Watercolor Painting Dark to Light: A Demo

Nadine Charlsen got her start designing theater sets. Now she designs dramatic settings in watercolor by painting dark to light. Here’s how.

By Stefanie Laufersweiler

Liberty Beyond Bridges (watercolor on paper, 53×45) by Nadine Charlsen

Here, you’ll learn about artist Nadine Charlsen and her theatrical background, her rule-breaking techniques, and her step-by-step process for painting dark to light in watercolor.

One glance at a hazy cityscape painted by Nadine Charlsen, and you might instantly imagine the feel of mist on your face or find yourself squinting to glimpse a busy metropolitan bridge through the dense fog. This watercolorist’s mastery at capturing the atmosphere, character, and grit of urban surroundings is what makes her artwork so true to life, and so palpable. Her past professional life in theater design undoubtedly has influenced her art.

Kinnickinnic River (watercolor on paper, 30×23) by Nadine Charlsen

From Stage to Studio

Initially, watercolor wasn’t a creative endeavor for Charlsen, particularly during the three decades she spent bringing shows such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to life onstage in and around New York City. “All the set renderings I did as a designer for a director to see what was going to be put onstage were done either in watercolor or gouache,” she says. “And so I painted very tight, architectural renderings of set designs for years, and I hated it. It was so limiting — like doing a coloring book. You draw the lines and then you color them in.”

At her friends’ encouragement, Charlsen began studying watercolor as a creative outlet at the Art Students League of New York. There she met a teacher who would forever change her approach to the medium.

Charlsen’s hometown in western Kansas is depicted in Bird City — Highway 36 (watercolor on paper, 22×30). “This painting has much more character with the stormy sky than the beautiful blue sky in the original photo,” she says.

Watercolor Without Rules

When Charlsen walked into Paul Ching-Bor’s class, his first words caught her by surprise: “I don’t have rules.” Eschewing traditional technique, he started dark and worked light; he liberally scratched parts off and scrubbed others out. “I’d never seen that before,” Charlsen says. That class challenged her own tendencies, allowing her the freedom to experiment and explore. “Within three weeks, it changed everything about my watercolor technique, and I loved everything I was doing.”

In the process, Charlsen learned that some watercolors require more effort and reworking than others. “There are so many ways you can make watercolor work,” she says. “I believe in constructing and deconstructing a painting through many alternating steps. Each time, a new focus appears, and over the course of 10 or more phases, that focus becomes clearer.”

Scrubbing Off

Erasing and making changes is key to Charlsen’s method. “If I had to leave everything that I put on paper right now, it would be a muddy mess.” She protects lighter areas by saving the white as she progresses. “But I use paper I can scrub, so I can go back to white as needed.”

Khadi handmade paper, which the artist discovered while making paper props for a show, is a favorite that she now saves for complicated paintings. “It’s very soft, and some people don’t like that,” she says, “but for my technique, it blends edges really well. Scrubbing off is so easy, because it kind of chips off layers of the paper.” It returns to perfect white every time, she maintains, even when using staining colors.

The artist’s passion for theater and her appreciation for the breathtaking architecture of the Paris Opera House are evident in At the Opera (watercolor, watercolor pencil and gouache on Khadi handmade paper, 39×29). “This painting was a turning point in my watercolor life,” Charlsen says. “It was through this breakthrough piece that I really discovered what my smudgy, scrubby style was going to be.”

Scene-Stealing Secrets

Touristy views don’t interest Charlsen; instead, she prefers to reveal the overlooked details and unique viewpoints she’s experienced while walking and biking on city streets. This isn’t surprising, considering her theater interests have sided more with backdrops than the spotlight.

In Charlsen’s world, the connections between designing for the theater and watercolor painting are constant. In both art forms, building the right atmosphere can leave a lasting effect on the viewer and set the stage for success. Following are several key techniques that Charlsen uses in her artwork to hold the viewers’ attention and draw them in.

In The Christian Quarter of the Old City (watercolor and gouache on paper, 27×22), Charlsen disliked a hard edge present in the reference photo where the background met the sky. “You don’t see the edge that clearly from that far away,” she says. After scrubbing out the skyline, she turned the painting upside down and glazed a thin layer of white gouache starting at the middle of the background. The midrange buildings received three to four layers, and buildings above those got twice that to push them back. The foreground has only one or two layers for a crisper focus.

Darks First, Then Color

Instead of building up color from light to dark, Charlsen lays in the deepest shadows first (and sometimes the grayer ones) to establish the composition and its values. Color is introduced after that. “The color goes right over the darks. I build it up in reverse, starting with darker colors that would go into those shadows,” she says.

