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This week, in watercolor class, we are going to work on landscapes that include big skies or water. I think it is one of the most difficult of subject material, not because sky and water are difficult to render but because the artist needs to learn to let go and allow the water he is using to do some of the work. Both subjects lend themselves well to the abstract and the artist needs to learn to balance that look of the abstract with his desire to control everything he renders. The relinquishing of that control and the ability to watch what is happening on his paper is part of creating beautiful skies and believable water scenes.

One thing I did was to learn something about granulating washes. Here are two of my practice sheets of running color, one into the other, to see the different combinations they would produce.

colorwashes        colorwashes2

I learned that it was very difficult to get muddy if I used enough water and allowed the colors to mix effortlessly together.

Time after time, I have run into problems with sky and water pieces when they are the major element to my painting. I had to learn to work quickly and keep my paper wet, to lift clouds with tissue or a damp brush and to tickle the edges of clouds with a brush where I wanted them softer. I learned that my sky or water would be a believable rendition of the subject material but not the exact replica. I learned to use my reference material as just that, a reference and not an “end all”, JUST LIKE IT  in the finished painting. The skies that I have to go back into in a series of glazes are more edgy than those I can pull off in one pass over the page, so I tend to work with stronger color in the first pass on a sky. With waterscapes? I usually do three or four glazes. Water becomes more and more believable as I begin to work the darks into it. Frisket is great for saving sparkly hints of light on water.

I painted the above sunset in two passes. The clouds were lifted with a tissue and then lightly shaded in the second pass.


I ran into a problem with the sky in the above painting and ended up with a more edgy look to the sky than I would have liked.  Be patient. Sometimes these paintings of sky and water go through an ugly phase. The real interest was not in the sky but in the shapes in the water and the backlit trees casting reflections into the foreground.  Learn to let what is happening on the paper with the water and the pigment to help you.   I am forever learning what the water can do.


  1. Love the vibrant colors!

    • Thankyou, Caroline! These were fun to do just to be able to play in those colors.

  2. Skies are great and these images are great.

  3. Thank you!
    These are beautiful paintings.

  4. Wow, the color is spectacular! I wonder if you have switched over to that new paper you like for all your watercolors now? It’s always good to hear artists talk about how they learned to do things. I think a lot of young artists get frustrated when their first attempts are not little masterpieces. It took/takes us all a lot of practice, and there’s no way around it! I like both skies. The one you call more edgy has some really cool effects. The natural world can be so mysterious. 😀

    • These are actually on the old paper I like which is Arches 140lb coldpress. I think I like both equally for what they do. I also like a paper called Lanaquerelle rough 140lb. I guess it is because I like to see what different papers will do with a subject. Ha! I have to laugh about that masterpiece statement. I know exactly what you mean. That’s what it is all about, like you say, the “mystery”. Thank you, Cindy. 🙂

  5. What delights! I treasure my clouds and sea watercolor!

    • …and you know only too well how long I have been working on trying to paint effective skies and water. Thankyou, so much, Kate!

  6. Hi Leslie! I recently learned to turn the painting upside down when painting the sky, and tilt your surface a bit so that the paint pools toward the top of your cloud, not the bottom. Experiment–I found that this often gives me a more fluid sky with a brighter/lighter horizon. I love painting sky/water and can’t get enough!

    • Hi Joy! You are so right and I forgot to mention that, here. so thank you. Oh yes, both of these were tilted this way and that to make those washes run. It helps! Thank you for that! You rock!

  7. Dramatic, bold sunsets Leslie! Love them.

  8. Gorgeous and vibrant – I like the energy in this piece.

  9. Wonderful and exciting. This is fun.

    • Fun was what it was, especially that top one. I worked top to bottom, once and then went back in for one more pass and rather surprised myself with it. Thank you, Gretchen.

  10. Wow, such gorgeous colors, this subject is my craving and I cant stop painting the skies! I loved the way the colors ran in to each other with free flow, the back lit trees and their reflections steal the show!

