Tuesday, June 5, 2012

WATERCOLOR WORKSHOP: Painting Values with Layered Washes

In this simple project, we will be LAYERING gray washes to build up VALUES, from light to dark.  We will also learn how to achieve ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE, through these value changes . . .

Atmospheric perspective refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of objects (in this case, mountains), as they are viewed from a distance.  This effect tends to make the mountains, or hills, take on a lighter and lighter value as their distance increases. 

With watercolor, we can achieve this effect by layering washes, in order to build up to the dark values gradually.

Start out by drawing two rectangles (freehand) on your watercolor paper.  The skinny rectangle down the right-hand side of the paper will become a value scale. . . 

Now mix a GRAY, using French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna.  I like to mix my grays instead of using a gray from a tube, because the result is much more interesting.  Once you have the gray color you like, add enough water to it to make a very light version of it.  Make sure you have enough to cover the entire big rectangle and most of the skinny one.  

With this light gray wash, paint all of the skinny rectangle, except for the top square. . . 

Before proceeding, make sure you have a tissue handy.  No, I'm not going to make you cry . . . we're going to create clouds with it.

Now, paint the entire big rectangle with this light wash.  When painting a wash onto dry paper, it's helpful to have your paper/board at a slight tilt.  

While this is still wet, lay your board flat, take a piece of the tissue, and roll it across the top of the paper. . . you can do this more than once . . . 

Let this wash dry completely.

Now, draw the furthest mountain ridge with pencil.  Using the same wash mixture, first paint the value scale, starting with the 3rd box from the top -- all the way to the bottom.  Next, paint this light gray wash from the pencil line (the mountain ridge) down -- to the bottom of the rectangle.  Remember to have your board tilted, so that gravity helps you keep a "bead" at the bottom of your wash.  Each time you pick up more paint on your brush and come back to the paper, you will only touch this bead of paint, while you work your way down to the bottom.  Don't go back to what you've already painted.

Let this layer dry completely.  If necessary, you can use a hair dryer after each layer.

At this point, you'll need to mix some more gray, using the same two colors.  You can make this wash a little darker -- a medium value gray.  With this mixture, paint the value scale, starting with the 4th box down, and paint all the way to the bottom.  Then, draw another pencil line, depicting a closer mountain range.  Paint this wash from the pencil line down to the bottom of the paper.

Now, make your wash stronger by adding more pigment.  Add another pencil line -- tree-lined hills.  No details, just indicate by the edge that these are trees.  Then, paint the bottom two squares of the value scale with this stronger wash, and then paint from the pencil line down to the bottom of the paper.  If, after painting this, you feel that you haven't made the wash a dark enough value -- dry your paper with a hair dryer, and paint it again with the same wash.

Add enough pigment to your wash to make your darkest dark -- almost black.  Paint your last box black.  Draw the top of a hill in the foreground, and paint it black.

 . . . and you're finished!  You can see how we've succeeded, through the use of a full range of values -- from light to dark -- to get a sense of depth in our painting.  


  1. This is great. First page I opened on your site. Your photographs are nice and clear, and your instructions. I am looking forward to seeing what else your have. Thank you for this one.

  2. very clear instructions...thank you for sharing!

  3. Beautiful! Thank you very much.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing - your instructions are easy to follow and a pleasure to carry out!

  5. Because I used to paint with oils and could put light on dark has made it harder to take up watercolor. But this illustration has really helped! I like mixing colors instead of using right from the tube also.

  6. Thank you. This is one of the first lessons a student of watercolor should complete.

  7. Thank you all for your comments -- I'm so glad that you found this helpful. This is one of the reasons that I love watercolor so much -- the fact that you can layer and glaze in order to get the correct value.

  8. Just finished this. I enjoyed it.

  9. Thanks for the great advise. I finished three paintings using the technique you describe and love it.

  10. Thank you this has been the most concise and direct lesson I have seen. I've tried doing value studies but seeing the gradation on the side of the study really makes it really clear. Thank you please continue with the lessons.

  11. I have just started to work with watercolors. What I would stress to any beginner is when you say "a very light version" that means very light. Sample on scrap paper to be sure it is what you will be satisfied with, even if it dries lighter. My mistake was making the first wash too dark and also did not pay close enough attention to the color mix. Lesson learned. So, keep it LIGHT, you can aways make it darker but cannot make it lighter. Thanks for taking the time to put together this site.

  12. I just finished this lesson - thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I have been struggling to learn watercolors on my own for a long time! After finding your blog, I finally feel like I'm making progress because of your clear explanation! I'm so excited to move on to the next one!!! :)

  13. I can't wait to try this out! :-) Thanks for the tutorial!

  14. I can't wait to try this out! :-) Thanks for the tutorial!