Learn how to layer form with watercolor in 6 easy steps with this free Dragon Pass demo from Tom Kidd’s OtherWorlds. When working in watercolor, you want to plan ahead and work from light to dark to create texture and a sense of atmospheric perspective. You can certainly make watercolor do exactly what you want and create perfect gradations, but you’ll find that your painting will be more interesting if you follow where the paint leads you.
Dragon Pass finished art
Surface: Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper
Watercolors: Burnt Umber, Indian Yellow, Manganese Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Payne’s Gray, Permanent Rose, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, Raw Umber, Titanium White (Opaque)
Brushes: 11/2–3-inch (38–76mm) sable flats, no. 1 sable round
Tools: HB pencil, sketch paper, kneaded eraser, rag
1. Finding the Right Scene with Idea Sketches
Use an HB pencil to sketch your ideas. If your sketch lines get too dark, press into the darker areas with a kneaded eraser to lift up some of the pencil. There are many different ways an idea can be drawn. Here you can change how close you are to the dragon, what level you’re viewing it from, its pose, the time of day or adjust your relative position on the planet’s axis. Each drawing will have its own feeling. It’s all a matter of what you want to emphasize more than it is a matter of aesthetics.
2. Sketch your Final Drawing Lightly
Unlike oil painting, watercolor is done over a detailed pencil drawing. Because watercolor is a transparent medium, the drawing will easily show through, serving both as a guide for painting and as a means to show texture. Make sure your final idea sketch is light enough to paint over.
3. Lay in a Yellow Wash
Using Indian Yellow place a yellow wash over the entire surface using a 3-inch (76mm) wide sable flat. The paper may have some wrinkle to it, but it will flatten with time. This yellow wash is intended to give the painting a subtle yellow shift with the other paint that you layer on top.
4. Lay in the Sky & Rocks
Lay a thin layer of watered-down Phthalo Blue into the sky area with a wide soft brush moving back and forth left to right. Let the paint flow a bit unevenly as if it’s a bit hazy in the sky. The Phthalo Blue will shift toward green because it’ll mix with the yellow ground. Brush in a layer of water to the rock forms. While moist, apply a layer of Burnt Umber to achieve soft edges to the rocks. By painting wet-into-wet, the paint will naturally flow to the edges of the water and form a sharp-looking edge when the water evaporates. This happens because of the water’s high surface tension. If you want to create a sharp edge with watercolor, let the water bead up some so the color flows to the bead’s edge leaving an edge to it. If you want to make an area softer, lightly rub it with a moist brush, rag or finger.
5. Soften Edges With a Rag
While the surface is wet, mix Manganese Blue into the umbers ofthe distant pinnacle and rocks to variegate the colors and create some atmospheric perspective. Mix Indian Yellow, Phthalo Green and Permanent Rose to make a warm green and place dabs here and there with your sable round to create bits of moss and vegetation that cling to the rocks. The blue picks up some of the yellow from the initial wash and shifts toward green to help enhance the atmospheric perspective. When you move a watercolor brush across watercolor paper, the paint readily leaves the brush to the absorbent paper. You can’t scrape away the paint or use it thickly as you can with oil paint. However, you can blend or wipe away some of the watercolor after it dries. This can be done to correct mistakes but primarily it’s done to give the paint even more character. The easiest way to do this is to wipe it with a moist rag. Allow the paint to create all kinds of interesting effects and later keep the ones you want and wipe down the ones you think are too ostentatious.
6. Darken the Shadows & Add Highlights
Use a sable on its edge and crisscross strokes to create more layers of watercolor. Create a mixture of Payne’s Gray and Raw Umber for the shadow in the foreground. Use Manganese Blue Hue for the shadows in the distance. Add the final highlights opaquely with Titanium White. Although it may feel like cheating, there’s no rule that says you cannot work opaquely with watercolor. It’s best to save such opaque details for the end to take advantage of the wonderful properties of this medium.
Tom Kidd has been a top award-winning fantasy art illustrator for over twenty years. His work has been featured in many volumes of the Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art series, and he is the author of Kiddography: The Art and Life of Tom Kidd for Anova Books/Paper Tiger. He has won multiple awards—including an impressive six Chesley Awards and four Hugo Award nominations—for his science fiction and fantasy art, which has encompassed book covers and interiors, magazines, films, and figurines.