Have you ever wanted to paint loosely yet still be able to capture the essence of a landscape?
Step 1: Practicing Calligraphy
While it would be helpful to know how to do Chinese calligraphy, you can get by just learning how to do specific brushstrokes. Marvin writes the word for rice in Chinese, which captures (almost all) the essential strokes found in paintings.
For this painting, focus on the dots and the tapered strokes – these are the ones to use for painting foliage.
You can practice these brushstrokes on a piece of scrap paper. Just make sure to use a larger round brush.
Step 2: Quick Sketch
The next step is to do some prep and planning. Marvin recommends using a larger pad of 100% cotton watercolour paper, as the cotton works much better when using the wet-in-wet technique.
He also suggests using rough watercolour paper for a better dry brush texture later. But I think cold press will work just as well if you don’t have rough paper (like me).
Tip: If your watercolour paper isn’t in a sealed block like Marvin’s, I suggest taping the edges of your paper with artist’s tape to minimise warping. It’s also a good idea to prop your paper up at an angle, as you’ll need gravity to help paint the river area.
After your paper has been prepped, you can start sketching. Marvin uses this reference photo, so using loose and light pencil lines, draw the general outlines of the landscape.
Next, you can break down the image in your own mind, noting the background bushes, the midground river bank (to the right), and the foreground foliage (to the left). This is part of the planning process, which is essential in watercolour painting because it’s hard to fix mistakes later!
Once you’re done, don’t worry about the pencil marks showing through the paint – they can add a bit of charm to the final painting.
Step 3: Background Wash
For an efficient workstation, you’ll need a few brushes – one large mop brush, a large round brush (size 12 or larger), a smaller round brush (size 6) and a round synthetic brush with stiffer bristles (size 4 or smaller).
For paints, you’ll need cobalt and ultramarine blue, sap green, lemon and permanent yellow, deep, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and alizarin crimson. If you don’t have all these colours, just pick something similar.
Have at least two containers of water ready and paper towels to absorb excess liquid. Last but not least, fill a spray bottle with clean water, and spray your paints before painting. You’ll need the bottle again later.
Once your paints are sufficiently hydrated, wet the background and sky area using clean water and your mop brush. Then drop in diluted cobalt blue with the large round brush. This is the wet-in-wet technique, which you’ll be using for the majority of this painting.
While the paint is still wet, add the bushes just above the horizon line by mixing a little sap green and ultramarine blue. If you find this colour too bright, you can mix in a bit of burnt sienna to neutralise it.
Try to keep the background the lightest part of your painting, as this is the key to create a good sense of depth.
Tip: With watercolours, it’s best to paint from light to dark, as it’s easier to add paint if something is too light in tone than to make a dark tone lighter.
Step 4: Gaining Ground
Next, mix lemon yellow with your previous blue-green mixture, and paint the foliage in the midground and foreground. If your background is still wet, that’s great – you’ll get some lovely soft blends this way.
Use those calligraphic strokes we practised back in step 1 to get that “forest” atmosphere. Don’t be afraid to vary the colour of your green by adding more lemon yellow, or even some yellow ochre or permanent yellow, deep a warmer green.
Keep some areas of white, especially around the bush, in the foreground. Paint thin yet tapered strokes for the grass-like bush in the foreground, and leave some gaps of skyspace, in particular around the top half of the foliage. The key is to do fast yet controlled brushstrokes!
For the river banks, switch to a smaller round brush and use yellow ochre with a touch of alizarin crimson for the first layer. It’s okay if the paint bleeds a little into your foliage. Again, you can vary the colour slightly by adding more alizarin crimson to your mixture.
Tip: If you ever find that your paint is pooling too much from excess water, use a clean, dry brush or paper towel to gently soak up the extra paint.
Step 5: River Reflections
Switching back to your mop brush, wet your paper with clean water, then dilute some ultramarine blue before dropping it into the river area.
