Watercolor in the Woods: A Beginner's Guide to Painting the Natural World | Rosalie Haizlett | Skillshare

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Watercolor in the Woods: A Beginner's Guide to Painting the Natural World

teacher avatar Rosalie Haizlett, Nature Illustrator | Top Teacher

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.

      Welcome to My Class!


    • 2.

      Gathering Your Materials


    • 3.

      Taking Your Reference Photo


    • 4.

      The Pencil Sketch


    • 5.

      Preparing Your Palette


    • 6.

      Color Swatch Exercise


    • 7.

      Starting Your Painting


    • 8.

      Layering Watercolor


    • 9.

      Adding a Background


    • 10.

      Creating Texture


    • 11.

      Refining Your Painting


    • 12.

      Bonus Lesson: Paint a Fern!


    • 13.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

Slow down and take your appreciation for nature a step further with this step-by-step watercolor painting course! In this beginner-friendly class, you'll gain the tools you need to turn the inspiration you find outside into vibrant watercolor paintings. 

Join natural history illustrator Rosalie Haizlett for a painting lesson in a little off-grid cabin on her family's farm in the Appalachian mountains, where she spent her childhood. 

In this course, you'll learn how to:

  • Find the right materials (hint: you might already have them!)
  • Take a good reference photo outdoors
  • Create an accurate pencil sketch
  • Use watercolor layering techniques to bring your sketch to life
  • Add realistic textures
  • Paint a mushroom and fern!

So make yourself a cup of tea, gather some basic watercolor supplies, and get ready to learn some new skills in a fun and relaxing environment! 

You can either paint from your own reference photo or use the two photos that Rosalie will be working from (which are downloadable under the "resources" tab). 

Rosalie's other classes on Skillshare include: 

