Lighthouse Watercolor Tutorial

See how to paint a lighthouse in this step by step lighthouse watercolor tutorial. Includes access to the ChromaMagic color tool.

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure but I just love painting a lighthouse. Luckily here in New England we have a lot to choose from. Lighthouse paintings have a lot of things I like about painting with watercolor. I love the sunlight on white walls and how they curve into shadow. I also really love hos the white looks against the blue sky, And the small details of windows and railings just give enough interest to make the painting convincing.

A Lighthouse watercolor painting is a good choice for a beginner

If you’re looking for an easy subject to paint in watercolor then lighthouses are a great option. They’re easy to draw and are fairly simple to make convincingly three-dimensional. In this subject the foreground is a little trickier (although I really enjoyed painting it). If you’re at the beginning of your painting journey then simplifying or leaving out the foreground might be a a good option.

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Materials Needed

  • 100% cotton watercolor paper. I mainly use Fabriano Artistico.
  • Scrap/student paper for color swatches (I like the Fabriano ‘Fat Pad’).
  • A couple of 10 or 12 round watercolor brushes (sable or a good synthetic)
  • Palette
  • Spray bottle
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • Masking tape if you’re not using watercolor blocks or you want a crisp edge to your painting.
  • Colors: cerulean blue, lemon yellow, vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna, ultramarine, black.

Lighthouse Watercolor Reference Image

lighthouse reference with grid
pixabay lighthouse reference with grid

Here is the reference I’ve chosen. It’s from and was drawn to the strong sunlight and the red and white stripes on the lighthouse itself. The foreground has quite a lot of detail which I’ve simplified and kept to just a few values.

Start your watercolor lighthouse with a pencil drawing.

Lighthouse watercolor pencil drawing
Lighthouse watercolor pencil drawing

I started with a line pencil drawing. There is no shading on here as we’ll be putting in light and shadow with paint. I aim to put in just enough detail to outline everything important but not go overboard with every single little thing. This was trickiest in the foreground as there is a lot going on there. I tried to keep the lines that separated regions of light and dark and keep everything else to a minimum

Values are the key to a good watercolor painting

If you’ve been painting for a while then you’ve probably heard or read people saying that good values are the key to a good painting. You’re not going to hear me say anything different – if you can get a good handle on your values then you’re well on your way to a successful painting. To help us with this I recommend a couple of different things. The first is a good (as in accurate) value scale. I recommend Paul Centore’s one pictured above. It’s laminated and has 20 steps from darkest to lightest. It’s great for watercolor and oil or acrylic painting.

Estimate the values for the sky using the value scale

If you have a printout of the reference you can use the value scale to first estimate, and then measure the values of the sky. Even though the value scale is gray and the sky is blue squinting your eyes can take the color out of a scene and make it easier to measure.

Use ChromaMagic to Get the Color *AND* The Value

We realize that people don’t always have printed reference handy so here at Clamp Watercolor Towers we have built a tool that can tell you the value of any region of a photo just by clicking on it. Additionally it will tell you the exact color and chroma of a color so you know exactly what your color is. From the screenshots ChromaMagic says that the sky is a value 8 at the top and a fairly bright blue. At the bottom it is still a value 8 but now it’s a much grayer blue. Find out more about ChromaMagic here and try it out now here. You’ll need to download the reference photo and load it up into the tool using the ‘load file’ button.

ChromaMagic for Still Life Watercolor

Use ChromaMagic now

Fabulous tool to find the color and value in *any* reference photo. Basic version is free to use.

Paint the sky using a light cobalt blue wash

Graduated wash for the watercolor lighthouse sky
Graduated wash for the watercolor lighthouse sky

I paint in the sky using a cobalt blue wash that fades out as it goes towards the horizon. I change the color by first adding in a little water as I go down the page. At the bottom I add in a little cadmium yellow orange to neutralize the blue a little and make it grayer. I actually made this sky a little too light – it’s more like a value 9 rather than an 8. But never fear! We can darken this a little later to correct this. We just need to wait until the first wash is completely dry before tacking it.

Check the values on the lighthouse

Checking the value of the lighthouse watercolor shadow
Checking the value of the lighthouse watercolor shadow

We’re now going to paint the lighthouse. Or at least the main values – the details will come later. If you have a printout and a value scale you can measure the value of the shadow side or you can use ChromaMagic with the reference photo.

The white part of the lighthouse is around a value 6 in the shadow. The red band, however is much darker in the shadow – around a 2 or 3. And in the light the color goes to a value 7 orange color – quite a big swing in value there. We’ll need to get this right to make sure the lighthouse reads correctly.

Lighthouse watercolor shadow side
Lighthouse watercolor shadow side

I put the value 6 grey on the whole of the shadow side of the lighthouse. The gray is mixed using burnt sienna and cerulean blue (ultramarine blue can also be used). The transition from shadow to light is softened with a clean damp brush to make the lighthouse look round.

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Watercolor lighthouse light red
Watercolor lighthouse light red

I mix a mid value 5 red for the mid part of the red band. I use damp brush to soften the transition out into the light and hit that value 8 we found earlier. This is used to carry the mid value into the shadow side. It won’t be dark enough for the shadow yet but we can layer on a darker color later.

