The Watercolorist's Sketchbook: Creative Exercises to Inspire and Explore | Arleesha Yetzer | Skillshare

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The Watercolorist's Sketchbook: Creative Exercises to Inspire and Explore

teacher avatar Arleesha Yetzer, Watercolor Illustrator & YouTube Artist

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.

      Exercise 1: Pencil to Paint


    • 4.

      Exercise 2: Random Shapes


    • 5.

      Exercise 3: Color Exploration


    • 6.

      Exercise 4: Mood and Atmosphere


    • 7.

      Exercise 5: A Study


    • 8.

      Let's See YOUR Project!


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About This Class

Not every watercolor experiment has to be a fancy, finished piece. Sometimes, you just need a place to explore, grow, and expand your creative mind! 

In this class you will learn: 

  • Mastering a healthy sketchbooking mindset
  • Fun new exercises for stress-free sketching
  • Loose watercolor experiments in value and color 
  • How to set mood and atmosphere using tone and light 

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Arleesha Yetzer

Watercolor Illustrator & YouTube Artist


Arleesha is a watercolor artist and YouTube creator based in the northeastern United States. Her work primarily features dynamic and whimsical representations of the human figure. Primary professional endeavors include her budding YouTube channel with a current subscriber community of over 100 thousand as well as this growing library of Skillshare classes!

Here, you'll find classes on anatomy, figure drawing, and watercolor techniques - all directed to help you improve your portrayals of the human figure. 

If you'd like to connect with me and see more of my work, you can follow me on Instagram or check out my YouTube channel, where I post videos every week. 