Meet Your Teacher

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Rosalie Haizlett

Nature Illustrator | Top Teacher


Hello! I'm Rosalie. I'm an artist, author and illustrator who specializes in creating captivating hand-rendered visuals that celebrate the natural world. I'm also a Skillshare Top Teacher, with 5 classes that help you connect to nature AND your creativity in a deeper way.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Welcome to My Class!: Hi, my name is Rosalie, and I'm an illustrator with an emphasis on the natural world. Watercolor is one of the main tools that I use for my work. I've traveled all over the place illustrating the landscapes, and the plants, and the animals that I encounter. But today we are in my favorite place on earth, which is my family's farm in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. If you're anything like me, you like to spend a lot of your free time outside and learning some basic drawing and painting skills is a great companion to that because you can take cool pictures when you're on a hike, bringing them back to your house, and then create this permanent souvenir of that times you spent outside. It's also fun because it allows you to connect with the things that you see outdoors in a deeper way. For this course, we're going to be turning the inspiration that we find outdoors into a watercolor painting. I'm going to guide you through everything. It's totally beginner friendly. Even if you've never touched watercolors before, no fear. We're going to go over how to take a good reference photo when you're on a hike. How to sketch out that reference onto a page, How to find the right materials that aren't going break the bank, but also will do a good job for you. How to mix your colors to match what you're seeing in your subject and building up layers, details, everything that you need to know to make a cool painting that you're proud of. You can paint from a reference photo that you've taken or you can download one of the photos that I've taken that I'm actually going to be painting from in this course if you want to follow along step-by-step, that's totally okay too. I am so excited that you're here and that you're curious about watercolors. Make yourself for cozy beverage, and let's get started. 2. Gathering Your Materials: Let's chat about the materials that you need to create a watercolor painting. The awesome thing about watercolor is that, it's a really inexpensive upfront cost to get started, especially compared to oils or acrylic or other painting mediums. You could end up spending like $18 a tube and that adds up. Watercolor is really inexpensive and you actually don't need super good quality materials to create a really good painting. Pretty much all you need is a sketching pencil...here. You can use a mechanical pencil or a regular sketching pencil, it doesn't really matter. You need a few brushes. I normally just use four brushes. I have a one stroke, that's a three-quarter inch and I have a half-inch one stroke. Then I have a six round, and this is a two round. They don't have to be those exact sizes or shapes, but these are just the ones that I like. I think something you want to know with brushes is that if the hairs are falling out as your painting, it's too cheap of a brush. You don't want that and you want it to hold its shape. Another tool that's really nice to have for this process is a Micron pen or a Sharpie permanent fine tip pen. It doesn't matter what the brand is, but something that is really fine tipped and permanent because you want it so that if you do add the pen in, when you add water over top, it won't smear as much. Next you'll need an eraser. It doesn't matter what eraser you have, basically they work to do the same thing. I use both of these. The nice thing about this, it's called a kneaded eraser, and if you knead it in your hands it will become more malleable. This is nice because if you've done a really heavy handed sketch and you want to just lighten that up, you can just blot. Whereas with this one, it's a little harder to do that. But either one will work. Watercolor actually comes in a couple of different forms, so it can come in these tubes and these are again, pretty inexpensive. These are Windsor and Newton paints, or you can get watercolors in pans. These are ones called Hushwing Watercolors that my friend Kirsten made, they are really fun especially for earth tones. Then this is just the cheap, $25 travel set from Windsor and Newton pan watercolors. This is awesome if you want to actually do watercolor on a hike, or actually I just use these for everything because they're so convenient. When you're done, you just close the lid and you don't have a mess to clean up. Then as far as pallets goes, if you're using tube watercolors, then you'll need a place to squirt the paint out into. I use mostly this fun ceramic one that another person that I know made. But you can also use one of these and they're like $0.50 at any art store or you can use a lid or something like that. Then sometimes I like to incorporate other fun materials. Like this is handmade black walnut ink that I made from the trees that are right around the farm. This is fun because it just has lots of different browns that can be built up to make really rich tones. The last thing would be a paper towel, I have them tucked away because they're ugly. But you can use a paper towel if you need to plot up any mistakes. It's nice to have those handy, and then just any cup with regular water. That's pretty much all I use for everything that I make. This is wide-open, even if you just have like your Crayola set at your house from when you were four, you could totally use that, and it really won't make that big of a difference. The key is just to put in the time to build up your skills with watercolors and not so much having the right tool or the right brand. That really doesn't matter that much. I use fairly cheap brushes and they work great for me. Those are a couple of things to consider, but don't spend an arm and a leg trying to get ready for this course. 