Applying Watercolor

First what you will need to learn is how to apply water color (which is like the hardest part).

I drew a Kiki, for this excersise, which is a simple drawing to start with. I know you might want to jump into the heavy duty stuff, but if you go straight to that, you might get a little bit desperate (trust me, because I’ve  walked that path myself). It’s better to learn the basics and slowly go up in levels. Once you know how to apply watercolor and how to solve common problems, THEN it’ll be easier to tackle harder subjects watercolor-wise.

But before we start running, let’s tackle the basics :D

There are lots of ways of applying watercolor. Mainly the technique branches into Wet and Dry.

The differences from one another lay  in how you prepare your canvas. Wet, implies sticking your piece of paper to a hard surface and damp it with water and for this, I’m afraid you have to be very skilled to achieve good results. I honestly never liked the Wet Techinque as it requieres a lot of preparation ONLY for the canvas to be ready for painting, and also one needs to have another person to set the canvas properly on the hard surface and so on. Dry, however it’s faster and less messy and for fan art purposes works just fine. So well, with that being said, we are going to work on a dry canvas. For this purpose I used a sheet of strathmore block (cold press. the rest of the materials are listed below).


Anyway, this Kiki was drawn using a staedler’s lumocholor lead that won’t smudge when the watercolor has been applied. You can use a watercolor pencil (derrewent’s or Faber Castell’s) or to spare yourselves for the search of this item, ink the drawing. just please, be sure the ink you are using is labeled waterproof. Although I must warn you sometimes, even when the bottle says “waterproof”, the lines might as well smudge as soon as the water touches them. To be sure run a test: draw a line with the ink, wait for it to dry and then with your brush apply a little bit of water. If the lines stay were they should, you are very ready to go.


Now for this excersice the materials we are gonna need are:

  • 1.-Clean Table
  • 2.-Half pan watercolors
  • 3.-“Round” Brushes (01, 03)
  • 4.- Eyedropper or syringe
  • 5.-Regular containers (4. two for water and 1 to mix the color)
  • 6.- A sheet of watercolor paper (cold press, most likely)
  • 7.- A cloth, and napkins (I recommend you those that are used for cooking, the thick ones)

Working Area


DSC00611Our working area is very importat when it comes to watercolor.
If you don’t have a drawing table, you can always improvise a space for work. The picture above, shows, the table I used to eat at. I chose this space in my house ’cause I get a lot of light -the table is next to a huge window (it’s always convenient to draw near a window. Having poor light always causes headaches and eye damage in the long run)-. Notice the materials were placed according to the hand I use for drawing. Since I’m right handed, I placed containers, watercolors and brushes on the right side. If you are a leftie, well, then you should place all your materials on the left side of the table. That way you can rotate the drawing freely in case you need to, with your free hand, without risking having one of the containers spill all over your drawing by accident.

If you are one of those who eats while drawing, I recommend you to put your food in a plate far away from the sheet of drawing, as watercolor paper certainly catches and absorbs almost everything that is spilled or spattered or etc, on it.

Now, before you start to paint, wash your hands. Let’s keep it clean shall we? Very well then. Let’s start by mixing the colors. First we are going to apply a base layer, to the drawing. In this case I mean: the shadows. Yes, I know it’s kind of weird, but when you paint a complicated illustration were there are many characters, you want them to be integrated to an atmosphere/ambiance and this is easily achieved if first you lay all the color for the shadows in the first round. Of course since this is only an excersice we are going to start by applying shadows to ONE character.

What color should I use as a base?

Well, some people use violet, cause it’s a color than blends very nicely with with whatever shade you add next. But let’s be a little bit risky today (just so you know that you can use whatever color you want. Kiki’s base coating will be pink… sorta saturated pink.

So we take half pan with the pink, and make the mix. Add little painting to the container and later on add water (use the eyedropper for this).


