Have you ever combined watercolour with graphite? The technique is straightforward, and the results are so elegant! There’s so much potential for precision, realism, and subtle colour variations.

I’m going to introduce you to the method with a picture of some trees since trees are so delightfully intricate and yet so forgiving to draw. All you need are watercolours, paper, and a pencil!

Reference Photo

Feel free to use this photo, or take one yourself if you like! To choose a strong reference photo, find one with an asymmetrical composition and high contrast.

Drawing with Pencil

Once you’ve selected a reference photo and taped down the paper, it’s time to begin the picture!

Step 1: Lines

Copy down the outline of the picture as precisely as you can. Make sure the big shapes are proportionate before adding any detail and don’t draw with so much pressure that you can’t erase without leaving marks behind. Give yourself plenty of time for this stage, because proportional errors are more fixable now than they will be again.

Step 2: Shade the Branches

Graphite shading always turns out the best if you start with the darkest areas and draw lightly. I began with the littlest branches since they need to be dark in the end to contrast with the sky. Keep your pencil sharp.

Step 3: Shade the Tree Bark

When shading tree bark, don’t worry too much about the details of the texture. Just make sure you’re shading as much with the grain of the wood as possible so that the paper creates the texture for you. You can start defining which areas are the darkest now but keep drawing lightly for the most part.

Step 4: Layering the Shadows

When you’re confident that your values are correct, you can start to darken the darks all the way. Keep your pencil sharp so as not to lose edge definition, and don’t make these areas solid black because they should still read as three-dimensional forms in the light.

When you’ve finished shading the darkest areas of your picture, it should look something like this.

Step 5: Shading Midtones

We can now add the midtones. In this picture, the main parts of the tree trunks will have midtones. Shade lightly, but be sure the midtones are still noticeably darker than white.

Here is how your drawing might look with all the shading done. You can spend hours fine-tuning it to fulfil your ideal, which I suggest you do because you’ll be so happy you did.

Finishing with Watercolours

When you’re happy with your pencil drawing, it’s time for the satisfying part: Adding watercolour! We’ll just use two colours, pale blue and rusty orange. You can mix these yourself or use your favourite pan colours.

Step 1: Sky

When you wet the page to prepare for watercolour, be mindful that your graphite might be swept away with the water. Tread lightly! You can wet nearly the whole page without upsetting the heaviest layers of graphite too much if you rinse your brush often.

Drop in some blue watercolour for the sky, leaving the lower portion lighter to give a sense of depth. Also, colour the trees blue in places for some atmosphere. Especially outdoors, objects take on colours from the sky.

Step 2: Bark

In the reference image, there is some golden light hitting the tree trunks. Use some muted orange to add this soft illumination to the picture. Don’t go overboard with it, or it won’t have the subtle glow that you want.

This is how your picture will look after you put orange and blue on the trees. Notice how the blue makes the trees belong with the sky behind them, while the orange illuminates them and implies an outside-the-frame light source.

Step 3: Develop the Contrast

You may not have to do this if your watercolour was on the more transparent side, but since mine was ever-so-slightly opaque I went ahead and retouched the darkest parts of the picture with a pencil. The contrast made the picture look real, so I prioritized keeping it in.

I also intensified some of the orange and blue slightly to dramatize the atmosphere. You might make completely different changes than these, depending on what you think of your results.

When you finish the piece, be happy! You stayed patient through a meticulous process and reaped the reward of having a finished piece of art at the end. And, you get to enjoy the multilayered glowing effects of watercolour and graphite used together.

Be sure to share your results with us on social media, and subscribe to our email newsletter for more lessons like this one! Have a great time painting!

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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