How to Leave White Space in Watercolor

Unlock the secret to sparkling watercolors with these five keys to painting with the white of your paper.

By Ng Woon Lam

Chinatown Morning Shoppers (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Ng Woon Lam

Leaving unpainted areas of the paper for luminous white shapes is one of the basic tenets — and greatest thrills — of working with watercolor. I first fell in love with this use of the paper to create sparkling whites through the work of Ted Kauzky (Hungarian-American, 1896–1953). Over the years, I’ve devised a few basic guidelines for how to leave white space in watercolor paintings. I use these strategies for planning and designing paper whites in my own work.

Arab Street en Plein Air (watercolor on paper, 15×11) by Ng Woon Lam

1. Value the color white.

When it comes to saving whites, a lot of beginners mistakenly believe they should simply leave those areas out when painting. While technically it’s true that white areas are ‘left out,’ visually speaking, it’s false.

To integrate them into the composition, unpainted white areas require planning. Before I pick up a brush, I visualize my paper whites as if I’d actually painted them. In the same way I’d approach any color, I think about my whites in comparison to the adjacent painted areas, considering tone, hue, and intensity.

In Arab Street en Plein Air, the garbage bin reads as green-blue even though a large part of it’s left white. The same is true for the building on the left, where the shadows make us believe the largely unpainted wall is yellow-brown. In addition to creating the effect of light, the difference in tone and hue between these shapes and the surrounding colors makes the whites stand out. By using a pure or high-intensity blue for the sky, I heightened the impact of the white wall.

Indonesia Belakang Padang en Plein Air (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Ng Woon Lam

In Indonesia Belakang Padang en Plein Air, subtly tinted colors surround the large white area in the middle. The white wall of the foreground building lies adjacent to a yellow-brown wall, while a light pink wall adjoins the white wall on the tall building in the background. Cool blue colors also make an impact. Together, these variations allow the paper whites to feel more dynamic in hue range. The adjacent hues effectively activate the unpainted white areas. Without these hue variations, the paper whites would be flat and monotonous; the overall design would be less rhythmic.

Chinatown Temple Street Impression (watercolor on paper, 12×40) by Ng Woon Lam

2. Mine white’s hidden depths.

The trick for any painting is to represent a three-dimensional subject on a two-dimensional surface. Visually calculating the shapes and sizes of your whites throughout the composition can help.

One way to create the illusion of space and depth on a two-dimensional surface is by overlapping shapes. In Chinatown Temple Street Impression, the whites vary in size and shape and pop up in different places throughout the painting, interacting with other color shapes. The overlapping effect allows the viewer’s focus to move in and out of the picture plane, producing a feeling of distance and dimension. The design and placement of these overlapping white shapes control the speed at which viewers move through the composition, establishing a visual rhythm to the design.

A Sunlit Morning, Companions (watercolor on paper, 25×34) by Ng Woon Lam

In A Sunlit Morning, Companions, the white shapes not only form layers of space, they also connect to each other visually. This visual tension between the white shapes unifies the image just like other color shapes do. In addition, the shapes and angles counter one another in various directions to create a visual balance.

Moro Island Before Rain (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Ng Woon Lam

3. Set the white tone.

Tonal design, including white areas, governs the mood of an image. In part, the effect depends on the overall ratio of whites to colors. For example, a bright sunny day may call for more unpainted white area while a downcast day may have less.

In Moro Island Before Rain, the overcast sky gives way to one last ray of the sun, which shines onto the row of buildings. Although this area of light provides strong tonal contrast to the surrounding space, it’s relatively small. Only about 20 percent of the overall painting surface. By comparison, about 60 percent of the tones in this painting are darker than a tone 5 (using a standard tonal scale of 1 to 9). The effect of the small area of light within a generally dark overall image produces the downcast mood associated with an impending storm.

Sarawak Long House (watercolor on paper, 15×11) by Ng Woon Lam

In Sarawak Long House, I exaggerated the feeling of midday sunshine by leaving a large area of unpainted white. In fact, I left more than 60 percent of the entire paper unpainted. The tonal contrast between the forest in the background and the rough textures on the wooden floor enhances the sunny mood.

