If you’ve ever wanted to create a more exciting and dramatic atmosphere using watercolours, here is your chance! William Milcovich gives his step-by-step process of how he layers his paints in a way that adds both an intriguing depth and mood.

Step 1: Preparations and an Ink Sketch

To save time, Will already sketched out this forest in ink. You can either print out a copy of his sketch or draw it yourself.

I recommend drawing it yourself, as it’s good practise! His scrawly style is easy to follow and will help loosen your hand muscles to be ready to paint later.

You can also take this chance to gather the tools you’ll need, which include: a sheet of 100% cotton cold press watercolour paper (about 8” x 10” in size, 140lb/300gsm), artist’s tape, a wooden board (or any hard surface bigger than your paper), graphic pens of various sizes, a ¾” flat brush, a size 8 and 6 round brush, an old toothbrush, watercolour paints, white gouache or acrylic paint, painting palette, two containers of water, and paper towels.

Tip: For the pens, make sure the ink is waterproof!

I also recommend taping your paper to the wooden board before sketching, as this will preserve a pristine white border around the outside. If you’re not very confident in your sketching skills, you can do a quick outline of the basic shapes in pencil before starting the ink drawing.

However, avoid using an eraser, as it may damage the paper’s surface.

Step 2: Starting the First Layer

When you’re happy with your sketch, wet the entire paper with clean water using a wet paper towel or large flat brush. You want to make the paper wet but not dripping wet.

Then, take some lemon yellow with your flat brush, and paint it within the rays of light filtering between the trees. The light source is coming from the top left, so always keep that in mind while painting!

Bonus tip: Will likes to keep a paper towel in his other hand while painting, so if he thinks the paint’s colour is too intense or if he makes a mistake, he can immediately lift out the paint by dabbing the paper towel in the area he wants to fix.

Next, mix in some cadmium red to your yellow for a soft orange, and use the size 8 round brush to dab in some leaves in the top left area. Follow the general direction of the leaves and branches in that area.

Mix some sap green with the yellow for a light green, and paint in some grassy areas on the ground. Keep in mind where the rays of light are hitting the ground, as those areas will create patchy spots of light green.

While the paint is still wet, drop in some red oxide to the ground to help break up the green area. Doing this can also create dirt patches showing through the grass.

Step 3: Trees and Gradual Layering

Mix yellow ochre with a little burnt sienna for the trees, and loosely paint the trees in the foreground and midground using the flat brush. Avoid the larger leaves, especially those in front of the rightmost tree.

Leave some highlights as well, as they will help add depth and contrast to your painting.

For the trees in the background, mix purple lake (like a pink-purple) with a touch of yellow ochre, and switch to the size six brush to dot in the texture of smaller leaves. You can paint the area between the background trees and in the background area near the top as well.

Mix sap green with a bit of ultramarine blue, and paint in more of the grassy details on the ground. Leave some gaps of lighter green, especially in the area near the background, and try to create some grassy texture using tapered brushstrokes and the size 6 round brush.

Step 4: Filling in the Gaps

Paint the dirt path using your flat brush and red oxide, starting from the foreground and working your way back. This way, the foreground will have more saturated paint than the background, perfect for creating the illusion of depth. 

Next, switch to the size six brush and mix sap green, viridian, and a touch of ultramarine, then dot in the leaves in the top right area of your painting. Use this colour to paint some of the grass, then add quinacridone gold to your green for a lighter green. Paint more grass, fill in some of your gaps, and paint the bush behind the leftmost tree.

Use some greens to paint the leaves in front of the rightmost tree, varying them by adjusting the yellow to green to blue ratio. You can even add a little burnt sienna for a more neutral green!

For the leaves in the background and midground, dilute your greens before filling them in. Fill in any leftover leaves and foliage on the left side as well.

Step 5: Building Depth

Let your painting dry a little, or use a hairdryer and dry it for 30 seconds. The paper may still be a little damp in some areas, which is fine.

Mix cadmium yellow and red for a more vibrant orange, and use it to enhance the orange leaves on the left side.

Then, mix your tree colour (the burnt sienna) with ultramarine blue for a darker brown, then paint in the mid-tones and shadows in the rightmost tree. Again, leave your highlights alone, and don’t forget to paint the branch! If you find that the edges of your paint are too complicated, use a clean damp brush and gently run it over the edges of the paint to smooth them out.

