Modern Watercolor: Create Depth Through Progressive Layering | Melissa Lee | Skillshare

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Modern Watercolor: Create Depth Through Progressive Layering

teacher avatar Melissa Lee, allow yourself to fail before you succeed

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      The Layering Process


    • 4.

      Halloween Painting Demo


    • 5.

      Closing Thoughts


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About This Class

Progressive watercoloring is a technique that involves the layering of translucent pigment to create a gradient effect that adds depth and style to your work. In this class, designer and illustrator Melissa Lee will take you step-by-step through the simple and easy process, so that you, too, can implement the technique into your next painting.

Progressive watercoloring is a fairly traditional technique, in that it really utilizes the translucent quality of watercolors, but it can also be used to give your work a contemporary, stylized flair. 

To get into the spirit of the season, Melissa will be showing you how she created the Halloween-themed painting below. This lesson is short and sweet, and you’ll leave it with one more fun technique to add to your skillset!


Meet Your Teacher

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Melissa Lee

allow yourself to fail before you succeed

Top Teacher

Hi! My name's Melissa Lee, and I'm an illustrator and surface pattern designer living in the hilly forests of Northern California. Alongside doing freelance and art licensing work (I am a proud Riley Blake Designs fabric designer), I've spent much of my time cultivating my love of sharing what I know and encouraging others to nourish their creative side through teaching online art courses here on Skillshare. I love making patterns, character art, and watercolor paintings. I'm endlessly inspired by animals and nature (whether living today or extinct), science fiction and fantasy, space and astrology, witchy things, and bees.

Always bees.

The classes that I teach on Skillshare focus primarily on surface pattern design, watercolor techniques, and character design. See full profile

