How to Watercolor: Step by Step Painting Process

How to watercolor is a step by step painting process that starts with drawing a composition, then progresses to the actual painting itself. This page is a detailed sharing of each step of that painting process, and why each step is in the order that it is, and what I’m thinking when I do each of these steps with the hope of providing more value than a simple bullet point description of how to watercolor.

After I finish drawing a composition, I generally paint ’til it gets chilly, the clouds roll in, and the sun sets. The amount of time I work on a painting depends on the time of year: somewhat longer in the summer, somewhat less during winter. This of course affects what I’m able to do with the subject matter… and vice versa. Once or twice I’ve left a site with my painting incomplete, to come back the next day and finish it. But rarely does this happen, since I try to finish it on site the same day. Intricate details take more time; loose landscapes/seascapes, less. Sometimes it feels better to paint loose. Other times, I simply need to… or want to… get more involved in the execution of the details.

Once I’ve laid down the masking fluid and it’s dry, I begin to wet large areas of the paper with clear or lightly tinted water, using my largest brush, a 2″ wide Hake. When working on paper that’s 22″x30″, I’ll use a wider brush.  And when working on smaller paper, I’ll use a smaller one.

I first wet down that area of the painting which represents the sky. Next, I dip my Hake brush into blue pigment and place it on the wet paper, allowing the pigment to spread, often guiding this action by tilting the paper back and forth (the heavier the paper, the easier it is to do this). Pigment begins to settle into the tiny pockets of the rough paper (if you’re using smoother paper, this effect will be less pronounced). I may also dab areas of the wet paper with a dry paper towel to halt the spreading and restore the whiteness of the paper beneath. You can read the effects of such efforts instantaneously when you’re working outside in the hot sun… and alter your approach accordingly.  Not so, however, when you’re painting indoors.  That’s one reason I like working outside. The effects of what you’re doing become more apparent… in less time.

Click Picture to Purchase: “Jack House, San Luis Obispo”

I work from light to dark… initially wet-on-wet, but eventually wet-on-dry. As already indicated, I generally start with the sky, since this is usually the lightest area of a painting. I find it’s easier to do this.  But even if I chose the sky to be a darker value, I’d still probably start there, rather than somewhere else. That’s because I paint my skies very loose, and starting this way helps me get into the right mood!

You can go back and forth into wet areas as much as you want with more pigment and less water… or vice versa. At some point, though, the original surface of the paper will have dried out, and the pigment you apply with your brush starts to form a definite edge. Properly planned, these edges can be as nice as the softer ones that occur when darker values bleed into lighter colored wet areas… wet-on-wet.  I find such things interesting to observe as they naturally occur while I’m painting, though they often may be a challenge to accomplish intentionally. But again, that’s what makes watercolor painting so interesting!

As I’ve already said, during the painting effort, I tilt the paper to let the water move intentionally about areas I’m working on. Sometimes the water gathers along an edge of the paper.  If this happens, you can always blot it up with a paper towel… add more pigment to the wet paper with your brush… or just watch to see what appears. The various pigments behave in different ways as you add them to wet paper. Some spread rapidly, others settle into the tiny little pockets of the rough paper. Also, certain pigments will interact with others in different ways.  You have to experiment with them to find out, make some notes, then decide what effects you like and dislike.

For transparent watercolor painting, I work my way from light thin values to dark heavier ones. One does this because it makes sense. You can’t remove the dark, heavy, often seemingly opaque values once you’ve laid them down… unless, of course, you’ve covered the surface beforehand with masking fluid. Completing a watercolor painting is not done by working on one area, then going to another. Don’t paint by the numbers, if you know what I mean.  You’re painting the whole thing, not one little section after another. Once the area you’ve painted is dry, you can go back over it, and let the brushwork do its thing.  It’s your choice how many layers you apply, though too many layers muddy up things and kill the so-called “transparent” effect.  One or two layers is generally enough, otherwise the white paper beneath doesn’t show through.  This of course is what you’re trying to achieve when you’re executing a “transparent” watercolor painting. It is the watercolor paper beneath that makes your painting “transparent.” It’s an entirely different process, exactly the opposite from working with acrylics, oils, or mixed media.

Different effects of brushwork also help distinguish elements of a composition. Darker value brushwork over lighter values results in a positive contrast in value. Brushwork of underlying masking fluid… once removed produces the opposite effect… a negative contrast of lighter values against darker surrounding values.

As already indicated, I generally work from light to dark, but masking fluid allows me to reverse this process and work from dark to light. Working in reverse, allowing thin strokes of masking fluid to read through subsequent over-painting of dark values, produces interesting cross-hatched patterns, effects that look like, for example, blades of grass. Such patterns in foregrounds of paintings provide a sense of perspective to your composition.  You can leave the areas of exposed paper alone or paint over them with light, bright colors to achieve attractive highlights. Or you can add darker values of green or brown to simulate shadows.  Such value changes make your painting and composition “read”. You’re not only working with subject matter, but variations in value, color, and texture.

After I’ve pretty much finished painting the sky, I’ll move into the foreground of a painting, introducing warm, darker values of burnt sienna across areas where strokes of masking fluid have already been laid down (See Exhibit 27). I also start to work on the trees and light green elements of landscaping… building up backgrounds for such items. At the same time, walls, roofs and other prominent features will receive background colors… initially, fairly light values (See Exhibit 28). I’m now working very quickly back and forth across the painting… with, most likely, a somewhat smaller brush.

Exhibit 27 – Painting About Masked Areas

Exhibit 28 – Painting Backgrounds

This process of covering the entire painting takes about a half hour. As things begin to dry and take shape, I’ll begin to do some over-painting.  It’s then that I’ll be working with a smaller, square-ended brush, 3/8″ – 3/4″ wide (See the manner in which I painted the sky in Exhibit 29 below)… introducing medium values of more intense colors: yellow ochre, cadmium yellow and burnt sienna.

Exhibit 29 – Over-painting

I then start painting the darkest values… deep greens, browns, blues, Payne’s gray… mixtures of whatever pigments may be on my palette. Since I often don’t clean my palette between paintings, I use whatever’s on the palette that I may have concocted for a previous painting.

Exhibit 30 – Introducing The Darkest Values

The final step is to take any one of my thin, long rigger brushes to sharpen up a shadow, suggest the boards or nails in the siding, pick up the edge of a roof overhang, underline a fence rail, or distinguish a branch, leaf or rock from its lighter background. I may also take my 3/4″ wide flat brush, dip it into a dark mixture of blue pigments, making sure the brush is not too wet and the hairs on the brush are partially separated… and go about touching up the sky  (see Exhibit 29) or foreground with textured strokes of pigment (see Exhibit 30). This final step takes less than a half hour. The painting is now finished. It took about 4 hours, sometimes less if I hurry through the process. I pack up my stuff and head home. Rarely do I work over a painting once I’ve left the site. It goes straight to my photographer for a digital image and 7″ x 10″ proof. I then mat the painting and put it in a frame. Simple as that!

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the paypal link below.


Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors