Toned paper gives you a new angle to think about your painting, because instead of adding dark colour to preserve the white highlights, you add both dark and light, leaving the mid-tones plain. When we think about toned paper, we often think about dry media like charcoal, but you can use it for watercolour too!
The results are soft and gentle, perfect for botanical art. I’m going to walk you through painting some berries on toned watercolour paper.
Here’s the reference photo I took. To work from reference effectively, it’s important to be able to decide what to keep, what to move around a bit, and what to leave out.
I’m going to keep the central berries with a subtle change or two to help the shape look pleasing, move the background branches to frame the berries, and just get rid of all the chaotic colours in the background. When it comes to compositions, less is more.
Step 1: Branches
Once you have your line work, go in with a pinkish brown mixture of watercolour for the branches. I don’t know which colours you specifically have in your paintbox, so I’m not going to name any colours.
Remember that if you don’t have a colour at home, you can mix it, or mix something very like it and then adjust all your other colours to go with it. Your colours don’t have to match mine, they just have to look good relative to each other.
Step 2: Leaves
Mix a dull olive green and lightly go over the leaves. The toned paper will require you to use more concentrated pigment earlier on than you might be used to, but still, don’t overdo it right away. Layering is how we get realism.
Step 3: Layering
Using the same green mixture, begin to define the darker sides of leaves (as a general rule, the top of a leaf is darker than the bottom because the top faces the sun and directs all the chlorophyll that way). Don’t add the second layer until the first layer is dry.
You’ll notice some pleasant dimensions happening. Another thing you can do at this stage is to take a darker, cooler brown, and lightly paint the shadow side of the branches. It’ll look more realistic right away!
Step 4: Deeper Layering
Mix your green to be cooler, then take a more concentrated amount of it and add some light gradients to the leaves. The parts in shadow and close to the vine will look most realistic if they are shaded this way.
What I’m doing with the small brush here in the photo is using it as a dry brush to even out the blend after having added the paint with the big soggy brush. Sometimes having a dedicated clean brush to switch to for quick blending is nice.
Now is also a good time to add another layer of the colours you’ve used on the branches. You want the pinkish brown and the shadows to pop against the toned paper.
You might want to layer over these sections a few different times for extra depth. Just let the previous layer dry completely first.
Step 5: The Berries
These berries are a pleasant off-white colour, so I’m using my cream-coloured paint. Depending on how transparent your particular light pigments are, you might have to substitute gouache at this part.
Also, this is going to take a lot of layers, because you’re building up a transparent medium to be opaque enough to create highlights on toned paper.
This photo is from a few layers in. A lot of light-coloured water-based paints will dry a darker colour than they went on, so don’t be surprised if each layer you add looks like it can be the last one until it dries. Your patience at this stage will pay off for you.
This is after several layers. Once you get past a certain point, you’ll want to preserve the dark from the paper for the shadow areas, as if you were preserving the light areas for highlights on regular paper.
Be very strategic about where you place your highlights because just like with shading on regular white paper, it’s easier to add more paint than it is to restore the paper to its original colour.
Before you call your painting done, look at it from a distance and under various types of lighting in your house, and maybe even in a mirror. These will be good tests to see how the painting reads from a distance.
When the painting looks good from all angles and distances, it is done! See how lovely and distinguished the toned paper looks? The visual texture of the different un-dyed fibres adds a lot.
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