Watercolor Storytelling: Tips & Techniques for Artists
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


Grab your brushes, because today, we're diving into the vibrant world of watercolor storytelling. If you've ever wondered how to improve storytelling in watercolor, you're in the right place. This art form is more than just a blend of colors and strokes—it's a way to tell a story, evoke emotions, and depict life's fleeting moments. Today, we'll explore tips and techniques to bring your watercolor stories to life. So let's get started!

Watercolor Basics

Before we delve into the art of storytelling in watercolor, let's brush up on the basics. Understanding these fundamental aspects will give you a strong foundation to build on as we delve deeper into the art of storytelling through watercolor.

  • Understanding your medium: Watercolors have a unique fluidity and transparency that sets them apart from other mediums. They blend, bleed, and interact with the paper in a way that can create stunning effects, but also requires a certain level of control and understanding.
  • Choosing the right tools: Quality brushes, paper, and paints make a difference. Brushes come in various shapes and sizes, each with a specific purpose. Paper varies in texture and weight, affecting how the paint behaves. And paints can range from student to artist grade, influencing the vibrancy and durability of your artwork.
  • Using water effectively: Water is the lifeblood of watercolor painting—it’s what gives the medium its distinctive character. You'll need to learn how to control the amount of water on your brush and on your paper to manipulate the paint effectively.
  • Mastering basic techniques: Techniques like wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, glazing, and lifting are the building blocks of watercolor painting. Each has a unique effect on how the paint behaves, which can be used to create a wide variety of textures and effects.

Now that we've covered the basics, we're ready to dive into the heart of this post: how to improve storytelling in watercolor. Read on to discover tips and techniques that will help you weave a captivating narrative through your artwork.

Tips for Selecting Your Palette

Choosing the right palette can make or break your watercolor storytelling. The colors you use play a pivotal role in setting the mood and tone of your story. So, how do you select the perfect palette?

  1. Think about the mood: What's the mood of your story? A romantic scene might need soft pastels, while a dramatic sunset could call for bold, vibrant hues. Your palette should help convey the emotions you want your audience to feel.
  2. Consider the setting: The environment where your story takes place will also influence your palette. For instance, a forest setting might need various shades of green, brown, and blue, while a cityscape might require grays, blues, and maybe some bright pops of color.
  3. Keep it simple: While it might be tempting to use every color in your box, sometimes less is more. A limited color palette can bring harmony to your piece and make it more cohesive. Don't be afraid to mix your colors to create the shades you need.
  4. Test your colors: Before you start painting, test your colors on a scrap piece of paper. This will give you a better idea of how they'll look when they dry and how they interact with each other.

Remember, your palette is not set in stone—you can adjust it as you go. The important thing is to start with a plan. With the right colors in hand, you'll be well on your way to improve storytelling in your watercolor art.

Techniques for Brush Strokes

The way you handle your brush can greatly impact the story you're telling with your watercolor painting. So, how can you use brush strokes to improve your watercolor storytelling?

  1. Experiment with pressure: The amount of pressure you apply can change the look of your stroke. Light pressure can result in thin, delicate lines—perfect for detailing. On the other hand, applying more pressure can create bold, expressive strokes, making it ideal for dramatic scenes or focal points.
  2. Vary your brush sizes: Don't stick with one brush size for the entire painting. Larger brushes can fill in big areas quickly and create loose strokes, while smaller brushes are great for details and precision. Both have their place in your storytelling.
  3. Try different stroke styles: There's more to brush strokes than straight lines. Try dashes, dots, and even zigzags. These can add interest and texture to your painting, helping to bring your story to life.
  4. Control the water: Remember, the amount of water you use can change the transparency and intensity of your color. More water can make your color lighter and more fluid, while less water can lead to darker, more saturated strokes. This can add depth to your storytelling.

Just like with writing, there are rules in painting—but they're meant to be broken. Don't be afraid to experiment with different brush strokes and techniques. The more you play around, the more you'll find what works best for your style of storytelling in watercolor.

How to Use Water to Control Pigment

Water is the key player in watercolor painting, hence the name. But did you know that water also plays a pivotal role in controlling the pigment and in turn, enhancing your storytelling? Here's how you can improve storytelling in watercolor by manipulating water.