As you can see I have two water containers. One with clean water and another that I will use to do the mix. It’s important that you have them both, because other than washing the brush to pick a new color, you will need clean water for several purposes, throughout the WHOLE process. like for spreading out color etc.. Using the ‘dyed’ water would certainly spoil your drawing as it would end up mixing the new shade with the color you already applied. The napking that you see there is necessary also. It’s needed to dry the excess of water off the brush. It’s important to notice that it’s a paper towel, not a napkin.

Now here’s the trick. When applying WC what you do is this: 

  • A) Dip the brush in your mix
  • B) ‘Tap’ the tip of your brush against the napkin. Remove water excess
  • C) Apply color.

You must not skip step ‘B’. That way you’ll prevent those horrible marks of water or those nasty drops of mix that more often than not come out of the hair of your brush, spoiling the drawing D:

If you are not sure of the color , you can do a color test (that’s what I did here :D). I’m using a medium brush.


As you see in the picture, the paint looks all washed out. this happens when you add little paint to your mix. It creates a thin layer of painting. We need it like this because this is the first coat of paint we are gonna apply to the drawing. It’s important also, that you have another sheet of paper, or some left outs in the border so that you can do tests of color before you apply the watercolor to the drawing.


Now we start to apply our mix to Kiki. As you can see, It barely shows any trace of color.
Notice the watercolor has been applied where the shadows would be. Under his bangs, chin, nose, eyes, cheeks and some areas of the hair.  As this is the first coat of painting, wait for it to dry a little, then add more paint to the previous mix (without adding more water, we just want to add more pigment to it); this will intensify the color and will deepen the shadow. Where you want it to be more shadowed, you apply more paint and so on.


Like this see?. (you can even see that the paper was still wet).
It’s important for you to know, that watercolor is not like other media were you can cover big areas (or small) by adding more painting to the mix. Here that won’t work. It’ll just botch the drawing.
Watercolor is a technique that needs patience. You add the color, then you wait, and then you add a second coat and then you wait. Painting with watercolor is like pulling pictures out of the mist. Little by little you start seeing your drawing as you add coats of painting (of course it also depends of what you want to achive).

Anyway, when your drawing is DRY (notice this please), we can move on to apply the next layers of colors.


When the drawing has been shadowed I always recommend to start with the skin of your character, especially if you have other elements surrounding him or her. Of course in this case, we have no background at all, so we will proceed to color kiki’s skin. In an illustration with a background is highly recommended to do the background first and the character(s).

As you can see, most of the watercolor kits don’t have “skin tone”. This of course puts a heavy dilemma if you don’t know what to mix to get the damned shade. But don’t panic, cause it’s very easy to get the “skin tone” out of a basic watercolor set.

  • You will need: Canary Yellow (or yellow) +Crimson Red.

 Click on the thumbnails to enlarge images

With your eyedropper add water to a fresh palette container. Then add yellow as a base and then a little bit of red. Try the color out as it’s shown in the picture. If you are satisfied with the results, then apply the color. If you think the mix is still too reddish add an itsy bitsy amount of yellow and water (DO NOT USE WHITE). Notice that the color resulted from the mix is like a pumpikin sort of shade. It’s really vivid. Now in the picture below, notice how the color looses its concentration (so to speak) when applied. It’s just a perfect skin color (that’s why I said you should try the color out, before you do anything else). Sometimes mixing “skin tone” takes a lot of practice to get it right. So be patience. Though it’s a little bit… complicated in the beggining is not imposible :) You’ll get the hang of it!


I apllied the mix in Kiki’s face. Now here’s the trick, to apply the color evenly. You have to start applying the color
in the areas you previously shadowed and move evenly towards the clean areas. As you apply the first base you will notice that the first layer won’t cover the pink shadows. Well, don’t panic, just wait a little bit for it to dry an apply a second coat ofcolor. Again start with the shadowed parts and then move out to the clean areas. As you can see kiki starts to have some sort of volume and depth as soon as you start adding more and more layers . The drawing does not look “flat” anymore!. When you are satisfied with the skin, let it dry a little bit. While this happens, you can start mixing your next color.