Next, mix in burnt sienna for a deeper grey-blue to paint the area right under the horizon line, then use the same sap green and lemon yellow mixture to paint the reflection of the bush on the right side.
If your paper isn’t angled enough, feel free to stand it up so the paint can flow downwards more easily. If it’s still not enough, you can use your brush to gently coax the paint down.
Marvin does this because his paint was flowing at an angle instead of straight down, but hopefully, you won’t have this problem!
Step 6: Painting the Mid-tones
Once your first wash of paint is down, you can add the mid-tones. Again, it’s okay if your paper is still damp – it will add to the softness of the overall look of your painting.
Like before, start from the background and work your way towards the foreground. You can mix a darker blue-green for the bushes in the background by adding more ultramarine blue to your green mixture.
Paint a layer of bushes above the horizon line, but leave some of the paint from the first layer so you can clearly see 2 layers of bushes. You can use a clean paper towel or tissue to dab in some areas for more tone variety.
Next, mix sap green, ultramarine blue, and yellow ochre for an olive green to paint the foliage’s mid-tones. Again, use calligraphic brushstrokes to get more leafy details!
You can also paint some tapered curves for the grass and bushes that hang over the edge of the riverbanks.
Tip: Add to the illusion of depth by keeping lighter areas of paint! It’s easy to paint over everything, but doing so just darkens the whole picture, and you’re left with a gloomy (and flat) painting.
Step 7: Shadows and More Details
For your third layer, darken the ground by mixing burnt sienna and yellow ochre. Then, wait for a few minutes to let your paint dry a little before adding details.
The areas with the darkest shadows will mostly be the foreground to the left, so mix a dark green using ultramarine blue, sap green, and a little alizarin crimson.
With this colour, paint the darkest areas within the foliage using a size 6 round brush. Next, add tree trunks, leaves, grass – things that will bring the focus to the landscape’s foreground.
Keep your brushstrokes loose and random, with areas that have more shadows and others with more highlights.
Once you’re done with the foreground, dilute the dark green colour a little before adding a final layer to the right side. Again, you can add some detail, but don’t go overboard as this area is supposed to be further away.
You can also paint negatively here, which means painting around details such as the grassy bushes and tree trunks. This gives your painting a good contrast and makes it more interesting to look at.
Step 8: Finishing Flourishes
The last part just consists of finishing touches. Marvin shows an interesting technique of using the corner of a credit card to scratch tree trunks in the foliage while the paint is still wet. Feel free to do it if you think it will add to your painting!
If you find too much of a colour difference between the left and right sides of your painting, you can spray the middle area with clean water and gently add a light wash of lemon yellow to make it greener and less blue.
Another thing to do is mix an even darker green using the same colours as before (but not as diluted) and add the darkest leaves and shadows in the foliage, especially along the bottom, to really make it pop.
You can do the same with the midground foliage as well, but again, dilute the paint a little, so it’s not as dark as the foreground.
If you find that the foliage looks too “harsh”, you can use an old paintbrush, wet it, and then lift out some of the colour by scrubbing the paint off.
To make the river look even more watery, spray it with clean water before saturating it with the same colours.
Again, hold your paper vertically to let the paint run downwards, using your paintbrush to coax the paint if needed. And while the paint is still wet, use a synthetic round brush to lift out some horizontal lines in the water to give it a reflective sheen.
Finally, feel free to add any finishing details as you see fit. Neither Marvin nor I can tell you what to do here, as your painting is your own!
You can add a paint splatter along the ground for more texture, darken the background bushes a little, or add some vines to the foliage…give yourself the freedom to play and experiment! And you might end up with a painting or two along the way.
Marvin paints so quickly that it’s hard to keep up, so I hope this “slowed down” version helped! But you can always follow along in the live demo recording and pause the video when necessary. There’s a lot packed into this single lesson, so give yourself as much time as you need!
If you'd like to learn more from Marvin, he has an excellent Mini Workshop Recording where he goes more in depth with tonal values and true colour.
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