Watercolor Basics: The Difference Between Watercolor For Illustration, Watercolor for Fine Art

First, let's establish a baseline

Examples of Watercolor Comics

Page from Beautiful Darkness, a comic by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerasco√ęt
A page from the comic Displacement by Lucy Knisley

Examples of Watercolor Illustration

The Fool- Meredith Dillman

Green Tree Frog- Autumn Von Plinsky

A Very Difficult Game Indeed- Stephanie Law
Macoto Takahashi

Examples of Fine Art Watercolors

Andrew Wyeth

John Singer Sargent
To learn more about famous watercolorists, please check out these resources

Craftsy Blog:  Famous Watercolor Artists
Non Solo Arte Famous Watercolor Artists Past and Present
Top Ten Most Influential Watercolor Artists

The watercolor comics are the loosest and least detailed of all the images, because there are multiple images per page, and too many details would make the pages difficult to read.  The artist is under a time constraint to complete the project, and has multiple pages to consider, with multiple illustrations per page.  The fine art watercolor images are loose, gestural, and all about color play- the artist has lots of room to work as there's only one image per page to consider, and many of these are spontaneous.  The watercolor illustrations are highly detailed and finely rendered, taking a longer amount of time to complete due to the amount of detail, and mixed media is often introduced.  As a watercolor comic artist, you are free to adopt whatever methods and inspirations work for your comic.

As a practicing watercolor comic artist, I've discovered a few differences over time that are worth pointing out to novice watercolor comic artists, differences that may help you make better choices when you begin painting.  Below are the twelve major differences I've noticed between using watercolors for comics and using watercolors for illustration and fine art.

To the left front cover from 7" Kara Chapter 5.  To the right, a watercolor study from reference.

You have less time to complete a piece

I've heard rumors that French artists working on bandes dessinees are sometimes allowed the luxury of months to work on single pages, and some illustrators have weeks to knock one out, but most comic artists don't enjoy that sort of time.  Most of us need to get our work done fast, and that means we have to sacrifice a certain amount of polish on our pages.  Most comics that utilize watercolor also employ certain shortcuts to enable faster production of pages- shortcuts that many fine artists would disdain. Batch painting, premixing large amounts of color, using an inkjet printer to print out bluelines for you to pencil are all time and labor saving techniques that help comic watercolorists but are not practiced by fine art watercolorists.

Each page is multiple illustrations, so some techniques that work on standalone illustrations just wont work for comics

Page from 7" Kara, Chapter 5.  All of these panels use the same color scheme, so colors were mixed in batch, rather than constantly attempting to match.

When completing watercolor studies, or watercolor illustrations from reference, I can utilize a butchers tray or the palette on my pan palette to mix spontaneous colors on the spot.  With comic pages, I need color consistency across the scene, so this sort of mixing, while an option, isn't as attractive as mixing and painting my colors in batch.  Comic painting requires a fair amount of accurate color matching, so if I'm painting pages from an existing scene, I need the other pages handy for easy reference.

Small illustrations (panels) may be difficult to execute, may require a reduction in detail

For smaller panels in this page from 7" Kara Chapter five, details were reduced to increase readability. 
There are watercolorists who create beautiful detail in miniature, but that's the only piece they're focusing on at the moment.  A comic watercolorist is responsible for the entire page, from a tiny 2"x1" panel to a huge spread, and all of those need to 'read' for the audience.  Every panel needs to be understood at a glance, so this often calls for a reduction in detail, artful and informed choices about what to include and what to leave out.  A standalone painting may merit a longer glance to understand the subject, but comics are not given this luxury.

Consistency can be a huge factor

On left, page from Chapter 1 of 7" Kara, painted in 2012.  On right, page from Chapter 5, painted in 2015.  There are massive improvements in how the paints were handled, how the figures were designed and drawn.  I opted to allow improvements to seep into my comic, rather than attempt to stay consistent but bad.

Remember how I mentioned mixing colors in batch earlier?  Color consistency isn't the only consideration for a comic watercolorist.  How the paints are handled (very wet, medium wet, impasto) are considerations, how shadows are rendered (more indigo?  more violet?  What about night scenes?  Early morning?), character style and design, even your growth as an artist is a factor (do you allow the growth to show?  do you shackle yourself to a style you've outgrown?).  For a fine art watercolorist, style and consistency aren't huge factors unless they're working on a series.

Affordability may be a factor, as you're using a lot of materials to complete a longform product

To the left, Page from 7" Kara Chapter 5, painted on Canson Montval Paper.  To the right, standalone 7" Kara illustration, painted on Arches cold press paper.  Both images were painted during the same 5 month time period.

Longterm readers know I am not an advocate of using cheap supplies unless these are the supplies that work for you.  That said, there are some materials I use for my watercolor comics that I wouldn't use for studies or fine art watercolors.  I paint comic pages on Canson Montval- it's an affordable tape bound cold press watercolor paper with a cellulose content that can run through my printer.  I enjoy painting on Arches more, and do so for standalone illustrations, but it's just too expensive for a longform comic where I paint hundreds of pages.