  1. Wet on wet technique: This is when you apply wet paint onto a wet surface. The colors will naturally spread and merge, creating a soft, dreamy effect. This technique is great for painting backgrounds, skies, or bodies of water. It can set the mood of your story, whether it's serene, mysterious, or somewhere in between.
  2. Wet on dry technique: Here, you apply wet paint onto a dry surface. The paint stays where you place it, giving you more control and precision. This technique is ideal for adding details or creating sharp edges, helping to define the characters or elements of your story.
  3. Glazing: Glazing involves layering thin, transparent washes of color. Each layer must dry before you apply the next. This technique can create rich, complex colors and depth. It's like slowly unfolding your story, layer by layer.
  4. Gradient washes: This is where you gradually dilute your paint with more water, creating a smooth transition from dark to light. Gradient washes can add volume and dimension, making your story more visually interesting and engaging.

Water does more than just carry the pigment onto the paper. It can alter the mood, define the details, add depth, and bring life to your story. So, take time to practice these techniques and see how water can help improve your storytelling in watercolor.

Strategies for Layering Colors

Layering colors is a crucial part of working with watercolors—it's like adding chapters to your book or scenes to your movie. With each layer, you're building up the narrative, creating suspense, and revealing more details about your story. So, let's explore some strategies to improve storytelling in watercolor through layering colors.

  1. Start light, then go dark: One of the ground rules of watercolor painting is to start with your lightest colors first. Once a dark color is down, it's tough to lighten it. By starting with lighter shades, you lay the foundation of your story, creating room for more details and depth as your painting progresses.
  2. Patience is key: Wait for each layer to dry before adding the next. It's tempting to rush through this process, but patience pays off. The clear, crisp layers contribute to the visual clarity of your story, making it more compelling and believable.
  3. Play with opacity: Not all layers have to be transparent. Experiment with mixing less water for some layers to create opaque effects. This can add an interesting twist to your story, creating contrast and highlighting key parts of your narrative.
  4. Use complementary colors: Layering complementary colors can create dynamic, vibrant effects. It's like adding plot twists to your story, keeping your audience intrigued and engaged.

Remember, every layer you add is a new chapter in your story. So, think carefully about what each layer represents, what it adds to your narrative, and how it helps improve your storytelling in watercolor.

How to Create Textures with Watercolor

Texture in watercolor painting is like the soundtrack of a film—it sets the mood, evokes emotions, and enhances the story you're trying to tell. So, how to improve storytelling in watercolor by creating textures? Let's find out.

  1. Salt technique: This is a fun and easy way to create textured effects. While your paint is still wet, sprinkle some ordinary table salt onto it. The salt will absorb the water and leave a speckled effect, which is great for creating texture in things like foliage, grass, or stony paths.
  2. Plastic wrap technique: Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top of your wet paint, then scrunch it up to create folds. Once the paint is dry, remove the wrap and you'll have a beautifully textured surface. This is perfect for creating the illusion of water, glass, or any other reflective surface.
  3. Dry brush technique: Using a dry brush with thick paint can create a rough, textured look. It's ideal for painting things like tree bark, rough stones, or old buildings.
  4. Splattering: Flicking your brush to splatter paint onto your paper is a great way to add an element of unpredictability to your work. Use this to create the effect of stars in the sky, sand on a beach, or leaves on a tree.

Each texture you add gives your audience something new to discover. It's these small details that can turn a simple painting into a captivating story. So, go ahead and experiment with these techniques to see how they can help improve your storytelling in watercolor.

How to Capture Light and Shadows

Being able to capture light and shadows in your watercolor painting is crucial to improving storytelling. Why? Because light and shadows can dramatically alter the mood and atmosphere of your story. Here's how you can paint light and shadows effectively:

  1. Understand the source of light: Before you start painting, decide where your light is coming from. This will dictate where your shadows and highlights go. If the light source is to the left, your shadows will be on the right, and vice versa.
  2. Use the right colors: For shadows, avoid using black or gray alone. Instead, mix in some of the colors from the surrounding area. For example, if you're painting a red apple, mix some red with your gray to create a more natural shadow. For light, use pure, bright colors—white can often make your highlights look dull and lifeless.
  3. Be mindful of the time of day: The color of your light and shadows will change depending on the time of day. Morning light tends to be soft and yellow, while midday light is bright and intense. Evening light is warm and orange, while night-time light is cool and blue.
  4. Use contrast to your advantage: High contrast between light and shadow can create a dramatic, high-energy scene, while low contrast can create a calm, serene atmosphere. Use this to guide the emotional tone of your story.