See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: You're sitting down to draw in your sketchbook. Maybe it's the first page and a brand new one. Where do you start? What do you draw? Hi, my name is [inaudible] , and I'm watercolor artist and YouTube content creator with a current subscriber community of almost 50,000, and I'm here to help. I'd like to welcome you to my new class, the watercolor sketchbook. In this class, I'm going to be leading you through a series of five exercises designed to boost your creativity and cultivate inspiration. We'll be covering lots of loose and easy exercises like developing a wide range of values in your pencil sketches, exploring different colors with your watercolors, and even creating little drawings out of random shapes. All of our exercises are going to grow from and play into one another, and we'll finish up with a study that combines everything we've learned. This class is for creatives at any level, whether you are looking to get more familiar with watercolors or you're feeling stuck in an art block, or you're just not sure what to put next in your sketchbook. These exercises can also be a great way to warm up when you're just getting started drawing. If you're ready to sit down with your sketchbook and some paints and grow that creativity, let's get started. 2. Materials: The first thing I want to talk about are the materials we'll be using for this class. Of course, we're going to want to start with a sketch book, and for paints, I'm going to be using this little palette I put together with paint by a bunch of different brands. Because we're going to be going through a series of sketchbook exercises, and we're not looking to go too crazy with spending a ton of time on details, I'm just going to be focusing on these two round brushes, they can hold a lot of water, so they can make some really broad strokes and they come to find points, so they're pretty versatile. Add to that some water, a rag, cloth or paper towel for wiping off your brushes, and a couple of your favorite pencils and you've got the basics covered. Now that you've got some of your favorite art supplies together and ready to go, let's jump into our first exercise. 3. Exercise 1: Pencil to Paint: Now we're ready for our first exercise, pencil to paint. To get started, we're going to be focusing on simple shapes and simple colors. Purpose of this first exercise is just to get your hands moving and to get you to start thinking about value and color without being too focused on creating some perfect, elaborate final piece. We just want to start to get the creative information in your brain out of there and onto our paper. Let's start with some circles. Grab something nearby with a circular shape and trace it out onto your paper twice. I'm also going to go ahead and put my circles into rough boxes. The color shift that I did here, by making these two different colors was to be honest and accent. I'm using this double-sided pencil and just happen to grab that. If you'd like to look at a reference of a sphere in different lighting situations, for this next part, you're more than welcome to do that, and I'll have a reference here for you. For the first sphere, we're just going to use our pencils. We're not going to be using any paints or anything like that, we just want to start thinking about value. Remember, we just want to get moving here. Don't focus too much on perfection because that'll really slow you down and you'll burn out a lot quicker. I'm going to be using my fingers to rub at this pencil as the combination of this soft pencil and is very textured paper leaves a lot of whitespace. All ready at this point, I'm starting to think about more than just taking what I see in a picture and putting it on paper. What effects do you like to see? Do you really enjoy the texture of a pencil on paper? Do you like it when your pencil wrappings go outside of the lines? Just have fun and find the little bits of things that you love and cling to them. I'm really enjoying the contrast of the image texture with the coarse lines of the pencil. Starting with just a colored or graphite pencil may seem unexciting or boring at first. But remember, your sketchbook should be a place of enjoyment and solitude. It's okay to take your time and learn to fall in love with the materials you're using. We're going to move on to our painted sphere. I want to make these colors very different and at the same time, I don't want to spend too much time here. I'm going to pick maybe two or three colors to just fill in this whole area while again, still taking some of the things we learned about value from here. Which areas are the lightest? Which areas are the darkest? Communicating that in the same way, but with color. I went through a period of time where my sketchbook with such a stressful place to be for me. I really only used it for planning out larger pieces that I had to do for work or something that I had some obligation to finish, so I was always trying to get in and out of these pages as quickly as possible, and it was really affecting my mindset very negatively. Taking the time for exercises like this that are only for the purpose of what they are, is so very important. With watercolors, we have a bit more control over the smooth gradient of our shape. I really enjoy watching the way that watercolor behaves just on its own, and I want to encourage that here. A fun little tip with an exercise like this is to take some of your background color and add it to your foreground subject. It'll really help the two, to mesh together and fit in the environment. The colors you choose for an experiment like this can alter the overall effect so much. Mine has this burning intensity to it, but you may choose softer colors that are very calming or something completely different. I honestly can't wait to see what you come up with, and that's it. We're going to leave this one right here and move on to our next shape. Let's keep exploring and move on to our second shape. With our spheres completed, we're going to go for something very different and try out some simple cube shapes. Unlike our spheres that were just floating in some abstract background, we are going to be placing our cubes flat on a surface and allowing them to cast shadows. The purpose of this entire exercise is simply to get your brain working, to start thinking creatively, and to get yourself in the mindset where you're ready to make decisions with your art. One of the most frustrating things when you're setting out to create an illustration or trying to come up with ideas, is getting past that initial warm-up stage. If you don't allow yourself time to warm up physically and mentally, you're going to have a lot harder time getting your ideas out. Simple little exercises like this that may just take five or 10 minutes can be really helpful in kick-starting your creativity and activating that muscle memory that your body's developing for drawing. Just like with our spheres, my first cube is going to be in pencil. I'm switching to a graphite pencil here, so I'm working with just one color and establishing my values. You may have noticed in the beginning that I blocks in the entire shadow area first and now I'm going into dark enough the