Category Archives: Liz’s illustrations

Learning Watercolor :: Washes & Underpainting

First, I should say that I have no business giving advice on using watercolors. I have only been learning watercolor techniques for the last ten months; I am still a beginner. However, I thought it might be interesting to show off what I’ve learned (and how I learned it).

A picture of a graded blue sky with orange water

Learning Watercolors :: Introductory Classes

When I decided I wanted to move from color pencil illustrations to watercolor painting, I skimmed my options on Craftsy. I absolutely love that web site (and no, they don’t pay me to say that). However, it can be pretty overwhelming – especially if you aren’t sure what kind of painter you want to be.

Initially, I chose two classes: one by Kateri Ewing and one by Angela Fehr. Angela’s class was not my favorite. It was too tedious for me. (It took me a long time to finish her class). But others loved her class. She has rave reviews and her own YouTube channel. Her style just wasn’t (and isn’t) for me.

Kateri Ewing’s class…was the perfect introductory watercolor class for me. It was similar in feel to my first color pencil class, and the first half of the class had us mixing colors and trying to get a feel for the paint. We completed two “proper” projects, but we were painting the entire time. I completed Kateri’s class last May.

A picture of a watercolor yellow pear

Kateri Ewing showed us how to paint this pear, step-by-step.

Fast Forward — 2 months

We took a fabulous summer trip and when we got back, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly busy time. I drew and painted some, but my learning was set aside – until a few months ago. I had this overwhelming desire to beef up my watercolor skills. I had a beautiful watercolor journal just sitting on my desk, taunting me. I had used a few pages during our trip, but I needed more instruction.

However, I didn’t want to jump back into a video class, nor did I want to scour YouTube for free watercolor painting videos. I like videos, but only to a point. I really am a book gal. (It’s the librarian in me, I think).

Flat and Graded Washes

Lots of practice and testing. I tried out different brushes and different paper. I was shocked at how the quality of the paper makes a HUGE difference.

According to Claudia Nice in her book, Watercolor Made Simple, “graded washes are useful in portraying clear summer skies, pools of still water and the contours of human skin.”

A wash is basic watercolor technique. It seems overly simplistic, but is worth a little practice to get it just right. (I messed it up a bunch of times). It produces fascinating effects. Since my two online classes didn’t discuss washes, I stumbled across them as I tried to recreate various paintings. Thankfully, there are some amazing teaching artists who share their techniques via books.

I’ve been pulling a number of books from various libraries and choosing projects I want to try. My first success came from the book, Watercolor Painting: Practical Techniques and Projects for Beginners.

Variegated Wash

I used cheaper watercolor paper to practice the gradated wash, so it doesn’t look as smooth as I think it could. But I understood the concept. I was ready to jump into something a little more challenging: a variegated wash.

A variegated wash occurs when you have two (or more) colors. You wet the entire paper with a sponge – making sure it’s slightly damp, not sopping. Then add one color at the top and instead of returning for water, you grab a different pigment on your brush. Voila!

A picture of a piece of paper with graded colors - pink on top with yellow on the bottom.

True painters will notice that I pulled the yellow up into my pink. I was ‘playing in the paint’ – a big watercolor no no.

Sunset Over Water

Now that I had “mastered” the concept, I was ready to try the accompanying project. Thankfully, the book is pretty good about having step-by-step pictures. If you are trying to learn a new skill, it’s not helpful to only see the finished project.

Most of their projects require you to sketch out the project just by looking at the picture, but they go into detail for particular techniques.

I was very careful and methodical with my first attempt. The second one, not so much. I was less then attentive and went a little loosey-goosey. Plus, I used student grade paper and the pigment didn’t spread nearly as well. Lesson learned.

A picture of a graded blue sky with orange water

First attempt. A good use of a variegated wash. The blue for the sky melts into the orange for the sunset-lit sea.