Lightfastness and permanence may not be an issue

For most of us, our individual comic pages are not the finished product, the assembled comic book is the finished product.  Although comics are finding increased acceptance in gallery settings, it is still uncommon, especially in the South, so most of us have no plans for permanent display of our watercolor pages.  I do display my finished pages at conventions, in a flip portfolio with archival page protectors, but these are not subject to prolonged bouts of direct sunlight, the way watercolors painted for display would be.  This means I'm not particularly concerned with pigments being archival and lightfast so much as I am concerned with pigments being the colors I want on my pages.

Need to be able to reproduce your pages in print or online- digitizing is important

When I first attempted to shop 7" Kara to editors, one of the big two issues raised was 'but it's watercolor'.  Since then, there are plenty of print comics that utilize watercolor on the market, but at the time, there was a point.  Not only were there reproduction issues on the printers end, but there were digitization issues on the comic artist's end, an issue I worked hard to solve for my own work.

For your watercolors to shine in reproduction, you're going to need several things.  You're going to need a large format scanner capable of color accurate scans of at least 600DPI.  You're going to need graphics programs (I use Photoshop) for even the most basic of color corrections, let alone actually digitally fixing real issues.  You're going to want to have digital brushes that replicate real media brushes, and you're going to want to have access to scans of watercolor papers, watercolor marks, and other real media samples for corrections.  I sell a small handful of those things in my Gumroad shop, but I'm always working on putting together more for my digital corrections.

Digital Paper Pack

Bonus Paper Pack

Often will not have exact color reference to work from (besides your prior pages)

Both of these referenced studies were painted directly from the photograph with the intention of learning how to handle the colors effectively.  Were I to recreate either from the top of my head, it would quickly become a mess.

You may have to reference several sources to find exactly what you need for a scene in a watercolor comic, whereas painting from reference, it's almost all in front of you.  This may make it more difficult for you to control your color palette, and it makes it much easier for things to get out of control color-wise, and you may end up muddying your panel or page trying to salvage something that went haywire.  Some papers can take a lot of work (Arches) and some get muddy fast (Canson Montval, Strathmore 400 Series cold press), so know your paper and your paints.

You can utilize inks with your lineart

Many people wrongfully assume I ink my comic pages.  While I enjoy inking, and do so for many of the tests and tutorials I share over on my YouTube channel, Kara pages are penciled, and then I paint directly over the pencil, trying to paint as tightly as possible so that the paint conveys the detail, not the pencil.  I may add additional refinement with color pencils and gouache.  There are many comics that ARE watercolor over inks (many of Lucy Knisley's later works are), and these utilize a lighthanded watercolor style with little rendering, as the inks do much of the work.  With watercolor comics, there are many acceptable ways to pursue the type of art you want to make, but with watercolors for a fine art approach, the paths are much more limited.


Image on the left, a page from 7" Kara Chapter 5 is uninked.  Image on right, a standalone mini watercolor illustration, has been inked.

You often can't just throw away a whole page over one botched panel

With standalone illustrations, if you make a massive mistake, you have the option of starting over- either by washing all the paint off the paper or by tossing the entire thing.  With a watercolor comic, you may have one botched panel, but the rest are working fine, and it may not be worth your while to scrub the page or start over.  With watercolor comics, you have deadlines to keep (even if they're personal) and you need to manage your time effectively.

You can make digital corrections

With watercolors for fine art, the finished piece is the physical watercolor, or the prints sold from that physical watercolor.  That watercolor has to encapsulate everything, and the piece advertised had better look like the piece being sold.  With watercolors for comics, the finished piece is not the individual page or panel, but the entire book, which gives the artist room to make corrections in whatever method works for them.  For many, ruining the entire page by attempting to correct one panel isn't an attractive option, so we take our corrections to the digital realm.

There are plenty of ways to make corrections digitally, and I plan on covering quite a few in upcoming posts.

You may need more colors in order to get work done in a timely manner- convenience colors

Some traditional watercolorists are purists, frowning on conveniencena  colors and preferring to mix all their colors from a 12 color, 6 color, or even 3 color set.  Mixing your own colors, and matching colors, takes up a lot of time and energy, so you may find it worth the investment to purchase colors you'll use often.

My favorites are:

Hookers Green (Holbein)
Green Gold (Winsor Newton)
Napthol Red (Daniel Smith)
Neutral Tint (Holbein)
Paynes Gray (Winsor Newton)
Lamp Black (Holbein)

Like what you saw in this post?  Why not commission me to paint you or a loved one in either my house cartoony style, or the photo realistic watercolor style shown in this post?  You can find out more information on how to commission such a piece on my site, and email me for a detailed quote.  Don't know what to commission, but want to own some original art?  There are several pieces up in the Nattoshop as well! Want more 7" Kara?  You can purchase physical copies of the book from the Nattoshop, or a digital copy through my Gumroad.  Want more content like this?  Take a moment to share it with your friends using the handy social media buttons at the bottom of this post.  Want to help sponsor more content like this?  Head on over to my Patreon page for more information on how you can do that.  Your patronage is important to me, and helps keep this blog going!


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