Ten Super Watercolor Painting Tips for Illustrators

By: Mark G Mitchell

ten-super-watercolor-painting-tips-for-illustrators

"We would like to see examples of your color work," said the hand-written message on the postcard from an art director at a children's book publishing house.

Uh-Oh. She had liked the black and white art samples I'd sent her, but she zeroed in on my weakness: The painting instruction I'd never quite gotten in college.

Now I had to work up some full color illustrations that demonstrated my painting bravura, or lack thereof. It was a long time ago and I'll spare you the details about how I spent the weekend whipping up watercolors, doing the best I could with the little I knew. I could draw figures and scenes decently. But in my color and washes, there was always as many misses as hits. My painting efforts were all guesswork. Did it show? I guess it did, because I didn't hear from her again after I submitted my hastily assembled watercolors, or rather, photocopies of them.

I've learned a lot since then from painters, art directors and fellow illustrators, who were also, thank goodness, teachers at heart and generous. The result is that I've learned that what I'd thought of as the scary part of illustration was not so scary or all that complicated. In fact, it's tons of fun.

Turns out that art doesn't have as many rules as a lot of other subjects. A handful of design principles apply to illustration as to almost all kinds of visual art. And those, in combination with a little common sense, professional courtesy (to your viewers) and some practice can go along way toward your painting looking like you've been doing it forever. And on top of that metaphorical cake, I'll add some frosting -- my top ten favorite watercolor painting tips I've learned or have discovered on my own path.

  1. Before you paint, jot off (in pencil) a small, loose value sketch of your scene to determine where your picture's midtones, lights and dark should be, so you'll have a strategy and some patterns to follow in your painting.
  2. Use good materials for painting - a few quality sable or sable/synthetic blend round brushes will make a big difference. Though not even nearly as big a difference as the right paper, which must be 100 percent cotton rag watercolor paper (It has to say that: 100 percent rag, so that you know it's not made from woodpulp - but instead real cotton fibers. Arches paper is a good brand to look for Either type - cold press (toothy texture) or hot press (smooth surface) either type will do fine for your illustrations. And either paper weight: 140 lb. or 90 lb. will serve you well.
  3. If your illustration is going to be a little complicated, make a full-sized outline drawing of it on regular drawing paper. This is not to be confused with your value sketch, which will be quite small and should be done after you've worked out your careful larger drawing. Lightly tranfer your pencil sketch, or a photocopy of it on to your watercolor paper with the aid of a light box. Or trace your sketch on to your paper using a window and the natural light of the outside.
  4. Think in terms of a dominant color for your painting. You'll add a few, though not many other colors to your palette - most importantly a color that's opposite the dominant color, which you can use to darken or neutralize the other colors a bit where needed.
  5. Start in on your painting with a mid-tone wash of your dominant color. Mix plenty of it up ahead of time so you don't run out. (It's OK if it's a slightly "broken" or somewhat neutralized version of the color. Colors will depend on your scene's mood and subject.) When you're painting, don't forget to reserve areas of blank paper in the composition -- for the whites and lighter colors that will go in those spaces. In the final painting, you'll want to place the darkest darks against the lightest light places where you want your viewers to look most. That will be the center of interest for your painting.
  6. Make sure when painting, that your brush is good and wet (though not sloppy out-of -control wet) with the paint solution. Your wash solution should be well-saturated with the pigment so that the color goes down rich and strong - though not opaque and heavy. Tilt your painting board just a bit, so that washes run slightly with gravity down the sheet in just the one direction - down toward you. If you see a slight liquid bead forming at the bottom edge of your brush strokes, that you're working with a brush that's wet enough and that you have your board tilted just right.
  7. A good watercolor tip is one you might hear from any professional house painter: Work with the largest brush you can get away with - for the economy of means, the brevity of technique. This means, cover the surface you need to, but don't overwork a passage. Less is usually more. If you can complete a whole section with just one juicy swipe of the brush, great! You can always come back later (after it's dry), if that first pass wash didn't cover enough.
  8. You'll enjoy learning lots and lots of good watercolor painting techniques but if you'll remember the big idea: to keep your brush wet, your paint stirred and yet rich and strong with color, that's a good professional start for a painter.
  9. Know that your brushstrokes will always dry a step or two (on the value scale) lighter than they'll look when they're glistening wet. So don't be afraid to go darker with your paint mixtures. Push those darks in your picture - for better clarity and contrast and a stronger design.
  10. Don't forget to put down your brush and step away from your painting occasionally. But don't stop for a big rest until you've filled up all four corners of the painting with some kind of color. (But remember to leave some white spaces where you'll think you might need them.) Only when your initial covering of the painting's surface dries, can you can assess how much further you need to go. And that may not be as far as you think. Wait until you've had a good rest before you try to judge your painting.

