Watercolour is such a free-flowing, unpredictable medium that sometimes realism is hard to achieve. It's a huge learning process to figure out the water part of watercolour, then mixing the colours is its own puzzle.

If you've always wanted to paint realism in watercolour, then Lenard Lai is an exceptional artist from whom to learn. He specializes in painting food because it is fun and delicious, plus he can achieve realistic shines and edges with watercolour! In his FREE Live Demo, he shows us how to paint a delectable cherry tart! 

Step 1: The Sketch

Lenard begins by tracing his line art because that is the quickest method. He describes his tracing process in the demo. For me, in this case, it was faster to draw the line art freehand, so that's what I did.

No matter which method you use, make sure you sketch lightly and don't leave your lines too messy. I drew my line art based on the flipped reference Lenard traced, so my painting is mirrored from the one in the demo.

A tip from Lenard that I find especially helpful is to include the position of the highlights, sketched lightly. Watercolour requires significant planning to preserve light tones; thus, physically drawing the highlights is helpful.

Step 2: Starting the Cherries

With the line art on the page and the highlights lightly mapped, now it is time to paint! Be mindful of your water-to-paint ratios and how wet the paper is in this part of the process.

At this point, if you're using cotton paper instead of Lenard's cellulose, your paint effects will begin to look different. I am using hot press cotton paper.

Lenard uses the wet-on-wet technique to make value gradients in the red paint. He doesn't pre-wet the paper before adding colour but adds more pigment with less water while the first layer is still wet. My washes are a tad splotchy here because this is the first watercolour I'm doing after moving to a climate much drier than I'm used to, so everything is drying more quickly than it had been!

Step 3: Realistic Shadows

For this step, an understanding of complementary colours will serve you well. Red and green somewhat cancel out each other, becoming darker and more neutral.

So, to add the deepest shadows, mix a darker red by adding a hint of green and a touch of blue to keep the colour from turning brown. Rewet each cherry, working strategically so that no touching areas are wet simultaneously, and add this darker pigment to the shadow areas.

If the paper is wet, there's less need for the brush to be very wet. Build up the pigment around the shadows between the cherries and in the cherry pits. Also, you can wet the highlights a bit to smooth them out and make them a more realistic off-white.

Step 4: Cherry Stems!

Add some dark red mixture into some green to tint the mixture more green and let that be the realistic stem colour. Use a precise brushstroke without stopping and starting to create the stems of the cherries. They're looking tasty now!

Step 5: The Cast Shadow

Using the dark mixture from before, perhaps neutralizing the tint further, paint the cast shadow beneath the cherries. To keep this the most realistic, be precise with your edge.

Step 6: The Tart

Lenard has a specific colour of gouache he likes to use for the tart. I don't have it, so I mixed a yellowy-orange into the colours already on my palette. I did pre-wet the paper's surface before adding the wash of brown, but Lenard did not.

Step 7: Another Cast Shadow

This part would have gone better for me had I used less staining pigments. I planned to paint a little further out than I wanted, then lift the excess with a paper towel to make a gradient, but that didn't happen. Still, I think it's okay! Lenard likes to quote Bob Ross: "There are no mistakes, only happy accidents".

Step 8: “The Sprinkle of Love”

Here, you'll see that I took the liberty of adding a couple of gel pen highlights to help my painting a little. After that, I did the most fun step. Lenard calls this step "The Sprinkle of Love", and it's how he finishes all his food paintings.

Put some red on your brush, then tap the brush above the paper to create some little splatters. This step is spontaneous and fun, plus it ties the whole picture together with a playful effect.

Lenard Lai is a positive, thoughtful and engaging instructor! I'm sure you learned as much from his Live Demo as I did, so you will want to check out his Mini Workshop!

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 


  • Kitty said:

    Reading your process felt as if you were sitting right next to me talking me through step by step! Elsa, this is the best tutorial I have ever experienced in my 2 years of stumbling. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom. P.S. I just got back from a 2 week visit with my sister who lives in Minnetonka. I am retired and my husband and I live in northern Michigan south of Traverse City.

    October 04, 2021

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