Improve Your Art Through This 3-Step Watercolor Painting Process

Jul 05, 2023

When you start a watercolor, do you have a blueprint to follow? Do you have a process in place? Or do you just wing it?

Maybe you've heard me refer to my "3-step painting process" in some of my other videos. I get a lot of questions about this, and so today, I am going to elaborate on this process that I use to paint nearly every one of my watercolors.   

Everything You Need to Know to Implement my 3-Step Watercolor Process

There is a lot that goes into a watercolor painting even before you pick up your paintbrush. Along with using my pre-painting checklist, creating an outline to follow as you paint your scene can set you up for much greater success.

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Today, I am going to share with you the way that I break down my watercolor process into manageable steps - and how you can too!

 Learning to See The Values in Your Scene

The first and most important part of my painting process is translating the colors and light of my scene into values. 

So, let's go back to the beginning and talk about what values are: values are simply how light or how dark a color or hue is. Whether you're looking at a photograph or you're on location assessing a landscape, every scene can be broken down into a range of values from lightest to darkest.

Think of a range of values like this: zero is your absolute brightest and ten is your absolute darkest. Once you establish that, you can split this range into three different groups: 0-3 are your light values, 4-7 are your middle values, and 8-10 are your dark values. 

When you combine all of these values, you get the full range of the scene that you're looking at. Here is a value study I sketched recently to show you the way that I assign values in my scenes. Take a second to assign each part of the scene with a value number. This is easier to start seeing when the picture is in black and white, of course, but it is good practice as you develop your capacity to identify values.

Thinking about values is especially important when we are painting watercolor, because in most cases we are painting from light to dark. And we need a way to help organize the painting process.

Beyond that, thinking about values is a great way to make sure you're preserving the lights and making the light believable in your scene. For me, that's always a primary goal in my painting. The effect of light is often the reason I choose the particular scenes I do, so I want to make sure I get it right.

Why Should You Paint Watercolor From Light to Dark?

Since watercolor is more transparent than oil paints or acrylic paints, your light colors will not show underneath darker colors. Also, the lightest colors of your scene are actually going to come from the white of the paper, so you want to make sure that you are preserving that white from the beginning.

It is hard to undo anything with watercolor. You can rarely make any part of your painting lighter, but you can make it darker. So starting with the lights and working toward the darks gives you the most opportunity to refine your painting as you go. 

Watercolor Step by Step Painting Process (Just 3 Steps)

With the 3-step process, you can simplify your painting into three washes, represented by the ranges we talked about earlier on the value scale. Let's talk about what each one of these steps is and what our goal is for each one of the washes. 

First Wash - Lightest Values, 0-3 

As you look at your scene, identify the lightest areas. What are the colors in those areas? Where do you need to preserve the white of the paper?

When I get started on this, I first wet down the front and back of my paper. Then I apply my lightest values, and I paint a nice fluid, wet-into-wet wash with all the brightest areas of the scene.

I let these colors flow into each other, taking full advantage of this unique quality of watercolor. This is a really a fun, loose part of the painting process. Finally, I let this dry.

It takes some practice and patience to be okay with this not looking like much at first. I get it - it is easy to want to see the painting come together quickly. But you have to trust the process. Whether it is obvious or not at this point, you are doing what you need to in order to create the depth, contrast, and detail you're hoping for. 

Second Wash - Middle Values, 4-7

Now, you'll move into the middle values.

This is the most challenging part of your painting because you're trying to paint your middle values in a large shape, a connected way. When you do this, you're merging the middle value objects with the object that's next to it. You're looking for the large shapes that connect the scene, that allow you to see the scene as a whole rather than many separate objects and shapes that are distinct from one another. This can be tricky and takes a lot of practice. 

One tip is to get used to squinting at your scene or reference photo. When you squint, it blurs some of the unnecessary detail and it simplifies the color of the scene, helping you see:

  • the connected shapes
  • the values in your scene, and
  • the details that are most important to your scene. 

Again, an amazing thing about watercolor is the way that colors flow together and create these beautiful wet edges where they meet one another. This soft blending of the colors on your paper is really what makes watercolor unique. So whenever you can take advantage of this, you should. It's a wonderful part of our medium that is worth highlighting.

Third Wash - Darks and Details, 8-10 

Now we are able to move into the darks and the details.

This is the part of your painting that brings everything together. In fact, don't judge your painting before you get your darks in details in. They can really bring your scene together, make your light stand out, and make things more believable. A lot can happen near the end of your painting.

 First, think about your focal area. If you start with your focal area, you'll avoid going too strong in another area and creating competition with the area of your painting that you're hoping will captivate your viewer. Most of the time, you want the most contrast, the hardest edges, and the most defined details in your focal area. 

  This is the most exciting and fulfilling part of the painting process because all of your hard work is paying off. The light is showing up and it's starting to really look like something.

After we get in the darks and the details take a step back and see how things are looking. I like to get about 90% of the way done and take a bit of a mental break. After completing these steps, you might feel some fatigue and it might be difficult to really see the attributes of your painting. Taking some time away will help you to make decisions with a fresh mind and finish strong.

The more that you practice this three step process, the easier it becomes, and the more confidence you're going to feel to take on any subject that you are excited about because you'll have a good, solid game plan to paint the scene.

Watch How a Plan Can Increase Your Confidence

Planning out your three main washes is one of the 5 steps in my new pre-painting checklist. This printable is designed to help you think through your watercolor subject and map out your plan so you can paint the watercolor you’ve envisioned. In it, I walk you through the crucial planning phase of your painting that will help you understand what you're going to paint first, second, and third.

The planning is really so important, especially in watercolor. This medium is harder to correct, and it's so immediate. So having that plan is very important. 

When you approach your next watercolor with a solid plan, having asked yourself all the most important questions about your goals for your painting, you increase the likelihood of success. You start your watercolor with more confidence and less uncertainty. You can download my checklist today. You can pull it up on your phone or print it out as a hard copy to follow as you start your next painting. 

Related Videos:

3 Steps to a Successful Painting

Top Watercolor Artists do These 5 Things

10 Quick Watercolor Tips


Stop Overworking Your Paintings!

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