About the Author:
Mark Mitchell is a children's book author-illustration and a teacher of traditional painting for illustration.

For more insights and tips, see his Painting Instruction blog at http://www.epaintinginstruction.com. And for a "secret" on how to draw anything better, go to http://howtobeachildrensbookillustrator.com/drawingsecret/


How To: Introduction to Illustration with Alison Woodward



For other articles and videos on this topic, please follow the links below:

Watercolor Painting Lessons - How to Get Started

Watercolor Painting Lessons - How to Get Started

Watercolor is one of the most exiting mediums available to the artist. Getting started in doesn't require lots of supplies.

Watercolor Artist Tools - Watercolor Brushes

Watercolor Artist Tools - Watercolor Brushes

An artist's discipline is as important as his creativity. Part of that discipline includes the proper care of his watercolor brushes.

Watercolor Painting - A Great Method to Express Yourself

Watercolor Painting - A Great Method to Express Yourself

More and more artists are using watercolor as a medium than ever before. Once you master the medium you will love it forever.

Learning to Watercolor - Preferred Tools of a Watercolorist

Learning to Watercolor - Preferred Tools of a Watercolorist

Watercolor sketches have a freshness that is unmatched by other media. Drawing and color mixed together for expedience.

Abstract Watercolor Paintings - A Rise in Popularity

Abstract Watercolor Paintings - A Rise in Popularity

When I was a young artist and first started doing arts & crafts shows, an abstract watercolor artist inspired me try my hand at it.

Watercolor Painting Surfaces, Brushes, and a Few Techniques

Watercolor Painting Surfaces, Brushes, and a Few Techniques

Once an artist choses his watercolor supplies, then he/she can decide what technique is appropriate for the subject matter.

Technique of Watercolor Painting: Planning

Technique of Watercolor Painting: Planning

John Blenkin is an architect and an artist who uses a design approach to plan his paintings or to let accidents happen.

7 Keys to Create Successful Watercolor Paintings

7 Keys to Create Successful Watercolor Paintings

There are certain things that seem to ingrained in every artist, such as a love for supplies and a constant need to learn.

Watercolor Paintings As Compared to Oil Paintings

Watercolor Paintings As Compared to Oil Paintings

When we are trying to find our voices as artists, we not only have to decide on subject matter, but also on the medium we will use.

Watercolor Paintings Of Your Home

Watercolor Paintings Of Your Home

Getting colors exactly right is a challenge in watercolor. One owner painted his house to match my watercolor's off-color.

Start to Paint With Watercolours

Start to Paint With Watercolours

Watercolour is one of the most portable mediums. It is particularly popular with urban sketchers that travel light.

Watercolor Painting - Benefits and Drawbacks of Watercolor Painting

Watercolor Painting - Benefits and Drawbacks of Watercolor Painting

Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, but what are the benefits of watercolor painting over any other medium?

Andrew Wyeth - Way to Watercolor

Andrew Wyeth - Way to Watercolor

Don Woods is an expert on Andrew Wyeth and in this article he gives us a brief summary of Wyeth's career and talent.

Isn't Watercolors Hard?

Isn't Watercolors Hard?

People attribute difficulty to what they don't know, but once you undertake the learning of an ability, trade, or task you'll find it easier than you thought.

Ten Super Watercolor Painting Tips for Illustrators

Ten Super Watercolor Painting Tips for Illustrators

The importance of dominant color is something we artists need to pay more attention to, but Mark's other 9 tips are just as important.

How to Paint Using Watercolor - Wet Into Wet Techniques

How to Paint Using Watercolor - Wet Into Wet Techniques

I watched an Australian artist pour paint on his watercolor paper over and over again until he created the most vibrand dominant color I have seen. Then he started his painting.