3. Taking Your Reference Photo: Every time I go outside, even if it's just down the street or to a park, I am keeping my eyes peeled for interesting things that I think would make a cool painting. If I find something, even if I don't have the time to sit down and whip up a painting on the spot and my sketchbook, I'll take some good reference photos just on my phone. My first tip is to make sure that you are focused on the actual subject. I can't tell you how many times I've been on hike, and I found something really cool, take a quick picture and then I go home and look at the photo and the focus was on something else like a weird little leaf and this side is in-focus. The second thing is to make sure your lighting is good. If the sun is coming up behind the subject, it's going to be back-lit and it's going to be more of a silhouette. You want to make sure that if you can angle your body or the subject to face the sun, then it'll be a better lit picture and that'll make your painting process way easier in the future. Then the last step is just to take several photos from different angles so that you can really understand the subject better and they might come in handy when you're painting later on. 4. The Pencil Sketch: For this painting, I am referencing a photo that I took in George Washington National Forest in Virginia, of a gorgeous purple mushroom, and it has lots of these really cool raindrops beading up on it, and you can either use this photo, I'm going to have this downloadable, or you can take your own reference photo and all of these skills crossover, so you don't have to follow along, you can do your own thing if you'd rather. Now, I need to transfer this to a bigger screen or I could paint from my phone. That's fine too. It's nice because you can zoom in all the details, and if that's more convenient for you, I often just paint from my phone, which is really nice. Or you can e-mail that or Airdrop it to another device, a laptop or an iPad. I have this big iPad just for drawing. I can lay it right next to my page, and it's really easy to see all of the details, and it's really fun because you can zoom super far in and get all of those details. That's how I do a lot of the paintings that have a ton of detail. I have a trick that I call the Pencil Trick, and it helps me get the right proportions as I'm laying out my sketch. I will use my pencil, or if you have a ruler or anything straight, that works too. For the pencil trick, we are going to be taking our pencil and I lay it directly on my screen, and then I'll go over and I'll make my pencil horizontal and align the left-hand side of my pencil out with the left-hand side of my reference. I'll bring my thumb over to the right-hand side. I'll bring that over here. I'll use my finger to try to measure the top and the bottom, I'll align them up, and then I'll bring that over to the center of my page. I'll just keep using my fingers to very roughly get an idea for how big my subject is. At first, this might look like, "What in the world is she doing?" But after a little while it becomes really easy and you can use it to just make sure that you're not stretching your subject, because then I know that this is the rough area where I need to draw my subject within. If I want to make it a little bigger, in this case, I do want to make it a little bit bigger than this area to fill up the page, so I can just add the same amount of space on all sides. Then this becomes my space that I'm going to draw within. Then I'm going to just slowly break down this into different shapes that help me to understand my subject. I see right away that this cap is a semicircle, so I'm going to go in and I'm going to just really lightly sketch a semicircle. Then I notice that the stem curves to the right at the bottom, that it comes out a little right of center as it comes out from underneath the cap. I'm going to have that curved in and out. That's the basic shape of this mushroom, which is great because it's really simple. Then I'm going to take my kneaded eraser or my regular eraser, doesn't really matter, and I am going to get rid of all extra lines that I don't need. There's something weird that happens with watercolor, where as soon as you put some water over top of graphite, it seals it onto the page and you can't erase it. If I put that there, even though it's just water, it doesn't have any color. If I let that dry, I'll try to erase it and it won't come up, that water seals it in. We want to make sure that we only have the sketches that we really need or else it'll just get muddied from the graphite. 5. Preparing Your Palette: I'm going to start out using my tube watercolors and putting them in a palette, and talking to you a little bit about how watercolor works. If you're familiar with acrylics, you know that you can use white, and it will lighten up the color immediately, or you can use white to go over mistakes. With watercolor it's different, because even though some sets come with white paint, they don't really do much, they are just chalky, so I just get rid of the whites from my sets, and I get rid of the blacks, and the reason for that is because, oftentimes, if you use a black, it will flatten the whole painting, because even shadow areas have a lot of dimension and color reflecting in there. If you get rid of the black, then you can create a substitute using your darkest blue, and your darkest brown. This is really nice because there's still some hint of coloring there, but you can get really, really dark shades. I don't have any black or any white in here. These are some of the colors that I use, but like I said, I'm pretty lax with my colors, I just use whatever I have at the moment. When you begin to set up your palette, you're going to want to just use a tiny little dollop, because watercolor goes a really long way, whereas with other painting mediums like oil or acrylic, you'll end up using tons and tons. I could do multiple paintings with just this little dollop of each color. 