Sunday, January 17, 2010

You ready? You sure?

I was sitting here tonight, pondering my to-do list of projects that need finishing (my husband is *this* close to quarantining me in my craft room until I cross some stuff off my list and I can't really blame him - I'm almost at that point, myself) and I decided that I needed to do some more doodling, instead.  Sssssssshhhh, he doesn't need to know!

Now, if you promise not to rat me out, I will show you how to make a simple little watercolour sketch.  And yes, I AM going to keep spelling it "watercolour", even if Blogger doesn't like it.  I'm Canadian and I don't compromise on spelling.  Everyone ok with that?  Good.

You will need:
  • Some small sheets of watercolour paper (I buy watercolour postcards, as they are already prepped and ready to go)
  • A set of watercolour pencils (or watercolour paints, but if you're just starting out, pencils are much easier)
  • A regular pencil - HB is fine
  • A white eraser
  • A watercolour paintbrush
  • A small jar or glass (with some water in it)
  • A pencil sharpener
  • A computer and a digital camera

Step 1:  Decide what you want to sketch.  Taking a photograph of your subject is a nice way to play around with balance, emphasis, composition, etc.  I took about 20 photos of this little grouping before I was happy with the way they relate to each other.  It's a little pinkish - I'm going to whiten this up in my sketch.

Don't be afraid to sit there for a while, rearranging and switching objects out until you're satisfied with it.  But don't over-think your subject matter - everyday objects are quite beautiful (ever taken a real good look at a spoon?).  Just pick something and go with it.  You'll probably end up surprising yourself.  Alternatively, if you do not have a camera, just find a cool photo online and use it as your template.

If I was a purist (which I am not, when it comes to art), I would insist that you sit there and sketch something out, freehand.  I learned to draw this way - by observing people/objects in front of me and transferring what I see onto the paper.  But, that's a whole other ball of wax and this isn't a drawing lesson.  Learning to draw is a very long process and you could even say that you can never perfect it - it's a life-long pursuit.  If you truly want to learn to paint, you must learn to draw.  This is non-negotiable.  And you would be better served by taking a class with a real-live teacher than following along with me online (not that I'm NOT real and live, but I can't really give you feedback from all the way over here).

Having said that, for the purpose of this little demo, we are going to cheat.  Yes, that's right.  I'm going to let you CHEAT.

Step 2:  Take your photograph and pull it up on the screen of your computer, like so:

Step 3:  Place a sheet of watercolour paper up against the screen (you can very gently place a piece of scotch tape up there to hold it in place)

(if you turn the light off, you'll see the image through the paper)

(like so)

Step 4:  Trace the image onto the paper, using the HB pencil (VERY GENTLY).  The idea is to use a pencil that is dark enough to not require you to press down hard on it.  You just want to *kiss* the paper (so sharpen that pencil!).  Be careful not to press on your screen!

Details are not important, here.  You just want the general outline of the shapes and background.  You'll also want to give yourself a guideline for any shadows.

Step 5:  Pull out your watercolour pencils and make sure they are sharpened.  I found this nifty little wooden box at the art supply store and I just use an eyeliner pencil sharpener, because it fits nicely in there (plus, it traps the shavings, so I don't have to worry about the mess).  Your paintbrush can also be modified (the wooden end hacked of, for example) so that it fits, as well.  Voilà - a travel painting set for your next field trip/vacation!

Step 6:  This is the important part.  Start by taking a really really really good look at your image.  This is the biggest mistake beginners make - they think that drawing is about the hands, but it's not.  It's about the EYES.  When I draw (and I do - a LOT), I don't really look at the paper - I look at my subject matter and make my pencil "follow" the image I'm seeing.  For every second you spend looking down at your paper, you should spend 10 looking at your image.  Now, I know we just traced our image, thereby making my point moot, but the same observation is required for painting.

Here's what I mean:

Take note of the shapes of the shadows/light patches.  Look at one spool at a time and get a feel for it before you commit anything to paper.  Here's a little trick of the trade: there is very rarely pure white and pure black in an image.  Shadows are made up of a variety of shades and white never happens - the surrounding colours influence how you see it.  You should always try to leave your black and white paints in the box and if you do use them, only do so at the very end to add a bit of contrast.

Step 7:  Start to colour in your sketch, using very very very light strokes.  Watercolour is all about restraint and subtlety.  You are going to have to layer a lot of colour in order to get the right shades.  Start with one spool (I started with the light green) and do the lightest colours first (the stripe of very light green/almost white down the middle of the lt. green spool).  You'll go back over it later, if it isn't dark enough.

You'll notice that I have two piles of pencils.  The ones on the right are the colours I've used in my image and the ones on the left are the ones I've ignored.  This is pretty important.  You don't want to get confused, halfway through. 

Work each spool slowly, going back and forth between similarly-coloured ones to blend your colours together (so they "match").  You'll see what I mean in a second.

The red, the dark orange, and the light orange are worked at the same time, here.  The reason for that is that I'm using the same 5 crayons for all of them (poppy red, crimson, yellow, bright orange, ochre).  I'm doing that so that they relate to each other and don't clash.  I'll do the same with the greens and blues.

I've decided that I'm going to try to get the lights/shadows on the dark green spool right, but that I'm not going to drive myself crazy with them (if you were looking for some instruction from a perfectionist, you've come to the wrong place).

Step 8:  Don't forget to shade in the background and pencil in the shadows.  Notice that there's no black, even at the "horizon" line, where the table meets the wall.  It's more of a brown colour, so that's the pencil you should use.  Just go softly - you can't add white to lighten it up later. 

Step 9:  Now that the all the colours have been drawn in, it's time to add a little bit more contrast, using brown, navy blue and just a *touch* of black.  Just a smidge, just an iota, just a "soupçon" of black.  Use them to darken up the shaded areas: 

Step 10:  Break out the paintbrush and water (and check it out - my spools are hangin' out over there, on the left).

Step 11:  Load up the brush with water and start wetting the background, making sure you don't touch the spools, for now.  I didn't put any colour down on the table surface (I wanted to leave it white), so I didn't add any water to it.  My spool tips are also going to remain untouched.

I also did the darkest shadows right away.  However you decide to sequence your painting, you should follow 2 rules: 

  1. Start with the dark colours.  You can use the dark water to help shade some of the lighter colours, if they don't seem right.
  2. Give yourself some time to let things dry a bit before you move the adjacent area.  You don't want to just douse this with water - it'll get muddy and gross pretty fast.  Use baby steps.

(a close up of step 11)

Step 12:  Move on to new areas, rinsing off your brush, as you go.  You don't want to change your water during any of this process.  The tinted water will help to blend your colours together so they relate to each other nicely.

Step 13:  Keep going, slowly but surely.


Ok, so I'm just about done, but I've noticed that the yellow spool has lost a bit of "definition" - it's just looking muddy and indistinct. 


Step 14:  Take your dark brown pencil and rub the tip onto the wet paintbrush bristles.  This will give you just a bit of colour on your brush, which you can dab onto the area you want to shade.  Do this with kid gloves - you can overdo it.  Go slowly and let your stuff dry between coats.

I liked the effect, so I did it with the rest of the spools, using the brown and navy blue pencils.  Layers of dabs, adding water as I needed it.  Then, I did it with the black - very carefully, so as not to destroy the balance and make it dominate.  While I was doing that, and my brush was black, I added a bit of water to it and shaded in the areas on the spool tips that are in shadow.


Step 15:  Step back and admire your handiwork.  You've just painted a watercolour. 

Did you have fun?  Your next step is to do it all freehand, without a photograph to guide you (and no cheating!).  Go on, you can do it!


  1. Beautiful! Makes me want to break out my watercolours too!

  2. Thank you so much!!!!!

  3. Oh, tank you vewy mush for all de nice compliments. You are too kind!

    Seriously, you guys are fun.