How to Add Texture to Watercolor Paintings

Angus McEwan, who believes a painting should work both from a distance and up close, skillfully uses composition and texture to draw in viewers. Here’s how.

By Louella Miles

Poster Girl (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Angus McEwan

There are many things that fascinate in an Angus McEwan painting. There is the light, which varies according to the part of the world in which he finds himself. There’s the texture — the depth of which is rare in watercolor. There’s the composition, which always takes you on a journey. And then there’s the minute attention to detail. To each aspect there’s a story attached. Before we dive into McEwan’s process and how to add texture to watercolor, a bit about the artist himself.

McEwan grew up in Scotland, where he still lives. He’d wanted to be an artist since he was five years old; that desire drove everything he did at school and all that he wanted to do in life.

An Early Start

“I was born in the early ’60s, when we didn’t have as many distractions,” he says. “When I went with my parents somewhere, I’d take along a sketchpad and pencils, whiling away the time by drawing. I got a lot of pleasure from it — and a lot of encouragement. If you have people saying ‘That’s really good’ or ‘You’re a great artist,’ I guess everything about yourself stems from that kind of confidence about life.”

Art also runs in McEwan’s family; he studied at the same art school as his mother’s cousin, and her daughter followed in her footsteps. The paternal branch of the family was involved in textile design and architecture, and his father is a tool designer by trade. Both of his parents encouraged his love of art, taking him to museums and art galleries from an early age with his brother — nine years younger and with little interest in the subject — in tow.

Upheaval came at the age of 16, when his family emigrated to Canada. McEwan returned to Scotland after a year. His parents followed a few years later, but after only a short period of time, they emigrated again, to America.

His mother and brother now live in Los Angeles; McEwan stayed behind. “I said, ‘I’m going to art school; I’ll catch up with you later,’” he says. “But I never did.”

Locked and Loaded (watercolor on paper, 15×221⁄2) by Angus McEwan

Working Without Ground Rules

Strangely, Los Angeles is the one place McEwan visits where he finds he doesn’t come across a lot of artistic inspiration. “I go there, and I try to work, but I find it all too new and shiny,” he says. “That’s not to say that there aren’t any rundown areas, but there’s not any place that’s old enough, if you know what I mean.”

If Los Angeles is too new, places like Scotland and Malta are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Yet McEwan is hard put to define exactly what attracts him. “There are no ground rules,” he says. “I don’t say, ‘OK, I’m not drawing people or ‘I won’t draw horses.’ It’s just a case of anything that catches my eye, I’ll draw and paint. It could be an interesting surface texture, the way the light falls across a wall, or even a color.”

Tea Break (watercolor on paper, 22×15) by Angus McEwan

A Change in Style and Subject

McEwan appears, at first glance, to be a fan of realism — but appearances can be deceiving. His style has changed over time, too. When in art school, much of his work was inspired by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico — very surreal — and McEwan drew from his own imagination. But when he won the traveling Alastair Salveson Scholarship in 1996, and subsequently went to China for three months, his artistic style began to change.

“I traveled around China, and — although I did some work that was slightly surreal — a lot of my work came from direct observation: going out and painting and drawing from life, climbing mountains, looking at the views,” he says. “This approach gave me the license to change what I was doing, to break out and basically do anything I wanted. It didn’t have to look odd, and it could just be really straightforward.”

While in China, McEwan was introduced to different brushes and materials, many of which he has used in subsequent paintings. It gave him the space to review his technique — the way he used paint, color and brushes. His current work is light-years away from that of his art school days.

“Now a lot of the things that you see look very realistic, but I can guarantee that you won’t see these actual objects,” the artist says. “Even if I’ve painted from life, I’ve changed the objects in some way. I’ve altered the color, the surface texture, the tone, the composition. Or I might even have left things out altogether. So it’s not about pure mimicry to the extent that someone could say, ‘Okay, I can take a photo of that.’ The trickery involved is that I’ve made you believe that it looks real, whereas often I’ve actually altered things to make the painting more interesting.”

