Techniques and Tips

Watercolor Layering Technique

Watercolor Layering Technique

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Still Life with Nine Pears (watercolor, 27×38)

Gnott devides her work into three areas: formal still lifes with lots of lace and vases; kitchen still lifes that include antiques, Ball jars and scales; and floral still lifes, particularly peonies. She finds her subject matter at estate sales, antique stores and her favorite botanical garden, taking pictures of fruits and flowers and picking up items that will lend intricate detail to her paintings. “My favorite subjects are probably old enamel pots, lace and pears,” she says. “I find that the more detail you can get out of a subject, the more realistic your paintings look. When I paint enamelware, the more nicks and scratches the pieces have, the more realistic my paintings become. Lace is very intricate, and I love pears because each one has a personality.”

Because her paintings take so long to complete, Gnott paints only in her studio, where she can control the lighting and leave still lifes set up. When it comes to her process, she says, there’s no flexibility—everything has to be very well planned from the get-go. “People think you create this out of your head, but you can’t just be free with this type of painting,” Gnott explains. “You have to perform certain steps in a certain way.”

For her, that means starting with a very tight drawing on Arches 140-lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper, stretched on ½-inch sealed plywood or Gatorboard. For as many layers as she puts on, Gnott says, the 140-lb. paper dries drum-tight and can be painted over multiple times. Next, she does a very detailed drawing, transfers it to watercolor paper using graphite paper, and masks out the foreground objects with Winsor Newton masking fluid. Then it’s time to tackle the background.

Gnott loves drama, so her paintings always have light objects that seem to pop right out from her dark backgrounds. To achieve this kind of impact, she works from the lightest color to the darkest. She begins by painting the background and cloth, building up layers until she achieves a rich color. Then she removes the masking fluid from the foreground objects and paints them, starting with light glazes and building up to richer colors, allowing the paint to dry between each application. This glazing technique allows her to create a realistic, three-dimensional effect. She begins each painting with big brushes and loose strokes, and then works with smaller brushes as her piece gets tighter, using No. 00 brushes for the finest details. When the painting is almost finished, she adds the highlights. “That little touch of white really makes the glass sparkle,” Gnott says.

Keeping it Real: 7-Step Demo to Achieve Realism

1. Prepping the Piece
I’m very careful not to harm the surface of my watercolor paper, so all of my drawings are completed on a separate sheet of paper. Using graphite paper, I transferred my drawing to stretched, 140-lb. Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper and then sprayed it with fixative, so that when I remove the masking fluid later, it doesn’t lift my drawing with it.

2. Getting Glazed

At this stage, I applied Winsor Newton masking fluid to all of the objects and the pattern elements on the wallpaper. After the masking fluid dried, I started putting in color. I decided on my color palette before I began mixing the colors, and I applied swatches to a square of watercolor paper in case I needed to mix more later. Then I started laying in my background with hake brushes. It may take anywhere from 6 to 10 thin glazes of color to achieve the look I want. I dried each application of color with a hair dryer before I applied the next layer. Since the paper is stretched, it’ll tighten up again when it dries. If I have trouble with the color lifting after several layers, I’ll let the piece sit overnight to dry. In the morning I can successfully put down the last glaze.

3. Shadows of Color
Next, I created washes on the tabletop. After I put down the first series of glazes, the surface was more accepting of subtle manipulations, so I worked wet-into-wet to define the darker areas. Some cast shadows reflected the color of the nearest object, so in those cases I added a subtle amount of that color to the shadow area. After all the shadows and cast shadows were in place, I finished the tabletop by adding in the wood grain. This was done on dry paper, with more pigment than water in the brush.

4. Cleaning Up and Drying Off
My general technique is to build everything up slowly with thin glazes of color. I spend a lot of time drying my work; each layer has to dry thoroughly so that the surface is taut again before I apply more color. After everything is completely dry, I remove the masking fluid. Because I lay the fluid on pretty thick, there’s quite a bit of clean up that needs to be done. It takes a lot of time, but it’s the only way to apply background washes evenly without painting around all the objects.

5. Staying Consistent
I wanted to do all the pears at the same time to achieve a balanced look in my painting. First I put down the initial glazes of color—about three or four layers—then I started to apply all the little speckles and occasional scratches that make a pear a pear. The more details like this that you can apply to your painting, the more realism you’ll achieve.

6. The Art of Fine Details

One of the main questions I get from people who view my paintings is “How do you get the glass to look like glass?” The little trick I use is to add Dr. Ph. Martin’s bleed-proof white to the finished watercolor. I apply it with a small round brush and a cotton swab. Compare the Ball jars in the last step to the Ball jars in this step. See how flat and uninteresting they appear before the white goes on? I began the sugar bag by adding in the shadows to create all the creases and wrinkles. Then I applied the yellow tones, keeping them very light on the front of the bag and more intense as the color followed around to the sides. For continuity in my painting, I used artistic license to change the dark blue lettering on the Domino sugar bag to black.

7. Making it Pop

The enamel pot was probably the most difficult object for me to paint in this still life. There was a wide expanse of white paper where the washers needed to be applied very uniformly to stand on their own. Also, there are very soft shadows on the lid that help make it look like a shiny surface. This can be tricky. (That may be why I waited to do it last.) I applied the shadows, dried them and then applied a plain water wash to soften them. Next, I applied the red trim and the sparkle of white to the edges of the lid and to the handles. That’s when the whole thing really popped right off the page. The result is Still Life with Nine Pears (watercolor, 27×38).

Jacqueline Gnott lives in South Bend, Indiana, with her two German shepherds, Thorn and Brier. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Indiana University, and her work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions across the United States. To see more of her work or learn more about her workshops, visit Gnott’s Web site at

Check out another great resource on watercolor realism, here.
Read the rest of “Her Best Painting Yet” in the May 2006 issue of Magazine.


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Watch the video: Layered Petals Watercolor Painting Technique #338 (August 2022).