6. Color Swatch Exercise: Now that I have my pan filled with water colors, we can learn how to start mixing up colors to begin painting. This is where things get super fun. I'm going to do a little exercise that I like to do at the beginning of each painting session where this helps me to really understand my subject because I'm looking closely at it. I'm trying to notice all of the different colors that I'm seeing in the subject and at the same time I notice other things about it that help inform the way that I paint the whole thing. But I'm going to use this hot press watercolor that I don't really like normally, but I like to use it for doing some sketches. I'm going to make little color swatches of every color that I'm seeing in my subject. I'm seeing dark blues, dark purples, and some yellows, some browns. You want to bring some water from the jar into the mixing area and make a little dollop of water in there. Then I'm going to dip my brush into one of the colors that I know is in there, but I typically try not to go straight from the tube to my painting because it's nice to play with colors a little bit, and you can create so many different variations from just these basic colors. I brought some blue in into the little watery center and then I want to make this purple color and there isn't a purple in my palette. I'm just playing, I'm just dipping a little bit in, and you'll notice that I get other colors mixed in there. I think the more the messier you are, the better your colors will be because it's more natural. The natural world doesn't have pure colors straight from the tube in it, it has all these variations and nuances. Be messy, be loose. I'm finding this one is pretty close to some of the purples that are in there. I'm just going to come over and make a little swatch here with that color. Then I'm going to make a darker purple, so I'm adding more blue and more red, mixing it up, make a nice dark purple. I want to do a really light purple too. To make something lighter, instead of adding white paint, you're just letting the white of the paper shine through. Then I think I'm seeing some yellow in the stem, so I'm going to come over, and I'm going to be honest, I don't know what any of these colors are called, maybe a few of them. I just say, the dark yellow and the light yellow because I find, for me, a lot of the time getting really into exactly what colors are called and exactly what materials are being used, just bogs me down and I'd rather just have fun with paint. I don't get too obsessed with "talking the watercolor talk". Now, I want to get the really dark tones of this mushroom, so I'm going to make almost a black using that combination of dark blue and dark brown, and there we go. I think that's pretty much all the colors that are in my subject. Then the process for using a pan palette is very similar. You're making sure that your brush is pretty wet, you're dropping the water onto the pan of the color that you want to use and then you're pulling that up and over into the mixing area. As you can see I haven't cleaned this in a very long time. I really just like to have a natural looking color, so I'm mixing everything together. If you need it to be thicker, you just keep going back adding more and more pigment, and then if I want to mix something in, so say I want to have a green, yellow, light green, I'm going to add more water to get it loosened up and then bring it over here all together. You'll need to keep making more and more throughout your painting because it'll dry up or you'll use it, so try to make a mental note of some of the colors that you're using, but you don't have to make it exactly like how you began the painting. You can play with it and we could change throughout. I think that's what's so fun about this. 7. Starting Your Painting: Today, we're learning a technique called dry-on-dry watercolors. We don't have very much water on our brushes just enough to get the pigment on the page, the paper is dry when we start. Wet-on-wet is an alternative form of watercolor where you have a ton of water on your brush, and the page is wet down with water when you start. I personally have trouble with that one because I love details, and this technique with dry-and-dry allows me to almost draw with my watercolor. You'll have tons of control, could have tons of details and color. I work in layers, so I'll start with just a light layer over the whole thing. Sometimes, it'll just be like a gray. As you can see, I'm making crazy colors over here because I just like to keep it least. I am going to block in most of the cap with just a neutral color. A good gray, you can make with dark brown, dark blue, you just add a lot of water, and that'll lightened it up to a gray. I'm going to go over the whole thing. For this one, I am recognizing that there are a lot of little white highlights on this cap. I'm going to try to avoid painting the entire area. I want to let some of that white shine through. If you want a painting that has a lot of value or contrast, which means that it really pops off the page, then you want to leave one part of your painting as white as possible, so you let the white of the paper shine through. Then