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Tutorial – the wintery digital watercolor

After a long silence caused by what usually happens in such cases – life and work, I am dropping by with a new post.
Without unnecessary ramblings about non-existence, which nobody but the writer usually doesn’t care about, I’ll get to the point.

Winter illustration in Procreate step by step

Plan or rather lack of plan

Often before starting the illustration I already know what effect I am looking for. In case of client commissioned illustrations, I often have exact guidelines and a style that I should stick to.

That’s probably why, when I paint in my free time, I try to keep those “ties” to myself as little as possible. However, it often happens that the lack of restrictions and the so-called “great white paper” (in the case of digital art – a new canvas) can be intimidating. So it’s easier to make at least a few decisions at the very beginning.

What subject?
I wanted a winter illustration. Seasons are a never-drying source of inspiration.

What technique?
I haven’t painted with my watercolor brush set in Procreate in a long time.

What style?
Something light and fairytale-like – that is, a full comfort zone

1. Loose sketch

Due to the fact that I didn’t know what specifically to include in the illustration I started without reference photos or exact inspiration.

I looked for a character pose in a loose sketch, checking out different options. My preliminary sketches are often very understated. It makes it easier for my brain to search through the tangle of lines, poses and compositions that I find most interesting. I used my favorite for sketching here from the set : Pastelove Pencil – but any pressure sensitive brush or brush that mimics the action of a pencil will do.


2. Defining a sketch and composition.

I saw something there in the initial sketch. I created a new layer with Multiply mode and tried to draw my vision to the surface with more definite strokes.

The new sketch still left room for refinement in later stages. Ideas for the figure and composition have appeared. I’m already clear that I want to contrast the figure with the background. For now, using a value. I came out with a dressed up, confident lady. It is possible that she embodies winter.

The idea of putting a delicate cloak with delicate patterns on her shoulders also came up. Our heroine is clearly expecting… perhaps already spring?

3. Kolory

The background is supposed to be organized around a few arches, which are supposed to correspond with the stylized edges of the cape. Will it work? At this stage I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out! Creating digitally gives much more room for experimentation than traditional techniques, so I acted without fear.

If the cape was going to reference snow patterns, I wanted it to be bright. This meant that it would look prettiest against a darker background. Which, according to the original idea, was supposed to be snowy and bright. So I decide to contrast the figure (the dress) with the background in a different way – color-wise.Blue and dark blue colors in the background and the shape cut off from them with red.

That is, opposing colors on the color wheel, their combination usually works. However, if you are not looking for a very aggressive combination, you should be careful with their saturation. Two contrasting colors, equally bright, cause an extremely strong contrast. It can be compared to a fight for attention. I think that such a combo has to be very deliberate and serve the message of the illustration.

I decided to use vivid red and slightly calmer (darker) shades of blue and navy in the background. I’ve also reached here for the meaning of colors that is so common in our culture – red symbolizes love and energy. With the use of one carbon paper I wanted to break another one – winter represented as an icy Snow Queen. In my version she is a mother full of love.

4. Color and value

The new Overlay layer makes painting with light colors brighten and vibrant the colors on the layers underneath, while darker colors darken them. I add more details and turn up the contrast of the background and characters. I lighten the snow with the Paper Texture brushes in the brushes (included: Watercolor Grainy, Spread Texture).

5. Working on details

I add another layer, this time in the normal blend mode – this way all the new brush strokes will cover the drawing on the previous layers. Finally the lace cape (Acrylic Marker) falling snow is created, I refine her snow hair. I add a pattern with leafless twigs and a bird, which also fits the story for me – another reference to spring symbolizing birth.

6. Color correction

I usually play with different adjustments: curves, color balance…. This time I’m just adding an Overlay layer and using a light yellow color to pull the brighter tones out of the dress. 

The next layer in Overlay mode is a watercolor textured paper imported from the brush set, which adds some interesting blotches and streaks. I reduce the transparency to keep the streaks from being too aggressive and distracting from the figure.


This is how I often work with illustrations that refer to traditional watercolors. I let the drawings and colors of successive layers blend together. In watercolors we also apply layers of color that darken the existing ones. They never lighten, like my overlay layers. Yes you can add opaque colors with gouache, but you irrevocably cover the watercolor underneath.

Therefore, when painting with watercolors, it helps to have a better thought out composition and color choice than was the case with this illustration.In my process, ideas for composition, color palette, and message emerged as I went along. Every move could be undone, every layer removed. Digital painting is so much less stressful! But in describing these differences, I realized that I miss watercolors. 😃

If you use Procreate and like the brushes I used, you can find the whole set (75 brushes) on my Etsy.

You can also try out the six brushes included in this set for free by signing up for the newsletter.

I look forward to answering questions about the process, digital watercolor technique, my brushes, or whatever else comes to mind. I enjoy answering questions!