One of the most recurrent question about watercolor probably is “how can I get a nice fresh loose sketch” (and not a dull, overworked or “a bit too pretty” one)?
I think it could be a good start, for this blog, to review a few tips about it. Please note we will probably go into some of these topics more deeply in upcoming articles. 😉
Like you might know, I started to sketch – again (we all have been a child one day ☺️) – only two years and a half ago so I am pretty much a beginner! Thus, my goal is only to share what I happened to understand about the use of watercolor during these past two years.
Be sure it’s easier said than done (my own sketches are not always bright and fresh 😓) but I hope these few tips will help you a bit. I guess most of these tips may be obvious and boring for some of you but that’s good news if you are already at ease with it! Plus, a booster shot is always a good idea! 😉
So, here are my 10 tips for fresh and loose watercolors.
1 – Keep enough white. 😊 Don’t add color everywhere! Always let the paper show in some areas, as highlights and sparkles for your sketches. Your main subject should always have a bit of white in it! When in doubt, essentially put the color in the shadows and let the lighten parts or lighter subjects white. The more white, the more light! (Isn’t it a great mantra?! 😁✌️)
Playing to spot the white areas in the other sketches of this post could be fun to do and a good exercice. 😉
2 – Use a lot of paint and a lot of water.
Paint from tubes is better than pans, as you don’t need to dilute it much to use it. This advice, above, doesn’t means just adding more water to your paint (your sketch would be paler). It means using a fully load brush with a lot of paint and water. Make puddles on your page with a lot of pigments floating! Let watercolor flow!! That way, the water will play with the paint and you will get a fresher look. You will be able, too, to create greater watery effects.
You may not want to try such an extreme approach 😇 but, believe me, using more water and more pigments is fun! You don’t have to be afraid of the flow as, most often, the water a and pigments will stay in the wash, they won’t run on the dry paper so your shapes won’t be lost. 😉
3 – Be bold! Don’t make painstaking sketches. Let the colors run into the others, add some splatters and allow color variations to be strong enough to really show, to be noticed. Don’t let the details steal your attention : try to paint big shapes, if possible (with melted colors in it). If you have been making finicky marks in one small area for 5 minutes, that’s not good. Stay loose!
4 – Use a real brush. A big one, with natural hair. A waterbrush is handy but it won’t allow you to create great watercolor effects and the paint is often too diluted with it. I hope not to upset some of you saying that but a waterbrush is more a coloring tool than a painting tool. 😉 Keep it only for museums where you can’t use a water pot, or to use with watercolor pencils. My advice is using a squirrel “petit Gris” brush. Not expensive and just amazing! 😀
5 – Apply watery light washes and shapes and then drop some more color into it. Don’t wait for another layer (after the first had dried) to apply value and color variations in your sketches! Use several colors in each of your washes. In the areas where the subject is darker, drop some bright colors in it (almost pure color, again, be bold!) while it’s still wet. For the shadows (form shadows and cast shadows), drop darker colors or cooler colors (for example, to darken a red, add a bit of blue).
Look how I added some blue in the purplish sky and in the teal water as color variations and shadows, and how the green and yellowish part of the coast is worked wet in wet, with the colors melting together? It’s so fun and so interesting to mix the colors on the paper that way! 😀
6 – Use strong and bright colors. Don’t paint all your urban surroundings with beige and grey hues!! Choose bright and nice colors instead. 😉 The road and roofs are grey?! Try some blue, or purple! For this tree trunk, how dare you using some brown?! 😝😉 An orange or a dark red will be much better! Remember that watercolor dries lighter and duller so the red may seem really strong when applied but once melted a bit with the other colors on the sketch, and dry, it will only be nice, don’t worry! ☺️
7 – Contrast is so important! Add small dark strokes to your sketch. Now that you kept a lot of white and used bright and strong colors, be sure the range of values is wide enough by adding a few little strokes of really dark paint (yes, again! 😙), almost straight for the tube, on some dry areas. Add a few details, small strong shadows on your subjects… Make your sketch jump off the page!!!
The day I painted this sketch, the weather was so rainy and the atmosphere so wet that the paper didn’t want to dry. That’s why the sketch looks really soft and fuzzy… But, thanks to the dark strokes I managed to add, at last, on the windows and passers by, the sketch is readable and strong enough.
8 – The paper is important too, of course. Learn how to paint on your paper. Actually, what really matters is not, I think, which paper you choose, but knowing how to paint on THIS paper. From a paper to another, you will need to use more or less water or paint… You might figure out that some papers dull your colors or are not suitable with the way you paint, or some subjects… 2 options : adapting the way you paint and trying something new in order to get a good result with the paper, or using another paper to see if it works better with the way you like to paint!
The orchid flower was painted on a smooth paper (actually, it’s not watercolor paper but it’s similar to a hot press paper) whereas the shell has been sketched on a grainy paper (Arches 300 gsm probably cold press). The rough grainy paper allows dry brush effects and gives texture to the shell sketch. On the other hand, the smooth paper gives a delicate impression and is more suitable for the silklike petals of the flower. 😊
9 – Don’t paint the same area several times. If the second layer is really different from the first and serves a purpose : creating new edges, defining smaller areas, glazing another color, it’s OK, of course. However, if it’s just a darker one on top of the first (because the first one was too weak), I think it’s not good (but yes, I do it too. 😳 Busy learning!! 😊). Let’s try to get it right the first time! 😉
I wish all my watercolor sketches could be as fresh as this one! 😙 It’s really simple, for sure, but I like this straightforwardness, this spontaneity. I am pretty sure I didn’t paint any areas twice, as I just pressed the brush filled with several colors on the paper to create the petals. Only the two bright red areas on the lower tulip were added later, I think, but it’s OK, as It doesn’t affect the entire petal.
10 – Stop soon enough!! It’s probably the tougher part. 😬 When people show their step by step, my favorite is quite often the first or second step. Later, for my taste, they spoil their fresh work! But the most terrible thing is : I do the same thing. 😭 And I am pretty sure you do it too! It’s so difficult to see the beauty of our spontaneous first washes when we worry about the likeliness of a subject. Plus, we usually believe that each stroke will improve the sketch… That’s true that, sometimes, the sketch is not so nice and it needs some adds and details to become good! But if you feel that your sketch seems to have a good start, that means that it almost already good. Be picky about what you add and let it be as it is : fresh and beautiful. 😊
This is the gorgeous first wash of an hydrangeas flowers sketch (I am not sure why there is so many flowers sketches in this post… But, you know, spring is coming!!! 😝). I humbly show it to you, as I didn’t manage to add few enough details to keep this freshness…. 😟 This is my favorite step of the sketch and I hope I will be able, in the future, to keep this kind of wet fresh look in more of my finalized sketches. ☺️
That’s it, these were my 10 tips! I hope your liked this article and that these reminders could help you to be more often happy with your little paintings. We could talk about other ways to improve our watercolors but I focused especially on the freshness here. 😉
For now, sorry but I have to go. I must try to apply my own advices!!! 😁😜