Watercolor Painting Handbook
Plan and Create
My watercolor illustration work is the work that holds my heart. My process for these is fluid and has evolved over the years as I've learned and grown. I'm happy to share my process with you here so you can get started on your own creative adventure!
Watercolor paint is available in tubes or cakes. I prefer cakes because there is less paint waste involved. After you're done working, they simply dry and can be reactivated with water at any time. Recently, my paint set of choice has been MyThingo Watercolor paint set with 42 assorted colors.
The heavier weight the paper, the better. As you wet the paper, your paper must be sturdy enough to hold the saturation, otherwise it's just going to crumble into a squishy mess. As long as you have a heavy weight paper (100lb or higher), you should be okay.
Explore cold pressed paper versus hot pressed paper. Hot pressed paper is very smooth. There is no tooth for pigment and water to bleed into. If you're not careful, it will pool and cause distortions in your work. Cold pressed paper has a rougher surface.
My paper preference:
I prefer cold pressed paper to hot pressed. I use 300lb cold press paper for all of my work. Generally, I've found cold pressed paper provides more flexibility and is a bit more forgiving if I need to pick up (gently remove the color with a damp paper towel) a color.
If you're just starting out, start simple. A set of soft bristle brushes works just fine for watercolor paints. Buy a cheap starter pack of five or ten in varying sizes until you're more comfortable with your paints.
My brush preferences:
I use flat, wide brushes for laying down washes of color, a medium round for defining forms and values, and several delicate round brushes for the detail work that brings each piece to life.
Drying and cleaning brushes, picking up wet color from your work to create textures, or spot fixing-because that darned paint ran away from you for a hot second-can all be taken care of with blotting tools.
I keep a roll of paper towels near me at all times.
You can use anything from rags and natural sponges to paper towels. I keep a roll of paper towels near me at all times. In a pinch, I have been known to steal dishtowels and coffee filters from the kitchen.
Usually, I use the plastic palette that comes with my current paint set. In my teens, I would wrap aluminum foil around dinner plates from the kitchen and call it a day. In college, I recycled old egg cartons and used those as paint palettes.
In a pinch, egg cartons and aluminum foil around dinner plates work as functional paint palettes.
6. Water cups
You'll need two cups of water nearby as you work. One is for cleaning your brushes. The other is for paint mixing and application. This keeps you from muddying your colors with the dirty water you're rinsing your paint brushes in.
Keep two cups of water nearby. One for clean water and one for dirty water.
As you grow, you may level up to using only one cup. When doing this correctly and carefully, it can contribute to the cohesiveness of the piece.
1. Reserving white areas: masking and lifting out
Handling light areas with watercolor is very different from how they are handled with other mediums. When planning your painting, you'll need to identify your lightest areas first. With watercolor, artists never use white paint. Instead, artists reserve the natural white of the paper for lighter areas in the work.
To protect highlights, artists can use tools like masking fluid or tape before laying down paint. This results in harder edges. If harder edges are undesirable, artists can use a moist paper towel or small sponge to soak up still-wet pigment from the paper. This technique works well for lifting out fluffy clouds in a sky, or soft highlights in a portrait.
You can apply watercolor paint wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry. Wet-on-wet results in more bleeding and spontaneity of colors. It's good for broad washes and atmospheric perspective. However, once you get into finer detail work, wet-on-dry works best.
Wet-on-wet results in more bleeding and color spontaneity.
Wet-on-dry means allowing the layer of paint beneath to dry fully before moving on to your next layer. If you don't, you'll find that faces or flowers will bleed together into a muddy mess.
Blending means creating a gradual transition between two colors or tones. When left alone, watercolor will dry with hard edges, particularly where one wash meets another. You can avoid this by waiting until your washes are mostly dry and then dampening a brush or cotton swab and gently dabbing the area until you get a desired softness.
Use blending to create gradual transition between two colors or tones.
1. Choose an idea
There is typically a good bit of planning at every stage of a piece like this. However, the first thing I do is find some inspiration. Inspiration can strike at any time, so I always keep a little notebook on me at all times to jot down or doodle anything that catches my attention.