Level: Intermediate

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1. Introduction: Hello and welcome to progressive watercoloring. My name is Melissa Lee and I'm a designer and Illustrator based in Northern California. Progressive water coloring is a layering technique that looks a lot more complicated than it actually is. It involves the layering of translucent pigment to create a gradient effect that adds depth and style to your work. In this class, I'll take you step-by-step through the simple and easy process, so that you too can implement the technique into your next painting. What I like about progressive water coloring is that it's a fairly traditional technique. It really utilizes the translucent quality of water colors, but you can use it to give your work a contemporary stylized flair. To get into the spirit of the season, I'll be showing you how I created this Halloween themed painting. The lesson is short and sweet, and you'll leave it with one more fun technique to add to your skill set. 2. Materials: I've used a bunch of different watercolor supplies over the years, so I'm going to share some of my favorite tools and materials that I use. But it's really up to you, what brushes and paints you want to use. You always need some round brushes, and the ones that I most commonly use are 2s, 4s, 6s and I have a 3/0 and even a 20/0, teeny tiny brush for detail work. The 20/0 is Princeton Art & Brush Co, and they make a bunch of really small brushes with hardly any bristles on them. I'm going to be using masking fluid in this demo, it's not absolutely necessary, it's up to you if you want to use it or not. But, I am going to be using it. I like Schminke because it's blue. You'll want some sort of container for water, and then of course palettes. I have a bunch of different palettes. I always have a scratch paper to test colors on...and most importantly, paint. I use tubes and dry pan sets. I have a bunch of half pen sets, I have a Winsor & Newton and then I have this awesome Sennelier one. Winsor & Newton is a great brand and it's fairly affordable and you can't go wrong with it, their paints are great. If you want to be a little bit more adventurous, Sennelier is a French brand and I really like their paints. The pigment is really beautiful. I really like their black, it's like a very cool black color, I'm a big fan of this one. Then I use Dr. Ph. Martin's Radiant concentrated watercolors, I love these so much. There's just such cool colors, I love this Persimmon color, it's really nice. They're so vibrant. I like to mix them with my half pans and my tubes and then just make my own colors because the only downside to Dr. Ph. Martin's is that they do tend to fade quicker in sunlight. So that's why I like to use them with my other paints, because that way it's mixed with the other paints that don't fade as quickly. You can always spray them to set them with a UV spray or something, but yeah, that's the only downside to them, otherwise, they're fantastic and I love them so much. My favorite white ink to use is Copic opaque white and it comes in these two sizes. In the US, it's really difficult to find this size, so whenever I see it in a store I buy it. Usually it's in Utrecht art, but usually online, like on Dick Blick, it comes in this container and I really don't like it because it's this teeny, teeny, tiny opening, and it's hard to get all the ink out of there. I always try to find this size. But it seriously such a great ink, it's my favorite white I've ever used, it's so smooth, really opaque. But you can water it down and make it more transparent, yeah, it's great. My favorite markers to use with watercolors are these Uni-Pin fine line markers. They're fantastic. They are waterproof and they're truly actually waterproof. You can paint over them and they won't smudge it all, so those are fantastic. Pencils, teeny tiny eraser, I have the Master's Brush Cleaner and Preserver which is a really awesome brush cleaner. You wet your brush, put it in there and then rinse it off, and it keeps your brushes cleaner for a lot longer, so that's awesome. I always suggest using cold press paper if you're a beginner, because it's a medium texture paper and if it's any rougher, it's harder to control and lift colors, because the rougher paper absorbs the pigment more. There's a bunch of different papers you could use. I have one of the Canson watercolor blocks, and I think Canson's great, they're probably the most affordable, good quality paper you can find and I think they're awesome. Arches is also wonderful, a little more extensive, but good stuff. I also have a protractor that I use to make the even circles of emanating light, like I did with this painting. That just makes your life a lot easier if you want to use the technique with circles. 3. The Layering Process: There's a couple of different ways you can apply this technique. I most often like to use it for the sort of emanating light effect like I did with the moon and my witch painting and I'm going it show you how I did that, but first I want to demonstrate how you can use the progressive water coloring technique in a more traditional, less stylized sense with a monochrome painting. As you can see, I've taped my paper down. This is because I'm going it be applying multiple washes and I don't want the paper to dry super warped. It just makes things a lot easier to tape your paper down to your drawing board if you're going to be really soaking the paper in water, unless you have a watercolor block. But since I don't have this paper on a block, I'm taping it down. Moving on. First, I draw the first layer of my design very lightly with pencil. My plan is to paint a bunch of vines like a weeping willow's. To begin, I just have the first vine that I want to be the lightest. That's the only thing that I've drawn. Then I dampened the entire sheet of paper to make the first wash of color nice and smooth and now I'm dipping my brush into my paint and it's been watered down at this point, so there's mostly water and very little actual pigment. I have prepared the paint. I've mixed a couple of colors to make the desired color that I want and I've just mixed a lot of it so that I don't ever have to go back and make more in the middle of working, and it just makes things a little easier if you know you're going it be using a lot of one color. Once your wash is painted, you want to let it dry completely, and you can use a hairdryer like I've done here to speed the process up a bit. Apply a second wash across the rest of the paper, making sure to paint around your drawing. Once you let that layer dry completely, you may want to draw in the second layer of your design, depending on the complexity. Apply another layer of color, making sure to paint around both the first and second layers of leaves. You're basically painting in the darker background rather than the main part of the design. It's kind of like painting the negative space rather than the positive space. I always try to make sure that the edges of where I'm painting don't have time to dry and create those sort of darker edges where the pigment pools. As you can see right here, I've moved on to filling in the spaces between the leaves. But I've made sure that my edge where I need to fill in more of the background is nice and wet, so that I can easily add more pigment and water to it later and create a nice smooth transition. If you let it dry and create those edges, you can just make sure your brush is really wet and sort of brush over the edge quite a few times and maybe try lifting it a little bit if you don't want those edges to show up, there's ways to kind of get rid of them. It just is kind of difficult and you have to practice that and figure out how to do it and so it just makes your life a lot easier if you are prepared for that from the get-go and just try to keep your edges wet so that you can easily edit them once you return to them. Then you just continue to apply layers of color until you have the desired amount of layers. If you're