Watercolor Basics: Step by Step: Blocking In

Now that we've introduced the basics of Watercolor Basics, it's time to take you step by step through some of the most common processes for completing a watercolor illustration.  I'm going to take you from start to finish through my 2016 Christmas card illustration, explaining my techniques as I go.  I have a series of video tutorials recorded concurrently that should be available on my Youtube channel soon, if you need some live action explanation. 

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When we've finished these tutorials, this is what the finished illustration will look like!  This image was designed and used for my Christmas 2016 cards sent out to friends, family, and Patrons.

This image features Naomi and Kara from my children's watercolor comic, 7" Kara.  If you enjoy this blog, and enjoy my art, I highly recommend you order a copy through my shop!

Previously, I showed you guys how to apply a watercolor wash (link)

In this tutorial, I will show you guys how to block in the basic colors for your watercolor illustration.  This is a very helpful step for those of you who are new to using watercolor, or for people who have trouble with color palettes.

Materials For this Tutorial:
Watercolors of your choice (I use Winsor and Newton moist half pans, Daniel Smith, SoHo, and Holbein watercolors)
Daisy watercolor wells or palette of choice- For mixing large amounts of color
Deep welled watercolor palette- I used a recycled mochi ice cream carton
Watercolor brushes (I use mainly rounds)
2 watercolor cups- 1 clean, 1 dirty- I like the Faber-Castell collapsible cups
Paper towels

Paper used:
Canson Moulin du Roy

Watercolor Brushes Used in this Tutorial:

  • For rounds larger than 6, I use synthetic brushes.  Your preferences may vary from mine- I have several brands, and still have not found a brand I think perform as well as natural hair brushes.  Synthetic brushes are much cheaper than natural hair brushes, especially at larger sizes, and are useful for blocking in color, as we will be doing in this tutorial.
  • Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable Brushes- 4, 2, 1, 0
  • Creative Mark Squirrel Brushes- 4, 6
  • Blick Master Studio Squirrel- 4, 6

Step 1: Assemble Your Materials

 Step 2: Begin mixing your background colors in a large welled palette

These are not your final colors, just placeholder colors, so it's fine if your first wash seems far too light.  It's much better to start too light, and work your way darker, building up contrast and shadow as you add layers.

Step 2: Lay in your first layer.

In this case, we're laying down a very light pink to serve as the brick red for the hearth.  It's fine that this color is MUCH lighter than the final color- you want to build up your watercolors, so don't begin too dark!

Step 3: As adjacent layers dry, continue to fill in your objects.

This is a bit like coloring in a coloring book, or color by numbers, but blocking in color is an important first step for many illustrators.

When painting, I work in reverse from sketching/inking/penciling- I work from back to front.  As you can see here, I'm working on filling in the background.  This makes correcting issues easier.

Step 4:  If you would like to paint glow effects, add your darker color while first layer of paint or wash is still wet. 

In the case of the fire below, I painted a light wash of yellow, then added in undiluted Indian Yellow, which dispersed into the wet paint.

Step 5: Work from large to small, background to foreground, and fill in objects one at a time.

Give yourself time to plan a color palette ahead of time, or time to think while you paint.  At this stage, you can still make color corrections later, but art is 80% planning and 20% execution.

After the background has been blocked in, I bein by blocking in Naomi's skin and clothes.

At this stage, I added a bit of yellow glow to Naomi's eyes, as though they're reflecting the fire.

The finished and dried blocked in watercolor painting.

You may have noticed that I did not block everything in- some objects are so small that they aren't worth blocking in at this stage, or so saturated that they may bleed into other colors as details are added.

Key Notes:

  • Always use the largest brush you are comfortable working with- most of this illustration was laid down with a size 10 synthetic.  Working large and loose early on will help prevent the illustration from becoming muddy.
  • Start out light- you can always mix colors darker, but you can't paint colors lighter.
  • Be patient- watercolor takes time!
  • Working on high quality watercolor paper (cotton rag, not cellulose) allows for better blending effects
  • High quality paper is more reworkable

Coming up next:  Rendering Our Watercolor Illustration

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For more beautiful watercolor work, why not pick up a copy of 7" Kara, Volume 1?  7" Kara is a lush watercolor comic the entire family can enjoy, following the adventures of tiny Kara as she discovers humans, explores the backyard, and befriends a kitten.  Created by Becca Hillburn, if you enjoy this blog and my art, you'll love 7" Kara.  Volume 1 is available in the Natto-shop.


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