Remember, light and shadow aren't just about creating a sense of depth and form—they're powerful storytelling tools in their own right. So next time you pick up your brush, consider how you can use light and shadow to enhance your narrative and improve your storytelling in watercolor.

How to Tell a Story Through Your Art

Mastering the technique of storytelling through watercolor art can elevate your work from being merely a painting to an engaging narrative. The question is, how can you improve storytelling in watercolor? Below are some handy tips:

  1. Start with a clear idea: Before you even touch your brush to the palette, have a clear concept of the story you want to tell. It can be as simple as conveying a feeling or a complex narrative with characters and a setting. Having a clear direction in mind will guide your choices as you paint.
  2. Use symbolism: Symbols are a fantastic way to convey complex ideas without having to paint every detail. A single bird in flight can symbolize freedom or hope, while a wilting flower can represent loss or change. Be creative and think about how you can use symbols to enrich your story.
  3. Create focal points: Focal points are the areas of the painting that draw the viewer's eye. These are usually the key elements of your story. By strategically placing these elements, you can guide the viewer through the narrative you've created.
  4. Consider the composition: The composition—the arrangement of elements in your painting—can greatly impact the storytelling. A balanced composition can give a sense of stability, while an imbalanced one can create tension. Use composition to enhance the mood and narrative of your story.

Storytelling in watercolor is about much more than just painting a pretty picture—it's about engaging the viewer and taking them on a journey. By applying these tips, you can start creating watercolor paintings that not only look beautiful, but also tell compelling stories.

Examples of Watercolor Storytelling

Now that we've explored how to improve storytelling in watercolor, let's look at some examples of artists who excel in this field and what we can learn from them.

  1. The Serene Landscapes of Z.L. Feng: Z.L. Feng's watercolor landscapes are a masterclass in storytelling. Each painting tells a tale of tranquility and solitude, largely due to his careful control of light and shadow. His use of soft colors and detailed brushwork create a sense of depth and space, drawing the viewer into each scene.
  2. The Vibrant Narratives of Mary Whyte: Mary Whyte's watercolor portraits are rich with narrative. She uses her subjects' body language, facial expressions, and surroundings to tell their stories. The attention to detail in her work shows the viewer who these individuals are and what their lives are like, making each painting a compelling narrative.
  3. The Evocative Compositions of Thomas W. Schaller: Thomas W. Schaller's architectural watercolors are storytelling at its finest. He uses strong compositions, strategic lighting, and a keen eye for detail to create scenes that are both realistic and emotionally resonant. His work is a great example of how to use watercolor to tell a story without needing explicit narrative elements.

These artists show that there's no one right way to tell a story through watercolor. Each uses different techniques, styles, and subject matter to create their narratives. By studying their work, you can gain inspiration and ideas for your own watercolor storytelling.

Resources for Further Learning

Ready to take your watercolor storytelling to the next level? Here are some resources to help you further develop your skills and techniques.

  1. Books: "Watercolor Painting: A Comprehensive Approach to Mastering the Medium" by Tom Hoffmann offers a deep dive into the techniques and principles of watercolor painting. For storytelling, "Creating Exceptional Color in Watercolor" by Nita Engle can help you understand how color can influence the narrative of your art.
  2. Online Courses: Websites like Skillshare and Coursera offer a variety of courses on watercolor painting. Look for ones specifically focused on storytelling, like "Watercolor Storytelling: Painting Narratives" which can help you improve in this aspect of your work.
  3. Art Supply Stores: Stores like Michaels or Blick Art Materials not only provide a range of quality watercolor supplies, but also often host workshops and demonstrations. These can be a great way to learn new techniques and get feedback on your work.
  4. Art Galleries and Museums: Observing the work of other artists can be incredibly educational. Visit your local art galleries and museums to see how different artists approach watercolor storytelling. You might also consider joining a local art club or society, where you can share ideas and learn from other artists.

Remember, improving your watercolor storytelling is a journey, not a destination. Keep exploring, experimenting, and learning — and most importantly, keep telling your stories through your art.

If you're intrigued by the art of watercolor storytelling and want to improve your techniques, don't miss the workshop 'Storytelling In Illustration' by Mirelle Ortega. This workshop will help you explore the connection between illustration and storytelling, providing valuable tips and techniques to enhance your creative journey.