Landscape watercolourist Laura Krieger uses desaturated colours to make subtly dark paintings of misty nature scenes. She was kind enough to share her techniques in a FREE Demo earlier this year.

A key element in her process is to sprinkle table salt over the painting before it dries because the salt and the water interact to create fascinating effects. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Pre-mixing the Colours 

For a project like this, you should pre-mix a fair amount of your colours because the wet-on-wet technique is fast-moving. If the page dries while you mix more, you’ll have lost the window of opportunity for the salt effect.

The drier the climate you live in, the less time you have before the page dries. I live in a particularly dry place, so I made sure to mix lots of colour before starting. 

Laura talks in-depth about her colour choices, which is good for those who don’t have the same paints. It’s easier to reverse-engineer the pigment mixtures when we know what’s in them and how they interact.

She said that her Payne’s Grey is ultramarine and black, so I mixed that up in the top pan. Her warmer grey is the usual mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna that I like to use in place of Payne’s Grey or any other grey, really. Her green choice was interesting; she mixed quinacridone gold with Payne’s Grey and ultramarine.

I substituted yellow ochre and adjusted the mixture according to how it behaved. Your paints may behave differently from both mine and Laura’s, she is using Daniel Smith, and I am using the Etchr 24 Half Pan Set

Step 2: The First Layer 

This step moved very quickly because I was trying not to let the page dry.

I wet the entire page to start, then, following Laura’s example, I worked top to bottom: The sky was a thin wash of Payne’s Grey, the trees were a dark greyish mixture with the green, the road was a more brown-tinted ultramarine/sienna mix, and the grass was the green mix.

I ended up adding more blue into the green mix for the grass. 

The next step is to sprinkle salt over the entire painting, and it’s essential to do this before the page dries at all. Depending on your paper and pigments, the salt could do different things, but it always creates a speckled and frosted effect over the surface of the page.

It tends not to have as dramatic results on sienna pigments as others, like blues. Also, my painting will be less dramatic salt-wise than Laura’s because I used hot press paper to see what would happen, and she used cold press. 

When the salt dries, scrape it off with either your hand or something like a credit card. The parts of my page with the most noticeable effects were the places where the page was the wettest.

Recall that I live in a dry area where the page never stays wet enough for long. I think I got a nice “frost on a windowpane” type effect from the salt. 

Step 3: Deepening some Shadows 

What will give this painting a more dramatic realism is heightening the contrast. Wet the surface again, and paint over the trees again, this time blending them into the ground. The effect of a hazy morning with a dusting of snow will be evident and gorgeous.

You could also layer the trees so that darker ones are in the foreground and the original layer is farther away in space. This will add realism and depth because our brains translate overlapping objects into three-dimensional space. 

Step 4: Details (and my optional extra salt layer) 

My page was a bit wetter than Laura’s when I added the details like the fenceposts and flowers, so maybe don’t follow my example on those. I misjudged the page dryness.

It’s not a huge deal, though, in this context, because of how hazy the painting is overall. The flowers are super easy to add; simply make little lines of grey with reddish-brown spots above them.

Because my salt results were not as dramatic as I wanted, I wet the entire page and tried again. I didn’t see any reason something would go wrong, even if the salt still didn’t work. 

Here’s my finished piece. My second layer of salt didn’t do a whole lot either, so I think that for salt to work, the pigment needs to be freshly added so that it’s not soaked into the paper yet.

The salt technique works by absorbing the pigment, so the salt can’t really work if the pigment isn’t sitting on the surface.

Learn more about Laura’s cosy, foggy landscape painting in her 90-minute class. If you enjoyed this salt technique, check out this blog post for more fun watercolour techniques!

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Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.

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