how to paint watercolor: using the white paper for the whites in your paintings

Learn how to paint watercolor with the basic technique of preserving the white paper.

We will paint a lovely butterfly resting a Butterfly Bush flower. The white paper will be used for the white in the painting.

Why, you may ask? Because there is no white watercolor paint. Various watercolor techniques can be used to preserve the white paper.

Paint this lovely butterfly using the white of the paper.

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

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how to preserve the whites in watercolor

There are a number of ways a watercolor artist may use to preserve the white paper. Here are the most common methods.

#1 in how to paint watercolor is - save the whites.

  • Leave the white paper unpainted is the simplest way to get the white in watercolor paintings.
  • Masking fluid 'ad' (also called frisket) is a liquid rubbery type substance that is applied to areas before painting.
  • Frisket sheets 'ad' 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.
  • Artist masking tape 'ad' may be used. It is good for straight lines like the horizon or a building.
  • Lifting preparation 'ad' 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.




how to paint watercolor

painting preparations

We are going to be painting on my favorite watercolor support 'ad' 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.

painting colors

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

painting the butterfly

Painting the butterfly wing and leaving the white paper spots.Paint around the white spots.
See the frisket on the flower.
  • In this painting we will use two common methods of preserving the whites in watercolor paintings.
  1. Leave some areas of the paper white by painting around those areas.

  2. Apply 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.



Painting the butterfly wing, add orange closer to the body.Add orange closer to the body.
Blend it into the black.

Mix a dark color with Viridian and Dioxazine Violet and paint 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.



Painting butterflies with Carol MayContinue painting the butterfly wings.

Please 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.

how much water is important in learning how to paint watercolor.



Paint the butterfly's body.Paint the butterfly's body.
  • Using more water produces lighter colors.

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 paint the veins on the wings.Paint the veins on the wings.

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 do we see in the United States?






paint the flower and leaves

Painting the watercolor flower that the butterfly is sitting on.Start painting the flower.

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 Butterfly Bush leavesPaint the leaves.

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.






The background

Paint the background around the butterfly,Start painting the background.

Dampen the area you will be painting, so the paint will flow on easier.

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.



Continue painting the background around the flower and butterfly.Continue painting the background.

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

Use a smaller brush for the tighter areas.

Paint lighter, subdued greens or lavender in the background areas. Then using the smaller brush paint some darker greens or violet on top of the lighter areas.

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



Let the background colors flow together.Make the background out of focus.

Above the flower a spray of water mixes the colors to make them look out of focus.

  • Use water on the edges of the background color to soften the colors into the white.

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

The wet colors flow together.

That's the beauty of painting with watercolor.


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




the finish

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

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

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

After the painting is dry remove the masking fluid (the frisket) with a rubber cement pick-up tool or your fingers.

When the frisket is removed the white paper is revealed!



Add the final touches to your beautiful butterfly painting.Add touches of a pale orange.
  • One of the basics of how to paint watercolors is to repeat colors throughout the painting.

The butterfly is obviously orange.

So use a pale orange wash on the edges of the leaves.

The twig in the lower left was painted with brown and orange highlights.



Complete painting the butterfly head and antenna.Paint the butterfly head and antenna.

The flowers on the purple Butterfly Bush have orange centers.

Lightly indicated some orange in a few places on the flowers.

Now we can finish the butterfly's head.

Paint the butterfly's head and leave highlights for the eyes.

A script liner brush works for painting the antenna.



the painting is finished

This is how to paint watercolor using the white of the paper.

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

Completed Longwing Butterfly painting by Carol MayCompleted painting

now it's your turn


enjoy painting your butterflies!



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