Getting your whites right

Whites are hugely important in watercolour, as they add life and sparkle to a painting. Once lost they are difficult to recover, as we do not have white paint at our disposal and with watercolour being transparent (more or less), it is difficult to lighten areas.

I did a session with my class today and the thing I emphasised was five minutes planning, would save hours of heart ache. A quick thumbnail sketch, using a photo as inspiration – the kicking off point – could identify the best composition, where the lights and darks should go and help plan the order of work.

We looked at the Golden Mean or rule of thirds and how we could use it to simplify a piece and obtain a harmonious result.Give or take, it suggests that key elements of your composition should lie on the third lines – perhaps the horizon on a horizontal or a dominant tree on a vertical. Your focal point, or centre of interest should lie at an intersection. This is a huge simplification, but it’s a good starting point as you develop your ideas:



If you get an area of greatest contrast (light to dark) at your centre of interest it helps draw the eye. Once you have planned your painting, of course you can deviate from it, but at least it gives you a starting point.

We also talked about the order of work, traditionally it is light to dark – back to front (I have written front to back on the sheet – that is wrong), but I think it is good to:

  1. Paint large shapes and get in midtones, saving white paper especially around the focal point 2. Add some of your darkest tones – this sets the fullstop 3. Glaze selectively over some of your white areas to get your light tones 4. Add final touches, adjust and detail, without overworking.

If you have a chance to look at any videos or books by Sterling Edwards he demonstrates this so clearly!

We then went on to look at ways of retaining whites as shown here:


  1. Painting around the area – the paint won’t go onto dry paper, so before reaching for the masking fluid consider if you can just paint round it.
  2. Using masking fluid – but watch out, it can look ‘clunky’
  3. Wax resist – great for texture, but if you put it in the wrong place, you are stuffed!
  4. Lifting out – either while damp to get soft white eg clouds, or once dry. The effect will depend on whether the pigment is staining or non-staining
  5. Scratching out – use a scalpel (great for grasses) or sandpaper on bone dry paper. Once done, there is no turning back
  6. Stencil – use objects or make a stencil
  7. Gouache – a spot of opaque gouache can do wonders for the sparkle of an eye or add in fine detail
  8. Dry brush – such a simple way to get a sparkle on water or texture on bark, just drag a dryish brush over rough paper

So it’s time to make sure you really get your whites right!

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