Watercolor Boat Painting Tutorial

boat reference photo
boat reference photo

Want to paint this watercolor boat painting? Follow the step by step instructions (including video at the end) and see how easy this can be!

I just can’t resist painting boats in watercolor. The colors, the details, the sun and shadow – all come together to make painting these watercolor boats so much fun. In this watercolor boat tutorial I break down all the steps and show you how you can paint this scene. Boat watercolor paintings can seem daunting but if you take things slowly it’s amazing how they come together.

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Watercolor Materials Needed

  • Mechanical pencil
  • Watercolor paper (I like Fabriano Artistco 140lb cold press)
  • Size 10 round sable or synthetic sable
    • Permanent rose
    • Vermillion/pyrrole red/naphthol red
    • Ultramarine blue
    • Cobalt blue/cerulean blue
    • Yellow ochre
    • Lemon yellow
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Black
  • Value Scale
  • Color isolator
  • Palette/paper towels/water pot
  • Small spray bottle of water

Watercolor Boat Drawing

Watercolor fishing boats drawing
Watercolor fishing boats drawing

The drawing for this painting is pretty important. Sometimes I won’t put much detail into a drawing and just indicate the main shapes. For instance a landscape with trees can be pretty sparse in the drawing. All the detail and texture goes in by eye with just paint. But for this scene there is a lot going on and we want to indicate the position of a lot of different things.

Using a Grid Helps With Drawing Accuracy

I did this drawing by eye but, if you’re not confident with your drawing, you can grid up your paper lightly with pencil and draw it square by square. That way you can be sure you’re getting everything in the right place. It’s not a foolproof method but it gives you far less room for error. I’ve included a gridded up version of the reference below.

Fishing boat reference photo with grid
Fishing boat reference photo with grid

The aspect ratio of the photo is the same as for a 10″x14″ piece of watercolor paper. If you mark your paper into quarters on each side and join them up to make a 4×4 grid you can transfer the drawing more easily onto your paper.

Take Some Time to Make a Plan for Your Painting

Before we dive into the painting it always helps to take a few minutes and plan out what you’re going to do. It can be hard to do this – we want to jump straight in and get those brushes moving and paint splashing around. But a few minutes thought at the start always makes for a better painting. We can spot possible problem areas and make sure we know roughly how we’re going to proceed.

Which Direction is the Light Coming From?

I first make note of where the light is coming from and where the shadows fall. In this case the sun is on our right and the shadows are falling on the left. This is always good to keep in the back of your mind. If the reference is unclear in some areas you can work out how the lights and darks should fall even if you can’t make it out from the photo.

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Where are the Lights and Darks?

The next thing I do is note where my lightest lights are and my darkest darks. Once we’ve located these then we know that everything else has to fall somewhere between those areas. In this case our lightest light is the white hull on the left boat. The darkest darks are in the shadow underneath the boats and possibly inside the cabins. I keep this in mind. Nothing else can be darker or lighter than these areas.

Where are the Main Shapes and Values?

This one is trickier but it pays off giving it some thought. Even though there’s a lot of detail going on in this photo I like to break it down into 4 or 5 main value shapes. In this case I would estimate (or measure using our value scale) the value of the following areas

This may seem like a lot to work out ahead of time but getting those big value shapes right is an enormous help getting a scene to hang together and getting it to be convincing.

Identify a Few of the Colors

Watercolor Color Swatches
Watercolor Color Swatches

Doing some test mixes of a few of the main colors can also be a good idea. It’s much easier to do this before the painting. When you’re in the middle of the painting there’s so much going on it’s hard to stop and think about this. It’s a bit like prepping for a recipe. Getting all the ingredients measured out ready ahead of time makes putting a meal together much easier. (Not that I ever really do that – but I should!) In this painting I mixed as I went along but it’s a better idea to try out your color mixes at the start. If you think you can’t remember how you mixed your colors then putting a pencil note next to the swatch is a good idea. It’s doesn’t have to be anything complicated – just a list of the colors is enough.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Finally we Paint!

So let’s start painting. We’re going to paint this in layers and build up the painting from light to dark. We’re first going to block in all the shapes with their lightest colors. Once those are dry we can go back in and add in the darks. This way of working takes a bit of getting used to. As we’re starting with the light colors of all the shapes things won’t start to look three dimensional until quite late on in the painting.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

We want things to look flat to start with.

If we put in too much value variation in the early stages then the darks won’t make as much impact when we put those in. In these early stages try and match the color and value as best you can to the reference. And, most importantly, keep these early washes even. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look right at this stage. It takes a bit of faith but once you get used to it it will all make sense.

Keep Going With the Light Values

Keep going across all of the main shapes of the boats. One thing to remember is that we’re putting in the light value of each different shape but these values may vary from shape to shape. For instance, the hull of the red boat is a bright orange-red in the light. The actual value of this is around a 5 i.e. mid-way down the value scale. If we compare this to the beige area above we can see that it’s a little darker. The beige area in the light is around a 7 but it’s still in the light.

Similarly the red stripe on the left hand boat is around a 4 (i.e. darker than a mid-value) in the light. If you have a value scale and a printout of the reference you can measure the values directly. If the color is distracting (and it can be with bright colors like these) squint your eyes and it becomes easier to judge value.

Use the ChromaMagic Tool to Measure Color

chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting
chromamagic for fishing boat watercolor painting

Alternatively you can load up the reference in ChromaMagic and click on different areas. It will show you the three components of the color – hue, value and chroma. The color notation is part of the Munsell way of measuring color. It is incredibly useful in painting and makes color very straightforward to analyze.

Paint in the Sea in the Background

Add the sea in a fairly dark blue
Add the sea in a fairly dark blue

The sea in the background goes in next. This is a fairly dark blue and helps to tie the boats in the scene and give us some depth.

As you can see at this point the painting isn’t looking three-dimensional. Don’t panic! This is exactly how it should be looking at this point.

Paint in the Sand Around Your Watercolor Boats

Add a wash for the sand
Add a wash for the sand

Next we’re going to put in the sand. I really like this bit as we get to put in some texture with our spray bottle. One thing to be careful of – sand isn’t yellow. Or rather it is yellow but a very grayed out low chroma yellow. In this scene it’s a kind of beige so make sure you add in some black to your mix to take out some of the brightness. I’ve made the mistake of painting sand far too bright in color many times. Again mixing a swatch of color beforehand helps a lot as does using ChromaMagic for checking the chroma.

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Use a Spray Bottle to Add Texture

While your sand wash is still wet take a spray bottle of water and lightly spritz the surface. If the paper is the right level of dampness the water will add small sparkles and splodges in the paint. It adds some interest and texture to the foreground. This can take a bit of practice to get right. If the paper is too wet the water will just disperse and disappear. If the paper is too dry the water won’t do anything at all.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Add the Sky

Note: I’ve got the order slightly wrong here. I’ve already put in some of the darks on the boats before doing the sky. The order doesn’t really matter. You can put in the sky before the shadows and everything should work out fine.

