How to Improve your Watercolor Paintings

in 4 Steps

1 Evaluating your painting. 

2 Realizing what needs improving. 

3 Making those improvements by having another go. 

4 Going back to step 1.

How do you evaluate your watercolor paintings

In practice this means that after you have finished a painting, and especially one that you are disappointed with, then step back from your painting and evaluate it. Try to see it in a practical way rather than an emotional way. I have made a simple 6 point evaluation guide below to help you do just this. You need to consider:

1 composition,

2 perspective,

3 tone,

4 color,

5 the rendering of shapes,

6 and busy vs lonely.

Using the 6 point evaluation guide with a disappointing watercolor painting

I could try and explain each of these 6 points but that is rather daunting. It would be like trying to explain English grammar. It’s just too big of a topic and I will no doubt fail. Also it would all be too abstract and thus useless. 

So instead I will show you how I actually used the 4 step process and the  6 point evaluation guide with a watercolor painting that I wanted to improve. However, although I don’t follow my guide in a dogmatic way, I am still thinking about the 6 points in the guide.

The choice of this particular bad painting and a desire to re-evaluate it and try to paint it again began with the rather pressing need to finish a calendar. 

I had paintings for almost every month of the calendar but one was missing, the month of April, which is the cherry blossom season in Japan.

This led to an internal sigh because although cherry blossom trees in themselves are beautiful, it’s very difficult to find cherry blossom ‘scenes’ that are beautiful. Normally the trees are next to a busy road or a concrete wall or some other monstrosity that would totally defeat any attempt to create a good painting.

There were a few exceptions though. So I scoured through my paintings in search of a decent cherry blossom scene. And that’s when I found the watercolor painting below of a rickshaw next to a river lined with cherry blossom trees.

Original watercolor sketch.

This watercolor came from a photograph that I took several years ago of Oita river in Yufuin during the cherry blossom season. Along the river you have many cherry blossom trees and the view is “rather” nice. 

Yufuin is a famous tourist town in Japan and you can see many tourists being taken around in rickshaws. So I decided to do a watercolor sketch from this photograph and to include a rickshaw.

This could have been in 2017 when I had the idea of doing a 100 paintings of rickshaws. The idea wasn’t realized but it did lead to a lot of nice paintings. 

6 attempts to improve a bad watercolor painting

So now you know the reason for me choosing this watercolor sketch. Next, let’s see what happened when I tried to evaluate this original ‘bad’ watercolor sketch and attempted (6 times) to do a new improved version.

Attempt 1

Evaluation: The first attempt was a failure. 

The mountain ravines are quite interesting. And the cherry blossom is wonderfully white and bright. 

But the river bank needs to show more yellow and thus emphasize the shadows. Also the path is too dark.

And the rickshaw is too big. I am also perhaps showing too much of the foreground tree.

Attempt 2

Evaluation: Attempt 2 is even worse than attempt 1. 

The mountain in the distance is too dark and it needs to be a more bluish color.

The trees, especially the fir trees, are not done well. The yellow bank is nice but the shadows are not done well.

The rickshaw is still too big and its shadow is too strong. Also the path isn’t done very well either. 

What happened?

Attempt 3

Evaluation: This is a little better. It is lighter for sure. 

The ravines in the distance are at a steep angle, it’s kind of interesting but not what I really want. The trees on the far back are done rather well. Although I think the trees on the far bank all need to be softer. 

I particularly like the cherry blossom trees on the far bank and the leafless trees. The firs are also good because they have light and shade.

The river bank is quite nice and the grass in the foreground with those sharp blades of grass is very good.

The path this time is better. But it needs to get more narrow in the distance as this will make the perspective better. 

Also the rickshaw is painted well but it needs to be smaller and set a little further back along a narrower path.

The tree in the foreground is a bit sloppy, the blossom doesn’t look quite right.

Attempt 4

Evaluation: This is a failure. 

The instant mistake I see is the rickshaw. It just looks wrong and not particularly pretty. It’s also still too big. 

And the path is too busy. It needs to be simpler.

The foreground tree is a disaster and makes me cringe.

The brown splodges in the foreground are interesting, very interesting, but maybe not really needed in this painting.

The river bank is quite good. The background is just okayish. I went over the background with a light wash and it has smudged the leafless trees in a way that doesn’t work. 

Also the ravines are too hard. And I feel that the background part needs to be a lot softer.

Attempt 5

Evaluation: There are paintings that are okay. Then, there are paintings that don’t work. And then there are paintings that you just shouldn’t show. Attempt 5 is the one I shouldn’t show you. But here we go.

This is a totally lack-luster painting that almost feels abandoned.

I tried to do a soft background and that is working a little. Also the yellow river bank and the shadows are working really well now. And the grass in the foreground is good.

The path is not so good because it needs some more dark stones in the foreground - it’s too bland.

The rickshaw needs more work doing on it. And it looks lonely. I obviously need a tree in the foreground.

Basically this is an unfinished painting and with a bit more painting it could look decent. But it’s never going to look great.

Attempt 6

Evaluation: Finally success. But I did become desperate. Desperate in my case doesn’t mean reaching for the bottle of alcohol but rather the bottle of masking fluid. 