areas that are a little bit darker than that overall shadow form. Again, I'm not going to be spending too much time here, I just want to get the basics down. Allow your sketch book to be a place for tiny ideas, thumbnails, concepts, little things that might turn into something bigger, or maybe they'll never move beyond this page. Either way, totally fine. Now, let's have some fun with our watercolors. Before I get started painting the sun, I'm going to take a kneaded eraser and just roll that over my lines as I want to really be able to focus on light and shadow. I don't want those pencil lines to get in the way. I'm using a kneaded eraser here because a regular polymer reserve would require me to rub the paper and could really damage the watercolor paper, making it more difficult to paint on. By using a kneaded eraser, I can just roll the eraser against the paper and it's much less abrasive. For this next test, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to play with some different colors. We used a lot of really warm tones before, so I'm going to cool things down a bit and see if I can combine just a couple of different colors to create some atmosphere. Take some time to notice the differences between working with graphite and working with watercolors. Even in the motion of your arm and wrist, painting is a much more fluid gestural experience. Even though our medium has changed, my overall goals are the same. I still want to keep my lightest areas bright, the deepest, darkest parts of the shadows, I want to be rich and full of color, and I want to balance things out with all the values in between. It can be so exciting to create simple shaded shapes like this in watercolors because they really can come together so quickly, especially when you've done a pencil sketch before and you have an idea of what it is that you're looking for. I decided to go with a nice pinkish red and a cool indigo blue for a color palette that's much more peaceful and ambient. When finishing up this exercise, feel free to do some swatches of the colors that you use. Just in case you found something that you really like, you can always come back to this to remember what combinations of colors you had. Now that we've got those creative juices flowing, and we're starting to see the effects that value and color choice can have on our illustrations, let's move on to our next exercise. 4. Exercise 2: Random Shapes: For our next exercise, we're going to get a little bit silly and do some random shaped drawings. I love the simplicity of this exercise. In this challenge you're going to be taking some randomly painted shapes and turning them into drawings. To get started, just grab your watercolors and we're going to paint on some completely random shapes. If you know that you want to dedicate this practice time to maybe turning these shapes into little heads or little animals, you could go vaguely more shaped in that direction, but you really do want to challenge yourself to turn these random watercolor shapes into a drawing using the shapes that you have. We're going to be focusing on contour and silhouette and how can we take these shapes and turn them into little drawings. I would highly recommend that you challenge yourself. Don't make the shapes too obvious or too easy. Just loosen up and don't think about it too much as you put the pen on the paper. You're going to notice that I'm using a very light hand was my watercolors. The reason for that is that I want to use a pencil over top of them as opposed to ink or some kind of pen. I want to keep my watercolors light so that my pencil will show through. Let's go with six little shapes and see what we can come up with and of course, you want to make sure your paint is completely dry before you start drawing on top of it. For the sake of easing myself into this exercise, I'm going to start with some of the most obvious shapes. The ones where I can see a picture most clearly. This one definitely looks like a head with some little ears. Let's try that. Exercises like these where you may have a particularly squashed or in my case, elongated shape, are a great opportunity to try really stretching facial features if you choose to do faces. They're one of my favorite things to draw, so I'm probably going to have quite a few faces on this page. When I first saw this one, I was a little bit stumped as to what it could be and only as I was looking at it did I think that this could be a little hat, another ear and I'm pointy chin. Let's do that. I think it's very important to not try to go outside of the lines. I really want to try to keep my drawings inside the lines as much as possible so that I don't feel that I'm stretching things too far beyond what this shape is. This can be a great warm up exercise if you're drawing for the first time in the day and you're just trying to get your hand moving and activate that part of your brain that's thinking about proportions and relativity and all of those important drawing things. We've drawn a couple of older looking faces so far. Let's see if we can come up with a character that looks much younger. While faces are my favorite thing to use for these random shapes, they don't have to be faces. Let's try something a little bit different over here. I really like the idea of using these for ears and we can choose which one we want to be the front ear and which one we want to be the one further back away from us. I'm going to place this one further back away and I'll do that by coming across the shape. I love with challenges like this, how you can really add your own dimension to things. I can't really say I know exactly what this little creature is. Sure is fun to play with this massive mouth shape. Let's move over to this corner and try something a little bit different. It can be really fun to explore your very first instinct when you're working on this exercise. Whatever you see first, just try it out and see how far you get. I really like the idea of making these a cluster of leaves, and of course, I have no idea what to do with the rest of the shape, but that's the fun of the exercise. Let's see. Oh, I know. For this one here, I'm actually going for some very tall plant. Down here we might have like an island, and then it's Jack and the Beanstalk-ish. How it's growing up and curling up towards the sky. The tiny little boat down here, a couple of tiny little boats like the top of a canoe to reinforce the scale. For this last one, my very first thought was to make this an arm stretching up and over and then coming down, and then we can just figure out how we want to use the rest of this shape. This one I'm playing around here with the idea of a face looking up into this outstretched arm. Maybe this is a dancer. These can be as loose or realistic looking or silly, or cartoonish or abstract as you'd like. I just think they're really fun to play around, and get yourself into a place where you're ready to think creatively. Feel free to come back to any of these exercises anytime when you're not sure what to draw or how to get started. There we have it. Our random shapes are all turned into drawings. I love this exercise because when you're looking at the blank page, you just can't possibly imagine what it's going to look like when it's done. You can't anticipate the randomness that's going to fill your sketchbook with exercises like these, and that's an amazing thing. It's a great opportunity to come up with ideas or sketch little things that you wouldn't normally think of when sketching. 