Watercolor lighthouse dark red and sea
Watercolor lighthouse dark red and sea

While I’m waiting for the red strip to dry I put in a wash of a mid-value blue (ultramarine with a dash of lemon yellow) for the sea. I also use a fairly thick mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna to start putting in some details and windows.

After that I mix up a dark red value 3 mix of vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna and just a *touch* of black if I need to hit that value 3. I try not to use black if I can avoid it to keep that dark red rich and vibrant. After softening the transition from shadow to light you can see how that color really sings out.

Use a light brown wash for the initial foreground wash

Light first wash for foreground
Light first wash for foreground

The foreground looks complicated but we’re going to simplify as much as we can. The base layer is just a light wash (probably around value 9) of burnt sienna with a little yellow ochre. This goes over the whole foreground regardless of any detail drawn in.

The green foliage in the foreground is pretty dark – probably around a 4 or even darker. I mix an olive green using lemon yellow and black and add just enough water to get it to the right value. I then roughly put in the foliage and try and leave the edges choppy to suggest vegetation.

At this point I adjust the sky color and layer over another wash of blue which fades out to orange at the horizon. This brings the sky value more in line with the reference and *really* brings out the white on the lighthouse!!!

I continue to add in more foreground detail for the foliage and the shadows. This is all pretty rough. It just has to suggest what’s there as the main attraction of the painting is the lighthouse itself.

Final Touches with Opaque White

opaque white for detail on watercolor lighthouse
opaque white for detail on watercolor lighthouse

For the final touches I use a little of Dr Ph. Martin’s Bleed-Proof White paint to add in some railings and detail on the lighthouse window. A little gray to indicate the lamppost and I’m done!!!

Final Thoughts

Well I hope you enjoyed that. Not everything went to plan but most things could be fixed. As usual if you do have a go at this scene I’d love to see what you do!

Vermont Landscape Watercolor

The Vermont Landscape is quite special in this region. Fields and farms and wonderful skies. I’ve painted this farm once before and wanted to do another version with a slightly different feel. I recently took part in a Dan Marshall challenge of a Colorado landscape. It had a wonderful stormy sky so I took inspiration from that.

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Reference Photos are Often Not Perfect – so Change Them!

Vermont Farm Reference Photo
Vermont Farm Reference Photo

The original reference photo had a rather uninspiring almost cloudless blue sky so that came out and I put in some dramatic clouds and gave them some interesting shapes. I wanted to keep the bright sunlight on the roofs so I kept the sky clearer to the right so the whole thing read well. Doing this also helped focus the painting on the farm as center of interest. I went back and forth about the road. Sometimes roads can help a composition but, in this case, I couldn’t make it work without it looking a little hackneyed. So out it went. I ended up with a composition I like. Most of the detail is in a band across the middle with large areas above and below with relatively little going on.

A Value Study can Often Help Solve Problems

I didn’t do a value study this time. In most cases this really helps. If a painting doesn’t work in black and white and in a 5×7″ format it’s unlikely to work on a larger scale and in color. But in this case I’d had a warm up with the previous landscape. I’d also painted this subject before and so knew my way around it. So I took a chance and it paid off.

Portraying the Character in a Vermont Landscape

The sky is the main character in this work. The farm buildings still in sunlight contrast with the approaching storm clouds. I felt that this highlights the vulnerability of humans and our abilities to control our environment with the sheer power of earth’s climate whims. The buildings are put in broadly with broad strokes of color and minimal detail. The sky is, in contrast, painted wet in wet in multiple layers.

Landscape Video Demo

I often video my paintings for teaching purposes but in this case I didn’t. If you’re interested in the nitty gritty please have a look on my youtube video channel or have a look at the videos on my site. I’ve included a landscape done in a similar manner below.

YouTube player

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New Zealand Landscape Value Study

A deceptively simple watercolor landscape value study was the precursor to this painting. Tuesday is teaching day so decisions had to be made and I plumped for this beach scene. It’s good for practice as there are obvious large shapes and clear values.

First a Small Landscape Value Study

Watercolor landscape value study
Landscape Value Study

Break the scene into big value shapes

The first thing was to break down the scene into a few large value shapes. These were the sky, the sand, the sea, the trees, and the rocks. A couple of these have multiple values in but I chose the average value in order to paint the study.

Sketch the shapes and identify the values

This is probably the most important part of the value study and it involves no painting at all! First I sketched the rough shapes in a small rectangle – probably about 4”x6”. Then Using my trusty Paul Centore value scale I first *estimated* what the value was for each shape. After taking a stab at the value I then brought in the value scale to check how close I was. If I’m within a step I’m pretty happy. It’s surprising how quickly you get better at this and the key to it is making a guess first rather than bringing in the scale immediately.

Note the values on the sketch

This is only a value study so we can mark it up however we want. I pencil in the value inside the shape so I can remember. So the sky and the sand were about a value 8. The sea was a 6 and the trees and rocks varied between a 5 and a 2. All these numbers went in the sketch.

