Sailboats | A watercolor exercise

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I did this exercise in 2007 for my students in Lund, it mainly includes controlled wet on wet painting. It is an excellent exercise for practicing the ability to paint wet on wet in a reasonably controlled manner.

As always, when making a painting that includes wet on wet, you should think about the color choice. Some colors work well with the technique, while others don’t want to move as well on a wet paper surface.

Granulating colors generally move less, so avoid cobalt blue or French ultramarine as a sky color in a painting like this. A better choice is phthalo blue or Prussian blue. For this painting I used phthalo blue.

You need a complementary color to the blue color. This will be used to mix black and gray together with the blue. The most common choice for the purpose is some brown color. Both phthalo and Prussian blue are greenish so finding a suitable brown is not that easy.

For this painting I used burnt umber which turns slightly greenish black with phthalo blue. For that reason, a red color is also needed, this should work as a complementary color to green. The slightly greenish color mixture that you get with blue and brown paint can be made neutral with a little red paint. The red color is also used for the pink color in the sky.

You also need a yellowish color, I used raw sienna myself, but any dull yellow will work.

My color choice for this painting: Phthalo Blue (RS), burnt umber, quinacridone rose and raw sienna.

Step 1

Wet the sky with clean water. Try to leave the masts of the boats unpainted. It is only a narrow strip to be saved, so it can be difficult. If you succeed, the result will be better.

Use plenty of water, when the whole sky is soaked, the place where you started painting will probably have had time to dry somewhat. If so, place some water there again, try to get the whole sky evenly and generously soaked.

Let the water sink in until you judge that the surface is moist enough to start painting. It takes a little experience to decide, it should be so moist that the paint forms a smooth transition between painted and unpainted surface without flowing out uncontrollably.

Mix, in three different mixing cups, a blue sky color (only blue and water), a light gray color that should be the shadows under the clouds (mix blue + brown with a small splash of red), and a very light pink color. Paint with blue sky color around the clouds, It is not possible to imitate the photo perfectly. The only thing you should care about is that the clouds are nice, they don’t have to look like the ones in the photo.

Start at the top of the painting with your blue sky color, gradually dilute the color so that it becomes a little lighter blue the further down to the horizon you paint. When all the blue is painted, use a light gray color to paint some light shadows under the clouds. Finally, you can paint a pink color at the bottom of the horizon. All this should be done while the paper is still wet. Don’t be too slow.

Step 2

Wait until the paper has completely dried. Then paint the sea blue. I had some brown paint in the blue color to make it just a little darker. Paint everything that is water, but nothing else.

This means that everything that is gray and black should be saved, the boat on the left and everything around it, the pier and all posts and pegs should be left unpainted. The sailboats’ masts must also be saved.

It’s a bit of a tricky job, and you run the risk of getting an uneven surface on the water. But it’s worth it. Otherwise, all details will be without highlights on the left side and in that case will be boring and flat.

When all the blue is finished, mix a black color of blue and brown. It probably turns a little greenish, both phthalo blue and Prussian blue turn green with almost all browns.

In that case, remove the green color tone with some red paint, just take a little at a time until you have a black paint mixture.

Make sure the paper is completely dry before you start painting. Start with details that should be the blackest, and gradually dilute the black color so that it becomes lighter, finish with the lightest parts. If you want, you can put some red paint on the left side where there is a partially red painted boat. It doesn’t have to look like a boat, the fact is that if you were to really imitate a boat, the result would probably be too obvious.

Step 3

This step consists of just one color surface. It must be painted wet on wet. In this case, this means that you first paint the entire ground with a greenish color, and before it has time to dry, you paint dark shadows under the boats.

Start by mixing two (or three) different colors. A slightly lighter one that should be greenish. I chose to make the color very unclear but you can make it more colorful if you want. Furthermore, you should mix one or two very dark shadow colors (blue+brown). I made two different ones, one blue black and one brown black.

First, you must paint the entire grass area, saving all the boats, masts and other details. If you paint the color fluidly, you have more time to paint shadows wet on wet. Immediately, while the green paint is still wet, place the dark paint under all the boats, the two in the foreground and the back boats on the left and the one on the right.

I used both the blue-black and the brown-black colors for this. It is better if all the shadows are not the same color.

Step 4

As a final step, the boats should be given a little paint. It really just means a little bluish color on the canopy of the boat in the center of the image, and maybe a splash of the same color elsewhere.

Now it’s just a gray shadow color missing a little here and there. The boats at the water’s edge should have some shadows. The boats’ masts must also be painted. Be careful not to cover the entire mast, leave a little unpainted strip on the left so that you get light in the picture.

Remember to save all bright details. It is essential not to cover the entire paper, the highlights are very important. Without them, there will be no sunlight in the painting.

Finally, if necessary, you can darken the shadows on the ground under the boats. They have probably lightened quite a bit when the paint has dried.

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