5. Exercise 3: Color Exploration : Our next exercise is one of my absolute favorites, color exploration. I really love filling page after page after page with this particular exercise because it's so easy to set up and to complete and the results can be so rewarding and fascinating. For this class, we're going to need just our watercolors and some tape if you want to tape off areas. To get started, I want you to pick just two colors. These can be random or they can be colors that you think might mix well together or you can pick two colors that are very close to one another in your palette or very far away from one another. Your favorites or the ones you hardly ever touch. For me, I'm going to be going with this indigo and a nice primary yellow. The purpose of this exercise is to just get to know your materials a little bit more in a loose, relaxing way. I'm going to be sectioning off my paper here and then just taking some times of very abstractly see how these colors interact with one another. How do they mix? How do they flow? What different variations of color can I get from them? This can really help to add a lot of variety to my paintings as I never really thought of using two specific colors in a particular way before, but I can do exercises like these too quickly and loosely explore these new concepts. This can also be a fun little dip into the world of abstract art. I'm not really trying to paint any particular subject. I'm just having fun laying down paint. In some ways, this exercise could even combine things that we've already learned from our others. You may come up with random shapes that will remind you of something in particular, and you can run with that idea in this little practice piece. You can start to think about how having a wide range of values within your little studies, helps them to be more effective and to look much more interesting. Just like in our first exercise, I'm using washing tape here just because it's a little bit skinnier than masking tape, so I can fit more squares on one page. You can put as much or as little on each square as you'd like. Try not to think too hard. We're just loosening up and having fun. If you do use tape, make sure that all of your paint is completely dry before you peel it off. This last one here is the only one where I'm adding more than one layer of paint. I was just really curious about seeing how harder and more defined darker shapes would sit over top of our soft dropped in paint that's now dry. Now, that all of our paint is dry, it's time to peel that tape. Just like that, we've got tiny little paintings. It really is amazing when you take the time to sit down to see how much two colors, just two can do it together. It's one of the most magical things about watercolors. 6. Exercise 4: Mood and Atmosphere: For our next exercise, we're going to focus on creating mood and atmosphere. This one ties in and pulls from the exercise we just completed. I'm going to go ahead and put them side-by-side. For this exercise, I want you to think of some sort of theme and emotion or an idea. It could be joy or sadness, or darkness, or pain. For me, I'm going to go with nostalgia. It really is as simple as it sounds. You're going to fill your page with colors, and shapes, and objects that remind you of whatever theme or mood or atmosphere you've chosen. When you think of sadness, do you think of raindrops on a window or dark open spaces? What kind of colors come to your mind when you think of joy or serenity. Even if you choose the same theme as I have, your results may be very different. For instance, when I think of nostalgia, I'm not necessarily trying to draw things that I think of from my childhood, I'm just imagining that feeling overall as a whole and going from there. To set the mood for my page, I'm actually going to just start by swatching out the colors I want to use. I think this will be really helpful for tying everything together at the end. Try to keep your mind open to the possibilities while you're working on this exercise. You never know, the tiniest bit of an idea could get your brain rolling for full illustrations, a whole new piece, or a whole different story to tell. This exercise in particular is really designed to exercise those creative muscles. If you were to hand this completed spread or page to someone, would they be able to guess the theme you are attempting to communicate? Soft colors and light values can be used for [inaudible] concepts, while sharp angles, dark lines, and deep colors can depict something entirely different. Don't be afraid to jump around the page and work on different things while you're waiting for paint to try. Turn this page into a collection of ideas. Intentional concept building can really transform how your art makes you and others feel. It's one thing to say, I want to paint a portrait, but to mindfully consider how to paint a portrait that evokes a sense of distress, or timelessness, or wandering uncertainty, that's what this exercise is all about. What do these themes, emotions, and ideas look like? That can be represented by actual physical objects or a collection of colors or specific texture on the paper. You really could fill an entire sketchbook with this exploration of mood and atmosphere. Mum. Yes. I don't [inaudible] just I had paint. Thank you very much. You're welcome. Love you baby. I don't live without you because you love painting. I do love painting. Thank you, sweet girl. You're welcome. I love how painting with a specific feeling in mind can cause that feeling to slowly well up inside of you. The more I've worked on this page the more I've contemplated the idea of feeling nostalgic and looking back on things. If you add something to your spread that you feel doesn't really complement the idea you are going for, take the time to think about why. Why didn't this particular collection of leafy shapes communicate nostalgia the way I wanted it to? Was it the color that I chose? Were the shapes wrong? Should it have been lighter or darker? There really is no limit to the number of times you can try different themes or to communicate the same theme over and over, refining your process along the way. You may also reach a point where you start to think about this exercise a little bit backwards. You may start to realize that you tend to communicate the same themes automatically in your art, whether that's things you do in your sketch books or paintings that you create, maybe you use a lot of the same soft colors or a lot of the same fuller, richer themes when you're painting already. Maybe you knew that already and maybe you didn't. This exercise can be exploring new creative ideas, themes that you don't normally incorporate or things you want to try to incorporate, but you're not quite sure how, and you just need some time to put your pencil and a brush on paper to figure it out or it could be coming to a fuller, deeper understanding of the themes that you're already communicating. Why do people always say that your art makes them feel a specific way? Is it because of the colors you're using? Do you already have an underlying theme as part of your art style? Feel free to look up references for inspiring images. If you're having trouble coming up with a theme, you can just Google a mood or an emotion and see if there are any recurring subjects or colors or shapes, and translate that into your own spread for this exercise. 