    • I think the sky and water paintings you have been creating are absolutely soulful, Padmaja, so I treasure your comment on these. Thank you.

  11. You always were and still are an awesome artist Leslie 🙂

    Andro xxx

    • Thank you, so much, Andro. 🙂

        • Gray Dawster
        • Posted November 12, 2013 at 4:12 am
        • Permalink

        You are welcome my sweet friend 🙂

        Andro xxxx

  12. Such beautiful skies! The thing about water is that it will never work the same way twice, I don’t think. And that makes watercolors so exciting for me.

    • Hi Sherry,
      Yep. That is surely the allure for me, too, is that partnering with the water. It keeps each painting fresh and new. Thank you!

  13. Absolutely great paintings! Surely those topics are the most difficult ones in watercolor painting. The first painting looks like the skies in a nightmare. I love it!

    • Ha! I think you are right! There is that mystery to it! Thank you, so much! 🙂

  14. Omg Leslie, you’re sooo talented!!!
    Love these paintings so much!

    • You are too complimentary, Cha! Thank you for this boost! It is truly appreciated!

      • No I’m not. It’s just that I really like these paintings and I’m enthusiastic, that’s all 🙂

      • Thankyou! 🙂

  15. Leslie, thank you once again for being a wonderful teacher. I loved reading this post and am astounded by your backlit trees. They are gorgeous and stunning.

    • Thank you for liking those backlit trees. I obsessed over my rendition of the sky in that one because I could not pull off softer edge transitions between colors. Realised, too late. that the piece was more about those trees and the reflections or shadows they cast onto the water.

  16. Both are lovely. The flow on the first one wonderful. Your practice sheets for it are very interesting. I have the problem if I do that too much of that, I get attached to one and then try to reproduce it too closely. That doesn’t usually work well for me. I totally understand the reference photo concept also. I have frustrated myself when I look back at previous work that came out well and tried to copy a technique or color scheme instead of letting the next work have its own dynamic. It’s a hard habit to break, but letting a new piece develop itself usually ends up to be a much better thing.

    I think you successfully made the shadows in the water the focal point. That’s where my eyes went right away.

    • Ha! I love what you say about getting attached to a color wash. I have tried that, too. I do these, more or less, to make sure I have a combination that would, perhaps, be pleasing to the eye. I think about what you have said, here, and I think you suggested something that is really the reason why I have so much fun with this medium and I bet it is one of the reasons you like it too. It’s that element of surprise. It’s that little bit of daring that goes along with not “REALLY” knowing what the outcome will be. So many aspects of our lives are taken up with doing things just a certain way that it is fun to sit down with this piece of paper, the pigment , and the water and see what happens. It’s really a bit freeing. ..and I learn something just about everytime. Thankyou for this comment!

  17. So beautiful!❤️

  18. Gorgeous colors and shapes! In your latest post I love the effect created by the soft sponge, but I also love the slight harder edges here. There’s still a softness/delicacy to them. So my opinion is both ways achieve beautiful results.

    • Thankyou so much, applenpear. You are making a good point about hard and soft edges. All these choices we make keep art varied and interesting…..

  19. I was imagining the washes as painting of their own Leslie, like little blueprints of separate paintings….Cuz the colors are so lovely!… Also, the sky is really good in all of them… I think you mastered that, which I usually have trouble with… Great notes there, and yes , know what you mean by stepping back and wearing a fresh pair of eyes… It really works… I almost switch on my tv, and then sideways glance at my works from 10 feet away :D… Just to see check if the value contrasts are working!

    • I love that idea of the washes as paintings of their own, Divya. Thankyou for that insight and your comment to these paintings. 🙂

  20. 🙂

  21. Brilliant !
    Love all vibrant colors❤️

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Beginning Watercolor | Leslie White on 13 Dec 2015 at 1:25 am

    […] the fourth week we discussed clouds and the different techniques we could use to create them. We also talked about painting water and […]

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