The initial darks must be completely dry for this technique to work. With a fully dry dark layer, “the color pretty much floats on top of the dark, and when it goes into the dark, I immediately get so many more colors,” she says. The end result is richer shadows and reflected shadow colors.

Central Park Tangle (watercolor on paper, 30×23) features one of the many 2010 snowstorms in New York City’s famous park. “I projected the forms and meticulously painted the trees and covered walk with a fine brush,” Charlsen says. “Then I used a sharpened watercolor pencil to create the tiny branches. I also splashed on several layers of color to suggest depth behind the branches. Eventually, I scrubbed and scraped back the white snow on the branches and the ground. Glazes of Prussian blue added to the ground and sky, giving the painting the feeling of depth, shadow and cool air.”

Thin Layers of Glaze and Gouache

Putting glazes over the top of the dark and light areas blends everything together to create atmosphere — “the air between you and the depth of the painting,” says Charlsen. “I use a very, very thin white gouache wash or a very dark glaze, and then I bring out the color by scrubbing back.” She adds these layers while the painting is upright on the easel, and lets the color run and drip. “I take a fine spray of water and hit the bottom section so that the paint spreads out a little bit.”

To the white gouache, the artist usually adds a little color designed to complement the painting. Background areas typically contain more layers of thinned gouache than areas closer to the viewer. In addition, Charlsen turns the painting as needed to let the paint run in the desired direction.

“The juxtaposition of the round towers and the linear buildings creates interesting compositional shapes,” Charlsen says of Towers Over the City (watercolor and gouache on paper, 30×23). The shadows on the rooftop water towers increase their visual appeal.

Softened Edges

While almost everything in Charlsen’s set renderings featured a hard edge, soft edges are the goal for her watercolors. She applies water and glazes to soften edges, scrubbing them out when necessary. “I don’t worry about the edges of something getting ‘dirty,’” she says. “Most of what I paint can be dirty anyway.”

Demo: Painting Dark to Light

Traveling in Lisboa (watercolor, watercolor pencil and gouache on paper, 30×23) by Nadine Charlsen

In the following demo, watch Charlsen’s step-by-step guide for painting this city scene from dark to light.

Step 1

Charlsen begins with her own photo (1a), cropping or changing the composition if needed. In Photoshop, she creates a lighter version in color (1b), a grayscale version (1c) and an enhanced black-and-white version (1d). “This helps me start the painting by laying in the shapes and dark areas first,” she says.

Step 2

To establish the drawing, Charlsen sometimes traces and then enhances the lines with black watercolor pencil, or projects the image and then draws using a dark watercolor pencil. She then begins laying in the darks with Payne’s gray or Vandyke brown. Once the bare bones of the image are shaped with the shadows and dark areas, Charlsen lays the painting flat and applies water where she wants the hard edges to start “melting,” which helps to begin blending the architecture into the atmosphere.

Step 3

With the painting upright, the artist adds color to establish warm and cool areas. She glazes color over much of the painting and uses cerulean blue in minimal amounts for areas of exposed sky.

Step 4

Keeping the painting vertical, Charlsen applies several thin layers of white gouache onto the entire piece and then blots the areas where she doesn’t want as much glaze. “There was some cerulean blue in the glaze to change the atmospheric tone surrounding the trolley,” she says.

Step 5

She constructs some of the architecture in the buildings and adds tonal grays, brown shadows and details in the foreground. At this point, she decides which dark details she wants to re-emphasize.

Step 6

Texture and washes of color are added to the buildings, street, and trolley. Charlsen glazes some of the people on the right side of the street to de-emphasize them and blend them into the sunlight. She uses a drybrush technique to darken and texturize the buildings in the middle and on the left.

Final Step

More work is done to stylize the trolley and emphasize its size and structure. Highlights and shadows are also emphasized. Charlsen scrubs the white in the background back mostly to the white of the paper. “I didn’t want the people or the trolley to be in front of the rest of the painting, because it’s all affected by air, and light and dark,” Charlsen says of Traveling in Lisboa.

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

You may also like:

Join the conversation!

Become a member today!

Choose an option below to join now.


Save 16.59% with our annual plan and get a FREE GIFT!

  • Videos: Stream 850+ instructional workshops, specially designed for every medium and skill level.
  • Discounts: Unlock 30% off additional magazines + offers with our retail partners!
  • eBooks: Explore our library of how-to topics, tips, and techniques.
  • Magazines: Access Artists Magazine archives and new issues with a print subscription.
  • Newsletter: A weekly email featuring a selection of videos and more.

View Membership Benefits

*Membership cannot be purchased with Gift Cards or PayPal.