Using watercolour to paint detail

Step by step tutorial on painting a peacock in watercolour

The traditional way of using watercolour is to apply it wet in wet in a very loose style, the wet paper allows the colours to merge, blend and sometimes, if your paper is really wet, even flow around the surface.  Artists will sometimes flick paint onto their paper and let the colours move and drip across the surface to give the impression of movement or life to a subject, sometimes increasing the tilt on the paper to get an even more dramatic run.  Alternatively they may use the wet in wet technique to create skies, suggestions of landscapes, animals and people.  This impressionistic approach produces some wonderful paintings which capture a moment in time in a beautifully soft and often very vibrant way.

Painting a hare's eye in watercolour

My style is anything but traditional!  I do use the wet in wet techniques to create backgrounds, suggestions of landscapes and the foundation layers of my paintings but once these are in place I prefer to work with a tiny brush, often on a dry or slightly damp surface and with complete control on where I am placing the paint.  In fact my style is more akin to the way a botanical artist would approach their work – with absolute attention to detail and a desire to replicate the subject in a way that is as realistic and true to that subject as possible.  But achieving this, with what is in effect coloured water, requires a great deal of patience and a different approach to using the medium.

Step by step stages to painting a rabbit in watercolour

First of all, preserving the white of the paper for all the really light areas of fur within a rabbit, or the tiny light feathers in a bird would be almost impossible, it would certainly take a very long time!  I do use masking fluid, but tend to reserve it for masking out my main subject so I can apply the mottled / muted backgrounds around them.  I may also use masking fluid to preserve a small area of white in a largely colourful subject and I have also been known to use it to create a suggestion of layers and depth within say a teasel head, nest, moss, grass or sand.  On the whole, I actually add my white highlights last, over the top of the colours.  Initially I would use a mixed media technique and had either a tube of white gouache or one of white acrylic as part of my kit.  I simply used a fine brush and added the white as and where I needed it.  However, I now favour using a watercolour white – it has to be an opaque version and used in the right way, you can achieve exactly the same as you can with gouache or acrylic.

Meerkat in watercolour by Paul Hopkinson, a great example of opaque white in use.

I also favour using very tiny brushes.  My main ‘go to’ brush for fine detail is a Winsor and Newton, Cotman Series 111 size 00.  This is a good quality, synthetic brush made from a mixture of fibres.  The thicker fibres give the brush strength whereas the thinner fibres enable it to carry colour and water well.  When working with my finer brushes, generally the surface needs to be really dry or at the very most slightly damp.  This enables me to have much more control of the paint and water and allows very precise lines and detail to be created.  Working with a slightly damp surface creates a more blended look to the marks and that can work for creating depth, dimension and realism.

How to paint a parrot in watercolour, the button links to the video tutorials

I am a firm believer in ‘doing what is right for you’.  Personally I like my paintings to be as realistic as possible.  Whilst I am in awe of hyperrealism this is not a style for me to personally try and achieve.  I prefer my paintings to look like paintings – maybe a bit real at first glance, but certainly a painting when you get up close.  How about you, what sort of painting style do you prefer and why?
Until the next time, don’t forget to keep them brushes wet!
Paul