Watercolor Painting Technique: Planning Your White Spaces

In watercolor painting, the unpainted shapes are very important. These are the places the artist has planned ahead of time to represent the white areas of the painting. The eye naturally goes to “whites” first, especially if these are areas of high contrast. It is necessary to plan these areas in advance, and not to let them become just an afterthought; the whites need to be part of your overall design. A single white area is not enough in your composition. You will want to have a pattern of whites (in three or more areas of your watercolor) to keep your work balanced. I often find it helpful to look at my initial value sketches upside down, to determine where I might need more white space in my composition.

Once you have decided how much white paper to leave, and where it works best in your composition, you can fill in the values of the remaining shapes. Make sure to vary the sizes and shapes of all the elements of your painting. Your whites can now be adjusted slightly to bring either a warm or cool variation to your scene. For instance, part of a white “shape” (this could be a house for example) in the distance, may be given a cool Cobalt Blue glaze, which will push it further back in your composition, as part of your background. It will still seem like a white house to your viewers, but with a subtle coolness. A very thin wash is all that will be needed here.

The same thing applies to whites in the foreground of your composition. These can be given a soft warm glaze made by mixing Aereolin Yellow and Rose Madder Genuine together. Apply a single layer of this color to a portion of a white element in your foreground. I prefer to wait until much of my painting is complete to add these subtle touches to my whites. This way I am careful not to overdo when altering the whites. These glazes should be very delicate.

Another way to give the whites in your painting a warm or cool cast, is by purposely placing a complementary color adjacent to it. For example, to make a patch of a white dog’s fur seem warm, place a cool blue-gray next to this area. This will create a warm glow. In other parts of the animal’s fur, use the ideas described above, varying your cool and warm sections. Your watercolor dog will have many different “whites” making him much more interesting to look at!

When altering your watercolor whites, remember less is definitely more!