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Creating the illusion of 3 dimensions- tips for watercolourists

I welcome a proper discussion here. So if this is helpful or you want to question, amend or add anything please do. It maybe that we should have a watercolour tutorial group here on RB where we can give and receive real advice, and critique in the same way that the photographic forum works.

I see lots of people on RB especially those relatively new to watercolour who haven’t been to art school developing from having an abstracted naive quality where objects are somewhat flattened, to trying to paint more literally and three dimensionally. Where this is happening they inevitably run into the problems which are in common for all of us who work with what we see rather than our imaginations. I started to discuss with someone how one can create the illusion of three dimensionality and thought it might be helpful to write down some of the things that have been passed on to me by others with a more experienced eye, who paint like this.

These things are not all obvious but most good books on watercolour will say the same kind of thing. Sadly though there are also dozens of them out there which are downright bad and teach hideous shortcuts and techniques. I personally found Charles Reid’s books among the best, but there is a tendency for his pupils to all paint like him!!! but his principles are SPOT ON regardless of stylistic issues and subject matter.

Golden rule
Dont paint objects paint areas of colour and tone. That is all there is too it!!!

Look for the relationship between one area of colour and another and note is that one lighter or darker. You should be able to do a monochrome sketch of the things you are painting with about eight or nine tonal steps from light to dark. No more are needed.
Although we know all objects have edges but we do not see like that. Not all edges around an object need to be described. In the transition from light to shadow areas often there is hardly a distinction between the background and object. It is very helpful to the eye to have these as lost edges- just don’t paint them or run a wash from the object into the background. It is helpful to squint at what you are painting then the areas of similar tonality will be much clearer.

Edge Control
This in many ways is the key issue. and one has to look for then practice creating so called lost and found edges. some are very clearly defined and contrasty some disappear. To create a disappearing edge if something is too definite. Just take a dryish brush and drag it once diagonally through the wash – smudging it into the background. then leave it. The interplay of these types of edges is fascinating.

Shadows
Cast shadows are invariably darker than the shadows on objects which are just where there is no direct light falling except where there is a marked difference in the tonality of the object and background eg a very dark jug on a white tablecloth. These should be connection however between these areas, look carefully for indications of colour cast from one surface to another and paint right over the edge at least with preliminary washes. so that this colour can travel from one place to another.
Do not paint much detail in shadow areas – leave them loose and a bit blurry. Its just annoys the eye to try and make out these definitions in shadow. Leave detail to brightly lit areas. Be very careful not to make the edges of cast shadows too strong they blur out quickly from the base of an object…Beware of describing too intensely the bottom of an object where it sits in shadow.. No hard lines here are required.

Warm and Cool Colours
This is a subjective area, but its helpful to get a sense of the overall warmness or coolness of the colours in front of you and use a pallet which corresponds. Hot reds adjacent powerfully cool blues like prussian or pthalo can hurt the eye.! So make a judgement are those hot reds or cool-bluish purply reds. Its amazing how the eye compensates when contrasting colours are set next to each other and intensify the sensation. Jazz can result from overplaying contrast or not having a harmonious pallet and in places that excitement is great benefit but it must be under control.

Leaving a White Lining
many painters beginning in watercolour leave a halo of white around things like leaves petals or objects. This is horrible!!! except where a deliberately niaive quality or primitive quality is being sought for. In naturalistic painting it simple destroys any illusion of three dimensionality. Paint over your edges…Sometimes it is helpful to paint absolutely huge puddles of washes in general wet on wet blobs before attempting any kind of definition. Let it dry thoroughly then begin on this toned paper. With opaque paint of course one can lay down a contrasting colour like the impressionists did often a pinkwhich was allowed to as it were bleed through under a sky. But with watercolour unless it is very dilute this is more difficult.

Colour in Shadows
Shadows are not colourless.. They are a vibrant part of the whole so practice mixing shadow tones get them rich and deep and powerful first time.. Don’t rely on building up too many layers better to get it slightly wrong and strong than weak and muddly. Shadows often though have a bluish or cool cast to them whereas areas in sunlight are yellower and warmer. The interplay of warm and cool here can be fantastic and in fact can create ravishing beauty and a sensation of depth even if similarly toned.

Painting from photographs
Its much better and more rewarding to set up something real as a still life or go outside and paint rather than paint from a photograph. The eye doesn’t see as the camera does. It is far far superior and compensates for contrasts in a way a camera cannot although some well processsed hdr shots sometimes approximate to it. So in photographs shadows are a real problem as the camera simplifies and usually flattens information in shadow areas or it blows out skies or light to compensate if a shot has been overexposed to get the shadow information. So what you paint when you see a photo is information already processed, and its hard then to make it look convincing. Its open invitation too to try out techniques, and that is often a bit fatal as it goes against the grain of using a brush expressively and developing ones own handwriting. Obviously though for certain types of subject photo references are essential as in group portraiture.

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