If I'm drawing a blank, flipping through it usually proves fruitful in providing a good starting point.
In this case below, I returned to a piece I created in 2016. I asked myself, "If I were going to rework this idea, how would I do it?"
Recreating old work:
Eventually, I settled on the concept of a human woman and a selkie maid embracing under the surface of the sea with curious sister selkies looking on.
2. Find references
After I have a fuzzy image in my head of what I think I'd like to create, I scour the internet for photo references. In this case, I looked at a lot of photographs of seals above the water and below it. I searched some stock photo sites for photographs of women swimming under water and also of people kissing. Once I've finished gathering my references, I'm ready to pick up my pencil.
The more references you have, the better.
3. Map the figures
When I create pieces like this, I don't do thumbnails. (I probably should.) I use my intuition to put them together like a puzzle. If you don't have a lot of experience with composition, I recommend making thumbnails first to figure out the best layout for your work. Most likely, my pieces would improve in design if I engaged in this practice as well. However, do what I say, not what I do.
Use thumbnails to play with different composition options.
I start mapping out the figures in relation to one another. Once I have a general idea of where they're going to be placed and my stick figure sketches look relatively proportionate, I start drawing in details. Understanding proportion and perspective is crucial at this stage.
Once I get to this place, I usually take a breather and leave it alone for at least a few hours. I've usually been working on the drawing for anywhere between an hour and half to three hours. And, because I've been staring at it and, in some cases, fighting with it, I need some space and distance before returning. Otherwise, I may overlook an error in proportion, or size, or something else. After I return with a clear head, I always find something that needs fixing.
After I correct anything I noticed that looked off, I ask someone else to look at it, usually my lovely wife. She has a discerning eye and has been able to tell me many a time when something looks a little weird. And, she is always right. I made the mistake of brushing it off once or twice and then regretted it when I finished the work and realized how right she was about something. Now I always revisit/redraw/rework what she notices and press her for more issues in the drawing when she looks at it.
4. Figure out the background
After I've ironed out any errors in the figure drawing, I move on to the background. In the case of this piece, I knew I wanted it to be an underwater scene and I knew I wanted other selkies in their seal coats looking on curiously. For placement of the seals, I played around with a few ideas and then settled on creating a composition that used the natural and organically graceful curve of the seal bodies in the water to draw the viewer's eye through the piece. (Really, this is where thumbnailing should come into play.)
At this stage, I clean up any wild line work where I got too dark or where my initial structural lines are remaining, and I let the piece sit again for another day or so before I start painting. This gives me another opportunity to identify and correct any additional errors I might have missed up to this point.
By the time I'm ready to paint a piece, I am so excited I usually have to remind myself to slow down.
1. Plan colors and palette
I always plan colors and palette in advance. In the case above, I planned for blue greens and red-browns to keep things cohesive and complementary. I also tinted all of the colors utilized in the work with the same blue-green to give the work that hazy, underwater feeling.
2. Mask off any white areas
I determine where my white highlights will be and I use masking fluid to protect the white paper from the pigment.
3. Light wash to the whole work
After I plan my palette and block off my whites, I lay a light wash over the whole canvas to dampen the watercolor paper and to lend to consistency throughout the work.
4. Paint the background
I paint the background first, honestly, because it's the part I like to do the least. I've discovered that when I paint the figures first, I rush through the background. The work ends up sloppy.
When I paint the background first, it makes me slow down and give it the attention and care that it deserves.
Once I have a work at this stage, I start getting ready to lay flesh colors into the figures and really bring them to life.
5. Lay in flesh tones, hair, and clothing
I start general with the figures and work to specific, dropping in flesh tones first, then adding any areas of reflected light and, after that, moving on to shadows to further define forms. As a general rule, I've already determined my light sources well in advance to this stage. And, when I work out shadows, I usually use a less saturated version of the
Lastly, I work through any clothing or other elements until I have a finished work.
Upon completion, I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction of a new creation completed!
If you have any questions about my process or about your own,
I'm always available to answer any questions on Instagram @msrmcgaughey.
Subscribe to the monthly newsletter for studio updates and special print shop offers!