Watercolor Mastery: Techniques to Preserve Luminosity in Your Paintings

Feb 05, 2024

When I paint, I've got my eye on the light. In fact, it's a motivating factor for me.

I find myself captivated by watercolor scenes that have interesting light and shadows. Whether it's another artist's painting that I'm admiring or a watercolor landscape I'm painting, the light is always a primary focus. 

But preserving the light you want in a watercolor painting can be complicated. Keep reading for my top tips on how to paint a luminous watercolor!

Unlocking Brilliance: The Art of Preserving Light in Your Watercolors 

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In watercolor, we paint from light to dark. This means that in each phase of the painting, we have to remember what light we're trying to preserve and be careful to not darken it. This can feel daunting.

So today, I'm going to help you develop a game plan that will make this a little easier - and I think you're going to find that it's not as difficult as you might imagine. 

Here are 3 tips for the beginning watercolor artist to paint brighter, more luminous paintings:

1. Identify Your Lights in Your Watercolor Scene

Step number one is to identify the lightest areas of your painting. Whether you're drawing inspiration from a reference photo or plein air painting, you'll want to study your scene carefully to determine which areas of your watercolor scene are the lightest and brightest. 

When Should I Start Thinking About the Light in my Watercolor Painting?

This should be one of the first determinations you make, one of the first things you notice about your watercolor subject. The lightest part of the watercolor scene could be a figure, a vehicle, or a certain part of the landscape where the light is on display.

Once you've identified this area, incorporate this knowledge into your planning process.

My first task when I am planning out a watercolor painting is to complete a pencil drawing of my scene. Even as I sketch, I'm thinking about values and identifying the lightest areas, the middle values, and the darks. In this way, I am thinking about my process from the very start, which is essential to preserving the brightest areas of your painting.

2. Create a Value Study for Your Watercolor Painting

Step two is to create a value study.

What is a Value Study? 

A value study is a drawing that you make before you start your painting. You you can think of it as a dress rehearsal. It allows you the time to really study a watercolor subject and become familiar with its shapes, values, and composition. It can be a thumbnail sketch, a full-sized picture, or something in-between. You can use pencils, pens, or markers, but I recommend using only 3 colors on a monochromatic scale to represent three values in your painting: the lights, mid-tones, and darks.

Simplifying your values into three groups (the lights, the mids and the darks), can really help you get clear and specific on the lights that you need to preserve in your painting.

When I do a value study, I leave the lightest parts as the white of the paper. Then, I identify the large middle value shape. Finally, I add in the darks.

It's hard to look at a complicated scene and see the values clearly from the get-go, so doing this study helps you work out problems before you start your watercolor painting.

This study not only helps you get a handle on value, but it also helps you lay out your composition and gives you a reference to follow as you begin to paint. Now, with a road map to follow as you work through the watercolor painting process, preserving the lights becomes so much simpler!

3. Work Methodically Through Your Watercolor Painting Process

Step three is to use the road map you created in step two. 

Now that you've created a value study, you essentially know what you're going to do in each phase of the painting - because you've already done it! This, of course, makes it much less likely that you're going to paint through something that you're trying to preserve.

How Do I Paint from Light to Dark in Watercolor?

Painting from light to dark is not the only way to paint in watercolor, but it is the process that has worked best for me.

Here's my 3-step process, simplified:

1. As you paint through the scene from light to dark, your first wash will be your lightest values. If there is an area of the paper that you want to leave white, this is the time to do that.

2. Once your first wash dries, move into the middle values of your scene. Work from a wet edge and paint this value as a connected shape. 

3. Add in the darkest values and the details.

When you paint in an orderly way from a wet edge across the scene rather than just jumping around and painting everywhere that you feel like painting, it is much easier to preserve that light that will really make your painting special.

BONUS - Methods to Bring Light in After You've Painted Your Watercolor Scene

Despite having this plan and working through your painting methodically, mistakes are going to happen.

Sometimes that means you try again another day, but if your mistakes are small, there are some work-arounds. 

Small little highlights in the painting can be added at the very end of the painting process through two distinct methods:

 Related Blogs

The Scratching Watercolor Technique for Beginners

Simple Painting Practice - Easy to Do Anywhere

Paint Believable Light - A Watercolor Tutorial


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