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Winter scene – my watercolor process tutorial

Long live the watercolors!

After a half year of iPad phase (it had started with this decision), I finally got back to one of my favorite mediums.
Winter wreath is a commissioned illustration designed as Christmas card piece.
I have never taken part in any watercolor courses so everything I know about it, I learned myself or while watching how other artist work.
It is a long process of trials, experiments, and mistakes. But so satisfying!
Sometimes breaking the rules gives unexpected effects! Unfortunately, commissioned illustration with a short deadline, definitely isn’t a proper opportunity for watercolor explorations. That is why in such cases I stick to my usual watercolor process.
And today I will show you, how it looks like.

My recipe for watercolor process


I will mention my tools in a short because I don’t consider myself as an expert in this theme. I don’t know components of paints or watercolor papers, and to be honest, I am not interested in it. I want to know what I can do on hot press, and for what job cold press is better. Which paint set suits me the best or which mediums works well together. Most of the answers to these questions I have found myself. And that is what I know:

  • I like to use 270 -300 gms papers.
  • I prefer to use the hot press papers, without strong texture, for detailed illustration.
  • When I paint on a big size, or landscape theme – I will use the cold press, with interesting, visible texture.
  • It is definitely worth to buy good quality watercolors with saturated, clear transparent colors! The cheaper ones also can do the job, but it is very likely, you will end up with muddy colors and discouragement. I use Saint Petersburg for years (“White Nights”, 24 colors), Kuretake Gansai Tambi (36 colors) and single pans of Winsor & Newton. I am happy with them, so I didn’t use another.
  • I like to join color watercolors with watercolor pencils. They are soft, but not grainy. Sometimes I dilute them with water and sometimes not. Usually, I use them for finishing touches.
  • I love ecolines (liquid watercolors). Their colors are more saturated and vivid than watercolors in pans.
  • When it comes to watercolor related media, I use mainly masking fluid. It really stinks. But does the job 😉 especially when I use it with special rubber, sharply pointed brush, which is so much easier to clean than normal brushes.
  • When I am going to use a lot of water ( usually, I do) I have always paper towels near me. They have saved not one illustration from being ruined.
  • My favorite brushes are a small one, flat from Ikea, flat squirrel brushes for watercolors (Restaurohouse) for filling big spaces. For details: aqua brush Pentel, Petit Gris Pur Winsor & Newton, and recently bought, Kuretake Menso.
  • I also love to use a pen with copperplate nib for details
  • Sometimes, at the end of the process, I use gouache, watercolor pencils, and Sakura Gelly Roll white pen.

And commonly, that is it.

The sketch

I start with a sketch very often, but in the case of commissions – it is a rule.
It is the best way to set up composition, main elements and color palette, but also the best moment to show a client what I am going to do. The client can give feedback and ask for a correction on phase when they are very easy and quick to make. It is so much easier to make them now when we spent on the sketch only a few minutes than when the illustration is done and took as many hours. Sometimes I need to make a lot of sketches (in the case of commissions the number of sketches is specified), sometimes I go with the first one if it satisfies me.

I drew my sketch Adobe Sketch, using my iPad Pro 2017. My iPad is always near, and I use it not only for sketches (more in my post). I tried to show watercolor feel in it.
The important thing is, to not allow the sketch phase last too long. There is no point of making too complicated sketches. It is better to make a few, rough ones, than one very neat and detailed. I treat sketches more like a direction, in which I am going to go with my illustration, than a ready map.
Watercolors are not a ruler and a pencil. It is worth to let them surprise you.
Accidental splashes and bleeds can add a lot of charm. So be watchful! Try to change your potential mistakes into advantages.
A sketch will make you feel more secure. A blank sheet of paper isn’t so dreadful anymore. You will compose the space more successfully, and your color palette will be under control.

Sketches are an interesting theme! Definitely worth of a separate post.

Transferring the sketch to a paper

Most of the time I draw everything from the beginning, but this time I helped myself with very professional tools:
– I used a plate to draw a regular circle (I lost my calipers somewhere)
– I used my iPad as a lightbox. I was content how the shape of the bird looked like, and I wanted to save some time.

For transferring your sketch you can use lightbox, a computer screen or … a window.
I drew a more detailed sketch on watercolor paper with a 2b mechanical pencil. I was more into details but still drawing only shapes. I didn’t apply any shadows. It will be the task for watercolors.

The masking fluid

I covered small elements with masking fluid, only in the area, which I was going to paint with wide strokes at the end of the work.
I started with fruits which I covered with contrasting, orange and red colors. 

Accents of colors

Thanks to that I could check is all fruits are spread evenly on the wreath. The biggest round fruits were covered with masking fluid. I did it just the same way as in my similar Christmas Wreath illustration. I made some tiny splashes, knowing that paper towels are next to me in case of disaster. To be sure to not splash on a bird and the center of the illustration, I covered it with a paper towel.

Wet on wet – bigger shapes

The next stage was filling bigger shapes. I blocked all leaves and treated them as one shape. Because of the first combined, all leaves have similar hue, even if I added various colors on other watercolor layers later. I painted wet on wet using a lot of water, and a few similar hues to fill a shape.
Lost and found
A great way to add details to your elements, but still leave it a bit undefined is using a pen on a not completely dry watercolor layer. I painted some details with the darker contour on pines. The lines stayed sharp where the first layer was dry, but the pigment spilled out on wet. It created interesting ‘lost and found’ texture. You can guess that there is pine but thank s to undefined lines and blurs, it isn’t a stiff, obvious drawing. I love this technique! It is worth to experiment with it, not only with watercolors.

If you feel uncertain, remember, you can scan your painting in every phase.

Works almost like ctrl+S! It is worth to do it, in case of any accidents or mistakes.

Wet on dry – details

I defined the shapes of individual leaves using a tonal contrast. Some of them I left lighter and painted a darker background (negative painting). Lighter shapes stand out more because of this setting. I used also positive painting technique (darker colors, on a lighter background).
All these leaves and fruits cast shadows. I painted it with darker tones on a dry paper to be sure, that the edges remain sharp. The wreath became a bit more three-dimensional.
I left the bird for the end, but I used exactly the same process to color it.

From general shapes and color to details.

I painted a winter background (wet on wet) with a flat brush. Thanks to masking fluid, I didn’t have to think about leaving the roof of the hut, or fruits unpainted. I didn’t use any accent colors (orange and red) on the background, to be sure that it won’t compete with the wreath and the bird.

At the end

I removed masking fluid and painted the biggest fruits. I added some snow spots, and snow on the spruces with white gouache. I drew some tiny plants with copperplate nib.
I scanned it, retouched it and made a color correction in Photoshop (sometimes it takes really long). And that’s it!

If you want to try to paint a similar illustration here it is!
I prepared a sketch version for you in high quality (300DPI) printable version. Download it, print it or transfer on a paper using one of the methods I described above. Color it with watercolors, gouache, color pencils or in some graphics software. And, most of all, have fun!
 Don’t forget to show me your beautiful works – tag me under your painting on Instagram, or Facebook.

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If you found this description and video helpful (despite all my English grammar mistakes) – please let me know!