The Tailor at Clive Street (watercolor on paper, 21×29) by Ng Woon Lam

4. Lead the way with whites.

The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the brightness of the unpainted white areas in a painting, especially where the tonal differences in the surrounding areas are strong. By carefully staging your white shapes, you can direct attention throughout your composition.

In The Tailor at Clive Street, the visual path through the composition starts with the white area in the foreground. From there, the eye moves to the cloth leading toward the tailor, who presents the story of the image. It then moves to the canopy above. Finally, it connects via tension to the balancing white area next to the plant in the lower right-hand corner, before moving back to the floor again. In this way, the white areas create a perpetual visual sequence that holds the viewers in the painting.

Morning Chat (watercolor on paper, 15×11) by Ng Woon Lam

Similarly, in Morning Chat, the large area of white in the foreground works together with the painted brown shape next to it to maintain and direct the viewer’s attention. The pattern blocks the viewers from exiting the composition and leads their view toward the figurative elements. The small shapes of whites in the stall, as well as the artificial light source and its effects on the figures on the right side, create a balancing force to the large area of white in the foreground.

Kampong Glam Impression (watercolor and gouache on paper, 25×34) by Ng Woon Lam

5. Connect the whites.

I was trained in Chinese calligraphy, so I apply quite a bit of calligraphic brushwork to my watercolor paintings. Even though I’m not working with white paint, brushstrokes play as important a role for my whites as they do for any color.

By extending colorful brushstrokes into my white shapes, I connect those areas, and create interest and dimension in my whites, which otherwise would read as abrupt, flat shapes. This use of brushwork further promotes a sense of visual rhythm by creating connections between the contrasting areas with the varying brushstroke widths and edges that I create.

Penang Balik Pulua (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Ng Woon Lam

The sunlight hitting the roof of the building on the right offers the brightest spot in Penang Balik Pulua. In contrast, I applied very concentrated, thick paint in a rather dark tone to suggest the roof. The brushstrokes formed rough textures, creating exciting edges and strong distinctions between the roof and the white sunlit area. On the contrary, the bright spots on the ground were painted with broad brushstrokes; the narrower tonal difference allows the brushstrokes and white areas to be softly connected.

Penang Guan Yin Temple 1 (watercolor on paper, 22×15) by Ng Woon Lam

A Variety of Brushstrokes

In Penang Guan Yin Temple 1, I played with a variety of brushstrokes — from smooth, broad washes to thin, rough lines — in the foreground. If the white area reads as positive, then the reverse is true for the foreground shadow. The transition created through the brushwork — and the creation of both soft and hard edges — allows for a natural progression and connection to exist between the two areas. The white and colored areas in the foreground work together so that the positive-negative coupling doesn’t appear too jarring.

In the top part of the painting, I allowed the smoke from the pots to form with very soft edges. Any strong brushwork would have been detrimental to the vaporous effect I needed for the illusion.

In any work, capturing the impression of light is the key to bringing the scene to life. Without the option of white paint in transparent water- color, you must rely on your paper to create this effect. Natural, sparkling whites can’t simply be treated like blank spaces in the painting, however; they must be as carefully planned and composed as any other color. With a little preparation — and these five guidelines — you’ll be well on your way to more compelling whites.

Afternoon Market at Indonesia Belakang Padang (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Ng Woon Lam

Demo: How to Leave White Space in Watercolor

Step 1

My preparatory work included a tonal study of the scene and a figurative color sketch finished on location. I thought about the hue, tone, and intensity of my whites — as I would any color.

Step 2

I incorporated all the elements from my sketches into one drawing.

Step 3

I blocked in the large areas based on my tonal study and the design plan I worked out in my sketches. Already I was integrating my whites into the overall composition.

Step 4

I started to suggest or depict some of the finer details, such as the windows, rooflines, people and goods in the shops. I continued to make connections between the white and colored areas.

Morning Shoppers at Little India (watercolor on paper, 22×15) by Ng Woon Lam

Final Step

Finally, I studied the overall balance of the image. I looked at the whites as well as the colored areas in terms of design, storyline power, space and connections. Based on what I saw, I made my final adjustments to the image.

To see more of Lam’s work, visit ngwoonlam.com and @ngwoonlam on Instagram.


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

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