wondering why my green looks a little brown in places, it's because I'm mixed a light brown and a couple of greens to make this color and since, for whatever reason, the brown doesn't lift as well as the greens do. When I dab the color to lift and lighten it, more of the brown color stays on the paper because I guess it just soaks in more than the green. But I'm not too bothered by it, I think it's a really nice effect, so I'm just letting it do what it wants to do. I actually went in and added one more layer after filming this, just to give it a little more depth. I also added some highlights to the edges of some of the leaves because it looks nice, but also so that I could smooth out some of the rougher edges. It gave me that opportunity to sort of smooth them out. Sometimes when the watercolor dries, you get these rough edges that you didn't really see coming just because of how the pigment settles differently as it dries. If you try this and you find it difficult to create smooth edges and you feel discouraged, try to remember that I have a lot of practice with this sort of precise watercolor painting and just, you know, that practice makes perfect. For the most part, the secret really is just that you have to be very careful and precise. But if you do accidentally paint across a line that you didn't intend to paint across, you can also try lifting the color with paper towel and then go back to it once it's dry it a little because if you try to edit it immediately before the paper has dried, chances are the pigment will just fill in that same area that you didn't want it to fill in again anyway. With watercoloring you really just have to wait for things to dry to be able to be precise with it. 4. Halloween Painting Demo: I have my drawing all ready and I made sure that the pencil marks are super light because I'm going to be doing a wash over the pencil. Once I do that, it becomes harder to erase those pencil marks. I want to make sure that they're nice and light, so I can cover them with the paint. For this drawing, it's going to be a little bit more complicated, especially, compared to doing something like this one, because all this involved was circles. I used my protractor to sketch out the circles. Then I did what I did with the previous demo of the leaves. Well, first I covered the moon with masking fluid and did a light blue wash over the entire paper. Then I did another light blue wash and only went up to the edge of the second circle. Then I did another and another and another. At the end, I mixed the blue with a little bit of black so that it would blend into the black night sky. With this one though, I want the light to emanate out from the sides of the three pumpkins. The light will follow the shape of the pumpkins and connect in places. The yellow, orange light will blend eventually into blue-black and the rest of the night sky will be blue-black. Because I want the outside to be blue-black, I'm not going to do a yellow, orange wash over the whole thing. I'm just going to do it out to about how far I think the light will emanate, and I didn't really bother drawing it in because I think it might just be one extra step that I don't really need to do. It might make things more complicated. I'm just going to wing it and hope that it works out. First of all, I have the main color that I'm going to use for the light. I've got a lot of it mixed in here. Like I said before, this way, I don't have to pause and re-mix color in the middle of working. But it really just depends on how you like to work. A lot of tiny bit of color goes a long way, so you really don't have to do. This is just something that I like to do and this is just a mixture of a couple of oranges and a bunch of yellow I have from my Sennelier half pen set. I always have a little scratch paper to test the color on. Anyhoo, I'm going to dip my brush in water and pick up quite a lot of water. Then dip just the tip of my brush into the color because I really don't need very much for the first wash. Then I think the light will go out to about here before it starts turning blue. I'm not so worried about the stem here because it's going to be a dark brown. I can cover that light yellow, orange with the brown color later. There's just a tiny bit of color on my brush and it goes a long way. I'm not too worried about this because this is going to blend into blue. I just didn't want the entire page to be yellow or yellow orange because I don't want the background to mix with the yellow and look at all green when I want it to look blue. But I'm thinking a light will go at least out that far. And these guys are just going to be floating in the air, like, magically floating in the night sky. Now, I'm just adding the second layer of orange after letting it dry completely, following along the shape of the pumpkins. I'm alternating between number 4 and number 6 brushes for this. I added more yellow to the eyes and the mouth because I thought that I would try having light emanate from the jack-o-lantern features themselves, but I eventually decided to scrap that idea. As before, I'm just repeating the process until I get to the point where I want to start blending in the next color so that it can transition to dark blue. Normally, how I work is, I move the paper around as I go. I'll turn it depending on where I'm painting. But I want to keep it straight for filming. It's proving a little difficult because I'm not used to painting in one direction. But it's a fun challenge. Here's a close up so that you can get a better look at what I'm doing. Now I've added just the tiniest bit of blue to my orange so that when I paint it over the existing orange on the page, it makes this greenish orange color. If you want each layer to be super smooth and clean and not have a bunch of the sort of typical watercolor blotchy effects, you have to be careful to make sure that each new layer wash you apply is very carefully applied in one go, because if you let it dry and then see something that you want to fix, it's really hard to avoid marring the smoothness of the wash when you try to fix it. Then I just keep adding more and more blue until I blend it into the sky color. I'm using a number 10 brush to fill in the night sky. After I finished that, I moved on to filling in the jacket lanterns using a number 4 brush and my tiny 20 over zero brush for the difficult corners. I decided to scrap the idea of also having light emanate from the jack-o-lantern features, because I decided that I just didn't like how it looked. Sometimes it's a process of trial and error. So I filled out the pumpkins with some more color and added some shading so that they look more solid. Then I added stars to the night sky with my Copic white opaque ink. The last detail I added was a bit of an edge to the jack-o-lanterns's features so that they look more 3D and like they've been carved out. 5. Closing Thoughts: So there you have it. I think using progressive layering like this adds a really cool contemporary flair to watercolor paintings. That being said, though, I'd love to see whatever you come up with, whether you want to try the technique on something more stylized like this, or on something more like the leaves I painted. I think it'd be fun to see Halloween-themed paintings as I am posting this class on Halloween day. Depending on your skill level, it may be a good idea to practice this technique with something simple first. So try painting the light emanating from a simple circle moon, and then move on to something a little more complicated. I'd love to see your practice and your final Halloween-themed painting. Whatever you'd like to share, you're welcome to. If you'd like to stay up to date with what I'm posting on Skillshare, be sure to click the "Follow" button and you'll be the first to know when I post a new tutorial. You can also follow me on Instagram @melissaleedesign to see my latest works in progress. Thank you so much for joining me. I really hope that you learned something from this class. Take care and I'll see you next time!