A picture of a blue sky, and orange sea and some shadowed buildings/trees in the distance

I was trying for a brighter pigment…and I got it. Though, I think the paper caused me problems. (Don’t mind the white spot at the bottom…I’m testing the idea of painting while my paper is taped down).

But it’s the third painting that shows my growth as a watercolorist (I hope). I wanted to try the same technique, but with a slightly different color scheme. I had to figure out how to change up the colors. I looked at a few reference photos for guidance.

A watercolor picture of a cove at sunset

I love how this one looks more like a cove. I totally, ahem, meant to do that.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I thought it was better than the original, but the three members of my immediate family all prefer the last painting. My very own composition! Well…you can bet I’m hooked on project books now.


One of my unofficial New Year’s resolutions was to find more time to draw. It’s easy to say I’m too busy (I am), or I don’t quite have the skills to accomplish a certain look (also true). However, I realized I was holding a very high expectation of myself. I wanted my drawings to be perfect. I felt I needed hours of uninterrupted free time, which was a convenient excuse when I couldn’t get around to drawing. If I produced less than stellar illustrations, well it wasn’t my fault!

Oh, the lies perfectionism and fear tell us.

A picture of three circus tents on a pier.

This is a one-minute sketch of the Montreal Pier (near the kids’ science museum). I tried to use Mark Toro Holmes’ technique, but without the watercolors. Obviously, I need a little more practice with this technique…

Abandoning Perfectionism

Instead, I decided I would (mostly) abandon judgement and learn to live with the results. After all, I need the practice. These drawings are not masterpieces – they are practice. They are quick sketches I can do in short bursts of time – during a lunch break or before I climb into bed. We’re talking 15 minutes. What if I get it wrong and they look terrible? Well…that’s sort of the point, right? I can see where I goofed and work on not repeating my mistakes.

Isn’t this the same thing I try and help my children (and students) awaken in themselves?

A hand drawn picture of a woman's left hand.

My left hand-ish.

Practice is Hard

A few weeks into my resolution, I felt myself wavering a bit. Practice is hard, I whined. I’m too busy. I don’t where to start. I suck. But, lo and behold, one of my favorite children’s stories presented itself at the library. This book was on display and I picked it up for my youngest son. I thought he would benefit from an old-fashioned read-aloud (he may have inherited a few of the above traits from yours truly).

The book was Ish by Peter Reynolds.

A hand-drawn picture of a scene from Peter Reynold's book, Ish.

I drew this ink-only illustration during my short lunch break (after I ate my lunch). Next time, I’d like to add color.


If you haven’t read it before, the story follows Ramon, a young elementary student who loves to draw…until his older brother makes fun of one of his drawings. Afterward, Ramon tries making everything he draws perfect, until in frustration, he gives up drawing altogether. In the end, he he has another family member who adores his art and her interpretation of his work helps him to learn to love his work again (“it looks flower-ish”).

Copying as Practice

I’ve decided to give myself another break and relax. I thought I needed to draw from life regularly – and while it is important to do that – I found that my skills aren’t quite there yet. This “block” was hurting my progress. I was afraid to draw because I knew just practicing wouldn’t help me get any better — especially if I’m not getting feedback. I need deliberate practice.

So I’ve given myself permission to copy other children’s book illustrators. In copying, I can learn a lot of valuable techniques and I have a built-in teacher. Since live art lessons aren’t an option for me at this time (see above: I’m busy), this is a good stand in. I can still work on my own original stuff…

A cartoon drawing of a young girl in a blue medieval dress

My own character…I’ve named her Emma.

…but I’m also appreciating the work of others.

Shows a girl in a yellow rain slicker standing in a marsh, looking at birds in the distance

This was a quick sketch with waterproof pens and a wash of watercolors. It’s based on the front cover of the children’s book, Squish!: A Wetland Walk.

A hand-drawn picture of 5 sea birds sitting on a log; from The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling.

I copied this from the book, The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. He used watercolors, but I used colored pencils.