Colour of Time (watercolor on paper, 17×12) by Angus McEwan

Pure Color

The color McEwan achieves is startling in its intensity. He creates this effect not just by building it up as he goes, but by working with warm and cool colors. “When using watercolor, it looks like many artists have stuck a child’s palette on their painting because it’s so bright,” he says. “These bright colors really need to be countered.

“The way I work is to use clean, pure washes of color,” he continues. “I don’t do a lot of mixing on the palette; instead, I layer one color on top of the other. If I go too bright or too blue, then I’ll take a warm color, like an orange, over the top to subdue it, and vice versa.” He may be seeking an effect that looks “real,” but he never wants the color control to look as though it’s been turned too high.

Paper, too, plays a part in the effect McEwan wants to achieve. If it’s a painting that involves a lot of detail, he might choose Fabriano for its smoothness. It will enable him to create the textures he wants and to apply different types of washes. He also uses a lot of plant-based papers and khadi, an Indian handmade paper. “I quite like the fact that each piece of paper has its own personality.”

Chair (Contemplation) (watercolor on paper, 30×22) by Angus McEwan

Composition is Key

To observe one of McEwan’s paintings is to be taken on a journey across its surface. He considers composition and compositional devices as key.

“I’ll move things around to suit the composition,” he says, “and I’m very aware when I’m painting of where the eye travels first, where it travels next, and so on. I’ve become really adept at manipulating the viewer’s eye so that I can more or less predict what will be looked at first, which helps me with the composition. I can try to push things away that I don’t want to be important or bring things to the fore that I do. Using composition as a device to make the viewers see what I want them to see is an important aspect of my work.”

It’s a valuable and, possibly, a rare ability — something to aspire to, but possibly difficult to learn. When teaching in Scotland, McEwan tells students that it’s a case of taking a metaphorical step back and recording what you see. “I allow myself to scan the painting as though I’ve never seen it before and try to be aware of what I’m looking at,” he says.

Out of Sync (watercolor on paper, 9×6) by Angus McEwan

Working on Two Levels

A painting, McEwan believes, should work on two levels: from a distance, so that it has impact, and from close up, when it should give more. “There’s nothing more distressing than seeing a painting and thinking, ‘Oh, that looks great,’ and then you walk up to it, and there’s nothing else to it,” he says. “It’s just a couple of loose washes that look really great from a distance but fall apart as you approach. I’m trying to create that high impact from afar, but also reveal more detail as you approach. I want you to look for awhile. I don’t want you to glance at a painting and then walk away. My hope is that you to spend a bit of time with it.”

No matter how many times you magnify or revisit McEwan’s images, you always find something new.

Demo: How to Add Texture to Watercolor

One of McEwan’s paintings that grabs attention for its textural elements is Poster Girl (top of article). How did McEwan achieve the textures of rust and tattered poster paper? They’re the result of a number of different techniques.

The artist is a fan of broken washes, in which he uses the side of the paintbrush and drags it across the surface. He then uses stippling, dry brushing, scumbling, sponging and slathering — usually in combination — depending on what the image needs. “At the end,” he says, “I go in with a very small brush and spend a lot of time picking up on the detail and working with any kind of happy accidents.”

1. Compositional Drawing

I made a quick sketch using warm and cool colors; then I added tone using an 8B pencil,” he says. “I needed to ensure that the ‘bigger picture’ wouldn’t get lost on the busy surface.”

2. Palette

“I separated my colors into cool and warm palettes. Most of the paint is Daniel Smith; I also used Old Holland violet gray, as seen at the bottom of the cool palette [left].”

3. Closeup

“I created random spatters and then used Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons to add color, tone and texture.”

Meet the Artist

Angus McEwan studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, in Scotland, graduating in fine art and printmaking with a post-graduate diploma in the same discipline. He’s a member of numerous international watercolor societies, and his work is featured in many private collections throughout the world. He has had 21 solo exhibitions, numerous collective shows and has been recognized with more than 30 awards.

London-based Louella Miles ( is a writer, publisher and an “artist in any spare time.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

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