Watercolour Exercise 1 – Step by Step

Farm Shed – Step by Step

Original photo
Original photo

Most artists who paint representational watercolours start with a pencil drawing, which may be just some simple outline or a fully detailed work. My pencil drawings are usually somewhere between these two extremes. Many artists choose to use a soft pencil but my preference is an HB because there is less likelihood smudging. I do not try to fully detail all aspects of the work but in critical places I may make quite a fine drawing. Mostly I am happy for the pencil lines to become a part of my finished work so I may draw quite heavily.

Step one - drawing
Step one – drawing

You will notice in the sketch that I have placed the top corner of the farm shed a third of the way across the painting and a third of the way down. I have also placed the base of the shed a third of the way up from the bottom of the sheet. This follows the rule of thirds and should help to make this a visually pleasing work.

Step two
Step two – the sky


With watercolours it is normally considered best to start with the lightest colours then gradually add the darker colours until the painting is finished. In a landscape work I generally start with the sky. There are many convincing ways to paint a sky from a complete plain or graduated wash through to a few rough dabs of paint. I generally use “cobalt blue” paint for a blue sky but “cerulean blue” or “ultramarine blue light” are alternatives. Of course a cloudy sky or a sunrise/set will require other colours.

If you have trees in your landscape painting it is usually best to bring your sky down behind where you will be painting in the foliage, and in many paintings it will be better to bring the sky well down into the foreground to avoid the “painted around look”

Step three
Step three

After painting the sky you will be left with a wet surface so the next step might be to wait for it to dry (you could hurry this with a hair drier) or to paint an area, which is not adjacent to the wet paint, such as the foreground. In this case I chose to paint the weatherboards. You will notice that I did not choose to use just one colour for the, very weathered sides of the shed.

My next step was to paint in the grass and trees. Many beginning artists really struggle with painting foliage, grass etc. My first piece of advice is that it is almost impossible to make a large expanse of flat green look convincing. Saying “trees are green” needs to be mentally revised as the “green” of trees ranges from almost blue, through most possible greens to yellow, orange and red. Even in an expanse of grass there are usually large colour variations, ochres, yellows and darker areas, shadow areas.

Trees look much more realistic with spaces left to show the sky behind and small patches of white show the reflection of light off leaves. There are many tricks used to paint foliage such as dabbing with a sponge but if you are using a brush I suggest that you work quickly letting the brush “dance on the paper”. Finally, while the paper is still wet add the dark patches of shadow in the tree while the paint is still wet. I generally use ultramarine blue to darken my greens.

Finished work
Finished work

Finishing a painting almost always requires you to put in the darks, the shadows and darks are the most important factor which give your painting some zing. Too many people produce watercolour paintings with no real blacks. These works look faded and if there is one thing I hope you will learn from this workshop it is that contrast is essential. I always mix my black and gray paint and usually use a mix of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.


“don’t forget the black”

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