Whites and lights in watercolour

So today I did a class and the focus was on whites and lights in watercolour. Flashes of white really add a sparkle to your watercolour painting, but of course we don’t have white paint at our disposal being a transparent medium. It is therefore vital to plan where the lightest passage is going to be. Though you can recover whites or add gouache at the end, it is better and fresher to not lose them in the first place!

I suggested to the students that a thumbnail sketch would help with composition, tones and identifying where the whites would be. Then, as a general rule, to work light to dark and from the background to the foreground. Every rule is there to be broken, but when you break it you should do it deliberately not just because you didn’t know otherwise! I also suggested that the area of highest tone contrast  pulls your attention so is a good way of making a centre of interest really draw your eye.

So how might you preserve the white paper or get it back? Each method has its pros and cons:



Simply paint round the white – you can leave really fine areas of dry paper as long as you have a steady hand.

Masking fluid / frisket– apply with a colour shaper, old brush or dip pen – not your best brush. Don’t shake the bottle as that makes it congeal. Don’t dry with a hair dryer as it will be hard to remove. Let it dry thoroughly before painting. It leaves hard edges as the paint pools around it, so once you have removed think about softening them off with a damp brush. You can use clear or coloured masking, but if it is coloured try to not adjust the rest of your painting to that colour!!

Wax resist – use a candle or crayon like you did at junior school for magic writing. It’s great for texture, but once it’s on your paper you are stuck!

Lifting out – using a towel or tissue in a wet or damp wash to create soft marks – perfect for clouds.

Lifting out from a dry wash – either use a stiff damp brush or Magic Eraser (Doktor Power – used for cleaning sinks!). You can mask off areas with tape for straight edges – great to create sunbeams, or make a little stencil – super if you have forgotten to put in a distant white shape like a boat sail. It will rarely go back to a true white, but it is often good enough.


Scratching out – use a sharp knife or sandpaper. Make this the last thing you do, as it damages the paper surface so you cannot paint on it again. However by scratching the surface you can get back to the white underneath, as long as your paper is not too thin.

Dry brush – if you want a broken texture, just drag a brush with not much paint on it across your paper – great for sparkle of light on water for example.

Stencilling – using a patterned object like a doily and spraying or stippling through it, can create interesting patterns.

Gouache – a rigger and white gouache for tiny details may be perfect – think whiskers and bristles. Just don’t overdo it!

We then put it all into practise and you can find their artwork on www.lizsartclass.co.uk.  They were brilliant!

What do you do to keep the sparkle?





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