you have one part of your painting be as dark as possible. You make up a really dark, rich hue, and you put that in so that it will immediately look like it's coming to life, and it's not flat. I think a lot of people with watercolor tend to be a little timid, and they don't want to make mistakes, so they end up making really washed out watercolors, it just drops bushes off. This is a perfect segue because I wanted to talk about making mistakes with watercolor, and how a lot of people think you can't fix mistakes that you can't raise, that you can't cover over it with white paint. But I'm going to show you a tip that blows people's minds, because this allows you to blow it up, even pretty severe mistakes and start over. Once people are in this, they're like, "Wait, watercolor isn't so scary." That was perfect because I've just flung paint all over this, but I'm going to show you what would happen if it was a bigger watch. I know that I made a mistake, maybe that flung off my brush, or maybe I thought I wanted to start something there, and I decided that I didn't. Pretty quickly, after you see your mistake, you can get a bunch of water on your brush, drop it on your page, keep bringing more water from your cup onto the mistake, and just rubbing it around. Because watercolor paper is similar to a cloth and that it's a bunch of cotton that's pressed together, and in the same way that you wash clothing when it gets dirty, you can wash your paper by just adding a ton of water, rubbing it around, and then I use my paper towel, and you bought it straight up, and it pretty much totally disappear. 8. Layering Watercolor: After I have my first layer down, I want to make sure that that completely dries before adding any more paint. Then once it does, I'm going to look at my reference photo and locate the darkest shadow areas of my subject. I want to start slowly layer by layer building up those shadow areas so that they're nice and rich and dark by the end of the painting. I'm going to mix up a color that's just slightly darker than my first layer and I'm going to go ahead and put in some darker paint wherever I see those shadows. Next, I'm going to mix up a super dark shade using my darkest blue and my darkest brown. I'm going to find my smallest brush and start doing a subtle little outline around my mushroom. The key here is to pick up your brush every so often so that you're making a dotted line. This will help you avoid a coloring book look with super bold cartoony outlines and it'll make it more subtle and natural. At this point, you're probably noticing that you keep putting down darker shades, and then a minute later the paint is dry and it all looks extremely washed out. That's why we're going to continue to build up layer upon layer, letting each layer dry before adding more paint. I want to make sure to my highlight areas nice and bright white. But it's common that some of your watercolor will leak into those areas and start to make them look darker or muddied. If that happens, it's really easy to fix. All you do is load up your brush with water and you rub it around on the highlight areas where you got a little bit of paint into. Then you take your paper towel and you can just lift straight up on that pigment and it should come up. It might take a couple tries, but it should lighten up and give you back your highlights. Now I'm noticing that my stem is looking flat, and in order to make that look rounded like it is in real life. I'm going to lift up a little bit of the color in the center of the stem and leave the edges darker. That gives me the illusion that my mushrooms them is 3-D. Now I'm going to mix up another super dark combination of dark blue and dark brown, and I'm going to make my shadow areas come alive. I am not going to hold back this time I'm going to be super bold and I'm going to go ahead and put in some super dark details because the earlier in your painting process that you can establish contrast, the better it will turn out. Would you look at that? It's already all faded. This is just the nature of the beast with watercolor. I need to mix up another dark combo and go back to my shadow areas and put in another layer. In order to make sure that there's a nice natural gradation of colors, I'm doing to and to wait till my last layer dries, and then I'm going to fill up my brush with just water, no paint this time. I'm going to run my brush over that shadow area so that it fades into the lighter area. At this point, I'm going to go wild adding flecks of all sorts of different colors just to make my painting looks super vibrant and fun. 9. Adding a Background: Real talk, the first time I tried to paint this mushroom, I totally botched the background. This is the background that I was trying to do, I was trying to make it look like the leaf litter that was in my reference photo, it did not work out, so I started over. For your background you can do whatever you like, you could leave it white, you could add a solid color in the background, or you could try to do something out of your imagination, like I'm doing now with this current rendition of my mushroom painting. I had to start from scratch, by the way, which happens often for me, and probably will for you too. But I am sticking with just a few blades of simple brush, because I wanted something back there but it did not go well the first time, so I didn't want to repeat that mistake. You always want your background to be in the background and not to command too much attention, because the attention should belong to your main subject. Try not to do something that's too complicated, I think that's part of my problem before, I was trying to do too much in the background. Also try to think about a good color scheme, so if your subject is a warmer color like red, or orange, or yellow, then maybe do a cooler background shades, so maybe pick a blue, or green, or something that will fade to the background. 