100 – Reference Sketching in Watercolor

You can do little pencil or ink drawings as reference and practice sketches but if you really want to prepare yourself for handling various subjects and conditions in watercolor, get out your paints! Don’t try to capture too much detail or to take in too much. Focus on one thing at a time. For this mini-lesson, we are going to focus on depicting water in various states. By doing reference sketches regularly, you’ll have a good idea of how to handle larger works with similar elements. You’ll be able to be more spontaneous and loose. You won’t be figuring out how to create still water or rushing water and what order to put down your washes and strokes. You’ll already have some experience with it.


One Color
Painting in one color. To learn about values and to prevent becoming confused too soon by multiple colors, paint sketches with only one color. Think before you paint each stroke. Make sure that the distant objects appear lighter than the closer ones. A good color to use is Paynes Gray. Copying from a black and white photo can help you get started with this.

Speed is important in reference sketching. It’s important to make sure that you’re aware of the excitement that triggered your choosing a particular subject. This quality will come through in the sketch and hopefully you’ll be able to use the sketch in a more finished work and translate some of that initial excitement.

Not a Finished Piece
It’s easy to get enchanted by these small studies and avoid larger works. The danger is that these small works get too tight and end up as overworked pieces in of themselves. The point of these sketches is to improve larger works and lend spontaneity to larger work.

Still Water
Still water acts like a mirror. You can paint the reflections with a wash rather than strokes. Keep in mind the value. The reflection might be slightly darker due to the color of the water and how deep the water is.

Ruffled Water
Paint ruffled water with strokes leaving the white of the paper in between the strokes. If the current is swift it will break the reflection more and more to the point where there is little obvious reflection.

For all intents and purposes a reflection can duplicate a pole above it. Consider whether a pole is upright, angled toward the viewer, or is receding.

Boats and Other Objects
Practice painting reflections of all kinds. Use your observational skills but remember that our paintings are not entirely dependent on existing realism. Be playful with your brush strokes. These reference sketches are the perfect place to experiment!

Waterfalls and Waves
Use a combination of washes and drybrush to depict moving water. Save the whites for the foam and spray. You may even want to add some gouache to accentuate some splashes!

I’m a big fan of practice and breaking down the elements of a painting. Reference sketches are an opportunity to get familiar with a subject, learn what order to put down washes and strokes., get a feel for the character and gesture that you want in a more finished piece. You really can’t go wrong by putting in a bit of painting time in your sketchbook!

Happy Painting!!


Here are the Details for Watercolor Sketching 2:
Garden Journaling

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