How to Draw


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Category: Watercolor

Simple Studies in Watercolor

A simple study you may like to try is to draw, in outline, lightly with a soft lead pencil, the corner of the room or a few assorted objects that are on the table or sideboard.

Then fill in with washes of the appropriate color. Let each wash dry thoroughly before you attempt the next otherwise they will merge with each other. When you have completed laying in all the washes, let them dry off and on top of them delicately put in all the surface detail, textures and modeling. Aim for good shapes and good tones.

The object of this study is to give you confidence with your washes and to make you cover the whole area of your picture.

A second study aims to help you to leave out painting and leave in the white paper. Set out a white jug or object on a colored towel or mat and have plenty of newspaper underneath the towel. Here you have practically a white to grey picture, enlivened only by the co lor that the jug or white object is standing on.

This will be a good study in leaving white paper for the highest lights and because of the greys of the newspaper and the modeling of the jug, a good exercise in monochrome wash. Make sure, too, that the background is one that enlivens the tones of the objects, either a very dark or a brightly colored one will do. If the background is too near in tone to the white jug it will be very difficult indeed to render the nearness of the tones with watercolor wash. Better leave that to the opaque media. Proceed more or less as you did with the first study.

As a variation, why not try drawing a few random objects, first with conte or carbon, and model them up in the usual way but leaving plenty of white areas to take some washes.

In short, don’t overdo the tone otherwise there will be no room for any color. Then, when you are satisfied with your drawing, flood some washes over it. You may find that because of the density of the black lines, the color you use will have to be quite strong in hue.

You will also find that it is possible to overpaint with opaque color on top of a strong drawing, either leaving the lines of the drawing showing or else covering them up completely. These possibilities give you great latitude and help you to go on when all seems lost.

Using Opaque Watercolor

I would suggest the same range of colors, red, pale yellow and two blues, umber with the addition of white, as I did for the transparent range. The mixtures will be the same.

The difference will be in the constant changing of your water, the need to keep your palette constantly cleaned, and the use of white to lighten your tones. Poster colors are inclined to get muddy if you overmix them on your palette. Keep your mixtures simple. Don’t mix more than two colors and white together when trying them out. Be circumspect in adding a further color, for subtle tints. If your palette gets dirty, clean it. Don’t let the paint dry hard on the palette. Poster, egg tempera and casein don’t dissolve easily once they have dried hard. Keep your tubes and pots well covered when not in use. Using dried up paint has the added disadvantage of losing some of its binding strength; it works up too quickly when overpainting, often cracking or rubbing off even in thin coats.

Cardboard, or better still hardboard, the type that is smooth one side and rough the other, is a good panel on which to put your priming. The rough side, because of the regularity of the fine texture, will hold the priming perfectly. You can size the hardboard first, but as hardboard contains size already, this need not be done. Brush your coats of gesso evenly, give at least five coats. Let each coat dry first before applying the next coat. Keep your gesso thin and pliable. After you are satisfied that the board is well and truly covered, sand paper the final coat when dry to a smooth finish with a fine sand paper. (This form of priming will also prime canvas or board for oil painting.)

Using Egg Tempera

Egg tempera dissolves easily in water. It can be used in washes, and overpainted with white or with colors containing white. As the ground is absorbent, you won’t be able to cover as much area as you would with paper. The process of using tempera on a gesso ground is a slower procedure altogether. The Italian painters of the early Renaissance built up their pictures in carefully crosshatched strokes. Modern exponents of tempera, like Edward Wadsworth, do this but it isn’t necessary. Egg tempera can be used like transparent watercolor with the advantage of being suitable for overpainting.

Any type of brush may be used, but sable is preferable. A white plate or or white enameled palette is best to mix your colors on. Avoid wood palettes or any surface that is absorbent. If you are using your own made-up egg medium, care should be taken to mix the right proportion of medium to paint. Too much egg will result in flaking. Scrape the surface of your painting with a razor blade to ensure that you are not using too much egg. If it comes off in greasy, sticky shavings you are. This sort of thing does not occur with the ready-made-up colors.