7. Exercise 5: A Study: For our last exercise, we're going to slow down and take our time just a bit, combine most of the ideas we've talked about already and do a study. When I say study, I basically mean we're going to be looking at something from life or looking at a photo and drawing and/or painting it as best as we can. For myself, I'm going to be drawing an ear, and I've gone ahead and taken a reference photo of my own ear to use for this class. Taking your own reference photos can be very nice because you know the lighting situation, you know what the skin tones are and you can manipulate it as you like. One thing I really like is the distribution of color within this reference photo. We've got some pinker colors around the outside with some yellows in here and here. The most interior areas of the ear actually have a lot of blue in them before the saturation gets bumped up in the shadows. I'm going to do just like in our first exercise, going to do a little value sketch first and then we will paint one. I'm going to be doing an ear here, but you really can do whatever you like. It doesn't even have to be part of the body. Maybe you have your favorite coffee cup or a plant nearby that you want to try and sketch. As long as you're looking at some kind of reference, you can do whatever you'd like. When sketching something more detailed, I usually don't have my paper flat on the table like this. I'll sometimes prop it up on my hand so that I can see the sketchbook at a better angle and my drawing doesn't get warped. Just like with our very first exercise, we're going to have a sketched version and a painted version. When working on value sketches like this, I usually start with the largest shape so I can get the gesture and the overall form right and then start carving out the details on the inside. Now that that's done, I'm just going to go ahead and add some shadows, and curve out that shape even more. I really try to think about this more like sculpting than just drawing lines on a paper. The parts where I'm gouging out the most clay as I were in the sculpting metaphor would be the deepest areas. I might just skim a little bit off the top in areas that only have slight shadows. If you're looking at a reference photo that you've found online as opposed to something that you've taken yourself or even if you have taken the photo yourself, I would highly recommend using a lighting situation that's a little bit more dramatic, as opposed to lighting that straight on. When you're lighting is more ambient and just straight on, it doesn't create as many shadows and it can be more difficult to pick out the actual form and shape of whatever it is you're drawing. The more dramatic your lighting is, the more shadows you're going to have, and the easier it's going to be to actually define and see the form of your subject. That's as far as I'm going to go for a simple value sketch. Now, I'm just going to draw it again without any shading and I'll make it something that I will be able to loosely paint over. Now that I'm a bit loosened up from this initial sketch, let's go ahead and work on our second one. I'm breaking my ear down into smaller and smaller pieces as I go. If I try to focus on too many details like the ridge at the top or the ridges that run through the center of the ear, if I try to focus on those things too early, I make it part of the way through my sketch and realize that my proportions are wrong or that something is in the wrong place after I've already spent time on lots of details. So workout the larger gestural forms first and then block it in what smaller shapes. This applies to more than just the human body and really should be used for any subject. You wouldn't want to meticulously paint the handle of your teacup only to find that it was too large to fit on the actual cup. As a bit of an experiment, I'm going to imply a little bit of value with our pencil and then we'll see what happens when we paint over it. I'm going to be pulling a bit of information from some of our previous lessons as well. I might use specific colors that aren't necessarily realistic so that I can imply a specific mood or atmosphere with this little painting. Or I may be thinking about how two particular colors interact with one another when I mix them in certain areas. While a study can be a little bit more involved, I still want to hold onto that sketchbook mindset. We're here to be loose, to explore and to learn and have fun. As is common when painting with watercolors, I'm going to be working from my lightest values to my darkest values. My color temperature will change along the way, and I would highly recommend focusing more on the idea of relative color rather than trying to make things exactly like what you see. When I say relative color, I mean, when you're placing colors down, choose the next color based on how it looks compared to the color next to it. I might mix a little bit of indigo into the inner parts of the ear because I notice that those areas look a little bit more cooler, a little bit bluer than the area next to it. You'll notice as I get closer to the end of this painting that everything is looking kind of red, cool and I can combat that by adding some yellow. Trying to balance color and value at the same time can be a bit tricky, but remember that's why you have the initial value sketch that we did first. You can always look back to that when you're feeling a bit lost or you feel like something's off but you're not quite sure how. You may notice that I'm focusing on just a small mixing area within my actual palette. The more we allow our colors to overlap and blend together and to use the same colors for a different mixes throughout our piece, the more cohesive our overall color scheme is going to be when we're finished. It's in these tiny finishing touches that I remember most of how much color can affect the mood and atmosphere of a painting. I love the warm earthiness of this one. When you're nearing the end of your study and you feel like something's not quite coming together, it could very possibly be a value issue. Make sure that you've got your darkest areas in and that it's contrasted with proper highlights. There we go. We've got our self a couple of little ears. 8. Let's See YOUR Project! : There you have It. You've made it through all five exercises of this class. I cannot wait to see the pages that you've filled in your SketchBook. Go ahead and get that class project started and share what you've created with everyone else. As a community, we really can grow to inspire one another. You'll be able to find my class project, a collection of all of the SketchBook pages I've done during this class down there as well. Let's see what you've made. Let's see what we've created and thank you so much for joining me in this class.