how to paint watercolor

preserving the whites

how to paint watercolor

One of the basic techniques of learning how to paint watercolor is preserving the white of the paper.

White watercolor paint does not exist. We use the white of the paper for the white in our paintings.

  • Paint a lovely butterfly using the paper for the whites.

How to paint watercolor, Carol May demonstrates painting butterflies in a lovely butterfly painting.Long-wing Butterfly on a Butterfly Bush

painting preparations

We are going to be painting on my favorite watercolor support Ampersand's Aquabord, an 8"x10".

When I was learning how to paint watercolor I used paper, but now I much prefer Aquabord.

For the composition I placed the butterfly to the right of center, facing into the painting.

The color scheme is a triad of colors equally spaced around the color wheel.

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painting colors

  • orange, Cadmium Orange and Coral Orange
  • green, Viridian Green and Sap Green
  • purple, Quinacridone Violet and Dioxazine Violet


For additional watercolor preparations check out the Basic Watercolor Techniques and Watercolor FAQs.


how to preserve the whites in watercolor

The first thing to learn about how to paint watercolor is how to get white in your painting.

  • Leave the white paper unpainted is the simplest way to get the white in watercolor paintings.
  • Masking fluid, also called frisket is a liquid rubbery type substance that is applied to areas before painting.
  • Frisket sheets can be cut to shape. Use them to cover large areas. Cut them a tiny bit smaller than the area you are protecting. Then use the liquid frisket to seal down the edges.
  • Masking tape may be used. It is good for straight lines like the horizon or the side of a building.
  • Lifting preparation may be applied before painting. Then paint may be removed down to the white of the paper.
  • Sand paper may be used to remove the paint from the tops of the bumps of watercolor paper for added texture.
  • Scratching and scrapping tools are available to use on Aquabord.
  • A brisk water stream from a spray bottle will wash some paint away. Then blot up the loose paint and water.
  • A damp brush can also be used to lift paint. Rub the brush to loosen paint and blot it up with a paper towel. Or use the brush in a straight line to make tree trunks or leaf veins in a painted area.

Let's get started painting.


painting the butterfly

In this painting I use two of the most common methods of preserving the whites in watercolor paintings.

Leave some areas of the paper white and some masking fluid to keep some places paper white.

I applied frisket to areas on the flower and leaves.

The frisket needs to be dry before painting. It takes about 30 minutes to dry. You may speed the drying with a hair dryer. But don't get it too hot or it will not be removable later.

I mixed a dark color with Viridian and Dioxazine Violet and painted around the white spots on the butterfly's wings.

Add orange to warm the mixture and make it brown for the areas closer to the body.

Use less water for darker colors. And obviously more water gives lighter colors.

When you near the butterfly's body start adding orange, blend it into the brown.

What are my favorite watercolor paint colors?

Painting the butterfly wing and leaving the white spotsPaint around the white spots.
See the frisket on areas of the flower.


I would like to note just a bit of butterfly anatomy. Butterflies have four wings and six legs.

The wings and legs are attached to the thorax, the fat part of the body behind the head.

You can faintly see the division between the fore-wing and the hind-wing going at an angle up to the thorax.

Paint the dark border on the hind-wing.

Feather the colors together by running a clean damp brush along the juncture of the dark and orange.

Painting butterflies with Carol MayContinue painting the butterfly wings.


  • Controlling the amount of water is one of the most important aspects of how to paint watercolor.

If necessary, darken the areas around the white spots. Adjust the shape of the white spots where needed.

Now turn your attention to the butterfly's body.

Paint the left, shadow side dark. Lighten the value toward the light and leave a few highlight for interest.

The body is partially covered by the edges of the hind-wings. The tail end of the body peaks out behind the wings.

Complete painting the butterfly body and wings.Complete the butterfly.

Add a few dark veins to the fore-wings with brown. Lightly suggest veins in the hind wings.

We will do the butterfly head and antenna after the flower is painted.

When you are satisfied with the butterfly, move on to the flower.

What butterflies are commonly seen in the United States?



paint the flower and leaves

Paint the flower with dark and light purples.

Loosely paint the flower with a stippling motion.

Use your red-purple on the light side of the flower.

Use Dioxazine Violet on the shadow side.

Notice the masking fluid preserves the white highlights on the flower.

Painting the watercolor flowerPaint the flower.


Use a variety of grey-greens for the leaves.

Mix a green from Viridian and Dioxazine Purple.

Paint the leaves with light and darker greens.

Leave a center vein on some of the leaves.

We will paint the stem after the masking fluid is removed.

Painting the Butterfly Bush leavesPaint the leaves.


The background

I loosely paint the background with a flat brush.

Loose backgrounds are one of the joys of learning how to paint watercolor.

Start the lower left corner with Dioxazine.

Change to warmer violet and a variety of greens farther up in the painting.

Paint the background around the butterflyStart painting the background.

Mingle the background colors together to make them out of focus.

A spray of water mixes the colors above the flower to make look out of focus.

In the tighter areas below the flower, I used a damp brush to mingle the colors and soften the edges.

The wet colors flow together. That's the beauty of painting with watercolor.

Let the background colors flow togetherMake the background out of focus.


the finish

Now comes the fun part of how to paint watercolor. It is always exciting to see the whites revealed.

The whites in addition to bold colors make a lively painting.

When you are satisfied with the flower and background, dry the painting thoroughly.

The painting is dry when it is not cool to the touch.

After the painting is dry remove the masking fluid (the frisket).

Remove the frisket with a rubber cement pick-up tool or your fingers.

When the frisket is removed the white paper is revealed.

The frisket (masking fluid) has been removed and the white paper is revealed.Reveal the whites.

One of the basics of how to paint watercolors is to repeat colors throughout the painting.

The butterfly is obviously orange. So I used a pale orange wash on the edges of the leaves.

I also used brown and orange on the twig in the lower left.

The flowers on my purple Butterfly Bush have orange centers. So I lightly indicated them in a few places.

The flower is complete and the masking fluid has been removed, so now we can finish the butterfly's head.

Add the final touches to your beautiful butterfly painting.Add touches of a pale orange.

This is my version of how to paint watercolor. See the finished painting at the top of the page.

now it's your turn - enjoy!

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