Egg tempera can be used on any sort of paper or cardboard but you cannot build the paint into thick impastos as you can do with oil or casein. It is a most permanent medium, one of the most permanent of all, if carefully used.

Opaque watercolor

Opaque watercolor is one of the oldest media known. The mixing of glue with the powdered color is known as distemper and most names like poster color, designers’ colors, gouache, are really distemper.

The addition of oil and egg yolk, casein, make the paint easier to handle, allowing for a great deal of overpainting. They are usually referred to as tempera colors in this state. They have emulsions as binders.

Egg tempera and casein can be bought in tubes or pots; also gouache, which has little oil in it, and is beautiful to use. Egg tempera can easily be made by the addition of a little egg yolk to either pure powder color or with any tube paint other than casein or oil.

Egg Tempera

The method of making up egg tempera is simple. Separate the yolk from the white of the egg and carefully pierce the yolk so that the liquid it contains runs freely into a bottle. You can discard the skin. Then add a few drops of linseed oil and a few drops of formaldehyde. Shake briskly and it is now ready to add to your powder or your tube color. The formaldehyde will stop the egg yolk from going bad. This mixture will keep for quite a few months. Keep the container well corked.

If in doubt you can buy the ready mixed egg tempera color in tubes from most artists’ supply stores.

To get the most out of this beautiful medium, it is better to paint with egg tempera on a specially prepared ground of size and white, called gesso.

Preparing Gesso

You will need gilder’s whiting, and any good glue that is not made with fish bones, as fish glues are inclined to attract moisture. Rabbit-skin glue, parchment size or vegetable size will do. After mixing, add a few drops of linseed oil.

Parchment and rabbit-skin glue come in sheets that have to be soaked before using. Soak overnight. When soft melt the size in warm water in a clean basin. Add oil. Add the whiting to this, carefully mixing all the time. The proportion of size to whiting is two parts of size to three of whiting. To thin size add water; to thin gesso add size. Keep the final mixture fairly thin and warm.

You cannot paint too thickly with poster color, and if you are not careful when overpainting,the underpaint may work up. These two disadvantages are overcome in casein, so that if you want to work thickly it is better to use casein. I sometimes fix a color that I am going to overpaint with fixative. This seems to hold the paint well enough for even the most vigorous overpainting. If you use poster color too thickly it tends to crack and flake off.

Watercolor Practice

Watercolor is a quick way of painting. I don’t think it is necessary to go on building a watercolor into a complete, tonal painting. For that use opaque watercolor or oil.

The charm of a transparent watercolor is its delicacy and simplicity. So when trying out a simple pictorial image, lightly draw in your subject with a lead pencil. Don’t put in too much detail or any tone at all. Then by quick, simple washes lay in the appropriate colors, letting each color dry first before putting on the second. If what you were after doesn’t quite click, don’t try overworking it. Put it on one side and try another and another. The more quick sketches you do the better you will understand watercolor.

Always have plenty of clean water handy. At least two jars of water should be on your table. Outside, this is not convenient, but do try. If you find that your success with handling pure washes does not come easily, try drawing out your picture first in pencil or pen and ink and then tint the completed drawing with simple washes, gradually drawing less and less so that finally you are not drawing at all, only painting. Or, conversely, block in your drawing with large washes of color and then draw on top of the washes when they are dry. I find this last method very suitable for outdoor work.

If you have drawn a great deal, the handling of washes will not worry you unduly. It is much better to have done a great deal of drawing before attempting pure watercolor. But if you haven’t, then I can best recommend opaque watercolor.


Avoid bright greens, Indian red, black (except for a monochromatic painting). Don’t try and touch up a pure watercolor with white. It ruins the subtlety and quality of pure watercolor. Have a clean rag handy for sopping up too watery washes. Remember that your whitest whites are the untouched paper itself. If you can’t soak out a white, scrape it lightly with a razor blade when dry. You can sometimes lighten a color by using clean water with your brush, by painting the part you want lighter and then blotting it with clean blotting paper. Don’t use too many colors to begin with. Do your first painting in one color alone, say umber or black, in other words a monochromatic sketch. Then try another with umber and black. Then another with umber, black and blue. Lastly try a sketch with umber, blue and red, leaving out the black altogether. After this do a sketch with all the colors you have in your box, and remember, small pictures are easier to handle than larger ones.