Let’s put in some sky now. The reference photo doesn’t really have much in the way of clouds and I didn’t really want a big expanse of blue up there. So I’ve invented some cloud shapes. You have a lot of freedom here. Put in some blue around wherever you fancy the clouds to be. While the paint is wet take a clean (very clean) damp brush and soften the edges of the clouds. The blue pigment will diffuse out into the damp areas of paper making lovely soft and convinving clouds.

Watercolor Boat Painting – Second Layer Darks

Now this bit is where the painting starts to come to life. We’re going to put in the shadow sides of the objects and make them look three-dimensional. Adding in these contrasting areas also helps the visual impact of the scene and it will make the image more interesting as well as more realistic.

Don’t Add Color in the Light!

We’ve already painted in the light sides of our objects so we won’t be putting any color in there at all. We’re just going to paint in the shadow colors on mostly the left sides. Make sure your colors are at least a couple of shades darker than your light sides and things will start to take shape. When you get to the insides of the cabins we’re even darker as very little light is getting in there – you don’t need to paint things – just a few dark shapes at different angles will suggest a lot of detail.

Be careful with the shadow on the white hull. We don’t want to go too dark here and keeping that shadow light will really suggest strong sun.

Add a Cast Shadow to Anchor the Boats to the Ground

Finally add some cast shadows on the sand and right at the bottom of the boats. This will make the boats convincingly anchored to the ground.

The Magic Bit – Details on Your Watercolor Boat Painting

Details - masts and rigging
Details – masts and rigging

By this point you should have something that’s looking pretty three-dimensional. This next bit really adds sparkle and interest to your watercolor boat painting! We’re going to put in some lovely details. Put in the masts and rigging with a small synthetic brush. Make sure they’re not too dark – a mid value gray is plenty dark enough here. The other thing to take care with is not to make your lines too continuous. Leave a few gaps here and there as it will make the masts more convincing than if you carefully paint them in one continuous line.

Masts are put in lightly - not too dark
Masts are put in lightly – not too dark

Continue with the masts and smaller details. Add in a few lines for the railings and the ropes holding the buoys. A few light lines on the white hull will also suggest their structure. I hope everything is looking really good by now!

Flags and Signs

Final details in your watercolor boat - flags and signs
Final details in your watercolor boat – flags and signs

We’re right at the end now. A few red marks for the flags will add a pop of color. The signs on the boat go in with an almost black background. The lettering is suggested with a little opaque white.

Final Thoughts on This Watercolor Boat Painting

If you tried this painting I hope it turned out well. I would love to see your results – please feel free to send them to me. I have also videoed the whole process and you can paint along with the full painting.

YouTube player

50 Easy Watercolor Ideas

Well actually only 15 so far. I will be adding to these including video in the next couple of months.

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15. Watercolor Elephants

14. Watercolor Lemons

13. Watercolor Lighthouse

12. Watercolor Fox

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11. Onions and Garlic

10. Fruit Watercolor Still Life

9. Watercolor Heron

8. Watercolor Sunrise Landscape

7. Watercolor Horse

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6. Watercolor Beach

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Michele Clamp Studio Wall

5. Watercolor House

4. Watercolor Fire Hydrant

3. Watercolor Shoes

2. Watercolor Cat

1. Watercolor Cupcake

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The Munsell Color System

Find out about the Munsell color system and how easy it is to use. Includes access to free pdfs and the online Munsell tool ChromaMagic.

It’s Live! The All New ChromaMagic App!

Brand new interface and lots of new features!

How I Discovered the Munsell Color System

If there’s one thing that took my painting to the next level it was understanding and using the Munsell color system. I’d known about it for a long time but hadn’t really studied it in detail. To be honest I’d looked at it and thought ‘oh that looks far too complicated for my needs’. Reader, I was wrong. If I’d used this way of thinking about color years ago I would be far more advanced in watercolor painting than I am. There are a number of different color standards out there but Munsell is definitely the best one to study for painting.

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My Color Was All Wrong

Just before I really got into Munsell I’d been flailing around trying to work out why my color wasn’t working in my paintings. I knew something was wrong and I kind of knew what it was but I didn’t know how to fix it. My problem was that color wasn’t really working in my paintings. They were all coming out really garish and the colors weren’t working in harmony. I tried various things – really trying to get the values right, graying down all my colors so they were more muted, really trying to simplify shapes. A lot of ‘really trying’ but not a lot of ‘really working’.

Munsell to the Rescue

I knew my color wasn’t working and I knew that I wasn’t really seeing color as value. But I’d missed a big part of color and that’s where Munsell came to the rescue.

Munsell is Increasingly Popular Amongst Artists

A growing number of people are using or starting to use Munsell. Off the top of my head these include Kathy Speranza, Graydon Parrish, Anthony Waichulis, and Richard Murdock. But I want to give a shout-out to Paul Foxton. He introduced me to Munsell through his website and his fabulous YouTube videos. Especially if you’re an oil painter I highly recommend you check him out.

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What we’ll cover about the Munsell System

In this post we’ll be learning about color as defined by the Munsell color system. This breaks down colors into three components – hue, value, and chroma. We’ll be defining each one and seeing how they look on a color wheel and in individual Munsell color charts. We’ll then look at how we can use this to really sharpen our perception of color. This, rather than the application of paint to paper, was the thing that is transformational about Munsell.

History of Munsell Color

I won’t go into detail about how the Munsell color theory came about. There are some great pages elsewhere that can tell you much more than I can. They also have a set of Munsell color project stories about how different people have used Munsell.

What is the Munsell System?

Munsell gives us a straightforward, reproducible and easily learned way to think about color. It breaks color into three components and we can classify any color according to those components. This Munsell color notation lets us define almost any color we want. To see how this notation system works let’s start with the first (and easiest) component.

Munsell System First Component – Hue

In the Munsell color system hue is the first component. At its simplest this is the name of the color. Red, Yellow, Blue, Purple etc. There’s a slight wrinkle in the way Munsell denotes these that can feel a little weird to begin with. Instead of saying red – in Munsell it is R. Yellow is Y, green is G, blue is B and purple is P.

So far so good. The intermediate hues which we might call orange, yellowy green, pink etc are denoted as follows:

  • Orange YR (Yellow Red)
  • Yellowish green GY (Green yellow)
  • Greenish blue BG (Blue green)
  • Purplish blue PB (purple blue)
  • Pinkish purple RP (red purple)

It takes a while to get used to this (especially the orange = YR) but becomes second nature pretty quickly. If we put them all in order we get

R – YR – Y – GY – G – BG – B – PB – P – RP

Munsell hue notation

I keep this Munsell color order in my head. The hues flow naturally from one to another so it’s good to memorize it. Let’s have a look at these main hues on a wheel.

Munsell Color Wheel – 10 Hues

10 hue Munsell color wheel
10 hue Munsell color wheel

You’ll notice that this differs from the traditional painters wheel. The traditional painters wheel is organized around the ‘primaries’ (red yellow blue) and the secondaries (orange, green,purple) and has the primaries opposite the secondaries.

Each Hue is Divided into Four

Now these main hues aren’t really enough for us to describe the colors we see. So Munsell color theory breaks each of these main hues into 4 and gives them numbers.