Little rant about masking fluid

I almost never use this stuff. I hate it. Especially the old stuff in the glass bottles that smelt like super concentrated urine. I think the manufacturers realized this and now they make this pink stuff that comes out of a nozzle which is much easier to use and less smelly.

Anyway, I was struggling so much that I used the masking fluid. Right from the beginning I thought this would be a disaster. Masking fluid and I don’t have a good track record. But I felt it would allow me to paint better cherry blossom trees and to get the background right. 

Using masking fluid allowed me to paint the background all in one go, wet-in-wet, without worrying about protecting my whites and this allowed me to create a soft background. 

The river bank was done at the same time. I particularly like the touch of brown in one of the river bank shadows. This was a complete accident but it worked out beautifully.

I think the cherry blossom trees on the far bank look good and the cherry blossom in the foreground tree - although the latter is still not perfect.

The rickshaw is the right size and looks good. The path is the right shape and has a nice rose tint in the foreground. Although it is a little busy in the foreground.

And the foreground grass works well. I love those sharp blades of grass that were created by scaping with my fingernail and with quick strokes.

I confess that as well as masking fluid I used a little white crayon and also some titanium white.

Attempt 7

I will do one more attempt which I will use as a watercolor demo. But I think attempt number 6 will be the one I use in my calendar.

A brief recap of how I evaluated my disappointing painting with respect to the 6 points

So, as I mentioned before, when I was evaluating my attempts to produce a new, improved painting I didn’t follow the 6 points in an exact way. So below I will just cover each point and how it related to my 6 attempts to improve the original painting.

1 Composition

One of the most important points of composition is the focal point. You can see that my focal point is the rickshaw. Normally putting your focal point in one of the corners of the painting makes for the best composition. If you look at the paintings above you’ll see that the ones where the rickshaw is more in the corner are the best.

2 Perspective

So you will notice how the path in some of the paintings doesn’t get smaller in the distance. And you will see that when I made the path smaller in the distance then the painting looks better. This narrowing path draws your eye along it and that is why perspective is so useful because it will draw your eye into the painting. Getting the perspective right, or even exaggerating it, will massively improve your paintings.

3 Tone

You will notice how I wanted the trees to be softer in the distance and also for the background to be bluer. So tone is all about making things in the distance softer, fainter and bluer. And conversely, about making things in the foreground sharper, stronger and warmer.

It was also important for me to get the lightness and darkness of the painting right and this also relates to tone. I was making the mountain in the background too dark and thus too strong. It needed to be fainter.

4 Colors

You will notice how important it was for me to get that river bank yellow. And also things like the rose tinting of the path.

5 Rendering objects

You will notice how I had to work hard on getting the shape of the rickshaw right and also the tree in the foreground - especially the arrangement of the cherry blossom.

6 Busy vs lonely

I talked a lot in my evaluations about the busy-ness or loneliness of certain spaces in the painting. In particular, I talked about making the path too busy or sometimes too lonely. In other words, I was talking about the amount of detail I added. So don’t forget about this in your paintings too. Ask yourself whether you have overdone or underdone some parts of your painting.

Faith that you can improve your watercolor paintings

Nowadays they call it grit but I like the word faith because it feels more beautiful and inspiring. Anyway, you just need faith that one day you’ll do a lovely painting. 

Faith will keep you going on. And then one day you’ll do that lovely painting - to your utter amazement. 

I still fail (and I doubt I’ll ever stop) but because I’ve done some good ones, I know that there will be good paintings to come in the future - so I battle on with faith and I have fun.

Another way to improve your watercolor paintings is to work in a series

One reason artists work in a series is because they are using this exact process in a more concentrated form. Instead of succeeding one time at a particular subject, they do a whole series of paintings on the same subject. As a result they because really good at evaluating and practicing the painting of that subject - they gain mastery. 

I myself often paint in a series and have found that it has helped me to greatly improve my paintings. My best series is my paintings of Sasebo in which I became obsessed about one particular place. From a one day visit of that place I’ve probably made over a hundred paintings of this place.

Watercolor Painting of a sea scene from Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture, Japan.
Watercolor Painting of a sea scene from Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture, Japan.

Soft Evening Sea Scene

Final word on improving your watercolor paintings

I hope writing this down will help you when you are struggling with your watercolor paintings. When you do a bad painting don’t immediately hide it away in a draw or throw it in the bin but take the time to look at it and ask yourself why it makes you cringe. 

Get very practical like I have here. Use the 6 point guide and think of: 

1 composition, 

2 perspective, 

3 tone, 

4 color, 

5 the rendering of shapes, 

6 and busy vs lonely.

And then have another attempt. 

And if you get desperate go get the masking fluid or something and see what happens. You might not end up with a success but you tried. 

I’ve found that with some paintings I simply can’t transform them into something beautiful - they have totally defeated me. But make a few attempts before you decide that.

If you do several attempts and end up with a failure you’ll probably end up feeling rotten. But you have to remember, all that evaluating of your work and all those new attempts in which you try to change things and improve things will make you a better artist - and in time that will lead to better paintings. It does take time but those ‘golden egg’ paintings will come. 

That’s all. I hope it’s useful and interesting. Happy painting,

Gareth.