin glazes of Cobalt Blue and Raw Sienna with a No. 10 round to create the trees emerging from the mist.


4. Dry and Remove the Masking
The paper must be absolutely dry before you remove the masking fluid. It will tear if the interior is still soft from moisture. Remove the mask gently by pulling it off with a piece of masking tape.

More trees can be drawn on with the same No. 10 round, or No. 8 round, and Cobalt Blue, Raw Sienna or a combination of both.

5. Paint the First Boat
On dry paper from now on, work most of the first boat with the No. 8 and also the No. 6 round. Make the dark “Navy” blues with Phthalo Blue and a bit of Burnt Sienna. Add a touch of Permanent Rose to keep the mixture from going too green.

Start the hull with Cobalt Blue adjusted with Burnt Sienna and Permanent Rose to gray it slightly. Use the ½-inch (12mm) and ¼-inch (6mm) flats for the reflections requiring the same colors slightly darkened. Some side-to-side distortion with a dry-brush will make convincing reflections.

The ruler technique can be used with the large rounds (No. 8 or 10) to get good straight lines for the masts and rigging (see below).

Painting Straight Masts
The ruler technique is used with a No. 4 liner for the very thin lines of the rigging. It’s important not to complete all the lines from one end to the other. Leave a few breaks.

6. Paint the Second Boat and the Interior (detail)
The darks inside the boats will look better if you use warm colors. With the ½-inch (12mm) and ¼-inch (6mm) flats use Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange, Dioxazine Violet or whatever combinations that keep the red content high. These areas now become much more inviting.



Two in the Mist
(watercolor on paper, 22×30)

7. Make the Reflections and Lift the Whites
Once again, make reflections with the ½-inch (12mm) and ¼-inch (6mm) flats. Side strokes create a ripple effect, separating the real objects from the reflections.

Finally, lift a few soft whites where needed. It’s rare that we accurately predict where we’ll want all the whites when applying the mask.


Published in “Watercolor Essentials,” Watercolor Artist, June 2008

Excerpted from Watercolor A to Z © 2008 by Grant Fuller. Used with permission of North Light Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc. Visit your local bookseller or www.fwbookstore.com or call 800/448-0915 to obtain your copy.

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