A Simple Guide to Painting Cars in Watercolor

Dec 14, 2022

Today, I'm going to show you how I went from painting cars like this:

To this:

without having to paint all of these paintings in between.

Mastering the Car in a Watercolor Scene

Cars are a subject that is so familiar to us that if they don't look right, it throws off your whole painting. 

Since I love to paint street scenes and neighborhood scenes, cars are unavoidable. And I have to say that when I first started painting and drawing, my cars were not good. It was pretty rough.


And here’s the thing - if you don't paint cars properly, your scene feels amateurish, disjointed, off-balance, and out of scale. 

Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned through the process of painting more believable cars.

Consider perspective and scale.

The number one thing that we need to think about is perspective. When you are painting cars, they need to align with the perspective of the scene that you're painting. They need to be in scale with other objects in your scene.


If a car is too small or too big, it will immediately pull the viewer out of the scene. It is similar to when we're painting figures in a scene. You can keep their heads at the same level and you extend the length of their body as they get closer to the viewer.

You can do the same thing with cars. Typically, if it's two cars, the roof of the car is going to be the same height. As the car gets closer to you, you can make the bottom of the car larger, but keep the roof of the cars on the same level. An exception to this is if one of the cars is situated on a hill.

Think of your cars as a shape instead of a subject.

It's easy to get obsessed with details. You might home in on the car’s grille, what the wheels look, or things like that. But these elements are not essential in making your car believable. 

The key is actually the windshield.

The windshield has to look right. Or - if the car is driving away from the viewer - the back window of the car has to look right. 

We don't want the windshield to be too tall or too short. Finding that middle ground and making it in proportion to the rest of the vehicle makes all the difference.

The shadow of the car is also very important. The bottom of a car is really close to the surface of the ground, so the shadow under the car needs to be dark.This helps connect your car to the ground. 

It’s also important to make the bottom of the car flat. If this line is angled in any way, it makes the car feel unstable. 

This one is slightly tilted sideways:

No matter the angle of the car, you want to keep that flat. 

Also, as the angle of the car changes, the lines on the edges of the windshield need to change accordingly. So, if the windshield has an angle on one side, then the other side has less of an angle because now the car is turned.

The most effective way to simplify that I have found is to start to think of cars as shapes rather than complicated subjects with a lot of detail. This makes it easier to paint the car more accurately. 

Try not to get lost in too many details and simplify as much as you can.

Incorporate reflections into your cars.

This last tip can elevate your cars to an even higher level. 

Since cars have reflective surfaces, you can incorporate colors from other parts of your painting into your cars. Surfaces of the car that are upward facing will have a bit of blue in their reflections. Surfaces that face the side or down-facing surfaces, like the side of the car, can reflect some of the other colors around them.

In the picture above, you have some warmer colors on the side of the car, reflecting some of the warmth that's in other parts of the scene. 

When I paint cars, I try to incorporate the car into each stage of my painting in the first wash of my painting. That's when I'm laying in the lightest values of the car.

I ask myself what the reflections are looking like and what the lightest colors of the car are. If it's a red car, I typically lay in a light red color in my first wash. And when I get further in, I can do a darker version of that color. Once you do this, you can really give your car form. The first wash gives you light, the second wash gives the car form, and the last bit of darks give your car the details that it need to finish them off.

If you can keep these three things in mind, you will see a lot more success when you're painting cars. And when your cars are believable, your street scenes are more believable. You're adding more of a sense of life and movement to your paintings and you can really take those street scenes to the next level.

Related Videos:

Step-by-step Watercolor Painting Demo - Fall Sunset

Free Tutorial: Paint a Street Scene

How to Paint Cars in Watercolor

Stop Overworking Your Paintings!

Watch my FREE Video Lesson 7 Secrets of Fresh, Powerful Painting.

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