2.5Y 5Y 7.5Y 10Y

Munsell hue components for yellow

Each hue ranges from 2.5 to 10 and the hue changes slightly from each number to the next. So we end up with 40 different hues. Now, this seems like a lot. But in practice you really only need to remember the 10 main ones and just estimate whereabouts in that hue we are. For instance consider this color :

Example Munsell Chip
Example Munsell Chip

We can immediately see it’s an orange so we’re in the YR hue. But is it a reddish orange (and so maybe 2.5YR) or is it a yellowish orange (in which case we’d be maybe 7.5YR or 10YR)? That’s pretty easy to estimate so we can work out which part of the wheel we’re in quite quickly. In this case it’s leaning slightly more towards yellow than orange so we’re likely to be 7.5YR or 10YR (it is actually 7.5YR)

Painting From Nature is Concentrated in a Small Part of the Hue Wheel

In practice when painting (especially painting from nature) we spend a lot of time in a fairly small part of the wheel. The reds, oranges, yellows and greenish yellows and parts of blue are where we spend 90% of our time. If you’re painting flowers or a lot of manufactured things then we can venture into the turquoises (BG) and purples (P and RP).

So how do all of these hues look on the wheel?

Munsell Color Wheel – 40 Hues

Munsell Color System - 40 hue color wheel
Munsell Color System – 40 hue color wheel

Isn’t that pretty?

Munsell Color System Second Component – Value

So we have our hues but of course we don’t just work with these very bright colors. In the Munsell Color System value is the next component. That is to say how light or dark the color is.

Munsell Value Scale – Dark = 0, Light = 10

Munsell measures value in 11 steps where black = 0 and white = 10. For our colors that means we’ll have values ranging from 1 to 9. This is what they look like in gray.

Munsell Value Scale
Munsell Value Scale

We can change all our hues to have different values. Here’s what the color wheel looks like if we darken (value 4) or lighten (value 8) our hues.

Pretty cool yes?

Munsell Color System Final Component – Chroma

Now this bit can take a bit of time to get your head around. We can’t describe all the colors we see just by hue and value. There’s one vital piece missing and it makes a very important difference.

If you look at all the wheels we’ve seen so far the colors are all very bright. Even on the dark wheel they have a lot of intensity to them. But a lot (and it’s a LOT) of the color we see around us isn’t that bright. Let’s bring out an example:

Scene with low chroma colors
Scene with low chroma colors

Look at the sunlit beach, the beautiful blue sky, the intense blue sea. Surely all the colors in this will be as bright as we can make them? But no. I’ve isolated a few areas and extracted the colors. They’re pretty muted. In fact the brightest color in the whole thing is the sky (top right swatch) and even that isn’t close to maximum intensity. And this is a pretty intense scene! Imagine what a grey overcast day would do to colors.

Munsell uses Chroma to Describe How Saturated or Intense a Color is.

Hmm. So we need a way of describing how intense or saturated our color is. And Munsell quantifies this and calls this chroma. Chroma in color can be low or high. A low chroma color (chroma 2) is very desaturated and grayed out. A high chroma color (e.g. 12 and above) is very bright and saturated. And chroma 0 colors have no color at all and are completely gray. The chroma of color is easy to overlook but Munsell makes it easy to consider. Let’s see some more examples!

Sand is Not Bright Yellow!

Sand and sea chroma strips
Sand and sea chroma strips

For the bottom three colors in the beach scene I’ve taken the strip of colors at the same value from the relevant Munsell card. Each of these strips has colors at different chromas but the same value. In each case the colors are way down the chroma scale. Two are chroma 2 and the other is chroma 4. And yet they look pretty vibrant in the photo! We obviously need to pay attention to chroma.

Munsell Notation System

We have our three components of color but how do we represent them? The hue we represent by the number and the hue letter or letters. This means things like 10R, 2.5YR, 5PB. The value and chroma follow afterwards separated by a slash. So a high chroma mid-value orange could be something like 2.5YR 5/12. A low chroma low value blue would be something like 5PB 2/4. It takes a bit of getting used to how this color notation works but it’s so useful to be able to precisely define colors that it’s worth it.

7.5RP 8/6

Hue Value/Chroma
Vermont farm watercolor

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Hue, Value, and Chroma are independent

Now let’s say we have a bright red color (5R) at a value 5. If it’s a bright color (i.e. high chroma) it might have a chroma 12 say. If it’s a dull color it might have a chroma 2. But both these colors have the same value. We can keep the value the same and change the chroma. Let’s see some examples and check:

Munsell chroma strip for 10R value 6
Munsell chroma strip for 10R value 6
Black and white version of Munsell chroma strip 10R value 5
Black and white version of Munsell chroma strip 10R value 5

This can be a bit weird to get straight. It’s easy to think ‘oh I’m making this color grayer then it must be darker’. Not necessarily! We can absolutely keep the value the same and reduce the chroma. And a lot of time we need to if we want convincing color. Let’s see some charts to see how this works.

Full Munsell Color Chart – 5R

This is the full range of values and chromas for one of our hues 5R. I know it looks like a lot of information but these get very familiar very quickly. We have chroma going left to right (high chroma on the right) and value going up and down (high value at the top).

Munsell Color System - Munsell Chart 5R
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5R

Now the first thing you notice about this is that it’s not rectangular! The highest chromas are in the middle and there are fewer high chroma colors as we go higher or lower in value. This is typical – high and low values have maximum chromas around 2 or 4. And the shape of these charts is not the same for each hue! Some colors have their highest chromas at a high value. For instance here is the 5Y chart:

Full Munsell Hue Chart – 5Y

Munsell Color System - Munsell Chart 5Y
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5Y

Wow. So the brightest yellow we can get has the highest value! And as it gets darker it goes green!!! Yellow is a weird one I admit. Mostly the charts have their highest chroma around a mid value.

If we look at a few more charts we’ll notice something else. The highest chroma we can get varies between the hues. If we look at purple for instance we can get really high chromas but a blue only reaches an 8! Seems counterintuitive as blue and purple are pretty close on the color wheel but there it is!

Recap of the Three Components of Color

So for any color we come across we can define it in terms of 3 components – hue, value, chroma. We could do it in any order – hue, chroma, value or chroma, value, hue – but it’s generally easiest to go hue, value, chroma.

Hue – the name of the color
Value – how light or dark the color is
Chroma – how saturated or gray the color is

So how do we use all this Munsell stuff then?

Munsell Color System PDF

MunsellChartsDownload

The conversion from screen colors (rgb) to Munsell notation is freely available online. The ChromaMagic team has generated a pdf from these that is available to download. If you sign up for these you’ll also gain access to the fantastic ChromaMagic Munsell tool described below.

ChromaMagic – Munsell Color System Online

ChromaMagic Munsell Tool
ChromaMagic Munsell Tool

It can be really useful as a learning tool and a checking tool to see which Munsell chips match different parts of a photo. The ChromaMagic tool is free to use and lets you upload your own photo to see the diffrerent Munsell notations. See here for signups and access.

Munsell Color System Book

The gold standard for Munsell colors is the Munsell color book (or the Munsell book of color). It is fabulous, contains 40 color charts with removable chips, and costs an eye-watering amount of money. I managed to buy mine second hand from ebay. The person selling it was a Canadian gemologist who was retiring and I was happy to take it off his hands. If you’re feeling flush then this is definitely the thing to get.

