How to Shade With Watercolors

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Learn to shade your watercolor scenes.
Learn to shade your watercolor scenes. (Image: Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Watercolors are perhaps the most tricky painting medium, and require patience and apprenticeship on the part of the artist. Even when you have worked in watercolor for a long time, there are still quirks and tendencies of this medium that can be frustrating. However, watercolors allow for exquisite gradations of light and color, which make up for their technical difficulties.

Things You'll Need

  • Set of watercolor paints
  • Watercolor paper
  • Plastic palette
  • Small watercolor brush
  • Jar of water
  • Tissues

Mix a light version of the color you need on your palette. For example; if you are painting a deer, and already sketched its outline in pencil, mix a light brown on your palette using one part raw sienna, one part burnt umber, and two parts water. Apply this color evenly to the body of the deer or other figure. Clean your brush and blot it partially dry on tissue.

Wait until this base color is completely dry before you add additional pigment. Test the spot first with the tip of your finger to see if it is still wet. Mix a darker, more concentrated version of the base color you already applied. For the deer example; mix one part raw sienna, one part burnt umber, and one part water on your palette. Apply this color to areas of the deer or other figure you want to define or shade, such as where the back leg and body meet, the curve of the haunches and back, the tips of the ears, the joints of the legs, the hooves, and the eyes and nose. Rinse your brush and blot it until it is damp.

Wait until this second application of color is completely dry. Test again with your finger. Mix a version of a similar color darker still than what you had before. This time, however, add a bit of blue or purple undertone to help create the illusion of shadow. For the deer example, mix two parts raw sienna, one part ultramarine blue, one-half part burnt umber, one-half part crimson and one part water on your palette. Apply this color where you want to deepen the color and shadow, such as the eyes, ears, nose, hooves and the places where the legs meet the stomach. Rinse your brush and blot it.

Wait until this layer is totally dry and test it. Make a black or blackish color for those places (in the deer example) such as the eyes, tip of the nose, hooves and where the hooves meet the ground. Mix two parts ultramarine blue, one part yellow ochre, one-half part crimson and one-half part water on your palette. Add ultramarine blue and/or burnt umber to darken it additionally, or to make the black more brown or blue. Apply this color sparingly and with great care only in those few areas that need to be black or nearly black. Rinse your brush and blot it dry.

Tips & Warnings

  • Mix different shades of colors and use them on a practice painting you do not care about. This way, you can try different combinations and test how subtle or drastic you wish to be with your pigment shades.

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