watercolor painting light to Dark

Watercolor Painting Light to Dark (Watercolor Cookies)

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OK… Lame joke.

Actually, I painted this watercolor composition of a plate of cookies to demonstrate one of the most frequently used methods of painting with this medium.

In watercolors, painting light to dark is the most commonly accepted way to build up a painting.

In other words, you start by applying layers of light toned, diluted paint, and gradually darken the painting with subsequent layers of color.

That’s not to say “light to dark” is a hard and fast rule. Sometimes you can have good reason to begin with darker values. But it’s generally easier to start light, and it’s also a good way to exploit the transparent characteristics of watercolors.

Watercolor Painting Light to Dark

watercolor cookies painting

So why do watercolor artists usually paint using a light to dark progression ?

As you’ve probably figured out by now, watercolor is a transparent medium. This transparency itself suggests a light to dark sequence of painting. Dark colored brush marks cover light toned colors much more easily than the reverse.

dark color over the top of light colors

For the sake of argument, below you can see what happens when I paint a dark wash of color first, then try to overlay lighter colored brush marks on top of the first layers of paint. As you can see, it just produces a darker and darker color.

In other words, if your paint strokes are too dark and you want to go back to a lighter color, in watercolors this isn’t easy to do !

painting dark color first

The common way of lightening a dark wash is to use a lifting technique. For example by using a blotted brush to mop up some of the previously laid color. (This works fine while the wash is still damp).

But if the paint has already dried, lifting can be tricky! You can blot up some the colored pigments, but you can’t get back to the pure white of the paper.

So lifting has its limitations and is usually only used for small areas of a painting.

So darker colors tend to be more opaque, and let less of the underlying brushes strokes show through.

Watercolor Lifting & Staining Characteristics

But one of the other dangers if you paint strong dark shapes first is you run the risk that the dark color will bleed when you overlay a lighter wash on top of them. You might be able to see when I painted a lighter wash onto this brown color, the first layer of paint starts to reactivate and mixes with the new damp brush strokes. You can see some of the brown color bleeding into the overlapping brush marks.

Keep in mind that the “lifting properties” of each paint depends on its staining characteristics. Staining paints use pigments which are difficult to remove after they dry.

In this example I’m using Burnt umber to produce a dark brown which is a low staining paint, and is easier to remove with lifting.

Some watercolor artists like to put down the shade and shadow shapes at the beginning of a painting. This can be useful because it lets you see where things fit in the overall composition, and helps establish the range of values from the start.

This is a technique called “underpainting” where you paint the important tonal values first. Then you start laying more color on top of the previously painted shapes. This technique works best when you use staining paints for the underpainting.

Doing this makes use of another common watercolor technique known as glazing (this is where you paint subsequent layers on top of each other, leaving each successive layer to dry).

Watercolor Cookies Demo from Light to Dark

cookies reference image

If you’d like to try this watercolor “cookies” painting for yourself you can download the worksheet and outline sketch for this project here.

The paints I used for this project were as follows (Amazon links)

Before painting I start by observing the subject to identify the big shapes of light, medium, and dark values. I’m trying to plan the painting in terms of light and dark areas.

(Remember the term “value” just refers to the lightness or darkness of a color)

I drew a fairly detailed sketch of the subject onto watercolor paper. The intention is to draw shapes with significant differences in value to use as a guide during the painting.

Tape down the paper onto a board, then use masking fluid to protect any small white highlights.

It’ll be quite easy to paint around the white plate, but there are a few dots of white highlights which will be difficult to paint around. And because in watercolors white comes from the paper, masking fluid is the ideal solution for “reserving” small white areas like this.

Once the masking fluid is completely dry I can start painting the first wash of color using a light toned, highly diluted paint mixture.

light to dark watercolor step01

Notice that this first layer of paint covers the whole of the cookie shapes (except for a couple of larger white highlights on the left which I chose to leave untouched).

I painted like this because I know I’ll be using a glazing technique. (this is where you paint subsequent layers on top of each other, leaving each successive layer to dry).

Because watercolors are transparent, the underlying color shows through, and each new layer builds up the tonal value of the painting. Like this, successive layers of color increase in value from light to dark.

light to dark watercolor step 02

When the surface is dry I start painting a new “glaze” using a mixture which is very slightly stronger than the previous color. Often, you only need to add a small amount of paint to your mixing puddle when using glazing because the resulting layers produce a stronger appearance when they combine on the paper.

And you can see that this time the shapes I’m painting don’t cover the whole of the cookies. The idea is to leave the lighter parts untouched and paint only the shapes which have a visible increase in value.

light to dark watercolor step 03

Once again leave this layer to dry completely, make a very slightly stronger mixture of paint in your mixing palette, then start glazing a new layer of color. Again, notice this third layer doesn’t cover the whole of the surface, leaving parts of the previous washes exposed.

As you can see the painting is moving slowly from the lightest colors to the darker hues. But note also that the painting develops from larger shapes to smaller shapes, or from the general to the more specific. For me this is also a typical method of painting in watercolors - big forms first and details last.

light to dark watercolor step 04

After leaving the paint to dry one more time I made a fairly big shift in color and value. The reference photo I’m using shows a plate of chocolate chip cookies on a dark background. So now that I have the underlying light and middle values painted, I start to block in the darker values including the chocolate chips and the dark background.

And because the shadow shapes are also significantly darker I started painting the first layer of dark brown shadows. There’s also a moment where you can see me use a lifting technique to mop up some of the shadow shape that I just painted, because there’s actually some reflected light on the underside of the cookie.

light to dark watercolor step 05

Now I can complete the dark background underneath the plate and wait for the painting to dry before moving on to the next stage. For this I need to mix an even darker brown hue for yet another glaze of over the shadows. Even if the first layer of brown shadows might have appeared quite dark, the thing with watercolors is they always dry lighter than how they appear when wet.

So here you can see me applying a final layer of really dark paint to the shadows and the background. Doing this produces a full range of values from dark to light and increases the contrast of the finished painting.

Watercolors that have a full range of tones and high contrast like this tend to produce more satisfying results.

light to dark watercolor step 06

In the final steps you can see me remove the masking fluid to reveal the white highlights beneath. Then as a last touch I added a few brush strokes of an orange-yellow mixture to “warm up” the color appearance of the cookies…

How to paint from light to dark in Watercolors

Painting light to dark takes practice. The strength of the colors you choose in the early stages of a painting can have consequences later on. And as we’ve seen with watercolors it’s tricky to back to lighter tones once you’ve committed to a dark color.

When you start a new watercolor painting, take a moment to observe the subject and try to imagine it in terms of layers. Try to visualize what would be the first light wash of color, keeping in mind that the white paper will be the brightest part of the painting. Then imagine the next layers, then the next, up to the final darker shapes.

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