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Art Masterclass - 114

How to Paint Water in Watercolour with Deborah Walker

One of the most satisfying things for me, as a painter, is to have a subject or recurring theme in my work that I seek out wherever I go. For me, it is the depiction of water in watercolour, as it provides a consistent challenge.

My paintings are concerned with landscape, both in broad expanse and close-up detail, and express both the dramatic and subtle ways that light transforms a subject. My plein-air work involves a camera, a sketchbook, an awful lot of walking and many hours of observation, but I regard myself as a studio painter.

Some find it odd that, with a passion for watery subjects, especially the sea, I live about as far away from the coast, in Staffordshire, as you can get. The way I look at it is that I am roughly equidistant from each edge! If I lived in Cornwall, for example, how often would I go to Northumberland?

Big pictures

In recent years I have developed a passion for painting very large watercolours – well over a metre – that I paint over several days in the controlled environment of my studio. Prior to starting one of these big pictures I spend many hours researching my subject, its history and geology. This involves sketchbooks and photographs, seeking out my composition, colours, methods and techniques until I have a plan.

My paintings are not a first response to a subject; they are a build-up of a representation of a sense of place, with a specific remembered light, mood, colour and atmosphere that I wish to convey. My approach embraces both representational and abstract elements and I try to push the character of the paint to extremes.
Reveal, pure watercolour, (103x133cm) (see below).

Here we get a glimpse of a 6000bc petrified forest in Pembrokeshire that was engulfed by the sea after the last ice age. Remnants of branches, roots and tree trunks are visible at very low tides. Due to its rare appearance it was essential to work quickly with a camera and sketchbook.


The demonstration I have chosen hopefully gives an insight into my working practice. It is the view of the Thames from the Millennium Bridge, looking towards Blackfriars at sunset – the last blast of afternoon sun before the world returns to shades of grey and artificial street lighting.


    • Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolour in burnt umber, Winsor blue, alizarin crimson and aureolin
    • Pure kolinsky sable round brush, size 12; 1⁄4in flat sable synthetic mix brush for lifting
    • Ruling pen, dip pen
    • Arches 140lb (300gm) Rough watercolour paper

I always work on stretched watercolour paper. Using a dip pen and a thin wash of grey watercolour, not much stronger than dirty water, I drew in the main shapes of the buildings and structures.

Once this was dry I used masking medium to reserve all my bright white highlights. In the main central area of light on the water I applied masking to the edges of the whole area, rather than filling it in, to remind me to avoid that area and to give a natural edge to the water. When the masking was dry I applied a graduated wash of aureolin, alizarin crimson, burnt umber and a hint of Winsor blue to the sky, ensuring that it reached below the horizon line. This was dried flat. I then wet the area for the Thames, tilted the board to 45 degrees and dropped in my mix to reflect the sky, altered by adding more burnt umber, Winsor blue and alizarin, but less aureolin, allowing it to run and then completely dry in this position. I then blocked in the buildings and bridge with my brush, using my initial dip pen drawing as a guide, with a thicker mix of burnt umber, Winsor blue and alizarin crimson.


I continued with the development of the buildings and the bridge on the horizon, using a combination of brush, ruling and dip pens, building up several layers of detail with suggestive marks to an almost complete state. I took care to keep my mark making very loose and almost scribble-like here, because over-doing the detail would cause it to jump forward when the idea was to keep the bridge, the buildings and all the busy rush-hour activity in the distance. Quick, loose marks helped to give the impression of a busy road and vehicles travelling at speed across the bridge – I wanted to emphasise a sense of place.


Using mixes of burnt umber, Winsor blue and alizarin crimson, varying the strength of the mix towards each individual colour, I began to build up the surface pattern of the water with brushmarks, spattering and splashes, having covered the parts of the painting where I didn’t want paint to land. I repeated this mark making using a mix of alizarin crimson and aureolin, especially around the edges of the central white area, to unify the water with the sky. Remember that the colour of the water is totally dependent on the colour of whatever is above, below and in it, as water is a clear, colourless liquid.


I applied masking medium to the tops of the lampposts and began to draw in the dark silhouettes of the railings, people, lampposts and their shadows, with a very dark, thick mix of burnt umber, Winsor blue and alizarin crimson. It was essential here to pay particular attention to perspective so that the people diminish in size as the distance increases. Using the side of my damp brush, I applied a weaker mix of this colour across the ground, to add surface texture to the pavement, and allowed it all to dry completely before continuing.


Towards Evening, watercolour on Arches Rough 140lb (300gsm), (57x93cm)

This was the scary bit! I mixed up a large amount of the dark reddish brown/grey mix – more than I thought I would need, wet the entire area of the Embankment, right up to the trees just visible on the top-left horizon, and began to drop it in from the left, allowing it to spread across the wet paper to the edge of the Embankment. This put the whole area into shadow and softened all the edges. I allowed this to dry naturally and repeated as necessary to build up the dark area with depth of colour and suggestive marks. When dry I used a small wet flat chisel brush and a tissue to lift off a few soft horizontal lights on the ground to pull the structure of the foreground together and suggest texture. In this way the whole area remains soft, subtle and dark. When totally dry I removed all masking medium and softened some of the white marks in the background and on the Thames, using a moist brush. I also wet the edges of the white discs on top of the lampposts to soften to a light grey-brown colour. Finally I re-wet the entire sky and background buildings, down to the top of the bridge, and re-applied a wash of aureolin, burnt umber, alizarin crimson and a hint of Winsor blue to increase the depth of the sunset and to push the buildings further into the distance. This unified the background and increased the intensity of the white light on the water.

Deborah Walker

Deborah studied at De Montfort University. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and a council member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. She has exhibited widely and won many awards and her work is in private and public collections. This year Deborah will be exhibiting at the RI annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London, from April 6 to 16; at Broadway Modern, Broadway, as part of the Broadway Arts Festival from June 5 to 19, 2016, where she is holding a workshop on June 14, 2016 - or telephone 01386 898387; and the RI North Gallery Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London, from November 7 to 14.

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