winter watercolor scene

Winter Watercolor Scene (A Step by Step Tutorial)

Last week we had our first snowfall. Well… It was more like frozen rain! But it was enough to get me in the mood to paint a winter watercolor scene, which I’d like to share with you below. If you’d like to follow along then you can download my sketch template and transfer it to watercolor paper.

I’ll go over various watercolor techniques and some art theory, and do my best to explain the steps I took to create this snowy scene!

By the way, the snow didn’t last very long. 

Which is a shame because I like snow! (Hopefully there’s more to come)

How to Paint a Winter Scene in Watercolor

Before painting this winter view I explored a couple of factors that I think are important to the success of a painting. The first is composition, and the second is color harmony.

Composition

The inspiration for this painting came from a photo, but the disposition didn’t quite fit what I wanted. So I decided to modify the position of the boy in the photo to make him a stronger focal point.

winter reference photo

To do this I applied a composition rule known as the “rule of thirds”. The sheet is divided into thirds using imaginary lines. Anything which falls on one of these lines reinforces the presence of that object in the overall composition. Better still if something falls at the intersection of two imaginary lines !

Following this idea I placed the body of the boy along one of these vertical lines, and the face is centered at the intersection of two lines. I made the format vertical rather than horizontal, and flipped the photo so that the boy was still facing into the scene.

Another useful composition trick is to make use of contrast. The human eye is often drawn to the point of highest contrast in an image. By painting the figure of the boy using relatively dark values, and placing the head and shoulders against a bright background, this helps reinforce the center of interest of the composition.

winter scene composition

Color Harmony

This painting uses one of my favorite color combinations - blue and orange.

In color theory, this association of colors is known as “complementary”.

Complementary colors are any two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This kind of color relationship is said to be more dynamic and visually interesting.

complementary color design

Blue is the dominant color in the scene. Because blue is a “cool” color, this fits well with the winter theme of the painting.

Step by Step Winter Watercolor

winter watercolor scene boy in the snow

You can download my sketch template here if you’d like to try this painting for yourself...

Step 1:

After sketching the figure onto watercolor paper I started by adding some details to the face and hands. I painted using a range of flesh tones, starting with the lightest color and progressively adding some darker toned hues. Be careful to leave the white paper untouched for the eyes and teeth. I’ll strengthen these features later but this allows me to establish an underpainting.

Underpainting is a common practice in watercolor painting where you apply an initial layer of color. Because watercolors are transparent this provides a base for subsequent layers of paint.

​Step 2:

Next I added the bright orange colors for the boy’s cap and sweater. I used the same bright orange for the falling leaf. Together with the muted orange flesh colors, this adds the orange counterpoint of the complementary color scheme.

Step 3:

The following step was to start painting the “underpainting” for the blue coat. Notice that I leave a lot of white highlights at this stage. Some of these shapes will become bright highlights and others will be toned down by successive layers of paint, but it’s important to reserve the white paper early in the process. 

The painting technique I use is wet-on-dry, where wet paint is applied directly to the dry paper, but I’m also creating smooth variegated washes by dabbing in some stronger blues into the wet paint. Use the stronger valued color in the places you expect to be in shade. This method helps create more visual interest to your watercolor washes.

Step 4:

Use the same process to continue painting the rest of the coat, leaving white highlight shapes as you go. After painting the blue hood, I also added some more orange to the cap, which I let bleed into the wet blue wash. It’s great fun watching colors blend this way and it creates some more visual interest!

Step 5:

For the bottom left part of the coat I had some more fun! Before painting the coat I wet the background segment of the paper with clear water. The blue pigment for the coat blends into the background beautifully. This creates a transition between the subject and the background where the edges blur because the color and value of both is similar. This “blurring of edges” is often referred to as “lost and found edges”.

winter watercolor scene step by step part 1

Step 6:

Use the same technique to paint the legs. Here I used a more pronounced blue color.

Step 7:

Before you go any further let your painting dry completely (time to go grab a coffee!).

I used masking fluid and a toothbrush to splatter some dots over the painting. This is to protect the paper underneath and give the impression of snowflakes for our wintery painting. You can apply this to both the background and the boy figure as well - any dots of masking fluid on the boy’s coat will remain a lighter value and give an impression of snow.

Step 8:

The next stage is to add some more detail to the coat and legs. This is done with a wet on dry technique. My objective here is to deepen the values in the places that need shading and shadows. As you can see, this wet on dry technique produces shapes with crisp edges. This is a style that I particularly like (if you wanted a smoother transition you need to blend the edges, or use a wet on wet technique).

Note that you do not need to use a strong mix of paint here. Even a week mixture of paint will result in a darker shape. When you paint over a dry wash of watercolor in this way you automatically build up the values (that is make them darker). This is a technique known as “glazing” and it’s one of my favorite painting methods.

Step 9:

Now your going to work on the background. To do this I use a wet on wet technique (wet paint applied to dampened paper). Begin by dampening the whole background with clean water. The tricky part is leaving the figure of the boy and the leaf dry.

Use a smaller brush around detailed shapes such as the leaf and the upraised hand.

Step 10:

While the surface is still wet you can now start dabbing in some blue paint to create a blurred background. The aim is to leave a “halo” of white around the figure of the boy and his head. Start with a week mix of blue and don’t hesitate to tilt the paper to move the pigments around on the surface to make a smooth gradient of color.

When you’re happy with the first wet in wet layer you can start charging in some stronger paint to darken the wash. Try to make the background progressively darker towards the edges.

winter watercolor scene step by step part 2

Step 11:

When you’re happy with the background leave it to dry completely. Then use a kneaded eraser to remove the masking fluid from the paper surface.

Step 12:

For the next step you’ll need some white gouache. This is to add a final effect of snowflakes over the painting. Why am I using gouache rather than white watercolor? Well… Gouche is more opaque than watercolor. This is because the pigments in gouache are larger plus contain additives like calcium carbonate to make the paint less transparent. But it can be dissolved in water just like watercolors. I’m using Winsor and Newton’s permanent white gouache (find it on Amazon) because it has a pure white color appearance.

Final step:

Dilute the gouche with some water. Make a mix which is not too thick and not too weak.

Next load a brush with white paint (I’m using a flat synthetic brush held edge on). Now flick the brush to add splatters of white to your painting! I found the best technique is to flick the brush vertically downwards and stop the motion suddenly. 

winter watercolor scene step by step part 3

Winter Watercolor Painting Inspiration

Winter is a wonderfully moody and atmospheric time of the year. You can find some excellent reference photos on sites like Unsplash or Pixabay (that's where I found the photo I used here!). I’m sure you’ll find some great inspiration for watercolor paintings. Snowy scenes like this are easy to produce, especially with the trick of using gouache for the final step. And your scene doesn’t have to be complicated - just some trees and snow ​can be fun to paint!

Give it a try!

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