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Saving the Best for Last

There is nothing so exciting, or daunting, than facing a big, beautiful, white sheet of watercolor paper. You know that once you jump in with that first stroke, the game’s afoot, and the tempo is urging you forward as you charge loads of water and paint into those first washes. However, before you start swinging from the hip, remember that you only get that beautiful white sheet once. When it’s covered, it’s gone forever; and nothing adds more excitement, sparkle and punch to a watercolor than those unpainted whites that remain when the painting is finished. 

You know from past articles and demonstrations, that I’m one of those watercolorists who likes to jump in with both feet, and let the washes lead me around the painting. So, when it comes to saving some of that precious white paper, I’ve learned, over the years, to do some careful planning before beginning.

Identifying the obvious white areas is not hard. They are the white shapes that will invariably draw the most attention in the final painting. Most difficulty arises with the ancillary white shapes that will act as secondary points of emphasis. Sometimes these can be planned in advance, and other times they seem to unfold along with the painting. The worst scenario is painting over the secondary white areas before you realize that you’ve lost them forever.

So, my solution is to leave whole lot more white shapes than I think I will need. I figure that I can always tone them, or paint them out later, but if I don’t leave them, I’ll never get them back. For an artist who likes to paint wet-into-wet, this requires a bit of finesse.

I’ve had to learn to paint the negative shapes around my white areas, while working a wet wash. It sometimes leads to irregular masts, chimneys and other details. I don’t mind this. I think a painting should show the artist’s hand. It adds a certain spontaneity and life that I find sadly lacking in the preciseness of frisket, or other masking agents.

I’ve included a few examples to better illustrate this point:
(click any image to enlarge)

Boats on the Isle of Mull - Scotland


I found this sketch of some boats that were anchored along a quay on the Isle of Mull, in Scotland. This piece is chock full of whites: one in the sky, the distant shoreline, various junk on the quay (some of it toned down), the top of the quay wall, the boats and the highlights on the surface of the water. Sometimes this many highlights can fracture a painting, but, in this case, I think it adds bit of sparkle and excitement to, what could be, a rather plain design.

A note about the water:

Like John Pike, I like to paint my water after I paint what the water will reflect. On a calm day, you will have an almost mirror-like reflection of the surface objects. If there is a very light breeze, the reflections will be jagged. When the water is choppy, like this day, you usually have some hazy local color. So I painted the water wet-into-wet, and introduced some color from the boats and the quay. In order to simulate the chop, I painted around those horizontal white bars on the water’s surface. I think it worked pretty effectively.

Here’s an example of how I may have started this piece:

I like to do a simple drawing that places the objects and indicates the major shapes. If I get too complex, I tend to want to stay within the lines. Often my initial drawing will get lost early in the painting. The drawing lines are generally pretty faint. I enhanced this drawing in Photoshop in order for you to see it.

I began by painting the sky, the distant hills and the foreground hill, with the trees, wet-into wet. While doing that, I cut around the boats and the white shapes on the quay. Next, I would go after the boats, and then the reflections. At that point, I can choose to use some of those white shapes on the quay for various objects of minor interest, or tint them or simply paint them out.


   Fez – Morocco

This is a great example of how to take a complicated street scene, with buildings, storefronts, descending stairs, and figures, and allow the white of the paper to shoulder a good portion of the burden. I’m working with a limited palette of Light Red, Ultramarine Blue and Yellow Ochre.

I begin with a relatively simple drawing.


Using only Light Red and Ultramarine Blue, I go right after all the shaded fronts of the buildings in one wet-into-wet application. Notice how I left my awnings white, and also some indefinite white lines in the middle of the painting. I will use those lines later for faux detail. I also used some care in cutting around my hooded figures. This is a pure wet to dry application, with no over painting. With a few horizontal lines, I indicate a suggestion of stairs. If my perspective lines, and the size of the figures are right, those simple stair indications will be enough to suggest “descent” to the viewer. A large portion of my painting has been completed.

Now, using my red, yellow and blue, I put some color on the awnings, tint my indefinite white lines (in the middle of the painting), and give my figures some suggestion of shape.


I introduce my ground shadows, and put the slightest suggestion of windows on the facades of the buildings. I actually feel like I’m done.

 I finished cleaning my brushes, walked back over to the table, and when I looked at the painting, I noticed that the middle five figures were competing for too much attention. I carefully tinted them, and now the painting seems much more coherent. I think this study would make a nice large studio painting.

This newsletter is more or less a reminder to preserve those precious whites, and use them to your advantage. Practice painting wet washes around objects. Let the brushwork show your personal hand, and let your paintings sparkle.

Happy Painting!