This entry is part of the series Medium Monday

What Is Watercolor?

Watercolor paint usually comes as a solid cake or a tube of gel. Both substances are a highly concentrated pigment, meant to be diluted with water. The more water, the lighter the color gets. Watercolor paint works best on thick, absorbent paper.

Visual Characteristics

Watercolor paint is, well, watery. Using a watercolor wash is an easy way to fill in large areas of color. While the paint is still wet, the pigments can drift around to a certain extent, leading to subtle color variations. Furthermore, as the water dries out, a darker rim of pigment will gather around the edges. Smaller brushes and more concentrated paint can be used for painting details. Watercolor brush strokes tend to be rounded.

Close up of the cover of The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

This is Jerry Pinkney’s Caldecott-winning The Lion and the Mouse. Can you see the rounded brush strokes? Can you see the rim of darker color around the edge of the brown patch on the left? Can you see where the different colors “bleed” into each other? The thin gray lines are probably Pinkney’s pencil guidelines, which he painted right over.

Close up of the cover of We Give Thanks by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier

When painting with watercolors, the artist must paint from light to dark. Adding more paint, more pigment, will darken areas. However, it is difficult (though not impossible) to lighten areas once the pigment is applied.

Cold Press paper has a rough, pebbly texture that adds visual interest to watercolor paintings. Hot Press paper is smooth, and easier for precision and highly detailed work.

Illustrator Sergio Ruzzier used cold press paper for Cynthia Rylant’s book We Give Thanks. The pigment pools and dries darker in the dips of the surface.

See how the lightest cloud looks like it’s in front of the darker blue sky? The truth is, that blue sky had to be painted around the shape of the light cloud, which visually makes the light cloud “pop” forward.

Frequent Pairings

Watercolor is often paired with pen or colored pencil. This allows for more precise line work. Sometimes gouache (a semi-opaque paint) is used on top of a watercolor base, to reintroduce lighter colors and increase vibrancy.

Conveniently, newer American picture books list the illustrative medium in the fine print below the copyright information. It’s a great way to develop your artist’s eye!

Read More

Watercolor is a very common element in picture books! There are many shining examples of the medium in WPPL’s collection.