Make a darker brown by adding more ultramarine to your mixture, and paint in the darker shadows in the tree. Continue painting around the leaves, but otherwise, keep your brushstrokes loose.

Paint in the other trees on the left, avoiding the orange leaves and branches in front. Mix in a little purple lake, and paint the shadowed side of these trees. 

Add a little ultramarine to the purple mixture, and paint the trees and branches in the background. If the colour is too dark, dilute your paint a little before trying again.

Tip: Remember that things in the distance should be lighter than things in the foreground! This applies to any painting, so if you ever think your painting lacks depth, either darken the foreground or lighten the background.

Step 6: More Depth

Continue to add more depth by mixing a darker green using sap green and ultramarine and painting the darker grass patches. You can touch it onto the purple trees to help break up the purple slightly.

You can also try mixing Prussian blue with sap green for more variation. Add more texture by painting tapered brushstrokes for grass, and don’t be afraid to fill in larger areas with the darker green, especially in the foreground.

Feel free to mix other colours with your green, such as more ultramarine or a little grey from a burnt sienna and ultramarine mix.

For the rightmost tree, mix a dark shadow colour using burnt sienna and Prussian blue, and include a little texture by dabbing the tip of your brush along the edges of the shadow. Doing this creates a “dappled” look, perfect for forests.

Add a bit of purple lake to your mixture, and dab in more leaf-shaped shadows along the top. Keep everything loose, and don’t worry about painting within the lines.

Darken the dirt path using a more saturated red oxide and burnt sienna, starting from the foreground and working your way back. Again, make sure that the foreground is darker than the background! While the paint is still wet, you can also dab in some raw umber along the left side of the path for some shadows.

Step 7: Glazing, and More Depth

Mix more ultramarine and burnt sienna for a dark blue-grey, and paint the shadowed side of the trees on the left. The paint should be diluted enough to be still able to see the purple under the trees! Doing this is known as the “glazing” technique.

Continue enhancing the green in the grass and the purple tree area in the background. Dot a little of the purple mixture in the background on the left side (between the trees), and glaze the front area of the ground with a lighter green mixed with a bit of grey. 

If you find some of the background or midground areas too dark, you can even scrub out some of the paint using your paintbrush! Just don’t scrub too hard or for too long.

Darken the shadow on the rightmost tree by mixing purple lake and ultramarine, then dilute this colour before painting a few shadows leaves along the top left corner and the left side. This will help frame your painting better and create a better composition.

Lastly, while your paint is still wet, touch a few burnt sienna patches to the ground.

Step 8: Cast Shadows and Finishing Flourishes

Let your painting dry a bit, or use a hairdryer again for about a minute.

For the cast shadows, it’s best to paint them all at once, so mix a lot of ultramarine blue with a little burnt sienna and raw umber for a dark blue-grey.

Start with the tree to the left of the dirt path, and pull the paint along the right, to the ground, across the dirt path, and another side of the path.

Paint the next tree over to the left in a similar fashion, merging the shadows on the ground. Add a cast shadow to the leftmost tree and finally to the tree on the right side. For the tree on the right, leave more significant areas of highlight, and add some shadow on the underside of its branches.

Dilute your paint, and add a little cast shadow to the background area as you see fit. And to finish off the shadows, add some lines across the dirt path and ground to indicate shadows from other trees and branches that can’t be seen in the painting.

If the front part of the dirt path isn’t dark enough, this is your chance to add in more red oxide paint, especially to the cast shadow areas.

Before your paint dries, use an old toothbrush and some white gouache paint to create some light splatter along the bottom half of your painting. This will help add more texture and interest to your artwork!

Once your painting is completely dry, use a clean wet brush and lift out some paint along with the rays of light. This creates a soft, filtered light effect, like light shining through the gaps between the leaves.

You can lift out spots of paint on the ground as well! Keep in mind where the light is hitting the ground, and don’t scrub your paper too hard.

Suppose you made it to this point; well done! Sign your painting and gently peel off the tape, and give yourself a big pat on the back because you made it to the end.

For the full experience, you can watch Will’s live demo recording on Etchr’s YouTube channel. Just remember to do your sketch before you start!

If you're ready to take your art to the next level, check out his 90-minute art class

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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