Painting Texture in Watercolour (Part 1)

July 21, 2020 0 Comments

“Country Bread (Pain de Campagne)” Watercolor on paper

“Country Bread (Pain de Campagne)” Watercolour on paper

Suggesting texture is one of my favourite parts of watercolour painting. With a water-soluble medium like watercolour, the ways to convey different textures are endless. Sometimes, the amount of texture we might want to render can seem overwhelming. Here are some notes to consider when adding texture to help you out.

What are we trying to show with texture? 

Textures help to show the character of your subject. Think of a gnarled tree trunk, rusty chains, a tangled beard, or the skin of a ripe peach. All of these surfaces have a particular look and texture. Painting is of course a visual medium, but the way something is painted can activate our other senses. When painting texture we can evoke not just the look of something, but also the way it feels.

Different brushes, different strokes

The most important aspects to painting texture is our brush handling. How we move our brush over the surface is perhaps the most effective way of conveying texture.

Depending on the brush we can make a variety of marks in a number of ways. Consider the difference between a round brush and a flat brush. Between the two brushes we may have to hold and move the brush over the paper in different ways to get the types of effects we want. 

With a nicely saturated brush full of colour, I think it’s handy to make a chart of different type of marks, whether they be dots, short lines, vertical strokes, horizontal strokes, overlapping strokes, long wavy lines and strokes where we use the whole “belly” of the brush, pushing down in to the paper. 

Different brushes making the same types of marks

Different brushes making the same types of marks

Comparing the brushstrokes next to one another can inform us when painting different surfaces. Dot marks might be easier to make with a round brush for example; longer, angular marks are more easily placed with a flat brush. Getting a feel for the handling of our brushes and moving them around in different directions, shapes and motions can get us started in making a wide range of marks to suggest texture.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Making one stroke is one thing, but when you repeat that same stroke over and over we can get something else entirely. When we see the marks grouped together they form a type of pattern. This pattern is a play between the shapes of the strokes themselves and the pockets of negative space between each of the strokes. Depending if you are making dots, lines, s-curls, checkmarks and so on, those accumulated marks end up creating a mass of tone which can define the texture of your surface.

These marks can result in ideas for you to consider in painting actual forms and subjects. The repeated vertical strokes could imply grass. The dot pattern could imply foliage, the horizontal strokes could imply waves and seafoam in the sea.

Different examples of a single stroke then repeated into a pattern

Different examples of a single stroke then repeated into a pattern

Texture follows form 

The form of an object, whether it is spherical, cubic, conical, etc. is conveyed through the movement of light and shadow over the surface. We may perceive a porous texture of, say, an orange, and do a type of speckled pattern to convey the surface of an orange peel. However, if the texture does not follow the form, then most likely your orange will appear flat. By moving the texture over the surface of the orange’s spherical shape we not only imply the texture of the orange peel, but the actual form and weight of the orange itself.

Texture follows form; orange on the left feels flat as there’s no movement in the texture, whereas the orange on the right feels rounder due to the movement of the texture over the surface

Texture follows form; orange on the left feels flat as there’s no movement in the texture, whereas the orange on the right feels rounder due to the movement of the texture over the surface

When rendering a more cubic form with planes and corners, try to have the textural marks follow the direction of each plane. This will help to emphasise the illusion of three dimensions in the form:

Textural marks on the left and center cube don’t emphasize the form. Marks on the right cube follow the planes of the cube and emphasize a three-dimensional form.

Textural marks on the left and centre cube don’t emphasise the form. Marks on the right cube follow the planes of the cube and emphasise a three-dimensional form.

Textural Gradation

How we gradate the texture is an effective way to show not just the form of an object but can also convey spatial depth as well. Looking at these bands below we can see four different textural marks gradating from a solid dense tone to a lighter tone by gradually spreading out each of the marks:

 Brushstroke gradation from denser to more spaced out

Brushstroke gradation from denser to more spaced out

This movement from densely placed marks to more spread out can help to imply a movement of light over a form, or even depth moving into the picture plane. For example if we were to make vertical bands and do the same type of exercise but with an underlying tone underneath we could create little views that could be evocative of a rocky landscape, rippling water, or a grassy field using this same principle of denser strokes to more spaced out strokes:

Gradation of angular, horizontal and vertical brushstrokes

Gradation of angular, horizontal and vertical brushstrokes to represent rocks, waves and grass respectively

Layering

I tend to usually have an underlying colour that will often be lighter, and on top of that layer I’ll add my darker textural strokes. Of course, sometimes the underlying colour you may want is simply the white of the paper (for example if you are painting fluffy white clouds). However, usually it’s helpful to have a colour already placed that you can then add a second layer for the surface textures, whether you’re painting a leafy bush, a tree trunk, the sea, grass, or a stone wall:

Brushstrokes overs bands of underlying colors to evoke different surfaces

Brushstrokes overs bands of underlying colours to evoke different surfaces

Movement of light over the surface

If the highlight on an object is sharp and crisp then we tend to see that object as being polished, shiny and reflective. So much so that it can almost be like a mirror.  However, if the highlight is not so pronounced then that can convey a more dull and matte surface as the light rays are scattered as they hit the surface of the object. We can see this in the painting below where the more matte surface of the nectarines and the ceramic bowl creates a more gradual movement into the light compared to the shinier, more reflective surfaces of the plums.

“Bowl of Fruits,” Watercolor on Paper“Bowl of Fruits,” Watercolour on Paper

This concludes the first part about painting texture in watercolour. Look out for a future post where we will look more closely at painting textures wet-in-wet as well as making textures with more tools than just the paintbrush. Tried any of these tips out? Let us know how it went in the comments below!

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa is an artist and illustrator based in Nice. Jun-Pierre teaches watercolour painting workshops all over the world. He believes that sketchbooks are for everyone–not just artists–and that one should carry a sketchbook with them wherever they travel.