Learning Watercolors – Layering

As I’m still in the process of becoming acquainted with the basics of watercolors, it’s important to keep things as simple as possible. And, for me, pastels are about as simple as a colored medium can get, as I can layer colors over each other near-endlessly with minimal amounts of mud. Therefore, before beginning the watercolor piece, I did a separate piece using pastels.

My goal with this exercise was to build up form with only three colors plus white without trying to mix anything. This allows me to focus on values, which is at the core of building up form successfully.

I chose red, blue, and yellow to make a contemporary piece

For my subject, I chose to paint a shark tooth I had laying around, mostly because I knew the grey color of the tooth wouldn’t influence my decision making and would clearly highlight the values.


The pastel piece was a fun study to create because the bright colors I used made me feel as if I were screen printing a t-shirt.

Once I got all the layers on, a bit of cleaning up led me to the final result. I do regret my paper choice, as I’m not at all a fan of Canson Mi-Teintes for pastel pieces, and I only had access to a dark grey color which detracts from the contemporary effect I was trying to achieve.

Shark Tooth: Blue, Red, and Yellow,” pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes, 9″ x 9″, Daniel A. Alfonso

Now that I finished the pastel study, I had a good idea of how to go about the watercolor piece. However, this time I knew to go from light to dark rather than from dark to light. And since I was treating this piece as a screen print, I let each layer dry completely before adding the new one.

The colors I limited myself to were ultramarine, yellow ochre, and raw sienna. I wasn’t satisfied with using pure ultramarine, so I made a purply-grey mix of ultramarine and raw sienna to use for my dark value.

Shark Tooth,” watercolor on Arches 140 lb cold press, 7″ x 10″, Daniel A. Alfonso

I was very pleasantly surprised with how this study turned out. I didn’t quite expect this limited palette to have nearly this much depth, but I suppose that using earth-tone red and yellow along with a potent blue provides a good compromise between muted tones and vibrant hues. It also really supports the idea that less is more when dealing with watercolors.

More importantly, I learned that the white of the paper is such a valuable component in making this piece work. While in other mediums leaving parts of the paper white can come across as jarring and distracting, it appears to be incredibly effective in watercolor pieces.

For my next few watercolor pieces, I’m going to stick with this same palette and see just how far I can take it. Eventually I’ll work my way up to combining wet and dry techniques as I learn what methods they suit themselves to.

Until next time,




  1. It’s very interesting for me to see how you approached this. Learning to create value in watercolor paintings is something I’m working on. Here’s a question regarding pastels and paper. What do you recommend for soft pastels? I plan to do more pastel paintings in the future and would like to use something other than the Mi Teintes paper. Thanks!


    • For pastels I love a gritty surface like Ampersand Pastelbord. Basically, the more it resembles sandpaper the more I’ll tend to like it since it allows me to layer almost endlessly. For soft pastels there are so many great brands, and unfortunately pastel quality very much correlates with the price. A good option are Mount Vision pastels; they’re quite large for the price and great quality, though on the harder end of the “soft” spectrum. If you’re looking for something really soft, I recommend Schmincke, although these are on the pricy end.

      Personally, I start off using hard Neopastels for the base layer, then switch to Rembrandts (a medium pastel) for the next layers, and then finish off the paintings with Schminckes.


      • I have a set of NuPastels by Prismacolor, and as a beginner, those have worked for me so far. Oh, at an art store recently, I had a chance to try making marks with Sennelier soft pastels. It’s true what they say. It’s like spreading butter. Definitely on my wish list. 🙂 Thanks for the info on the paper.


      • Pastels turn into a completely different medium when working with soft ones on gritty paper. I would be cautious with Sennelier’s, though. Some of them might be wonderfully soft, but others are harder than rocks because they don’t control for the natural qualities that the pigment imparts on the pastel stick. They also have a reputation for crumbling into dust when you try taking the wrapper off. That said, Sennelier’s makes the most beautiful reds, in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, really! Thank you so much for telling me. I’ve read good things about Sennelier, but it’s always better to hear from someone who’s had experience with them.


  2. Hi Daniel, this is a great post! Thank you for visiting my post, as it has led me to you! I like your approach with the pastels. I have pastels too, and haven’t really thought to correlate the two, but it has inspired me to switch a bit between mediums. Every medium is it’s own mind set and watercolours are a new one for me, I started last year. They are so evocatively challenging and ultimately rewarding if they out! I will enjoy following your blog – thank you!


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