The Stages of a Watercolour Painting

The Stages of a Watercolour Painting

23rd July 2020 IN Blog

Watercolour Illustration Stage by Stage

One of the most daunting parts of any painting or illustration is staring at a blank page – one that is open to an endless list of possibilities. Some artists will recommend that you ‘kill’ the white straight away by adding a thin wash of paint to make the surface less intimidating. But, in reality you only need to plan and tackle the project in the correct order to alleviate any anxieties.

One thing that I would like to stress before reading the article is this: there are no guides that are set in stone. Different paintings will require different techniques and steps to achieve the desired goal. For example, you won’t always add the background first. The article aims to cover the most common way of doing things – or at least the way that I most often go about my work. There are times when rules must be broken!

With this in mind, let’s scrap the jargon and get straight to the point!

Plan your Watercolour

Before you grab the paper and brushes, have a good idea of what you intend to create. Use a photo as a reference if you’re having trouble. Many artists worry about copyright issues, especially if using a photo from the internet, but you needn’t worry about copyright infringement if you are using the image for inspiration – just don’t copy or trace it. There’s a very clear distinction between plagiarism and being inspired to create your own image from the work or others. Example: you find a lovely photo of woodland – create your own woodland and use the reference as a colour scheme.

Now that you have an idea of what you want to paint, tape your paper to a board (masking tape is fine), take a pencil (HB is ideal) and lightly sketch out your picture. It doesn’t have to be detailed for a landscape – just include enough features to set the scene and draw your attention to highlights and shadow, but if creating a complex illustration you can add as many elements as you need. If you are a landscape painter, you probably won’t erase the pencil lines, so it’s important to keep things light. However, if you are an ‘illustrator’ (which this blog is slightly geared towards) then you can press a little harder as we’ll erase the lines later – but don’t press down hard enough to damage the paper. Personally, I avoid using mechanical pencils for this as if the sharp tip meets with the paper it can scratch it which creates nasty lines in a finished piece.

TOP TIP: Before adding the tape I weaken the adhesive by sticking it to my clothes and few times first.

Light to Dark

Do you remember at Christmas time the big tins of chocolates? All wrapped in their pretty little transparent plastic wrappers? I thought so. Well, imagine watercolour like these wrappers. If you were to hold one of these thin sheets of coloured plastic up to a light source you would see the world in the colour of the wrapper. Watercolour paints are the same – they are delicate sheets of colour. The ‘white’ paper is the source of light which brings them to life. If paint is added too thickly or an overly dark colour is added on top of a lighter colour it will take away the natural vibrancy from the paint and make your picture appear dead and flat.

Adding the Background

If your background is lighter than the rest of the image, then now is the best time to add it in. Whilst preserving any areas that you intend to keep as pure white. You can paint around these areas, mask them (using masking fluid) or some prefer to come back later and add the white in at the end with a different medium such as acrylic, white pen or gouache. If the pencil lines are OK to leave, add the background wash over them – don’t start painting around things that will be darker anyway. However, if you are creating an illustration rather than a landscape, I would personally add my line work in waterproof ink first, although many artists leave this until last.

If you want faded distant trees, then it’s a good idea to add these whilst the background is still damp as this will allow the edges to disperse and soften as the background dries.

Adding the Colour

Once your background is in place and dry, it’s time to add colour to the areas that you have either preserved, or the light background wash will not adversely affected. Remember, paint light to dark – this also helps the finished piece appear more accurate as the darker colour will hide any overlap from the lighter washes.

Inking your Picture

As I have already stated earlier on – inking is one of the first steps that I complete. BUT, many artists do this towards the end, and it has some advantages doing it this way. Adding the pen outline last can hide some little blips along the way and allows varying the width of the lines now that everything is in place. I occasionally come back at the end and intensify some of my linework, but for the most part I like to have this done early so that I can clearly define the areas and have a more real-time view of what the finished piece will look like. PLUS….. if the inking were to go wrong at the last stage (such as a spilt bottle or huge unsightly blob) then you’ve effectively lost hours of work. Doing the inking early as I do means that if something were not right, you could start again without the loss of a lot of time. Inking is pretty much impossible to put right if it goes drastically wrong. And again, remember to use waterproof ink (and test it before using it as some cheap brands are not 100% waterproof despite their claims).


Now it’s time to make your illustration/painting ‘POP’. I tend to add my shading at the end. Some artists will under-paint this so that the darker shadow area will come through the lighter top colours. There is nothing wrong with this method and in some circumstances will appear more natural. I play around with the shadow at the end and often intensify it, so I see little point adding shadows early on when I know I’ll go back and play around with them some more….. But that’s just me.

Remove the Masking Tape

This is the most satisfying part of painting. The tape is used as a way to frame the painting whilst you work. When you remove it at the end it leaves you with a nice clean boarder and professional looking result. Always remove the tape with great care as it’s easy to tear the paper and ruin your work.

I hope this article has helped you in some way. But, as always, please leave your tips and tricks, or  kind words in the comment section below so that others can read them. I’ll enjoy reading them too!  

Watercolor Fire


Very useful. Thanks! I just started during Covid 19. I'm fascinated by pen & ink watercolours. I love the books by Peter Spier. So far I'm just copying things I see on Youtube or Google.
Cathy Baxter ON 24th July 2020