However, if you’re just getting into Munsell or just want to try it and see if you like it (you will!) there are other options. None of these are perfect but they will get you on your way.

Munsell Student Book

This is a great little book and has lots of exercises and history and stuff which is well worth going through. But the main reason for buying this is it has a set of Munsell charts for a subset of the hues. It has charts and chips for all the 5 hues (5Y,5YR,5Y,5GY,5G,5BG,5B,5PB,5P).

However, for these charts to be really useful you need some intermediate hues as well. I find that if you have the 5 hues and the 10 hues you can get a pretty good match to most colors. The 5 charts in the student book aren’t quite enough to work with. But it will get you a long way and definitely be useful. Again older versions sometimes come up on ebay and can be pretty cheap.

Paul Centore Book

Paul has done a lot of work producing a number of products that are very useful to us Munsellites. His value scale is well worth getting even if you have no interest in Munsell color. He’s also worked at getting the best printed version of Munsell color charts and has produced a binder of all 40 charts. The caveat is that printing will never get you perfect matches to paint colors.

The big Munsell color book has painted chips and they are guaranteed to be accurate. I’ve compared Paul’s chips to the Munsell book chips and they’re very close. And for the price it’s a really good option. The only thing is you can’t remove the chips like you can in the big book and the student book. You could laminate the pages and cut out the chips by hand but that may be overkill.

Munsell Color Tree

Now I don’t own one of these but I have seen one at a workshop. It looks very cool but it does only have the 5 hues (5R, 5Y etc). I would suggest the student book or the Paul Centore book would be more useful. I will probably end up getting one though 🙂

Print Your Own Chips

I wouldn’t recommend this and there’s a catch-22 here. You need to cailbrate your printer to get anywhere near usable accuracy. I tested a page just with the default printer settings and the hue was off by a couple of charts which is huge. After calibrating (my printer is an Epson 7750) I got very close (as close as the Centore book) but here’s the thing. You need the real chips to compare to to make sure your printer is doing the right thing. And if you have the real chips then you don’t need the printed version.

How to Work with Munsell

Okay enough of the theory and charts and stuff. How do we actually use this to make our paintings better? This is the way I look at it and the way I use it. I use Munsell to analyze what I see and improve my color perception. When I start a new painting I identify a set of colors that will make up the painting, work out their Munsell colors and mix up swatches for each color. This may sound like a lot of work but even with a fairly complicated painting I don’t mix up too many colors. It’s usually around 6 or 7.

How to Identify a Color

If you’re working from a screen with a photo I would recommend using the online ChromaMagic tool. I prefer to work from a printout but either one will work. Of course photos don’t make the best paintings but for learning they’re the best method. If you’re working from life there are a lot more variables in play but practicing the process with printed or screen references will transfer over to real scenes.

Color Isolator

gray color isolator
gray color isolator

If you’re working with a printout and chips a color isolator is a handy tool. This is just a piece of value 5 card with a 1/2 inch square cut out. When placed over a section of a photo the gray surround isolates the region from its surroundings. This removes the effect of any surrounding colors and makes it easier for us to judge the color.

How to Practice Seeing Color Accurately

Take your reference and either load it up into ChromaMagic or print it out and have your isolator and chips handy. Follow the 4 steps for a variety of regions on your reference. You’ll soon find that some colors are much easier to match than others.

  1. Pick a spot on your reference.
  2. First estimate the hue.
  3. Estimate the value.
  4. Estimate the chroma

Check your estimates!!! This is the bit that really improves your skills. Once you’ve made your guess check it with your chips or ChromaMagic. You’ll probably be off and maybe quite a lot off when you first start. But the immediate feedback will improve your guesses really quickly. It’s the ability to guess and check in quick succession that hones your skills. You can use your own references for this but I’ve put together a set of exercises that will take you through a range of the hues, values and chromas.

(Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.)

Carnation Watercolor

Watercolor flower painting can be so rewarding. And if you’re looking for flower painting ideas a carnation watercolor is great way to start. Such beautiful colors and lots of twiddly crinkly petals that catch the eye. However, it doesn’t mean they’re easy. As with all flowers we have to get the colors right both in the light and the shadow and we have to get the shadows in the right places. Maybe most importantly we have to pay attention to the edges. All those crinkles! We want to suggest them in our painting but not detail every last one. A perfect subject for a watercolor painting!

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Watercolor Carnation Tutorial steps

This is one of my step by step watercolor lessons on painting a single carnation. When you start to paint watercolor flowers it’s good to take it slow and follow step-by-step. I take you through identifying the values and mixing the colors. We will then move onto painting the major shapes and then adding in the detail. A lot of the hard work is in the prep and mixing. If we get all that right the details often go in very quickly.

Materials Needed

How to start painting a watercolor carnation

So how should we think about this watercolor painting? I like to start by first looking at the overall shape and how the light falls on the flower. Which direction is the light coming from? Where on the bloom does it fall into shadow?

Simplify the carnation flower

If we ignore all the little crinkly petals a carnation is pretty spherical. It’s a lot simpler in structure than a watercolor rose (which is a whole different tutorial). And in our reference the light is coming from the left. So the left side of our flower is in the light and the right side is in the shadow. If we strip it back to this we have one color in the light and one color in the shadow. Of course there will be differences in the details. In the deep crevices of the petals it will go darker and some of the outer edges will catch the light. But let’s start there and get those colors right. When you’re working out how to paint a carnation simplifying the basic colors needed is a vital first step.

Use your value scale to find the values of the light and the shadow

We have a pink carnation and you can pretty easily see we have a light pink on the light side and a darker pink on the shadow side. But how light and dark are they? And how can we mix them? It’s a good idea to break out your color isolator and your value scale here.

How to make carnation watercolor
Identify the light value and color

If you’re working from a printed reference then you can place them directly over the print. I actually recommend this if you’re just starting out with painting or if you’re working on nailing those values. If you’re working from life you can hold them up in front of the flower but be careful! Make sure the light falling on your value scale or isolator is the same as is falling on your flower. If you have your flower backlit you won’t get an accurate reading.

Squinting your eyes helps with values

What makes this slightly tricky with a bright pink flower is that we only have a grey value scale. The best way to cope with this is place your value scale on your reference and squint your eyes. The squinting will take the color out of what you’re looking at and make it easier to judge value. Eventually you’ll be able to make a pretty accurate guess but it’s always useful to check. Move the value scale along the region you’re looking at (pick an ‘average’ region) and find the value where the edge and the region almost merge together. It probably won’t be an exact match but you’ll be able to narrow it down to within a step. Do this for both the light side and the shadow. For my reference I get a value 6 in the light and a value 2 in the shadow.

Make some color swatches

Now I’m going to say something heretical here. Don’t sweat the precise color of the swatches you’re going to make. But really sweat the value! Try and really nail that value.

How to mix pinks in watercolor

So where do we start with color. We know our flower is pink and we have a pinkish red on the palette. I always start with which color on my palette is closest to the one I want to mix. I have two reds on my palette – an orangey red (vermillion) and a pinkish red (permanent rose). We know it’s definitely pink so permanent rose it is.