10. Creating Texture: [MUSIC] The last part of developing your painting is adding textures. So you will want to look really closely at your subject, super super zoom in on that photo or look up close at the actual thing in the wild to understand all the different textures that you can find. Then there are three different techniques that I like to use to add those textures. The first is using a tiny brush to create the fine lines. Then the second is using a paper towel to blot up some of the paint to add like a splashy looking texture. Then you can even use your wet brush to fling on the paint onto the page and that makes a really cool splatter effect. That's great for like leaves, and trees, and things like that. 11. Refining Your Painting: Congrats, you made it to the final stage of your painting if you are feeling stressed out at all, right now, that is totally normal. A lot of people have a hard time with watercolor, so I want you to breathe, maybe do a quick yoga sash on your floor, light a candle, whatever you need to do to remember that this is all for fun and it's not going to be perfect. In this final phase, we're going to go crazy with the texture, adding all sorts of dots and lines and capturing all of the beautiful imperfection that is found in nature. Now, I'm going to mix up a light yellow color and I'm going to apply it everywhere in my painting where I want it to look like the sun is hitting my subjects. So the top of the mushroom cap, the top of the grass. Now, I'm adding a deep red shade to the shadow areas of my grass. We're getting so close. Now we want to use that trick again with a wet brush and the paper towel to dab up any sections of my highlight area that got too dark or muddy. Lastly, I'm going to go back in with my tiniest brush and my darkest shade, and I'm just going to add a little bit more definition to any parts of the painting that aren't standing out quite as much as they should. Ta-da mushroom painting to complete. 12. Bonus Lesson: Paint a Fern!: In this lesson, we're going to be practicing all of the skills that we've just learned and painting this lovely little fern. To start out, we're using the pencil trick to get the correct proportions for our fern to begin our pencil sketch. Now, I'm sketching out the basic shape of a fern. Here, I am counting how many leaflets are coming off each side of the axis and the stalk. Now, I'm going in and just roughly laying out where each leaflet goes. Sometimes it helps me to do a practice sketch quickly to help understand a complex shape like this little leaflet so I'm doing this off to the side and I'll erase this later. Now, I'm using my kneaded eraser to lift up any extra pencil marks that I don't need. Now that I have my general shape down, I can go in and do a more refined sketch. This isn't totally necessary, but sometimes I like to do this so that I don't get confused when I start to paint. Before I start painting, I'm going to make a quick color swatch palette just to familiarize myself with the colors that I'm going to be using throughout the course of this painting. Remember not to freak out if your paint water gets gross or if your palette gets messy because actually the more blended that your colors become, the closer to the natural world they'll look. Now, that I found a nice light green, I'm going to go in with my first layer and just lock in my entire sketch with this green shade. Once that first layer is dry, I'm going to mix up a slightly darker green shade and I'm mixing a little bit of blue in with this too because that gives you a nice deep rich shadow color and I'm going to go in to the darker shades of my subject and make it pop. When I just zoomed in, I noticed a central vein that runs through each little leaflet and then there are a bunch of other little veins that come off of that one. I'm going to start out by going ahead and putting in that central vein for now and then later, I'm going to add the little ones that come off of that one. Now I'm noticing that the axis and stalk which runs down the center of the fern is rounded, so I'm going to add a shadow on the left and the right-hand side of that axis and stalk in order to make it look dimensional. Here, I'm putting a small dab of dark blue on the space where the leaflet comes out from the central axis and this will just separate the leaf from the axis and make it all look a little more 3D. After zooming in, I realized that there is a quite a bit of yellow on the top of each leaflet and along the axis that goes down the middle, so I'm mixing up a light shade of yellow and I'm just going to add it to all the places where the sunlight would be hitting the subject. Take a minute to notice any imperfections that you're seeing in your subject, so for this fern I'm noticing that there's a weird little discolored red spot and part of a leaflet is missing. I'm going to make sure to include those in my painting because I want it to be as realistic as possible and there are lots of imperfections in nature, so it's essential to include them. Here, I am going in and adding the little tiny veins that are coming off of the central vein in each leaflet and you could use your micron pen or your smallest brush to do this job and for the very last step, I am taking my paper towel and I'm just dabbing at any remaining wet spots on my painting to give it some final texture. 13. Final Thoughts : [MUSIC] Thank you so much for joining me for this course. I hope that you had fun and that you feel relaxed and that you have new skills to add to your creative arsenal. I can't wait to see what you create.