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Keep Your Watercolor Painting Simple - Paint From Light to Dark
by Michael Dale

What does 'Light to Dark' mean?

Simply, it is the way watercolor washes are applied to the surface of watercolor paper. The idea is to lay wash over wash to build color strength and tone... from Light to Dark.

  • This is done by first using thin watered down color to reduce the starkness of the white paper
  • Once the first light tone wash is dry, the next slightly stronger wash is applied
  • After the second wash has dried, a third darker wash can be painted
  • And then the next still darker wash is added... and the next...

'Light to Dark' is the first and most important rule of watercolor painting. It is a rule that is hard to ignore. Although there are occasions when you can get around it, the principle gives you a cast iron guarantee against unwanted painting errors.

In theory, you can continue to apply as many further washes as you want. However, as you add more washes the transparency of the color reduces. This is not what most artists want to happen. It is the white of the paper shining through the color that gives watercolor paintings their extra life.

Top watercolor painters can do this almost all of the time, often needing no more than 4 washes to get best results...

Another reason for keeping the number of washes to a minimum is that it reduces the disturbance of the lower washes. It keeps the color quality high because earlier washes aren't dissolved into the newer washes.


If you ignore the 'Light to Dark' rule by trying to paint light colors over dark color, your light colors are lost...

  • Light washes over dark have no strength because they have less color pigment
  • Light washes, with more water, pick up pigment from lower washes and lose their strength to the stronger darker under-wash

Painting light tones before dark tones is what gives watercolor paintings their sparkle and brilliance...

Color luminosity is increased by light reflecting from the white of the paper, back through the color. This is where the vibrancy of watercolor comes from...

  • It is the paper that you should be trying to use as your white
  • It is the white of the paper reflecting though the transparent watercolor pigment that adds to color quality
  • It is the texture of the paper that makes watercolor color sing, with light bouncing back at different angles

When watered down most watercolor pigments are naturally transparent and let light pass through. It does this because...

  • For light colors there is less color on the paper surface... pigment particles are widely spread, letting the white of the paper shine between
  • For dark colors there is more color covering the paper surface... pigment particles are crammed together to hide the paper surface... the white of the paper cannot reflect through dense color particles

Only when the color pigment is at its strongest (unthinned) does it become opaque and resist light passing through.

Remember, with watercolor painting, water is the solvent... it acts as a 'Thinner'. By altering the amount of water in the mixing process you can change color strength...

  • Use more water for light color tones
  • Use less water for stronger darker color tones

Given a choice between looking at paintings that use bright vibrant color and pictures that have dull dead color...

"What would be your choice... Light, bright, clear and refreshing to look at?"

Michael Dale is the author of 1- Color Is Best (the quick and easy way to learn to paint watercolor) and 3- Colors Are All You Need (mix any color you want fast using only 3 colors).
Go to to find out more.

watercolour books and oil painting books

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The Encyclopedia of Watercolour Landscape Techniques by Hazel Soan
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"Starting with the original photograph, you are shown how the watercolour develops, from initial pencil sketch through to finished painting .."

Sea and Sky in Watercolour by Arnold Lowrey
"A quality teaching aid for every painter in watercolours .."

Teach Yourself Watercolour Painting by Robin Capon
"Teach Yourself Watercolour Painting shows you how to master all the main watercolour techniques and, through a range of exercises, step-by-step examples and finished paintings .."

The Complete Watercolour Artist by Sally Harper
Materials, Techniques, Colour Theory, Composition, Style, Subject

Watercolour: Planning and Drawing by Alan Oliver
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The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting Techniques by Jeremy Galton
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Collins Alwyn Crawshaw's Oil Painting Course by Alwyn Crawshaw
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An Introduction to Painting Portraits by Rosalind Cuthbert
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Figure Painting in Oil by Douglas R. Graves
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