An example of an idea for a painting.

Oil painting is an additive medium.  With watercolor we are adding color to subtract from the white of the paper.  Our work is more like that of a stone carver.  The image is buried somewhere within that stone.  It is the carver’s job to subtract the stone that doesn’t tell the story.  He/she needs to think “non-nose” and leave the nose or it will just be another chip on the floor.

Study how the white or light shapes move you through the painting and how the darks set the light areas up. At the same time, the darks are full of color.

If we kill all of the white paper or thinly veiled light paper with our paints we lose the glow or the sparkle that IS a watercolor.  Think positively but work negatively.  The more you chip away at the “unimportant” areas — with wit, intelligence, thought –  the more you push the important areas toward the viewer.

The only white paper is on the white of the flowers. The last thing I did was run a pale gray wash on the “white” awnings.


Rex Brandt said it best. He said, “The question is really how you turn a $3 piece of paper into a $3000 piece of paper.”  We sat wondering. “It is all there,” he explained, “in the white of the paper. It is what you do that makes that $3 white worth the price.”

Again, study the movement of the light shapes through the painting. The waves move you to the sails which take you to the sky and then you travl back down in the ocean waves. I painted this after being down on our dock, winter of 2012, while my husband was sailing across the Atlantic.

First value study – exploring linking lights, basket gone; extending cast shadow

Second study. Light on the wall (white paper) extended on the left. Interest in the cast shadow, making it longer.

Learn how to use the white of your watercolor paper to tell your story.  Where you don’t paint often becomes the most exciting or powerful part of your story.It takes planning to design an interesting path or pattern of lights.  Light lead us through the painting.

Doodles, thumbnails, ink studies – whatever it takes to get your plan, do it!  It can be a small and rough drawing but you MUST have the whites in your drawing the way you want them in the final painting.  Don’t skip the sky and leave it all white, or the water.  Is the top of the sky darker than the bottom? Is there a value change diagonally across the sky – such as darker in the upper left and sweeping lighter toward the lower right? How about the water? Darker by the shore or lighter there?  Is the tree all light, all dark, light on one side, darker than the background on the other?, or lighter than the background at the bottom, lost and found a bit in the middle and darker against the sky?

More shadow, man pulled more to the right and smaller. The wall behind him is darker. I painted this one and decided he still needed to be moved further to the right, smaller still and shadow larger.

Every watercolor instructor I have known has stressed values. Some may do them more instinctively than others. This comes with years of practice.

Setting the Hooks. The final painting. The light on the man is the same as the photo. His concentration on his task is the same. The white paper moves upper left through the man, his arm, the basket rims, the tops of his pants and jumps to the floor. The darks move across the paper from lower left to upper right setting up the feeling of the hot sun beating down.

And !! When painting, put your value plan right by your paper. Refer to it frequently.  After you have your drawing down on your watercolor painting (using your value plan for proportions) you rarely need to refer to your photos. You have learned them as you worked toward your final value study. Plus, if you are working outdoors, the value plan become invaluable as the light shifts from morning to afternoon.

Plan carefully and then paint with abandon!!

Happy painting,


This is the 2nd in the series of mantras, or techniques/approaches I expect to find in the watercolors of artists who have studied with me.  See March Technique Corner.

Stay tuned for the next.

©Caroline Buchanan, 2019