Advanced Watercolor Landscape Tutorial

Watercolor painting is a beautiful and expressive medium, especially when it comes to capturing the splendor of landscapes. In this tutorial, we will explore how to create a stunning watercolor landscape using a photo reference. By the end, you’ll have the skills to translate a photograph into a captivating and evocative watercolor painting.

Let’s get started creating an amazing watercolor landscape using photo reference

Let’s embark on an artistic adventure and bring to life an extraordinary watercolor landscape using a captivating photo reference. With brushes in hand and a world of colors at our disposal, we’ll unveil the beauty of nature on a blank canvas, channeling emotions and creativity to craft an awe-inspiring masterpiece.

Suggested Material Checklist

Materials can make or break the outcome of a watercolor study. Watch the video that covers the best watercolor materials if you need more specifics about color choices, brush sizes and such. Basically, it’s exactly what I use and recommend for all levels.

Watercolor Paints: Opt for artist-grade watercolor paints in a range of colors. Choose a basic palette that includes six primary colors (one cool and warm hue for each one including red, blue, and yellow) along with earth tones for a versatile collection.

If you aren’t aware of the six primary palette, then check out our in-depth article on how to mix watercolors for beginners. It has the exact hues I use for every painting. And, if I make changes, I always update the article so you know the exact hues that get the best results.

Brushes: Invest in a set of good-quality watercolor brushes with different shapes and sizes. Round brushes are excellent for detailed work, while flat brushes are great for larger washes. I’d recommend one medium and one large pointed round. Then get a large mop brush that will handle those initial washed that are applied in the very beginning.

You only need three brushes to do most of the heavy lifting! However, I do recommend having a dagger and possibly and Motler on hand as well. Check out the article I wrote on how to choose the best watercolor brushes if you have questions on the exact brands, sizes and such.

Paper: I highly recommend selecting watercolor paper specifically designed for this medium. Look for papers labeled “cold-pressed” or “hot-pressed” to suit your preferred texture. Experiment with different weights and brands to find the one that suits your style. Most beginners choose 140 lb. cold press to start their journey. Hot press tends to be a little slick and most used for highly detailed work and portraits.

Avoid cheap, wood pulp papers as they don’t react properly to washes and other techniques. These cheaper papers tend to break down quickly and don’t age well either, basically yellowing over time. Be sure to read the how to choose the best watercolor paper article when you have time.

If you aren’t aware of the six primary palette, then check out our in-depth article on how to mix watercolors for beginners. It has the exact hues I use for every painting. And, if I make changes, I always update the article so you know the exact hues that get the best results.

Palette: A palette is essential for mixing and diluting your watercolors. Choose a palette with wells to hold different colors and a large mixing area. Small palettes tend to get dirty too quick and I found it difficult to have enough free space to mix enough colors without having to stop everything to clean up. The Masterson Pro palette works great and available at Amazon and Blick Art.

Water Containers: Have at least two containers for water—one for rinsing your brushes and another for clean water. Make sure the containers aren’t too small, and I would recommend plastic over glass. I’ve had plenty of studio accidents and cleaning up shattered glass isn’t ideal when in a creative mode.

Masking Tape and Drawing Board: Masking tape helps secure your paper to a drawing board, keeping it flat and preventing it from warping. The tape is optional and depends if you prefer the clean edges. In the beginning you will most likely focus on sketches and studies, so maybe pass until you determine later on if you need it.

A smooth, firm board is a must! I recommend Gator foam board as it’s very sturdy, smooth and durable. Fairly inexpensive and light weight to boot. That covers materials, let’s move on to skills you need to start watercolor painting.

Here is an in-depth article about the watercolor materials I use and highly recommend. Have a look!

Inspiration image
Inspiration image

Tips for Choosing a Good Photo Reference

Selecting the right photo reference is crucial for a successful watercolor landscape. You can browse Pinterest or sites like Shutterstock for photo references, they’re great! You can see the photo used for this article below. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Composition and Depth: Look for a photo with a strong composition, interesting elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background. This will add depth and make your painting visually appealing.
  2. Lighting and Values: A photo with clear lighting and a wide range of values will make your watercolor more dynamic and captivating.
  3. Simplicity vs. Complexity: Choose a reference that you can realistically handle in watercolor. Extremely complex scenes may be overwhelming for a watercolor painting.
  4. Emotional Connection: Pick a photo that resonates with you emotionally. Your passion for the subject will come through in your painting.

Always Consider Design and Composition

Once you have your photo reference, spend some time analyzing the design and composition. Identify the main focal point and decide on the overall layout of your painting. Consider the rule of thirds or the golden ratio to guide your composition.

Create a Small Value Hierarchy Plan

Before diving into painting, create a small value hierarchy plan. This involves identifying the lightest and darkest areas in your reference photo and everything in between. You can make a quick grayscale sketch to map out these values, helping you better understand the tonal balance in your painting.

Tips for Painting the Finished Watercolor Landscape using Three Layers

Now let’s move on to the painting process. We will use a three-layer approach to build depth and dimension in your watercolor landscape.

Layer 1: Base wash

  1. Wet the entire paper evenly with clean water using a large brush.
  2. Apply a light wash of the sky color, working around any white clouds or highlights.
  3. Gradually add washes of color for the distant background elements like mountains or faraway trees.
  4. Let this layer dry completely before moving on.

Layer 2: Capture light and shadow

  1. With a slightly smaller brush, start adding more details to the middle ground elements, such as trees, buildings, or bodies of water.
  2. Use a mix of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques to achieve soft and hard edges, creating a sense of depth.
  3. Allow the paint to blend and mingle on the paper, but be mindful of preserving highlights.
  4. Again, let this layer dry before proceeding.

Layer 3: Add finishing touches

  1. Now, with the smallest brush, focus on the intricate details in the foreground. This could be individual leaves, rocks, or any prominent features.
  2. Add darker values to create contrast and make the foreground pop.
  3. Continue using a combination of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques to control the paint.
  4. Make sure to refine any highlights and make them stand out.

Final Touches

  1. Once all layers are dry, evaluate your painting and make any necessary adjustments.
  2. Add any final details, accents, or highlights to enhance the overall effect.
  3. Sign your artwork and share your masterpiece with the world!
Advanced Watercolor Landscape Tutorial using Photo Reference
Advanced Watercolor Landscape Tutorial using Photo Reference

Final thoughts

Remember, watercolor painting is a journey of learning and experimentation. Don’t be discouraged by mistakes; they are part of the process. Keep practicing, and with time, you’ll develop your own unique style and master the art of watercolor landscapes.

Happy painting!