Three-step Watercolor Process

I would like to take some time to explain the process I use to create my watercolor paintings.  I use what I call the 3-step process. It is simple, easy to understand and yields pretty consistent results.

The steps are:

1. Save the whites and paint everything else on the paper with an under-painting of a mid-tone value (left image)

2. Add mid-dark values to everything except the white space and areas that will remain mid-tones in the final painting. (right image)


3. Add the final dark values to only small areas that will be the darkest darks. (left image)


This results in paintings that have an abundance of light because I have saved the whites at the very beginning.  The under-painting is done in a mid-value color that captures the lightest value colors and ensures that they remain a part of the painting. And finally, by putting in the darks in two steps, I keep the number of washes to three at the most.  This helps to keep the painting fresh and not overworked- basically it eliminates the dreaded “mud” that so many watercolor students complain about!

This process does require that you understand the value process and create a value sketch to use as a  road map. In order to proceed, you need to know where the whites are, what the mid-tones are going to be and where the darks will be placed. By creating a value study, this all becomes clear.

The photos show the progression from the first wash to the last. My initial under-painting went in as a #3 value, followed by the mid-darks at value #5 and the final darks at value #7.  When I paint the sketch in color, I use the same process. The initial under-painting wash was a light yellow-orange at value #3, followed by the appropriate colors in values #5 and #7.

In future posts I will be talking about the concept of value and different ways of doing value studies and of course, will talk about how to avoid mud!

2 thoughts on “Three-step Watercolor Process”

  1. I’m signed up for the Arboretum class and have signed up two family members, Andre’ and Andy Nelson.
    I’m wondering if we’ll make a numbered value strip so we understand the number system?
    Thank you.
    Patricia Nelson
    Spicer MN

    1. Hi Patricia,
      I will have value strips made up for everyone in the class. Not enough time to make them in class, but you will one to get you through the process.

      Looking forward to seeing you in class.


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