Watercolour is the only medium you can get to paint itself! In this tutorial, artist Spencer Meagher shows us the secret to getting smooth gradient washes in watercolour and paints a beautiful sky with a landscape silhouette to boot.
Step 1: Quick Pencil Sketch
As an artist living in the Midwest area of America, Spencer often finds amazing landscape scenes with the softest skies and glow. As a result, he turned to watercolour to reproduce these scenes, as he found that he could get very smooth gradients this way.
So to start this demo, you can prep your tools and paper. This includes a 7” x 10” cold press watercolour block (at least 140lb/300gsm), a wooden board, something to prop your board up at an angle, watercolour paints, a paint palette, a 2” and a ¾” wide flat brush, a size 8 and 10 round brush, 2 containers of water, paper towels, and a pencil.
You can also print out a copy of the reference photo, but this is optional.
Next, do a quick pencil sketch of the silhouette of the trees, buildings, and land. It can be a rough outline, and you can adjust certain things such as the slope of the land. The only thing that should be sketched a little more carefully is the steeple.
Step 2: Painting with Gravity
Once you’re satisfied with your sketch, you can prepare to paint. If you’re working from dried watercolour paint, it’s best to spray them with a little water before using them!
The colours you’ll need for the first wash are raw sienna, cobalt blue, lemon yellow, and any cool red of your choice (such as magenta, alizarin crimson, or opera rose).
Next, turn your watercolour block 90º and wet the entire paper with a 2” flat brush. Prop your painting up so it’s sitting at an angle, which will allow gravity to pull the paint down.
Once your paper is pretty saturated with water, paint a relatively wide strip (around 3” wide) of raw sienna down the middle. Your paint should also be quite watery, but still, have a good pigment load as it will disperse on the wet paper.
Bonus tip: Raw sienna is used as a buffer here, as other yellows often mix with blue to create green (which you don’t want in a sky!). It’s also a good, earthy yellow that works well for both the sky and land.
To the right of this strip, paint a thinner strip of magenta (or whatever cool red you picked). You can overlap this a little with the raw sienna strip from before.
Then, paint a strip of cobalt blue next to the magenta, which will mingle with the magenta to produce a soft purple. The blue strip should overlap the silhouette of the trees and buildings, but not the land area.
Use the same blue to paint a strip to the left of the raw sienna, gently allowing the colours to overlap a little. If the colour is too strong, you can lift some out with a clean damp brush.
Also, make sure to pick up your painting and tilt it so that the paint runs towards the sky! Then, tilt it the other way and hold it for a minute or two to let the pigments mingle with each other.
You can also tilt it to the left and right as well to create an even smoother gradient, and use gravity to the fullest. This is how a watercolour painting “paints itself”!
Tip: If paint ever starts pooling along the edges of your painting, gently lift it out by touching the tip of your paintbrush to the puddles. Alternatively, you can run a paper towel along the pooling edge to soak up the excess liquid.
If you want an even smoother gradient between colours, brush over the entire painting in the same direction as the strips of colour using a wet but clean mop brush. You may want to skip this step though, depending on whether your paper can handle the water or not.
While your paper is still wet, drop in some raw sienna to the land area, mixing in a touch of lemon yellow to brighten the colour a little. You can also streak in a little raw sienna in the tree area for some variety.
Step 3: Building Depth
If you’re pressed for time, you can whip out a hairdryer to help speed up the drying process. Otherwise, let your painting sit until it’s relatively dry.
For the dark part of the land, use Moonglow (a Daniel Smith colour that’s similar to an earth violet) and a ¾” flat brush to add a few swipes of shadow on top of the raw sienna. Since purple and yellow are complementary colours, this will create a darker and more neutral result.
Tip: To get a “dry brush” effect, hold your brush almost parallel to your painting, and use the flat side of your brush to quickly run over the paper. The texture of your paper will create these small gaps in the paint, which is what creates visual texture in your painting.
Step 4: Silhouette
For the tree silhouette, mix a dark grey-green using raw sienna, cobalt blue, and Moonglow. Then, use the size 8 round brush to paint the trees, roughly following your previous pencil sketch (if you can still see it!).
You can vary the colour as you paint by adjusting the ratios of the mixed colours, or even dropping in a hint of magenta here and there. You can also mix in phthalo green for a different variation in colour. Keep your paint quite watery though, as you want this area to stay wet for as long as possible.
To paint some interesting trees, dilute your paint a little more and flick your brush upwards and outwards. Dabbing your brush randomly will also create more “leafy” textures.
Just before painting the church, mix raw sienna and magenta for a reddish-orange, and switch to a size 10 round brush to paint the steeple with this new colour. Your paintbrush should come to a sharp point, or else it will be very difficult to paint thin and crisp lines!
Add cobalt blue to your red mixture for a darker purple, and drop this in on the shadowed side of the church’s roof and under the eaves. It’s okay for your paint to bleed into one another here!
Switch back to the red to paint the front side of the church, then continue with the darker purple to paint the rest of the buildings and the silhouette.
For the power poles, paint them in and adjust their positioning and height to whatever suits your painting the best.
Step 5: Adjusting Tones
Leave the silhouette area to dry, and move back to working on the land area. Darken the yellow by adding more raw sienna paint, mixed with a touch of every other colour on your palette to tone it down slightly before painting over the area with the ¾” flat brush.
It’s fine for the paint to bleed slightly into the silhouette area, though do leave a sliver of lighter colour in front of the church to make it stand out. The bleeding will help push the land into the distance, while the crisp edges of the silhouette will help it stand out more.
While your paint is still wet, mix a darker earth violet by adding cobalt blue, magenta, and raw sienna to Moonglow, then brush in this colour to the bottom area using the same “dry brush” technique as before.
Step 6: Final Touches
For the final stretch, use the same darker purple to scumble in some extra foliage into the bottom part of the silhouette. When the land area is dry, you can also lightly brush in some weeds using the side of your brush and a little Moonglow.
And finally, add a few windows in dark purple for the church, and hints of some tall grass in front of the silhouette. When you’re happy with the results, you’re done! Feel free to sign your painting (or not), but otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this cool yet simple technique for creating some buttery-smooth gradients.
Want to learn more with us, or about us? Then subscribe to our email newsletter! You’ll be kept up to date with our latest workshop schedule, tutorials, and tips and tricks!