how to paint watercolor

preserving whites


how to paint watercolor

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

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

Follow me as I do a lovely butterfly painting using the paper for the whites.

painting preparations

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

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.

My painting colors are:

  • 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 watercolor basics page.

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

preserving the whites

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

  • Leave the paper white. The first thing to learn about how to paint watercolor is to leave the whites.
  • 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.

Preserving whites in watercolor paintingPaint around the white spots.
See the frisket on areas of the flower.


painting the butterfly

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.

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.

Paint orange as you near the butterfly's body.

Painting the butterfly wingContinue painting the wing
with orange next to the body.


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.


If necessary, darken the areas around the white spots.

I used too much water to start with, so I had to paint them a couple of times.

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

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.

Painting a longwing butterfly by Carol MayPaint the butterfly body.


Notice the butterfly body is partially covered by the edges of the hind-wings.

The tail end of the body peaks out behind 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.

Complete painting the butterflyComplete the butterfly wings and body.

paint the flower and leaves

Painting the watercolor flowerPaint the flower from dark to light purples.

Loosely paint the flower with a stippling motion.

Use your red-purple on the light side and Dioxazine Violet on the shadow side.

Painting the Butterfly Bush leavesUse a variety of grey-greens for the leaves.

Mix a green from Viridian and Dioxazine.

Paint the leaves with light and darker greens. Leave a center vein on some.


The background

Paint the background around the butterflyLoose backgrounds are one of the joys of learning how to paint watercolor.

I loosely paint the background with a flat brush.

Start with Dioxazine, change to warmer violet and a variety of greens farther up the painting.

Let the background colors flow togetherMingle the background colors together to make them out of focus.

A spray of water to mixed the colors above the flower.

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


reveal the whites

This is one of the fun parts of how to paint watercolors. The whites in addition to bold colors make a lively painting.

Let the painting dry before you remove the masking fluid.Let the painting dry before
removing the masking.

Dry the painting thoroughly, when you are satisfied with the flower and background.

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

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

Now comes the fun part. It is always exciting to see the painting with the whites revealed.

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


finishing touches

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 from the butterfly's head.

Now we can finish the head and paint the antenna.

Add the final touches to your beautiful butterfly painting.Add finishing 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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