Pay attention to paint consistency when mixing value

The really annoying thing about watercolor painting is that when we mix colors on the palette they look *nothing* like the colors that end up on the paper. They always look darker until they get placed on the paper and are spread so thin that the paper shines through.

So what should we do? Well we could just test a swatch on some scrap paper and that is always a good idea to check. But while we’re on the palette all we really have to go on is the consistency of the paint. We add water to make a pigment lighter so the consistency of the paint gets thinner. Dark paint – thick paint and light paint – thinner paint. When we’re planning our watercolor carnations painting pay attention to both – the consistency of the paint and how it looks on your scrap paper.

Mix and paint the light value on your rough sketch
Mix and paint the light value on your rough sketch

Mix the light value for the carnation watercolor

For our value 6 our paint needs to be roughly of the consistency of 2% milk. It will flow around the palette fairly easily. For comparison a value 5 will be light cream consistency and darker will be heavy cream. Try mixing your permanent rose with some water until it feels like a milk consistency. Then try a swatch on some scrap paper. Let it dry a little (watercolor always dries lighter) and bring in your value scale to see how close you are.

Practice makes mixing much easier

This seems like a really awkward process when you first start. And we haven’t even started putting paint on the paper yet! But it gets a lot easier very quickly. And trust me – your paintings will get so much better very quickly. The ability to mix accurate values is a key skill towards getting an effective watercolor.

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Now mix the dark value

We have a little bit of a problem with the dark value. Take some permanent rose straight from the tube, loosen it with a tiny bit of water, and make the darkest swatch you can. Measure that value with your value scale. Eeek! We need a value 4 but we can only get down to a value 5. We can’t get dark enough!

So what to do? Well – we only need to go slightly darker. Take your permanent rose and mix in a teeny bit of black and burnt sienna and try that swatch again. You should be able to make a darker pink without that black muddying that color too much. It should still be a nice rich pink but at the right value you need.

And just one more color!

We have our main colors but we need just one more color. The leftmost side of the flower is very light – around a value 8.5. And the color is shifted ever so slightly towards blue. This often happens when you have still life subjects lit by daylight. As the object moves into shadow the color shifts towards orange. It’s not an absolute rule but it happens an awful lot! So let’s measure and mix that color. As it turns out our permanent rose diluted to a value 8.5 is pretty bang on that color. So we paint a swatch and just try it out on the edges of our cartoon sketch flower.

But when do we start painting?

Yes, yes I know we’ve done a *lot* of messing around with mixing and swatches and value scales. But all this prep makes the painting so much easier. Finally – let’s start painting this carnation watercolor!!!

First the Drawing

Ok so I lied about the painting. We’ll get there soon. First we have to draw out the outline of the flower. When drawing the carnation lightly sketch in the oval shape then draw the outline and pay attention to the angles of the petals. Flowers may often look soft and curved but if you look closely they’re often quite choppy and jagged. This really does add to the character of the flower so we should pay attention to it.

watercolor carnation drawing
watercolor carnation drawing

The final thing in the drawing is to lightly draw in the boundary between the light and the shadow side. This won’t be smooth as in our little cartoon sketch but will be more choppy and angled as the petals go in and out of the light. We need this to remind us where the dark colors stop and the light colors start.

And Now we Paint! Honest!

So we’ve done a whole lot of hard work. We know our colors and how to mix them. This frees up some thinking room to concentrate on putting the paint on the paper.

Paint the lightest color

Mix up and put the lightest color around the edges on the left side. While the paint is still wet clean your brush, dab it a couple of times on a paper towel and smooth the edges out. When you do this you don’t really go into the paint you’ve already put down. What you’re actually doing is wetting the paper right next to the paint and just letting the paint flow into the damp paper. It will do its thing if you let it!

The Mid-Value Layer

Let that lightest layer dry and then we can move onto the next value up. This is the color on the light side (minus those very light edges) but we’re going to paint over the dark side as well. We know we’re going to go over this with an even darker color so it’s fine to do this. In fact as the darker color will still be slightly transparent the color will show through a little and make the flower more luminous.

Make sure you don’t just fill in the shape. Leave a few gaps to show where the petals are in light. It’s these edges that really give a convincing rendition of a flower. And soften all those edges with a damp brush. Hard edges at this stage will be really jarring on the eye.

Now the Shadow Color!

We can start to see the form of the flower happening but now is time for some of the dark color to go into the shadow side. This is the scary bit!

Again it’s not just ‘filling it in’. Leave small areas of the previous layer showing. It will give the impression of petals. And, as always, soften some of the edges. Some of the edges where the petals end will be hard so leave those. But not too many! It will look choppy and jarring otherwise.

And just a reminder – KEEP AWAY FROM THE LIGHT! Don’t let that shadow color get into the light (apart from softening the edges). We’ll lose all the form if that happens and we’ll have a pink splodge. Trust me – I’ve been there.

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Painting the Stem

Let’s take a bit of a breather while that layer dries and paint the stem. This is much less stressful! Mix up an olive green color with some lemon yellow, black and a touch of ultramarine. You should end up with a mid value yellow-green. Paint in the stem and then, while it’s still wet add in a little black to make the color darker and put in the shadow on the right hand side. I decided to soften a few edges here and there on the stem just to break up that hard line. We want all the focus to be on the flower – the stem is just incidental.

Now for some Subtle Shades on the Light Side

Now it’s looking pretty good! We now have to be careful not to ruin it. It’s easily done and this part could be disastrous if we’re not careful. We’re going to put some really, really, subtle definition into the light side. Just a few touches to show where the petals overlap each other. It is so, so easy to overdo this so really err on the light side. Better to do too little here than too much. So it’s a really watery version of our light side color and just touch in some areas to show a few petals. Be careful!!!

And Now Even Darker! We’re Almost Done!

So we have some really nice form on the flower now. And some indication of petals. But the center still needs to go a little darker. Mix up an even darker mix of your shadow color. This will have very little water in it but just enough so the paint still flows.

Dab pieces of paint into the darkest crevices and soften the edge that’s coming out into the light. You won’t need much here. In mine I also decided to slightly darken the whole shadow side with a watery wash of the dark color. I wanted even more subtle change of value in the petals here as I thought some of them were too light. Skip this step if you’re not sure.

Finish Off by Sharpening up the Outside Edges

The final step was to sharpen up and make slightly choppier the edges on the shadow side. The edges of a flower often give a lot of character so I like to define them.

And Finished!!!

Finished pink carnation watercolor
Finished pink carnation watercolor

And the finished thing! I am pretty pleased with this. I really love those petals in shadow that give real depth to the carnation. We all deserve a lie down now.

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And Finally…..

If you enjoyed this tutorial and would like to be notified of new ones that come out please sign up for my mailing list. I try and make tutorials that produce a satisfying result but are also easy watercolor paintings for beginners. There will also be a video on this page shortly and also on my youtube channel. If you’d like to see more of my flower watercolors this daffodil watercolor is one I’m particularly pleased with.

Many thanks for reading!! If you try this tutorial I would love to hear from you.

Watercolor Pear and Apple

A simple watercolor pear and apple setup is an ideal starting point for a beginner. In a series of easy steps I take you through the process including a video of the whole process.

