Hi and welcome back to my website. In today’s lesson I paint a watercolor painting using a 3-layer approach. I layer washes on top of each other, thoroughly drying each layer before applying the next one. This approach makes use of watercolor’s unique property – transparency.

This technique is very accessible, I think, because it allows us to approach the painting in stages, refining as we go. It is a very systematic way to paint that provides a lot of time to think and consider our next step between layers. The painting can be done in mere 4 steps and often yields satisfying results.


"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Thumbnail sketch establishes the most basic shape division
The sketch for this painting is very abstract in its nature. There is very little in terms of literal description of a real life subject. Suggested is a building of some kind and a path that leads towards it. The shapes are made up. The point of this composition is the pattern of shapes which roughly form a “T” shape. This will become more obvious as we progress further in the process.

Step #1

"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Step 1: Preliminary drawing suggesting the distribution of the largest areas
Transference of the subject on the watercolor paper is the first step. I often don’t draw on my watercolor paper but it is a good practice to roughly sketch in the largest of shapes so you don’t get overwhelmed as you paint.

Step #2

"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Step 2: Warm wash #1 – color used is Gold Ochre
The initial wash gives character to the entire painting because of the transparent nature of watercolor as a media. All successive layers are going to be affected by the first wash. The color effect this approach creates is known as optical mixing. You are not mixing the colors physically on your palette, instead you apply them pure on top of each other and get the mix that way.

You can already notice at this point that the “T” pattern I mentioned starts to already appear.

Step #3

"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Step 3: Warm wash #2 – color used is Alizarin Crimson
The second layer often makes or breaks a painting. I have two choices and these depend on what color scheme I intend for my finished painting. I aim at warm dominance and so I select Perm. Alizarin Crimson for this layer. I find it best to stay within the same color family and definitely on the warm side. In case I wanted a cool painting, the second wash could be painted with a cool color and then all the successive layers as well, reinforcing the dominance. However, this is a little bit risky and certainly tricky to do well, because the warm underpainting neutralized your shapes where the warm and cool overlaps. It is, therefore, a safe practice to start warm and add cool at the end or vice versa.

Step #4

"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Step 4: Final cool wash of Cobalt Blue
I could paint one more warm layer to further define my shapes. However, as my painting is quite abstract, I don’t need to add further definition. And so now I paint my cool wash. This wash creates conflict of color temperature. It is best to underplay contrast. I may already have gone a bit too far, though I think I’m still doing well.

Technique-wise, notice that I paint my second and third washes out-of-register. This creates a vibration throughout the painting. Out-of-register means that the washes don’t overlap perfectly, creating a little highlights of pure color where the paint hits white of the paper or where the original wash is left untouched.

Step #5

"Easy Layering Watercolor Technique" Painting Demonstration & Lesson [Video]
Final Step consists of adding darks to finish the composition
Final step are darks. In watercolor we paint from light towards dark. I paint the darkest darks here with the same blackest black (made of Alizarin+Ultramarine+Phthalo Green) for simplification. It would be much better to add one more, fourth, darker layer and then place the pure darkest dark in a select few spots. My solution in this case is not optimal but it’s been done for the sake of demonstration and I don’t find it breaks the overall painting too much.

Video of the Painting Process

Finished Painting

The finished result is satisfactory. The simple color palette seems to work well and the contrast is not overdone. The blacks may have been muted but that’s why we never stop painting – we can’t get everything right in every single painting.

Finished watercolor painting by Daniel Novotny, 11 x 15 in.

As you had the chance to see, this approach is indeed “easy” as you have the time to think between layers and make decisions while your paper dries. The entire process is simplified by painting connected shapes and refining the subject by additional washes. More complex scenes may require more patience and time though. That’s why I would suggest you to select the simplest composition you can find and give this technique a chance. It will help you understand the power of shapes.

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