Follow the same steps to apply the color, as you did with the skin. Remember: always apply the color first in the shadowed parts and then move to the clean areas (images A and B). Also before you apply it, remember to dry the excess of water with your ‘napkin’. o.k? Of course this is just a basic sorta hair. Had you wanted a more elaborated hair, you would have had to shadow it more throughly.
Remember this is just a example. befor Da Vinci crafted the Mona Lisa, I’m sure he did a lot of sketches and why not? a lot of stick figures :)))

Click on thumbnails to enlarge images

Now, that you have applied the first layer, add more red to your mix (images C and D). This is to deepen the color cause we are gonna cover the last traces of the pink and give with this, volume to the hair.

To deepen the colors, (any color) don’t use black. It will just dirty your artwork. You can add some other color, like brown or even some sort of blue -in any case this is why it’s recommended to pre-shadow a drawing-. As before, remember to make some color tests before you apply ANY color. If the shade satisfies you, then go ahead, and apply it following the same procedure as with the skin.

Click on thumbnails to enlarge images

Now proceed to apply the new mix to the Hair. Remember that before you do, you have to let the last layer dry. Otherwise the color will just peel off the drawing. As before, follow the previous steps when applying the color.

Dip brush + dry water excess with napkin + apply color (first shadow, then clean areas) + let it dry.


Before we move on to detail our image, we apply the color on the cloth. You will just need yellow, that’s it. Add to the container some yellow and little water and there you go. Follow, yet again the same procedure as with the skin and hair. It’s really easy, see? Now this time let the thing dry. Detailing will need the canvas to be completely dry.



It’s time to switch the brush dudes!!! Until now we’ve been working with a medium sized brush. Well, now we will need a round tip -01 brush .

Click on thumbnails to enlarge images

As it’s shown in the picture I dip the tip of the brush in water (just dip, not submerge) and  then took a bit of pigment directly from the half pan. This is to outline kiki’s eyes. For this I used brown color cause you know, kiki’s is not a woman. Black liner would have made him look like a cheap whore, you know… If you feel that the half pan is retaining the pigment, you just have to dip your medium sized brush in water and then pass is all over the half pan. That way the surface of it will be damp and that will allow you to pick the color easily.


 Click on the thumbnails to enlarge images

Now the Eyes. In this you can either pick the color directly from the half pan, or make a mix in one of the palette’s containers.
The picture is a little bit blurred (sorry) but in the second picture, you can actually see that I applied a light shade of blue and later on following the same steps of Kiki’s eyeline, I marked the lines inside the eyes.

Also with a little bit of Brown I shaped  his eyebrows or… well, you know, he doesn’t have eyebrows, but still. I defined the place where the eyebrows should be, and this also strenghtened his expression. At this point you can start to define some areas of the cloth. I know that the thing he has on, it’s not a real cloth, but still it gives us sort of the idea what he’s wearing.

To the yellow base mix, add a little bit of brown. As it is already dry it won’t be much of a trouble to apply the second layer.

Adding this dark color to the lighter one, you’ll be able to create contrast and this is really helpful when coloring metal pieces and stuff. Of course this is just in an attempt to emmulate metal (cause I know it doesn’t look like metal). To this drawing you could actually add lots of effects. For example you could add white touches with the White Gel pen, so that the cloth will look polished. Or you could  add some more highlights to the hair, or even different shades of red.

It all depends of what you want to achive in the final drawing.

finished2This is the finished drawing. Notice that this is ONLY an excersise to apply the color for you to get familiarized with the process. Practice these easy steps at home and watercolor will be much easier for you. The trick lies in knowing how to apply the watercolor pigment. There are of course many ways of applying it; like I said, wetting the paper before one applies the color and so forth. Personally I like this way, because it’s easy and you don’t need to prepare a canvas or anything. And like I said, for Fan art purposes its quick!! and it also gives you nice results.

I hope this tutorial helped you out. Oh and if you have any questions just ask! :)))