Introduction

In this pear painting tutorial we’ll be doing a watercolor pear painting but also a watercolor apple. This is a great general watercolor painting tutorial but an especially good beginner painting tutorial. I liked the combination of the two fruits with their very different colors. Watercolor apple paintings are fine but I just wanted something a little more interesting. In fact adding in an extra fruit can provide context and make for an easier painting.

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I’ve broken the process into a multi step tutorial and, even though it seems like a lot should only take a couple of hours to finish. We will do a careful drawing, identify and mix our colors, and then paint the subjects in layers. Fruit paintings can seem easy but paintings of fruit can still teach us a lot about color and form. It’s well worth learning or honing your skills on a humble apple, pear or orange painting. Watercolor apples or watercolor paintings of pears on their own are great but even better to combine the two! We will be working from a pixabay reference but if you can, do some still life painting with the subjects right in front of you.

I was originally just going to do a pear tutorial but in hindsight the addition of the apple gives us a better painting and also more practice in values. If you’re looking for guidance on how to paint fruit in watercolor I hope this will get you on your way. It was more fun to do than I thought and I really like the result. I hope you do too. If you’re looking for more info on how to paint in watercolor tutorials I have a special watercolor tutorial page with more subjects.

Fruit Painting Reference Photo

Here is the reference photo we’ll be using. It’s a simple setup but we’ll take the opportunity to really try and get accurate color and form. Painting watercolor fruit is great practice for the fundamentals. The shapes are straightforward to draw and we can use layering and softening watercolor techniques to establish the form.

pears painting
Reference for watercolor pear watercolor apple

If you can it’s a good idea to print this out and have it in front of you. My inkjet printer can print on 4×6 glossy paper which is great for getting intense color.

Watercolor Materials List

These are the materials needed for this painting. Here is my full set of recommended watercolor materials.

Paints Needed :
Lemon yellow, Vermillion, Permanent Rose, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, Black

A Mechanical Pencil and Kneadable Eraser are Good for Watercolor Drawings.

We want to create a painting as close as possible to our reference. (Well not always of course but for learning it’s a really good place to start). I recommend using a mechanical pencil when drawing for watercolor paintings. They never need sharpening and the leads last for ages. If you need to erase anything a kneadable eraser is good as it doesn’t leave any residue on the paper. Some erasers leave an oily trace and can affect how the paint is absorbed by the paper so it’s something to watch out for.

Start with a Careful Drawing of the Fruit

Drawings of fruit can seem simple but there’s still some complexity there. Apples seem uniform but they’re not just spheres. They have knobbles and bumps and slightly misshapen bits. Pears have a very characteristic shape but they too have some asymmetry and individualism. So we need to observe the reference carefully and make sure we get everything in proportion relative to everything else.

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Use Relative Measurements and Comparisons When Drawing Fruit

how to draw a pear step by step
Pencil drawing for watercolor pear watercolor apple

We want to have a clean drawing with not too many sketchy lines. So I always start with marking out the envelope of the subjects. Lightly mark in the top and bottom of the pear and the left and right positions. I use relative measurements to get the proportions right. In this case the width of the pear is just over half its height so I make sure the marks reflect that. When drawing the apple I again put in the top and bottom relative to the pear and then mark in the left and rightmost positions. Once those are in it’s pretty straightforward to ‘join the dots’ and create a believable outline. The final marks are for the cast shadows on the ground and lines for the horizontal. Once it’s done you should have something similar to the reference. Again for fruit watercolor painting we don’t want too many graphite lines showing through. We want the paint to do the work. Some people don’t like to see any drawing marks showing through but I quite like the effect.

Painting and Drawing Fruit are Great Practice Subjects

Fruit are a great subject if you’re looking for drawing ideas. Their shapes are relatively simple and even a lone apple drawing can be fun to do. If you group different fruits together with some strong lighting you can get some really interesting compositions. Also you don’t have to always paint your drawings. You can then either leave it as a line drawing or put some shading in in graphite or maybe even colored pencils. For something a little different I often spend time in the evenings doing digital drawing on my ipad with its Apple Pencil. The principles are the same and it’s a good way to spend the odd 10 or 15 minutes or so.

Identify the Colors in Preparation for the Watercolor Pear Painting

Color isolator - print on paper or thin card and cut out the central square with a knife.
Color isolator – print on paper or thin card and cut out the central square with a knife.

We’re not quite ready to dive in and paint anything yet. I know this might be agonizing but we’re going to study the reference and really try and identify the colors. For this it’s best to have a printout of the reference and a tool called a ‘color isolator’. This is just a piece of gray paper or card with a half inch square cut in the middle. Our brains constantly fool us into misidentifying colors when we’re painting and the surroundings of a subject will affect that enormously. If you place the color isolator over a region of the reference you’ll be able to see that color much more easily.

But wait – don’t use it yet!

Hold your horses! The absolute best way to learn and get better at watercolor painting and color mixing is to try and identify a color first. Try and first guess what the hue (red, yellow, orange etc) is. Next try and estimate the value (how light or dark it is on a scale from 1 (black) to 10 (white). Finally (and this is the tough one) – how bright/saturated is the color or is it closer to gray. This last one is called chroma and can often be glossed over when we’re mixing colors.

Guess First – Then Check

Color isolator close up
Getting ready to use the isolator – but have a guess first!!

So go ahead and have a guess first. Then when you’ve guessed, bring in your color isolator, put it over the region you’re looking at, and see how close you were. Very often – and especially in shadows – you will be surprised. Especially on light objects the shadows can get pretty dark and be a really surprising color. Don’t worry at all about getting it wrong at first. You’ll get much more accurate surprisingly quickly and your paintings will benefit greatly.

Identify the 2 Main Colors in the Watercolor Pear

So back to the pear! If we look at this we can see a lot of colors but we don’t need to find them all. In fact we only really need to find two colors. The first one is the color of the pear in the light, and the second is the color of the pear in the shadow. Watercolor painting helps us a lot here as we can use water to blend each color and fade it out in a gradient to achieve all the intermediates.

Color isolator for light side of pear
Color isolator for light side of pear

The first color in the light is very yellow. It’s very light and bright and you can see that by the contrast with the color isolator. This is designed to be a mid-value gray so you can see immediately whether you’re in the top half of the value scale or the bottom half.

The dark color may be a little surprising. Using the color isolator as before we can see it’s a mid-value and it’s a kind of olive green color. We now need to work out how to mix these.

Shadow color for watercolor pear
Using the color isolator on the shadow side of the pear

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Mix the Colors of the Watercolor Pear.

The light color of the pear is almost exactly my lemon yellow pigment. Use a piece of scrap paper and put a small swatch down. Compare it to the color we’re trying to match. On my reference it’s almost exact but just a little too green. I want to push it slightly more orange so I take a very small amount of my orangey red (Vermillion) and mix it into my yellow. Yes! Perfect match!

The darker color can be mixed a number of ways but they way I’ll describe may surprise you. We want a mid-value olive green. It so happens that if you add black to lemon yellow it turns it a beautiful olive green. If we take some lemon yellow and add in just enough black (you’ll have to experiment with this) we’ll get exactly the right color. In hindsight I may have needed a little blue in there but it is very close.

Record Your Swatches on Your Scrap Paper

Color swatches for watercolor apple and pear
Finished Color Swatches with Notes

The way I usually proceed with a painting is to identify colors and record them as swatches on a piece of paper. You don’t have to do this. You can mix and paint as you go along. However, I like to know what kind of colors I’m working with before I start. If my swatches look good together I know that the painting will work color wise. But it’s up to you. If you do mix swatches ahead of time and then go back I recommend you note down next to your swatch which pigments you used. After a pretty short while you’ll get used to various ways of mixing and you probably won’t need this but it’s good to have a record when you start.

Mix the Colors of the Watercolor Apple

So onto the apple! It’s the same procedure and now we’ve had practice with the pear this should be an easy watercolor apple! We’re going to mix the light side of the apple and the dark side with the help of the color isolator. Again, have a guess before you use it. It’s the process of estimating, then checking, that let’s us learn and correct our mistakes. Painting an apple in watercolor (or any fruit) is made so much easier if we’ve done some of the thinking work ahead of time.

watercolor apple colors
Looking at the light side of the apple

Again you may be surprised by these colors. Who knew how unpredictable an apple and pear could be!! The light side of the apple isn’t very light at all. In fact it’s a mid-value red. In my reference the red is in between my two reds (an orangey red and a pinkish red). Mixing them together and adjusting the proportions should get us the right value. In fact it’s a useful thing to remember that the value of most reds straight from the tube are around a mid value. Bright colors are hard to judge the value of and intuitively we see bright colors as lighter than they are. Good to have that tucked away in your brain for future reference.

The Dark Side of the Moon – Sorry Apple

The dark side of the apple is really dark. In fact it’s almost black right on the left hand side. We won’t mix that one but something that’s just a little lighter. This is a very dark maroon red. Again starting with a pinkish red (permanent rose or something similar) we need to work out how to take it darker.

Burnt sienna won’t cut it as it’s too light. But a combination of burnt sienna and black will probably work. I know we’ve used black to make shadow colors both times in this demo but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Adding black to colors ‘deadens’ them. What this means in technical terms is that black reduces chroma i.e. takes the brightness out of the color. Sometimes we don’t want this but in this case we know exactly what color we want and black + permanent rose should get you very close.

Shadow Colors

The apple and the pear cast shadows and these are very important in the painting to show where they are in space. Again using the color isolator (or use a value scale if you have one) estimate and check the value. On my reference it’s just about a mid-value (around a 6). My go to combination for grays is often a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. These are complements (brown is a dark orange) and so will mix together to produce either a neutral gray or a brownish or bluish grey. Mix these together and add just enough water to get the right value on the reference. I tend to go by consistency of the paint on the palette for this. A mid-value is the consistency of light cream so just a touch more water should get us what we need.

Phew!!!!

At the end of all this (I promise we’re going to paint something soon) your swatches should look something like this.

Color Swatches for Watercolor Painting
Finished Color Swatches

And finally we paint!!!!

All this prep will be worth it. In fact we’ve done a lot of the hard work already. We now get to paint! We’re going to do this in two layers – the first for the light colors and the next for the darker ones.

The First Layer – the light values

pear color paint
pear color paint

So how to paint a pear? In this first layer we’re going to paint the whole of each fruit in the light color. Both the apple and the pear watercolor painting will be very flat at this point. We want this to be really even so we can layer over the darker color later. Mix up your colors and paint the watercolor pear shape and the apple shape.

Take care when you paint your apple watercolor that the light color is the right value – it’s likely darker than you think. I know I’ve said this already but I’ve been bitten many times by this. When putting the paint down try and not go back into areas you’ve already painted too much. This tends to disrupt the natural dispersion of the pigment on the paper and creates nasty stripes and an uneven look. The painting will look flat. Don’t worry! Don’t try and make it look three dimensional at this point. Flat is good at this stage.

paintings of pears
The Finished First Layer – Yes it looks flat but not for long

The second Layer – the shadows

Wait until the first layer is dry. Use a hairdryer if you have one handy or, alternatively, go and have a cup of tea as you deserve it.

To put in the shadow we need to remember to only put color in the darkest areas to start with. Keep in your mind where the lights are. For the pear painting they’ll be in the middle of the pear and for the apple painting they’ll be mostly on the right hand side.

Fade your darks colors into the light

Shadow layer for watercolor apple and pear
Second layer – starting to put the shadows in. Not so flat now!

The shadows on the watercolor pear are darkest at the edges (especially on the left) and fade gradually into the light. In watercolor painting this involves a technique that can be tricky to get the hang of. It involves two stages. The first is just to put the color down in the darkest areas. Work quickly here as we need to keep the paint wet to keep working with it. I often use a second round brush to do the fading as I can keep the other brush full of pigment to put the paint where I need it. Some people find it easier to use a flat brush to fade the color out. Try both and see which you prefer

Once the color is down take a clean damp brush (take a little water off on a paper towel) and wet the paper next to the color but only overlap the brush very slightly with the wet pigment. The wet paper will draw the pigment out and the color will fade naturally. The trick here is to let the paper do the work. Try not to coax the pigment out too much with the brush. You’ll need to keep a clean brush here so keep washing it (and dabbing the water off) every few seconds or so. It takes practice so have a look at the video so you can get the idea.

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Apple Watercolor Painting – Shadow Colors

Do this again on the apple for the shadow on the left hand side. Use a clean, damp, brush to wet the paper so the pigment naturally blends out. Once that is dry put in the other shadow on the apple on the right side. This one has a hard edge as it’s the shadow cast by the pear so no blending here.

Assess how the apple and pear look

We’ve really done all the hard work here. If you’ve mixed your colors to the right values you should have a feeling of three dimensionality in your fruit.

Paint in the cast Shadows

Using the neutral gray paint in the cast shadows. There is some slight variation within these but not too much so an even wash will be good.

Add in the stalks

The stalks are put in with burnt sienna. There is some light and shadow here but the main color is very close to burnt sienna. We can add in some slightly darker color as a final touch.

Final Touches

Final touches for watercolor painting
Getting close now – deepened the shadows

I’m hoping you have something pretty impressive by now. If not check your colors again. Were the lights the right color? Were the shadows dark enough? Did the shadow color fade out gradually enough or did you end up with hard lines? If you’ve not gone dark enough in the shadows now is the time to correct that. Mix up the same shadow color but with slightly more water so it’s a little lighter and repeat the shadow process.

At this point it’s good too add in some very subtle shading with the shadow colors. The pear has some areas where the value changes slightly. These really help to show the form and give a realistic appearance. Look carefully at the reference and your painting. Are there areas where the pear is slightly darker? In my painting I needed to darken the left hand shadow side and also slightly darken the right and the upper, thinner part. This needs to be done with a watered down (i.e. lighter) version of the shadow color. Be careful here. If you lose the distinction between the light and shadow sides of the fruit you’ll lose all the form. It’s easily done and I speak from experience.

Final Final Touches for the Watercolor Pear and Apple

Michele Clamp Watercolor Pear and Apple Painting
Michele Clamp Watercolor Pear and Apple Painting

At the end I decided to add in a very light grey wash over the foreground. This really helped to place the fruit in space. This was a very light wash – it will feel almost too light when it goes down – but adds a subtle value change that works well.