Watercolors, unless strengthened by strong drawing in another medium or unless they are painted very brightly, don’t frame up awfully well, because of the constitution of the paint, and tend to fade in strong light, even under glass. They are best kept in a folio and looked at occasionally, as they haven’t the tonal range to carry across a room. Because of this I have no hesitation in recommending a beginner to go straight on to the opaque watercolor media first as they are much easier to handle and are in some respects very similar to oil.

Transparent Watercolor Paints

Watercolor is made either in tubes or pans. In the tubes the color is very soft and pliable. In the pans it is a little harder and must be worked up with the brush to make a wash. Because of the addition of either sugar or honey or glycerine, the colors in the pans should be moist.

If the color in the pan becomes too hard it will be more difficult to dilute with water. This often happens if you have a large selection of colors that you don’t use often. If you narrow down your range, you will use them all and there won’t be any waste. It is really much better to buy your tubes or pans of color separately as you require them instead of buying a complete set in a box when you are invariably sold more colors than you will ever need. As tin boxes for holding colors and for use as a palette can be bought empty, this problem is easily overcome.

Generally speaking, you only need a watercolor box for outdoor painting. In the studio a few tubes and a large white plate, for use as a palette, are quite enough. Jam jars make excellent water pots and a table on which to prop your drawing board is all you need (Fig. 15).

For working outdoors, a tin box is useful, doing the office of palette and container. For a water pot any small sized plastic bottle is ideal.

The range of color to choose from, both in oil and watercolor, is vast; therefore start with the simple primaries; red, yellow and blue, as your first choice. Cadmium pale yellow, cadmium red and Monastral blue are good primaries; add ultramarine, burnt or raw umber and you have a good palette to begin with. When you have experimented with them, other colors may be added to your palette as required.

With the six colors I mentioned above you should be able to mix most tints to enable you to understand the nature of mixing color. The rules for mixing tints in watercolor also apply to the opaque colors and to oil.

Tubes are easier to handle indoors than pans; outdoors pans are probably the most convenient except for yellow which is inclined to get dirty.

Specialized Watercolor Papers

Watercolor Boards

For outdoor painting it will not always be convenient to stretch lots of sheets of paper. For this it is advisable to buy boards with paper already fixed to them.

You can get Whatman boards in the three grades, Fashion-plate boards also in three grades, and a strong board-like paper called Green’s Pasteless boards which are very useful for oil or watercolor and can be painted on either side. All these
can be bought at any artists’ supply store and come in Imperial or Half Imperial sizes.

Watercolor Blocks

Sketching blocks are sheets of paper packed so that you can tear off a painting when it is finished and a fresh piece is ready for you. It is firmly secured all round the edges and in theory should act like a piece of stretched paper, but I have found that this is not so. It cockles very badly and stays cockled when dry. Also, it is very easy to rip the top paper off too quickly and tear your painting. Not recommended.

Bristol Board

Bristol board is a very smooth, bluish tinted thin board that I have enjoyed working on with opaque watercolor. It is excellent for fine detail work and does not need stretching.

Remedying a Greasy Surface

Most rough watercolor papers have a tendency to repel the first washes of color you put on them. Therefore you can dampen them a little before painting. Usually stretching them will take off most of the greasiness from the surface but if this should persist, add a little detergent to your water. This seems to cure the trouble quite well. An alternative method is to add a few drops of ammonia to your water.


Of all brushes, sables are the most successful for use with watercolor. You can get squirrel and ox-ear hair brushes, but you cannot better a good sable brush. The sizes vary with different manufacturers but as a rough guide, 4, 8 and 12 are good sizes to begin with. These should be the ordinary round pointed brushes, not the long or square topped variety.

They should possess a springiness and when dipped in water and flicked dry retain a sharp point. If the point spreads it is not a good brush and should be avoided. Don’t be afraid of trying out this maneuver in the shop. It is common practice to do so and a jar of water is usually put out on the counter for this purpose (Fig. 14).