Finally Paint the Value Study

And now we get to paint something. We’ve done a lot of the hard work here so it’s a case of mixing the value and painting it in the shape. I try and keep the value washes as even as possible so there aren’t stripes or brush marks. It keeps the values separated so we can judge how the composition is working. I usually do value studies in a sketchbook or on cheap student paper but this time I broke out the Fabriano Artistico. It’s not really needed as we’re not doing any edge work or blending but I had a small piece handy.

Some shapes have multiple values

The trees and the rocks have multiple values which show the form as the light hits them. In these shapes I used two values – a wash of the lighter value and then a much darker value on the shadow side to make them appear three dimensional.

There’s not a lot of detail in there. A few brush marks on the rocks brings everything together.

Assess the result

After I was done I stood back and assessed how the composition was working. In this case everything looked good. The value arrangement hung together and I was ready to go to the next stage. In particular I liked the way the sea was a mid value between the sky and the darks of the trees and rocks and tied the painting together. Another thing that I think worked well was the broad treatment of the rocks. I had used just two values and put in the shadows very broadly with a little softening of the edges. This simple treatment was surprisingly enough to make the rocks read well. Also the broad painting gives the study some energy and visual life.

Next Steps

In another post I’ll talk through the next stage which is mixing the colors. There are a couple of surprises in there which can catch you out. I have been caught unawares painting beach scenes quite recently and learned a few lessons which came in handy with this painting.

Barn Watercolor

Easy Steps to Create a Painting

I had a good session painting a barn watercolor this week. Starting with a value study is a great path to a successful painting. I chose to do a watercolor painting of this old barn as it had clear areas of different values that show the form and make the scene look three dimensional. This was a session on values so there wasn’t much finesse in the final study we did. My painting hand was itching to have another go at it so I did a quick sketch this afternoon. A watercolor barn is a great subject for learning how values create form with paint. If you’re looking for watercolor painting ideas it’s a good place to start.

This was never going to be a finished piece as the paper was a bit damaged where the printer ink got smeared on it which actually frees you up a bit as it’s not as precious. Quite happy with this. If I were to do it again I’d take a little more care on the sky and tone down the blue a little. I was trying to cover up the nasty smear but to no avail.

Below I outline what we did in the lesson:

First a Value Study

Barn landscape watercolor study
Barn landscape watercolor study

We started by practicing mixing up values. Knowing how to mix the right consistency of paint for a middle value is one of the most valuable skills to have. With watercolor it’s pretty much impossible to know how the paint will look just by looking at a mix on the palette. We have to judge by the consistency of the paint and it takes a bit of practice. Well worth it though. We used pretty much 3 values to paint this value study. The forms and the light are all there and it reads well visually. We’re good to go with the color version!

How not to paint a barn watercolor

How not to paint a barn in watercolor
How not to paint a barn in watercolor

This was me demonstrating how I used to paint before I discovered how important values are. I’ve pretty much identified the colors – sky blue, grass green, barn red – but none of the values are right. The sky is too dark, the grass too light and there’s no difference between the light and the shadow side of the barn.

Values First – Color Second

Where I went wrong is that I focused too much on color and not enough (if at all) on value. If the value is right then you have a lot of leeway with the color. The next version paid much more attention to the value.

Barn landscape watercolor color study by Michele Clamp
Barn watercolor color study

This was our final study of the day. Keeping the areas pretty simple but really trying to nail the values. The sky is still blue but much paler. The grass is now a much more realistic green and now a darker value. The shadow side of the barn has a much better contrast with the light side and shows the form.

Everyone did really well with this. This is a beginner’s class so people are very new to watercolor. It’s a lot to take in but so fundamental and rewarding when it works.

I always enjoy it when I do a barn painting. A scene out in the country with farm buildings is always a pleasure for a watercolor artist. If there’s a wall or a fence around to include so much the better. It’s true that a barn painting like this is not the most original of subjects but it’s great for teaching and has a timeless quality that is always a pleasure.

Demo Video Available

I have a number of real-time demo videos on my youtube channel (and you can access them from this site here).

A similar barn painting (also part of a lesson) can be watched below:

YouTube player

Online Watercolor Classes

I run weekly watercolor classes regularly. If you would like to join me please check out my teaching page.

Available Original Barn Art

The original painting is also available from ugallery who are offering a number of my paintings online

Singing Beach Watercolor Take 2

I was pretty happy with yesterday’s sketch but wanted to get closer on the colors. The sand especially was a little too *pow* for me so back to the color swatches to get closer. The changes I made were to push the sky a little more towards green, the water a little darker and the sand with way less chroma. It’s still the same color which is mostly yellow ochre with a little permanent rose. But to take the chroma down I added some lamp black and a little water to bring the value back to where I wanted it.

Here’s today’s and yesterday’s side by side.

Now personally I prefer today’s version. However other members of the household prefer yesterday’s.

It was definitely worthwhile doing the same scene twice. It takes the pressure off when you’re doing the first one and you can experiment with a few things that you might not otherwise.

Singing Beach Watercolor Sketch

Singing beach watercolor sketch today. Just about an hour and this is a scene I’ve done before but I was never really satisfied. This is getting there but not quite where I want it.