I hope you enjoyed this and if you try this tutorial I’d love to see what you do. The pear especially was especially satisfying to paint. I think a full painting of pears will go on my todo list.

Full Video Demo For the Watercolor Pear and Apple

I videoed the whole process for this painting. I also have more videos on my youtube channel and you can also access them on this page. There are a lot of subtleties that I find hard to describe in text that are well worth watching the video for. It’s real-time so it’s not short but shows the full thing warts and all.

So I hope I managed to answer the question of how to paint an apple in watercolor. Please let me know in the comments or via the contact form if you liked it.

YouTube player

Other Watercolor Tutorials

I obviously paint in my own style but there are some other great examples of pear paintings out there. If you’re looking for another watercolor pear tutorial there is a lovely Anna Mason pear tutorial and she has a wonderful fresh, colorful style. Watercoloraffair.com also has a number of great tutorials worth taking a look at.

Watercolor Toucan

Painting a watercolor toucan was the subject today. Exotic tropical birds are often highly colorful which is very attractive but can pose some problems in paint. Each color needs to be modified as the from turns from the light into the shadow. This means a lot of close observation and a lot of mixing. However, for this reference I decided to simplify the colors a little. There was a lot of pretty bright green and yellow in the reference. I chose to tone down the green and also move the greenish yellow more towards orange. The aim was to have more unified color scheme. I also decided to ditch the jungle of foliage. For another painting this could have been fun to do but I wanted to focus in on the toucan bird and not have anything competing with it.

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First make a plan

The plan for this bird watercolor was to proceed along the same lines as a previous cardinal watercolor painting. I wanted to start by putting down lots of regions of soft edged misty color and not pay too much attention to the edges. As the painting progresses more and more edges are put in until the bird magically appears from the mist. It’s a fun way to paint and I really like the resulting effect. It’s a technique very well suited to bird art and you can end up with an almost abstract painting at the end.

Materials for your Watercolor Toucan

It’s pretty much essential to work on good 100% cotton watercolor paper for this. The paper can take a lot of working and also keeps damp for a fair while. This allows us to work into the paint wet-in-wet and soften edges as we go. It is possible to use cheaper paper but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a lot of experience under your belt. Trust me – I’ve learned this the hard way. My favored paper is Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press but any cold press 100% cotton paper is fine. Arches can be a good choice for this. It is slightly more absorbent than the Fabriano and so stays damp for longer. This gives us more time to think as we’re painting without that panic that we have to get everything done at top speed.

A couple of good brushes are needed. I use Escoda reserva sizes 12,10 and 8. They point well and hold a lot of water. However a good synthetic (Princeton Aqua Elite, Black Velvet or Escoda Versatil) is fine and there isn’t so much sticker shock.

For paint I use mainly Da Vinci with a sprinkling of Holbein, Winsor and Newton, Daniel Smith and a couple of others. Any artists quality paint is good and some student paint is also fine (Cotman or Lukas Studio work well). My colors are lemon yellow, cadmium orange, vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna, cerulean blue, ultramarine and lamp black.

We can work without stress on preliminary sketches

These two sketches were just to get the brushes warmed up and to play with the colors and the shapes. I mostly wanted to see how much detail I could lose but still keep the essence of the bird. It turned out that the chinstrap was a big focal point. A surprise was that keeping the beak too sharp really detracted from the rest so I made a note to be careful about keeping a lot of that beak soft.

Keep the Drawing simple

loose watercolor toucan drawing
loose watercolor toucan drawing

As we’re going to be working loosely on this watercolor bird I don’t want too much graphite showing through. So the drawing was kept light and only the most essential lines put in. I lightly outlines the beak, the eye, the rough shape of the body and the legs and feet. For the feet I just drew in the main shape and didn’t bother noodling around drawing individual claws. They’re not the main focus and will just distract the viewer.

First washes – go nuts with those edges

This first bit is lots of fun and is really hard to go wrong here. I took the main colors (mostly lemon yellow for the chest and beak and a mix of ultramarine/burnt sienna for the body) and just sploshed some paint in the rough area they should be. Use a big brush for this – we don’t want little dibby dabby lines at this point.

Once the paint dabs were down I thoroughly cleaned my brush, loaded it up with water and softened all the hard edges of the paint. Don’t be afraid of painting through the edges here. In fact really try and pull that paint through the outline of the bird into the background. Keep loading up with water and soften anything that looks like a hard edge – it should look nothing like a bird at this point!!

Careful of the eye area

The only thing to be careful of is the eye area. We want to keep that area nice and crisp so try and keep dark paint away from that area. If, by chance, you do paint over it by mistake you can probably take a piece of paper towel and lift the paint off while it’s wet.

Slosh in some dark mixes for the body area

With my mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna I started putting in marks rough where the body was going to be. Again I pulled that color out through the edges of the bird into the background. Even pull it through the feet – these are fairly dark anyway and we can paint over them later. If you want to splatter some darks inot the wet paint go ahead. It will add some texture and visual interest. Just keep those edges soft! There shouldn’t be a hard line to be seen.

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Wait a bit

Now is a good time to take a quick break and let the paper dry a little. It’s probably quite wet from all that sloshing and we need it to be almost dry for the next step.

Now the edges of Your Watercolor Toucan!

This to me is the magical part. We’re going to go in with some thicker paint (ultramarine and burnt sienna) and start putting in some edges. My aim is to put in as few edges as possible but still have it read as a toucan. I’m always surprised how few you really need.

I start by identifying what I think are the main areas of contrast to put in. The chin-strap around the beak is an obvious one as is the edge of the black feathers next to the yellow chest feathers. But you don’t need to outline the whole thing. Try just putting some paint in a couple of areas (soften the other side) and see how it reads. Our brains will often fill in the gaps. And if you feel it’s too harsh use a clean brush and soften it back again. We can always add hard edges but it’s tough to remove them once they’re down and dry.

More edges – but just enough

The body and face take shape.  Keep the eye crisp
The body and face take shape. Keep the eye crisp

I go around the bird adding in edges where I need them. It turned out in this one that it really didn’t need many at all. It can be hard to stop but better to stop too early rather than too late.

Details and Form in your Watercolor Toucan

painting a watercolor toucan
Add in some detail for the feet and beak

This final bit is where it all comes alive. We can put in the eye (with a little shadow around it), some color and shadow on the beak and some shadow on the yellow chest feathers. A little color and shadow for the feet and we’re pretty much done. This bit looks like the fancy bit but, as with a lot of painting, the main work is done ahead of time. These pieces are just icing and no amount of fiddling at this stage will fix mistakes made earlier.

Stand back and assess

When the details are in then take a breather, stand back and see if the whole thing hangs together. There may be odd bits that stand out too much or don’t stand out enough. But don’t noodle too long. It’s tempting to fiddle for ages but less is definitely more here. It’s so easy to ruin something that’s working with unnecessary detail.

Watercolor Toucan – the Verdict

I’m pretty happy with this toucan watercolor. I like the shapes, there’s just the right amount of definition, and the bird has some dignity to him. It’s very different from my previous work and doesn’t look like a slightly cartoonish illustration.

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Watercolor Toucan Video

The full recording is viewable below.

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